John Constable ‘The Painter of Suffolk’

dedham lock and mill painting by john constable

John Constable (1776-1837)

John Constable, perhaps the greatest and most original of all British landscape artists, is renowned, especially for his views of the Stour Valley in Suffolk, Salisbury Cathedral and Hampstead Heath. He was brought up in the country, and out of his deep love for the English landscape grew a determination to record its beauty: to capture its moistness, light and atmosphere, as well as its shapes and colours.

Today, Constable's genius is acknowledged throughout the world, but during his own lifetime, landscape painting was unfashionable, and the artist was forced to struggle for recognition. He was 39 before he sold his first landscape. And although his magnificent paintings were acclaimed in France, the Royal Academy in London refused him full membership until 1829-just eight years before his death.

john constable portrait by ramsay reinagle
john constable self portrait at age 24

Constable at 24:
A pencil self-portrait for his shows the artist soon after he moved to London as a student at the RA.

portrait of golding constable by john constable
portrait of ann constable by john constable

The artist's mother:
Ann Constable, the daughter of a London cooper, moved to Suffolk on marriage at the age of 19. A lively, sociable woman, she helped run the family business and gave her son much-needed encouragement in the difficult early years.

The artist's father :
Golding Constable was a wealthy corn merchant and with two water-mills and some 90 acres of farmland. He started training John to be a fam miller, but when a younger son Abram showed a flair for the, he gave the artist an allowance to help him live in London.


A Countryman in London

When he chose art as a profession, Constable left his Suffolk home to live permanently in London. But his bonds with East Anglia remained strong, and he returned each summer to sketch and paint.

John Constable was born in East Bergholt in Suffolk on 11 June 1776, the fourth of his parent's children. His father Golding was a prosper corn merchant who owned wind and water in East Bergholt and nearby Dedham, together with land in the village and his own small ship, The Telegraph, which he moored at Mistley on the estuary and used to transport corn to London Constable was brought up with all the advantages of a wealthy, happy home.

Most of his 'careless boyhood, as he called it, was spent in and around the Stour valley. After a brief period at boarding school in Lavenham, where the boys received more beatings than lessons, he was moved to a day school in Dedham. There the schoolmaster indulged Constable's interest in drawing, which was encouraged in a more practical way by the local plumber and glazier, John Dunthorne, who took him on sketching expeditions.

Golding Constable was not enthusiastic about his son's hobby but gave up the idea of educating him for the church and decided instead to train him as a miller. John spent a year at this work and, though he never took to the family business, he did acquire a thorough knowledge of its technicalities. When his younger brother Abram eventually came to run the business, he often consulted John about repairs to the mill machinery.

painting of east bergholt house, suffolk village , by john constable

The family home:
Constable was born in East Bergholt House, near the center of the small Suffolk village, and lived there until his departure for London at the age of 23. Set on a ridge, in several acres of grounds, it overlooked miles of open countryside. Constable's father had the house built in 1774, when the family moved up the hill from nearby Flatford Mill; it was pulled down in the 1840s.


Constable's passion for art was decisively stimulated by Sir George Beaumont, an amateur painter and art fanatic, whom he met in 1795. Beaumont owned a French masterpiece, Hagar and the Angel, by Claude Lorrain, which he took with him wherever he went, packed in a specially-made travelling box. The sight of this picture convinced Constable of his vocation as an artist. Soon afterwards, on a trip to London, he began to take lessons from the painter 'Antiquity Smith', an eccentric character who gave him sound advice and introduced him to the world of professional painting.

By 1799 Golding Constable's reluctance to allow his son to pursue his unprofitable and scarcely respectable career was tempered by the fact that a younger brother, Abram, was showing promise as a miller and businessman. So Constable was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools and his departure was blessed by his father with a small allowance.

