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Flatford Mill: Taking inspiration from the scenes made famous by John Constable

10:00 27 July 2014

James Marston takes a look at the iconic local landmarks at Flatford, including the scene of John Constable

James Marston takes a look at the iconic local landmarks at Flatford, including the scene of John Constable's Hay Wain

It didn’t sell when it was first exhibited.

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But today The Hay Wain is one of the nation’s best-loved treasures.

An iconic image of England, the painting by John Constable was inspired by the landscape in which he grew up.

Much of Flatford - the hamlet which inspired Constable to paint some of his most famous works - is today a National Trust property with various buildings, a café, a Constable exhibition and 550 acres of the Dedham Vale.

Between 250,000 and 300,000 people a year visit Flatford with many taking walks in the surrounding countryside and along the River Stour.

James Marston takes a look at the iconic local landmarks at Flatford, including the scene of John Constable's Hay Wain James Marston takes a look at the iconic local landmarks at Flatford, including the scene of John Constable's Hay Wain

Simon Peachy, visitors’ service team leader, has developed an interest and knowledge in Constable’s work.

He said: “Constable was here because his family lived in East Bergholt and his father owned Flatford Mill. He was a wealthy merchant not only involved in milling but also grain transport along the river.

“John Constable grew up in this area and knew the area well. He was inspired by what he saw which inspired his paintings.”

The artist would have made hundreds of sketches and drawings of the countryside and everyday scenes in the area.

Simon said: “The painting made quite an impression when it was first shown but it didn’t sell. It was shown in Paris where it was received very well and I think the French were the first to see it as a romantic view of English country life.”

The painting entered the national collection in about 1860.

Simon added: “The painting fitted in with nostalgia at the time for the pre-industrial English landscape. It also came into the public consciousness just as prints were being made more widely available. Suddenly The Hay Wain becomes this iconic image and it is still very popular. People recognise it and it is very familiar. In the contemporary art world it has been looked a little down upon in recent years but if you look at it in its context it is an amazing painting.”

Representing a hay cart in a body of water on a summer’s day, The Hay Wain is depicted in what was, in fact, a tail race and mill pond.

Simon said: “The eye is drawn into the painting and across to the fields on the other side of the water. There is some debate as to why the hay wain is in the water but they are probably watering the horses.

“Constable does indulge in some artistic licence – surveying the scene today the length of the roof of Willy Lott’s cottage is too short, the water may well have been too deep and the little culvert on the opposite bank was probably never there. The bread oven has gone while the stunning cloudscape remains stunning on a summer’s morning.”

David Piper, the trust’s head ranger for North Essex and South Suffolk, said the trust aims to preserve the original scenes around Flatford to ensure they are recognisable to visitors.

He said: “The view has changed over the years, the vegetation has grown up, the bank opposite has been raised due to flood defences, the tail race needs to be dredged or it would choke up with reed mace.

“We do what we can to keep the open view in the middle and though it is recognisable it is not exact. The aim is not to fossilize the past, we are managing a living landscape.”

Tim McGregor, property operations manager, said visitors fall into three main categories – Constable fans, countryside and wildlife fans, and those who come to enjoy the green space, walking and boating.

He added: “The great thing is the extensive footpath network soaks up the visitor numbers really well.

“The area is a beautiful part of the country and it is also the area which inspired Constable, it is still inspiring people to this day.”

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