What would Constable think of his country now?

PUBLISHED: 12:44 16 August 2010 | UPDATED: 17:42 20 February 2013

Golding Constable's Flower Garden, East Bergholt 1815
By John Constable

Golding Constable's Flower Garden, East Bergholt 1815 By John Constable

Is our Suffolk countryside still the enchanting rural idyll so loved by Constable and Gainsborough? Chantal Haddon speaks to some of our regional art experts about their favourite pictures and Suffolk's changing landscape

Is our Suffolk countryside still the enchanting rural idyll so loved by Constable and Gainsborough? Chantal Haddon speaks to some of our regional art experts about their favourite pictures and Suffolks changing landscape

The Suffolk painters, Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) and John Constable (1776-1837), are without question two of Britains best-known artists. Although each spent the latter part of his life in London, their two greatest masterpieces, both held by the National Gallery Constables The Hay Wain, and Gainsboroughs Mr and Mrs Andrews depict the Suffolk countryside at its most splendid.
Constable, a largely self taught artist, once described how it was careless boyhood that made me a painter and it seems that these early experiences, amongst the gentle hills and wooded river valleys of Suffolk, had a profound effect on both artists even when they left their homes at East Bergholt and Sudbury, to pursue their careers.
Gainsborough, who became the most fashionable portrait artist of his day, rivalled only by the official court painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, wearily remarked to a friend: I am sick of portraits and wish very much to ... walk off to some sweet village where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease. Both men died in London (Gainsborough buried at Kew in 1788 and Constable at Hampstead in 1837) yet their attachment to Suffolk was potent and enduring.
So just how much has Suffolk changed since Gainsborough and Constable depicted this county as the most idyllic of British landscapes?

Painting: Mr and Mrs Andrews
Location: The Stour Valley, Suffolk
Date: 1750
Artist: Thomas Gainsborough
On show at: The National Gallery, London

Gainsboroughs masterpiece, Mr and Mrs Andrews, commissioned while Gainsbrough was still working in Suffolk, celebrated the marriage of two members of the Suffolk gentry Robert Andrews and Frances Carter. This relatively early portrait was astonishingly modern. The setting for the picture is easily recognisable today as a corner of Suffolk and is as much a star of the picture as the subjects themselves, and with good reason.
The painting, which is in the National Gallery, was designed not just to celebrate a marriage but to show off Robert Andrews newly extended estate, which joined together land from the two families and spanned the Stour valley, between Bulmer and Bulmer Tye. It seems this also provided Gainsborough with an opportunity to show his multiple skills as an artist and his understanding of the Suffolk countryside not just as a portrait painter but a landscape painter.
Diane Perkins, director of Gainsboroughs House in Sudbury and a specialist in 18th century British art, says: Unlike Constable, Gainsborough rarely painted specific Suffolk views, so Mr and Mrs Andrews is fairly unusual, but one could certainly argue that all his landscapes were inspired by the Suffolk countryside that he knew and loved so well. Landscape painting and portraiture were always parallel interests for him.

Painting: Cornard Wood
Location: Sudbury, Suffolk
Date: 1748
Artist: Thomas Gainsborough
On show at: The National Gallery, London

Cornard Wood, also in The National Gallery, is another rare example by Gainsborough of a rural setting that relates to a particular place in Suffolk. It shows a mature Suffolk woodland just outside Sudbury and reflects Gainsboroughs own interest in the great Dutch landscape artists. Diane Perkins says: Cornard Wood is one of a handful of specific views of the county by Gainsborough. Suffolk has changed since the 18th century and quite a large part of Cornard Wood, and the vistas across it, has now been developed for housing. This picture is also interesting because it is a part of a broader group of pastoral landscapes, like The Cottage Door at Gainsboroughs House, which show his emotional connection to a simpler rural existence that was in contrast to his role as an important society artist in London.
So even when Thomas Gainsboroughs landscapes are in their most idealised form, it is difficult to disentangle the Suffolk countryside we see today. Diane Perkins continues: Suffolk is fascinating after all it helped produce two of our best artists. There isnt the obvious drama that you find in places like the Lake District or Scotland but it is a landscape that is full of subtleties, the devil is in the detail, and with these glorious open skies it is a landscape that certainly grows on you.