In London Constable was a hardworking and committed student, who spent his evenings reading and making drawings, but he was homesick for his friends and family in Suffolk, and also for its countryside. For a while, he shared rooms with another student, Ramsay Reinagle, who painted his portrait, but Constable became disgusted with his sly copying of Old Masters and his doubtful dealings in the art market. His morale was not improved by the discovery that landscape and landscape painters were held in very low esteem by the Academy, which only respected history and portrait painting.

Letters and baskets of food transported by the family ship kept him in constant contact with East Bergholt, and he spent many of his summer holidays there, using a cottage near his parent's house as a studio. He also did some travelling around England. In 1801 he toured the Peak District in Derbyshire and two years later made a short sea voyage from London to Deal in Kent aboard an East Indiaman. He visited the Lake District in 1806, al found the solitude oppressive.

By 1809, when Constable reached the age of 33, he had more or less mastered his craft but had not as yet made a success of his career. He had not been elected an Associate of the Academy - let alone a full Member - and could not live independently on his meagre earnings from a few portrait and altar-piece commissions. However, it was at this unpromising point in his life that he fell in love with Maria Bicknell. She was 12 years younger than him and the daughter of a senior civil servant. More significantly, she was the granddaughter of Dr. Rhudde, rector of East Bergholt, and a formidable old man, who was believed by his family to be very rich. When Constable announced his desire to marry Maria, Dr. Rhudde promptly threatened her with disinheritance.

salisbury cathedral painting by john canstable
portrait of revd fisher by john constable

John Fisher of Salisbury:
Constable's closest friend was the Rev John Fisher who bought several of his paintings, gave him moral support, and even officiated at his wedding. Fisher's uncle was the Bishop of Salisbury, and over the years the two men spent several weeks as a guest in his house. Constable painted the Cathedral on at least three occasions.


During the next seven years the unhappy couple were often parted and sometimes forbidden even to write, but throughout their long, frustrating courtship they remained loyal to each other. Constable, who felt badly isolated in London, was sustained by his family, all of whom wished to see him married to Maria, and by the Rev John Fisher, a nephew of the Bishop of Salisbury, one of his earliest patrons.

Without a strong vein of obstinacy in his character, Constable would not have survived these difficult years, though they also sharpened his tendency to suffer from depression and moodiness. He gained a reputation for being hostile, arrogant, and sarcastic in his professional dealings, which did not help to sell his pictures. On the other hand, with his family and close friends, he was unfailingly generous and affectionate. In fact, his makeup was in many ways contradictory. He was, for example, a die-hard reactionary in his politics, viewing the prospect of Reform with alarm, but in his art, he was distinctly radical.

While courting Maria, he fell into a regular pattern of work. He would spend the late autumn, winter, and early spring in London, working up his sketches from nature and preparing his paintings n for the Royal Academy exhibition, which opened each May. Then he would go down to East Bergholt for the summer and early autumn, escaping the city with relief.

In 1815 Mrs. Constable died, which was a great blow to him. Not long after, Maria's mother died too. These sad events seem to have strengthened the couple's resolve and by the February of 1816 they had made up their minds to marry in defiance of all opposition. Then in May, Constable's father died, sitting peacefully in his chair. According to his will, Abram was to take over the firm and pay in his share of some £200 a year. Added to his allowance and his earnings from painting, this marriage possible at last.

Constable wrote to Dr. Rhudde, seeking his consent for the final time. He did not reply, but confined himself to a frosty bow from his coach, which was reinforced by a huge grin of congratulation on the face of his coachman above. At the last moment, Constable astounded Maria by trying to delay the wedding, while he worked on a painting, but on 2 October they were married in St Martin-in-the-Fields by his friend Fisher, now an archdeacon. None of the Bicknell family attended.

They enjoyed a long and happy honeymoon, returning to London in December. By the spring of the next year, Maria was pregnant, having already suffered a miscarriage, and Constable arranged for them to move into larger lodgings. He chose a house in Keppel Street in Bloomsbury, which appealed to him because it overlooked fields and 1- pond. There was even a pig farm near the British de Museum to remind them of Suffolk. In these rustic surroundings, their first son was born in 1817.

