John Constable RA, Flatford Mill from a Lock on the Stour, c.1811. Photo: RA/John Hammond © Royal Academy of Arts

Object of the Month - January 2017


John Constable RA (1776-1837)
Flatford Mill from a Lock on the Stour, c.1811

Throughout his career Constable painted many oil sketches representing the seventeenth-century corn mill where he grew up. His father, Golding Constable, was a corn merchant who owned Flatford Mill in East Bergholt. Flatford Mill from a lock on the Stour, one of his earlier works, demonstrates his affiliation with his childhood home as he associated the river Stour with his 'careless boyhood.'

Constable's scenes are rooted in the memories of his childhood landscape which acquired a deep emotional significance for him. Although in this composition the river, trees and sky dominate the view, he provides details of human interaction with nature via agriculture and industry with the inclusion of reapers in the field beyond the trees.

It is said that Constable painted this sketch to explore possible ideas while preparing a painting with the same composition, Flatford Mill from the Lock, which he exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1812. Constable is known for his impasto technique, which uses thickly loaded brushes or palette knives. In this sketch, which he worked on in the open air, he captures the light and a sense of movement in the trees and water with loose brushstrokes.

Although Constable was the second son he gained responsibility to take over his father's business. In 1799 he persuaded his father to let him pursue art and he entered the Royal Academy Schools. By 1802 he was offered the position of drawing master at Great Marlow Military College but turned it down to pursue his dream of becoming a professional landscape painter.

1817 marked a significant change in his career when he decided to create six-foot paintings continuing the theme of his father's corn mill and the Stour. In a letter in 1821 to his closest friend, John Fisher, he wrote 'I should paint my own places best.' Constable owed much to his childhood countryside sketches and credited them to his success: they 'made me a painter, and I am grateful.'

There has been much debate surrounding the date of this painting due to Constable's inscription on the back, which may read 1810 or 1811. We know that Constable was painting in Flatford in these years due to his mother's letters. In one, dated 26th October 1811, she wrote 'Your Father…rode down to Flatford. Your pretty view from there is so forward… and I am certain it will gain an applause, for everyone approves it'. Little did she know we would be celebrating it over 200 years later.