Our annual summer pilgrimage to England began with a bright and sunny, 6AM touchdown at Heathrow on the second of June. I mention the sunny day since, unlike California, every sunny June day in England is celebrated. The time from landing to walking out of the airport with bags was an impressive twenty minutes. Another twenty minutes had us on a bus to Luton with relatives graciously meeting us at the nearby Luton Airport bus terminal, and we arrived in our Flitwick home in time for mid morning coffee.
By noon we had unpacked, visited the blooming rhododendrons at Woburn Abbey and dropped into The Birch for our first pub lunch. I was beginning to nod off, and the pint I had for lunch combined with 36 hours without sleep didn’t help. But I was determined to see my favourite walking place in Bedfordshire, Flitwick Moor, a beautiful wooded walk and regular painting location right in our own back yard.
The moor was showing off its best with a poppy field greeting us at the entrance, foxglove groves mixed in with the trees, and buttercups at full bloom in the meadows.
Within the next few days, in spite of jet lag, we managed a few more walks on the English countryside, visited the nearby market town of Hitchin, and attended the spring show of the MidBedfordshire Art Club. The arts flourish in this area, with shows like this one ubiquitous in town halls and churches. This was a warm-up for our journey to nearby Constable country, an area in Suffolk where John Constable lived and painted most of his life.
Our first stop in Suffolk was Bury St. Edmunds, an ancient cathedral town that had its beginning as a monastery, the ruins of which now surround the cathedral. The gardens, the ruins, the picturesque houses, and the stores make this one of the most photogenic towns in England. We took photographs, painted, and simply enjoyed sitting in a place where nobles first met and agreed to confront King John with the Magna Carta.
We explored the rest of the town and tested the local beer brewed by the Greene King Brewery, the producer of such greats as Abbot Ale, Old Speckled Hen, and IPA. I tested a new limited edition of Old Speckled Hen and dined on Toads in the Hole, a dish comprising Yorkshire pudding baked around sausages and covered in Gravy.
Late in the afternoon we made our way to nearby Dedham, one of the towns where John Constable (1776-1837), possibly the greatest landscape painter of all times, went to school. Born a few miles from Dedham in East Bergholt, some say he “invented” landscape painting, moving landscapes from the background to the foreground, and there is no argument that he was creating amazing landscapes at the beginning of the nineteenth century, when most painters were still doing portraits and religious work. He did do some religious work and portraits as well. The original “Ascension of Christ” hangs in Dedham Church. (A special show of Constable’s portraits was fortuitously ongoing at the National Portrait Gallery in London; more about this later) .
We stayed in Dedham Hall, an ancient residence that now also hosts regular art classes that teach Constable’s methods.
The town and surrounding area are the subject of many of Constable’s paintings, including Dedham Mill, which his father owned, and the church, which appears in the background of some of his paintings (whether it was really there or not). The most famous of his paintings were created at Flatford, about a mile walk from Dedham along the River Stour. (Constable’s father, Golding Constable, a wealthy businessman, also owned Flatford Mill for a while.) Tracing the footsteps of Constable, we took the ancient footpath across the Dedham Vale, yet another subject for Constable.
The Hay Wain by John Constable overlooking the mill pond and Willie Lott’s Cottage. (If you are hooked up to the internet, clicking on the picture takes you to the National Gallery website that provides high resolution zooming for this image.)
Before leaving Suffolk we stopped for tea at Beth Chatto’s Gardens and for lunch at The Angel in Lavenham, a town where Constable went to school. Many of the buildings of Lavenham have been preserved in their original state.
Having seen some of Constable Country, we decided to take a new look at the Constables in the National Gallery, which include “The Hay Wain” and a half dozen of the six foot paintings he had done. To our astonishment, a special show “Constable’s Portraits and Inner Circle” was having its final day at the National Portrait Gallery so we thanked the universe for this fortuitous gift and added that to our agenda.
My recent visit to the place where it originated provided an amazing enhancement of my pleasure of standing before “The Hay Wain”. On the down side of the experience, this painting in real life is so stunning, so awesome, and so beautiful, it made me consider putting up my art materials forever, knowing that here before me was a work of art so grand that no matter how many years I worked not only would I never compete with this, no other artist would either. On the same wall are a set of Turners and along the opposite wall are Gainsboroughs.. Even these don’t rise to meet the Constable standard for landscapes, though, of course, they excel in a different subject matter.
We moved on to the National Portrait Gallery, which is located behind the National Gallery. The Constable exhibit tells a heart warming story of Constable the man. Having become an artist over his family’s objection, years passed before he would become financially worthy of the hand of his true love, Maria (He was forty, and only through inherited gains upon his father’s death was he acceptable as her husband.). Although a dedicated landscape artist, he painted many portraits to enhance his income, and his later commissions produced some truly excellent portraits. Nevertheless, he never had the reputation for portrait painting boasted by Gainsborough, Reynolds, and Ingres so his commissions were from a notch down in the social hierarchy.
The exhibit includes many of his pencil sketches as well as those referred to as oil sketches, the equivalent of today’s photograph taken in the field to be used as an aid back in the studio. The show describes Constable’s fascination with sketching, his many sketchbooks filled with drawings of figures and landscapes. Constable was one of the earliest plein air painters with some works completed entirely on site. One of the earliest of these, believed to be the first painting completed on site, was done in one day. Another painting in the exhibit, “Sterling Constable’s East Bergholt Garden” painted through the back window qualifies him as a studio painter and plein air painter at the same time. These paintings gave me some relief when I could see the same kinds of errors I often make in plein air painting, especially in perspective.
We ended our visit with lunch in The Portrait Restaurant on the top floor of the gallery. ( Overlooking London, the restaurant provides a wonderful view of Big Ben and the London Eye.) I left the gallery with a new inspiration and a greater appreciation for this master and innovator who was born in the same year that the USA declared our independence from England. While reflecting over Constable during lunch, it occurred to me that had he followed the advice of his parents, I would not be here sipping this glass of wine nor would I have ever heard of Willy Lott’s cottage.