Marriage and fatherhood seemed to release in 1- Constable new powers of creativity, and he was soon at work on his 'six-footers', the large scenes of n the River Stour, which was to become his best-loved masterpieces. The family now enjoyed a set way of life, dominated each spring by it- an exhibition of these big canvases, which slowly added to the growth of his reputation.

Marriage and fatherhood seemed to release in Constable new powers of creativity, and he was soon at work on his 'six-footers', the large scenes of the River Stour, which were to become his best-loved masterpieces. The family now enjoyed a settled way of life, dominated each spring by the exhibition of these big canvases, which slowly added to the growth of his reputation.

 A Lifelong Romance

Constable's love for Maria Bicknell was a guiding passion in his life. He had known her since childhood, and the sketch below is thought to be a portrait of Maria as a young girl. When they fell in love in 1809, Constable's income was meagre, and Maria's family opposed their engagement. The lovers were forced to wait seven years until he could afford to support them both. And while the marriage was happy, it was doomed to be short. At the age of 40, Maria died of TB, leaving a heartbroken husband to bring up their seven young children. Maria in 1816, just before their marriage.

portrait of maria bicknell by john constable

Joseph Turner - a rival at the RA

England's two greatest artists, Constable and Turner, were students together at the RA, but never close friends. Turner easily outpaced Constable in professional success: he was elected a full member of the Academy at 26, while Constable was denied the accolade until the age of 52 - just eight years before his death.
At that time, the RA had a virtual monopoly over the painting profession, and Constable's failure cost him dearly. He was 39 before he sold his first landscape, and in his entire life, he sold less than 20 paintings in England.

sketch of john constable by d. maclise

Constable teaching: Constable's election to the RA came too late to influence his career his most creative years had already passed, and the death of his wife Maria had plunged him into melancholy. But he enjoyed teaching, and his new status as an Academician gave him the opportunity to champion landscape paintings.

portrait of joseph turner by c.w. cope

Joseph Turner :
Constable teaching Born the year before Constable, Turner was a boy prodigy whose dramatic seascapes and grand historical scenes won instant acclaim. his paintings commanded huge prices, and he dominated the art world. When Constable was finally elected to the RA, Turner brought him the news in person.


In 1820 he began his oil sketch of the picture that ay was to be The Hay Wain. The wain itself gave him much trouble and he finally had to ask Dunthorne, the son of his old friend, to accurate drawing. He finished it in the April of the following year soon after his second son was born. It has become his most famous picture, though it made little impact in England at the time of its original exhibition, and was eventually bought by a French dealer.

Maria's health had always been delicate and in 1821 Constable settled his family into a house in a Hampstead where the air was cleaner. For his own use, he rented a room and a little shed from the village glazier. Standing some 400 feet above their smoke of London, Hampstead was at that time a farming area, with sand and gravel workings. Along with the Stour valley and Salisbury, it became one of the few landscapes Constable re- responded to creatively.

In 1824 the king of France awarded him, in his absence, a gold medal for The Hay Wain. And for the first time his six-footer of the season, The Lock, was bought for the asking price while on exhibition at the Royal Academy.


Tragically, just as it looked as if he might be achieving professional independence, the first signs of his wife's fatal illness, pulmonary tuberculosis, showed themselves. To restore her health, he sent her and their young children, now four in number, to Brighton for the summer. Constable joined them for a few weeks and painted a number of marine scenes.

The next two years saw the birth of two more children, but no improvement in Maria's health. And the birth, in January 1828, of her seventh child weakened Maria badly. In March her father died, leaving her £20,000 and putting an end at last to their money worries. But Maria's coughing worsened, she grew feverish at nights and throughout the summer she wasted away. Maria died on 23 November and was buried in Hampstead.
Constable told his brother Golding, 'I shall never feel again as I have felt, the face of the world is totally changed to me'. The marriage for which he had waited so long had lasted a mere 12 years.