Paintings: Golding Constables Kitchen Garden (bottom) and Golding Constables Flower Garden (left)
Location: East Bergholt
Date: 1815
Artist: John Constable
On show at: Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich

In addition to a collection of Gainsboroughs work, Christchurch Mansion also holds the largest group of pictures by John Constable, outside London. Emma Roodhouse says: Two of my favourite works in the galleries at Christchurch Mansion are highly personal and detailed views of Constables fathers garden at East Bergholt House.
In 1799, at the age of 22, Constable entered the Royal Academy Schools in London but he maintained a close relationship with East Bergholt village, the home of his parents, where he kept a studio, returning during his summer vacations to paint the Suffolk landscape. (Other paintings of the villages church, Fenn Lane, Golding Constables House and the Old Manor, East Bergholt, are held in collections at the Tate and National Gallery, London).
In 1815 Constable decided to spend the autumn and winter there as well, completing two small oil paintings of his fathers vegetable and flower gardens, looking down from rear windows at the family home, with views of the surrounding countryside.
This was a landscape which he held in deep affection. Constable never exhibited or attempted to sell these two paintings during his lifetime. These were private works, records of the country that were precious to him and which he may have sensed, with his fathers declining health (his mother dying in March 1815, and his father in 1816), that he would not enjoy for much longer.
Emma Roodhouse concludes: Constable never achieved the same success during his lifetime as Gainsborough real recognition in Britain only came after his death but his landscapes of Suffolk are a hugely important part of the history of British art. Constables numerous sketches and paintings inspired other important British artists to visit, live and work here and the landscape he adored remains largely recognisable today.

Painting: Hollywells Park
Location: Ipswich
Date: 1748-1750
Artist: Thomas Gainsborough
On show at: Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich

In 1992, Christchurch Mansion acquired a surprising view by Gainsborough which still exists in the heart of Ipswich today. Emma Roodhouse, art curator of Colchester and Ipswich Museums explains: Thomas Gainsboroughs painting of Hollywells Park was an interesting addition to the museum because it showed how crucial support from early local patrons, like the Cobbold brewing family, laid the foundations for Gainsboroughs later success in Bath and London.
It is Gainsboroughs only known painting of Ipswich and it demonstrates how he was not only closely connected to the Suffolk countryside but also to its commercial heart. Although Hollywells is now a public park, it was privately owned in the mid 18th century by the Cobbold brewery and Gainsborough details Thomas Cobbolds pragamatically constructed landscape a series of descending pools designed to purify water for beer.
It is an unusal commission and an unusual subject for Gainsborough but his picturesque panorama has echoes in the park today. Emma Roodhouse continues: Its very exciting to think that Gainsborough was closely observing and participating in the history and development of Ipswich and Suffolk.

Paintings: Willy Lotts Cottage and The Hay Wain
Location: Dedham, Suffolk
Date: 1816
Artist: John Constable
On show at: Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich

Mary Axon, of Mary Axon Fine Art, is a well known independent picture valuer, who lives in Suffolk and specialises in the work of East Anglian artists. She says: For me, the most memorable pictures are also the most personal. Constables The Hay Wain is one of the worlds most famous pictures but in many ways I prefer Constables simpler studies of Willy Lotts Cottage at the mill stream in Dedham. There is a wonderful example at Christchurch Mansion. He painted this particular place so many times and from so many perspectives, we can rightly assume that it had enormous personal significance, a childhood idyll that is still as beautiful now as it was then.
Constable and Gainsboroughs legacy is extraordinary. Their work and their view of the Suffolk countryside had a huge impact on British art. Their pictures reveal a bond with Suffolk which is absolutely tangible, and there is no question that the much later British artists who chose to live and work here, people like Sir Alfred Munnings, Edward Seago, Cedric Morris, even contemporary painters like Maggi Hambling, wouldnt have existed in the same way without them and they continue to provide inspiration.
Maggi Hambling has recently said that her exhibition of Suffolk seascapes at the Fitzwilliam Museum, set out to do for the sea what Constable does for the sky.
Suffolk has inevitably changed over time but I think Gainsborough, Constable and the many artists who followed in their wake would still find tremendous beauty in this landscape and its wide open skies.

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