The secrets behind Constable’s Suffolk paintings we know and love so well

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, with study, part of a new Constable exhibition at Christchurch

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows, with study, part of a new Constable exhibition at Christchurch Mansion's Wolsey Gallery - Credit: Archant

The genius of Constable is celebrated in a new exhibition at Christchurch Mansion which brings together paintings from the Ipswich Collection along with extensive loans from The Tate, the V&A and the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge.

Constable's Kitchen Garden painting 1815, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary.

Constable's Kitchen Garden painting 1815, which is celebrating its 200th anniversary. - Credit: Archant

The exhibition takes a look at Constable’s on-going love affair with Suffolk and how the county continued to inform his work even after he moved away from East Anglia.

The exhibition even points out connections between his famous six foot painting Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows and Suffolk. The painting was created as a way of dealing with the death of his bride Maria Bicknell, who was the grand-daughter of the rector of East Bergholt.

Not only was his skills at depicting brooding skies and cloud formations mastered in Suffolk but Maria’s links with Suffolk was another factor in his need to get away.

The exhibition has been pulled together by Emma Roodhouse, the art curator of Ipswich and Colchester Museums, who researched elements of the exhibition while on a study trip to Yale university in the United States.

Golding Constable,
Flower Garden 1815.
This image should be credited to Ipswich Borough Council Mu

Golding Constable, Flower Garden 1815. This image should be credited to Ipswich Borough Council Museums and Galleries

“For those who have seen the first exhibition from earlier in the year, this represents a substantial change. We have Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows for a whole year but the work around it has changed a lot and we have many more loans of Suffolk pieces from major collections around the country.

“It’s a great to have one of Constable’s great six footers, it’s very impressive, but I also wanted to showcase two of the Ipswich collection’s great works Constable’s Flower and Kitchen Gardens, which, this year, celebrate their 200th anniversary. They were painted in the summer of 1815 and say a lot about Constable’s upbringing and life in Suffolk.”

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She said that the Salisbury Cathedral picture was the star of the exhibition earlier in the year but the summer exhibition puts it into context with regard to Constable other work – particularly his early work in Suffolk.

Emma said in preparation for the exhibition she was awarded an Andrew W Mellon scholarship which allowed her to travel to America to study at the Yale Center for British Art and access their own Constable archive.

Curator Emma Roodhouse with Constable's two garden paintings which form the focus of a new Constable

Curator Emma Roodhouse with Constable's two garden paintings which form the focus of a new Constable exhibition at Christchurch Mansion's Wolsey Gallery - Credit: Archant

“I was able to fly over there and work at the university centre for a month and work with their own Constable collection and research the background to this exhibition. That scholarship is specifically for regional curators to research aspects of British art. I was obviously looking to research Constable in Suffolk and they have an amazing collection of cloud studies, early work and they have the earliest view of Constable’s gardens in their collection. It’s amazing that you have to go all the way to New Haven in order to study British art but sometimes that’s where you need to go.”

She said that the earliest view of Constable’s gardens which she was able to track down was dated to a 1797 sketch which he included on a letter to his mentor John T Smith. “It’s a fantastic sketch and he writes, in his own hand, ‘a view from my window’ and it’s the threshing barn and the letter is sandwiched in a volume of CR Leslie’s memoirs of Constable. When I found this I said to myself: ‘This is why I am here.”

She said that the Yale Center offered tremendous research facilities and she also discovered, in nearby Boston, a large painting Constable completed at around the same time at Ipswich collection’s themed pair of the Flower and Kitchen Garden which was a view of the Suffolk landscape which was commission for a wedding present.

“The research I did in the United States enabled me to start selecting the loans for this show. I was able to tap into collections held by The Tate, the V&A and the Fitzwilliam and to really start to think about the chronology of the exhibition, what we should show and give visitors a look at how Constable worked.

Ipswich Mayor, "John Constable", Cllr David Ellesmere, David Brown (Tate), Sarah Philp (Art Fund) .a

Ipswich Mayor, "John Constable", Cllr David Ellesmere, David Brown (Tate), Sarah Philp (Art Fund) .at the opening of the new Constable exhibition at Christchurch Mansion's Wolsey Gallery - Credit: Archant

“I wanted to include, for example, pencil sketches of Framlingham Castle from 1815. These are the sort of works that are very rarely seen and they instantly connect you to Constable the Man as well as Constable the Artist. When I went to the Fitzwilliam’s print room and started pulling out Constable’s drawings I was like a kid in a sweet shop. I let out my inner-geek.”

She said that by accessing Constable’s drawings and early studies it is easy to see how he mastered his art. The exhibition features studies of his father’s horses, carts as well as tree, flower and cloud studies. Throughout his career Constable would include these details as elements in the overall composition of his paintings.

“In many ways it is a little bit like a collage. He would include favoured subjects as incidental items to give the picture interest. If you look at a Constable picture there is always something happening.

“One of the things I wanted to highlight in this exhibition was to show how Constable’s early years in Suffolk were so significant for him. This was his training. His work drawing and painting the Suffolk towns and countryside helped define who he became. The work he did in Dedham and East Bergholt allowed him later on top create these six foot masterpieces.

Visitor viewing the Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows part of a new Constable exhibition at Chris

Visitor viewing the Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows part of a new Constable exhibition at Christchurch Mansion's Wolsey Gallery - Credit: Archant

“He had to have this amazingly intimate knowledge of the landscape to create works like Salisbury Cathedral and The Mill Stream. Those early sketch books which he compiled in Suffolk were like a visual diary. He kept going back to them throughout his life. We have got studies of a man fishing, of horses and carts which pop up time and again in his work. They act as motifs in much of his work.”

Emma added that the pictures also show Suffolk as a working landscape. Constable doesn’t produce pictures showing a rural idyll. His work shows an industrial landscape. The land is being worked. The people shown in the pictures are working. It’s a window on a valuable piece of Suffolk’s social history.

There are fewer trees in the landscape than today because they have been felled for timber to construct houses, boats and to provide firewood. “We recently acquired The Lime Kiln for the Ipswich collection and again that depicts the sort of industry that was going on in Suffolk at the time. Constable said: ‘I should paint my own places best...’ and he did paint what he knew, what he saw. So it is great art but it is also an important visual reference to our own past which is why we are so pleased that Ipswich has the largest collection of Constables outside London. We have the works that were painted here and relate to us. It is right that they should be housed in the county he lived and worked in and, of course, they are free to view.”

She said although the loans only took a year to agree, the gestation for the whole exhibition has taken years to bring about. “I have always known I have wanted to do an exhibition to celebrate the anniversary of the two garden paintings. That was before the Yale trip and before the loan of the Salisbury Cathedral painting came on the cards. These were just fortunate coincidences. I saw the scholarship become available and I knew that would help the exhibition so I applied and got it. The Salisbury Cathedral loan again was part of the stars aligning in the right way to add extra value to the exhibition.”

Constable’s Gardens: 200th Anniversary Exhibition is on show at the Wolsey Gallery at Christchurch Mansion until September 6. Admission is free.

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