He slowly picked up the threads of his professional life. Ironically, he was elected a full Academician the next February, though by only one vote. His great rival Turner brought the news and stayed talking with him late into the night. In time, new projects began to interest him, notably the publication of engravings taken from his paintings and oil sketches. But the period of his greatest achievements was over.

In 1835 he painted The Valley Farm, another view of Willie Lott's cottage in Flatford, which appears in the Hay Wain. This was his last major picture of Suffolk. The buyer wanted to know if it had been painted for anyone in particular. Yes sir', Constable told him. 'It is painted for a very particular person - the person for whom I have all my life painted.' He died at night on 31 March 1837 and was buried beside Maria in Hampstead

picture of constable's hampstead

 Constable's Hampstead: Number 40, Well Walk in Hampstead was Constable's home from 1827 until the end of his life. His wife Maria died there of TB in 1828, and they are buried together with their eldest son - also named John – in Hampstead Parish Churchyard


Scenes of the Stour Valley

Constable's strongest inspiration came from the scenes of boyhood, which he said 'made me a painter.' The few square miles of Suffolk around East Bergholt are now known as “Constable country'.

Constable is often described as the greatest painter of the English landscape, but it is truer to call him the painter of Suffolk, or rather the Stour valley. the 12 square miles around his birthplace in my Bergholt, which even in his own day became known as Constable country. He could never bring his extraordinary gifts to bear on a landscape which held no personal meaning for him. Apart from Suffolk, only Hampstead, Salisbury, and to a lesser extent Brighton stimulated the intense observation and passionate feeling which is the hallmark of his best paintings.

Constable seems to have realized where his genius lay in 1802 while studying at the Royal Academy in London. He wrote to his old sketching companion John Dunthorne, the village glazier, that he was determined to come home and study nature, the source of all originality in art. His plan was to make a 'pure and unaffected representation of the scenes of his childhood. With this end in mind, he not only spent that summer and autumn in East Bergholt, but also bought a cottage in the village to use as a permanent studio.

sketch of john constable house

Stratford St Mary :
This pencil and wash sketch shows the house once known · as Old Valley Farm, on the road towards Dedham from Stratford St Mary. Constable sketched the house twice in 1827.

dedham lock and mill painting by john constable

The graceful tower of Dedham Church overlooks the river in Dedham Lock and Mill (1820), three miles from East Bergholt.

Constable on Suffolk:

'This a most delightful country for a landscape painter; I fancy I see Gainsborough in every hedge and hollow tree.'

"The sound of water escaping from mill dams, willows, old rotten banks, slimy posts and brickwork - I shall never cease to paint such places.'

'I even love every stile and stump, and every lane in the village, so deeply rooted are early impressions.'

golding constable's flower garden painting by john constable

East Bergholt:
A detail from Golding Constable's Flower Garden(1815) Shows a view from the back of the family house. Constable was the first English artist to paint barns and out -houses with such careful attention.

the mill stream painting by john constable

Flatford Mill :
This oil sketch for The Mill Stream, painted around 1812, shows the same scene as The Hay Wain, with Willie Lott's cottage on the left. Such sketches, made rapidly in the open air, served as notes for the full-size paintings.


Almost every summer for more than 15 years he returned to the village to make detailed records in his sketchbooks of every object, activity or view that caught his interest. The summer of 1813 was particularly valuable. The weather was magnificent, and Constable walked daily in the Stour valley, sketching obsessively. 'I almost put my eyes out with that practice', he wrote later.

His sketchbook for that year has fortunately been preserved, and clearly shows his working methods. The tiny drawings measure no more than 3/2" X 43/4", but cover an extraordinary range of subjects: the river and its barges, sheep sheltering from the heat under a tree, cottages, farms and churches, mooring posts and water lilies, ploughmen and their horses, and dozens of little details, including the cuff of a jacket. Many amounts to fully realized compositions and al all the rural themes which he later illustrated paintings are seen here.

These scenes, Constable said made him a painter, and his feeling for their visual beauty was enhanced by his understanding of the work being done in the locks and towpaths, boatyard and meadows. His apprenticeship in his father's mills had taught him not to look only at the buildings, trees and people. He watched the sky too and the le river with the professional eye of a miller, whose livelihood depended on understanding the weather and its ever-shifting moods.

Yet despite Constable's devotion to Suffolk and its countryside, the great majority of the finished works were painted not in East Bergholt, but in London with the sketchbooks and some small oil studies serving as 'notes'. Just one early picture, Boat building, was completed in the open air; the other major canvases were painted in his London, studio during the winter months.

For the famous 'six-footers' exhibited at the Royal Academy, Constable went through one more stage of preparation which is probably unique amongst artists: he painted a full-size oil sketch, to work out the composition and blocks of color he would finally use. These sketches have also been preserved and are much admired by modern critics for the freedom with which he used his palette knife to apply the paint, capturing the effects of the English weather with all its changes.

Farmland views :
tiny pencil sketches show the fields near East Bergholt: the first looks north to his father's windmill; Constable made hundreds of such sketches in the fine summers of 1812.

sktech of farmland view by john constable


The Landscape Tradition

Few English artists of Constable's generation bothered with landscapes, which were generally regarded as a low form of art compared with historical or mythological scenes. But he learned much from earlier masters. His first sight of Claude Lorrain's Hagar and the Angel inspired him to take up painting as a vocation, and he greatly admired Thomas Gainsborough, another Suffolk artist who had lived nearby at Sudbury.

landscape with ruin painting by jacob van ruisdael

Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-82) Landscape with Ruin : Ruisdael was one of the first artists to see how important the sky could be to the mood of a landscape. Constable also used heavy cloud formations to give a brooding atmosphere to many later works

hagar and the angel painting by claude lorrain

Claude Lorrain (1600-82): Hagar and the Angel Constable saw this picture at Dedham in 1795. The composition and the pure quality of light had a lasting influence on his work.

cornard wood painting by thomas gainsborough

Thomas Gainsborough (1727-88) Cornard Wood  Constable made a careful study of Gainsborough's technique and even visited some of the scenes he painted. He adopted the earlier artist's custom of showing people and animals in the landscape.


But the finished versions of the great canal scenes show Constable's genius at its height. Here, as nowhere else, he captured the atmospheric effects of early summer in the open air, the movement of clouds across the broad Suffolk sky and the impact of sunlight on the waters of his beloved Stour.

To convey on canvas the sun's rays glittering on the river surface and dancing on the foliage of trees agitated by the wind, Constable abandoned the 'fiddle browns' of traditional landscape painting for the true colours and textures of nature. Restricted by the paints available to him, he used pure yellow and white for the flash of sunlight on dew and captured the motion of clouds and the racing wind with rapid, nervous brushwork whose sensitivity has never been rivalled.

the leaping horse painting by john constable

The Leaping Horse (1825): A detail from this famous painting shows Constable's technique in action. The red bridle on the tow horse helps attract the eye to the key element in the picture; the light shimmering on the wet wooden barrier is captured by the white paint of 'Constable's snow'.


The Hay Wain

Constable painted The Hay Wain in his London studio during the winter of 1820, using his diary sketches and oil studies as reference material. He chose a landscape he knew well, and the shallow fording-place on the Stour between Flatford Mill and Willie Lott's cottage forms an attractive setting for a typical scene in the hay-making season. As usual, Constable was anxious that the details should be accurate and he even asked a local artist to send him an extra sketch of a hay wain. But there is far more in the painting than its picturesque cottage and waggon - Constable's true subject is the day itself, as he carefully studies the shifting summer clouds and the play of sunlight on the trees and meadows.

the hay wain painting by john constable
the hay wain painting by john constable

Luminous green:
Almost at the center of the picture, the sun streams through the leaves of a tree. Constable renders its liquid warmth by spreading several thick layers of green and yellow paint with a palette knife.

the hay wain painting by john constable

The haymakers:
In the distant meadow, a gang of farm hands is loading hay onto a second waggon. Their leader, 'the lord of the harvest' is distinguished by the red sash he wears around his waist.

the missing rider painting by john constable

The missing rider:
A detail from Constable's full-size oil study shows that he originally included a man on a horse – said to have been his father, Golding - next to the dog. In the finished painting, this space is filled with the shadow of a tree.

sketch of the clouds by john constable

The Clouds:
Constable observed the sky with unusual care and made detailed oil studies, often noting the exact time of day and the wind speed and direction.

boatbuilding painting by john constable


Constable's Suffolk

Constable painted Suffolk in its golden age when high farm prices brought boom years for farmers. But country life was changing. In the background of his landscapes, the old world was giving way to the new.

Today, Constable's paintings of the Suffolk landscape seem like portraits of a golden age. Cattle and sheep graze in the lush meadows; the corn stands high in pleasant fields bordered by hedgerows and five-barred gates; a sturdy band of labourers work peacefully through an endless summer. The barges slipping quietly down the Stour make a colourful focus for this idyll.

But to Constable himself, a corn merchant's son surveying the family lands with a close interest in the business of farming, the pictures are a detailed record of a specific time and place. The Suffolk he portrays was on the crest of an agricultural boom. And the canals - in the years before the railways reached East Anglia – were the main arteries of trade, carrying grain from the wheat lands of Suffolk to the markets of London.

In Constable's lifetime, Suffolk was changing rapidly. Indeed, the scenes he painted would scarcely have been familiar to a farmer from the 17th century. Then, and ever since the Middle Ages, the mainstay of the economy had been wool, not corn. The majestic tower of Dedham Church, in the heart of Constable country, had marked the town as the center of the local wool trade, and an important weaving town.

The mills at Flatford and Dedham, like those in almost every other village along the course of the Stour, had originally been built for fulling, or cleansing, wool. But in the 18th century, when the weaving trade moved north to Derbyshire and Lancashire, and England's rising population pushed up the demand for bread, Suffolk farmers turned from sheep to grain. Then the mills were adapted for grinding the corn; and to carry the flour to the coastal ports of Harwich and Felixstowe, the Stour was made navigable as far up-river as Sudbury. A number of locks were built with massive timber spars. Cuts and wharves were constructed beside each of the mills.

painting of the river stour, suffolk

The Stour Navigation :
The River Stour was opened to barge traffic in the 18th century, long before the railway reached Suffolk. Barges were always drawn in pairs, and when the towpath alternated between the two banks, the draught horses had to be ferried across the river on the barge.


The ground corn was loaded onto lighters, which were also built entirely of wood in a basin at Flatford. They were some 47 feet long and 10 feet 9 inches wide and designed to travel in pairs, of which the front one contained a cabin for the bargeman and his family. Powerful draught horses - usually of the Suffolk Punch breed - towed the barges downstream at a speed of about two miles an hour: in many places, the towpath alternated between the two banks and the horses had to be ferried across on the barge. At Brantham Tidal Lock, the lighters were floated on the tide for three miles down to Mistley Quay from where the corn was shipped via the larger Essex ports to London or the north.

Constable's father, Golding, had profited greatly from the agricultural boom. He built up a prosperous business based on corn milling: he owned Flatford Mill and the windmill on East Bergholt Heath, and he ran Dedham Mill on behalf of some local businessmen. By 1776, when John was born, he had become wealthy enough to acquire one of the largest estates in East Bergholt-an area of 93 acres which contained a mixture of arable and pasture land, a flower garden, and kitchen gardens. The farm was never his main source of income, but his family could be self-sufficient in food. To the social duties which Ann Constable already had as the wife of a successful businessman were now added those of a wealthy farmer's wife. She managed the poultry yard, made sure the milk-maids got up before sunrise and supervised the butter- and cheese-making.


The Constables acquired their land on the Suffolk Essex border at a time when the two counties were among the best-farmed in England. Many of the larger landowners had pioneered new systems of crop rotation and improved machinery. Their fields were ploughed by horse-drawn wheel ploughs driven by men who - to judge from the many ploughing matches - took great pride in their job. These contests encouraged rivalry amongst them, and they welcomed improvements to the design of their ploughs. Seeds were planted in the straight furrows with the aid of the seed drill invented by Jethro Tull.

In the 1780s, during Constable's boyhood, most of those living around East Bergholt were using the three-year system of crop rotation devised by Lord 'Turnip' Townshend of Norfolk. Under this system, turnips were sown in the first summer to provide fodder for the animals in winter. In the following spring, a mixture of barley and clover was sown. The barley was harvested later in the year, but the clover was left, partly to provide more winter fodder for the animals and partly to be cut for hay in the following summer. At the end of this third summer, the fields were ploughed and manured. Local manure was supplemented by Kentish chalk and London manure brought to the Stour estuary by the grain vessels. Winter wheat was then sown and harvested in time for the next sowing of turnips in the summer.

Traditional methods were still used for many of the seasonal jobs. In the early summer, teams of men working in lines used scythes to mow the long grass of the water-meadows. The grass was then left to dry and, if the weather was fine, it was stacked after five to seven days. At the end of the summer, everyone in the local community was involved in the job of harvesting the corn. Teams of men, again working in lines, reaped the corn with sickles, and their wives helped pitchfork the cut corn onto the horse-drawn carts.

sketch of pilling the plough
painting of pilling the plough umaid art

Pulling the plough: Horses were harnessed in single file for the autumn ploughing. In spring, the earth was harrowed to break up the clods before planting


Each team of mowers or reapers elected one of their number to act as leader or foreman. Known as the 'lord', he agreed on terms with the farmer and ensured that the harvest was done properly. Every man was expected to keep his allotted place in the line, and if he fell behind or did shoddy work, he was fined by the lord'. Once gathered, the corn was traditionally threshed by men and women with flails. However, the hand-powered threshing machine was invented in the 1780s, and it soon became a common sight in Suffolk

It is the traditional landscape that is recorded in Constable's paintings, most of which were based on his visits between 1802 and 1814, enriched by his boyhood memories. They reflect a time when small and large landowners existed comfortably side-by-side, and honoured their obligations to the landless laborers. On some farms the poorer workers might be given a bed in the farmer's house and supper at his table. On almost every farm the men who brought in the harvest were fed at the farmer's expense and received generous quantities of ale while working in the fields. The day the last cart-load of corn, decorated with flowers and green boughs, was taken back to the farm, the whole community sat down together to a 'harvest home' supper. Employer and employee alike celebrated with dancing, singing and drinking.

But this brief 'golden age' was not to last even through Constable's own lifetime. During the wars against Napoleon, the French blockade of the Channel ports prevented European corn from reaching England, and even with the new methods, English farmers could not make up the shortage. The price of corn quadrupled between 1792 and 1812 and throughout the country farmers enclosed and cultivated more and more land. The fields around East Bergholt had long been enclosed, but there was still scope for the wealthier farmers to increase their holdings.

And as Constable himself noted in his letters, they also took over the lands of the poorer farmers and divided up the common lands amongst themselves. This was a savage blow to the landless labourers, who were already hard-pressed to pay the rocketing prices for their bread. The common lands had traditionally been used by the poor peasants to graze their animals; now many were reduced to total destitution. And their situation did not improve, even after the victory at Waterloo in 1815, for the change in land ownership was permanent. Labourers rioted frequently in the black years that followed, and with rick burning an almost nightly occurrence, the world Constable had loved was - literally - going up in flames.

picture of john constable's villagers

Constable's villagers: Farm laborers from East Bergholt take a break from ditching for this early photograph - taken just 50 years after Constable's death.

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