This weekend we’re off on a lightning tour of the flatlands of England, in what’s widely known as East Anglia. Today we’ll start in the north of Essex, and pass through Suffolk, then tomorrow we’ll see Norfolk before ending at its north-western edge in Lincoln.
From a landscape painter’s view these present the same problems as the ‘low countries’ on the opposite side of the North Sea: flat, often featureless land that quickly becomes monotonous. While the great artists of the Netherlands sought solace in big skies, the English often relied on trees.
In the south these flatlands start in Essex, where Ford Madox Brown painted this famous view of Walton-on-the-Naze in 1860. Brown is believed to have started this when he visited the coastal village in north-east Essex in late August 1859, but cannot have worked long at it en plein air before returning home. In addition to fine detail, it incorporates two unusual features: ephemeral lighting effects by way of its rainbow, rising full moon, and setting sun, and inclusion of the artist and his family as its main figures.
We travel to the north-west and cross into the more deeply rural farmland of Suffolk, where two of the finest British landscape painters grew up.
Thomas Gainsborough’s view of Cornard Wood, near Sudbury, Suffolk from 1748 is a wonderful depiction of the countryside around his home, and one of John Constable’s favourite paintings.
Midway between Walton-on-the-Naze and Sudbury, and still in Suffolk, is the shallow valley of Dedham Vale, an area now known as Constable Country.
It was here that John Constable painted most of his finest landscapes, among the great trees and waterways. This is Dedham Lock and Mill, painted in 1820, showing the lock on the River Stour owned by the artist’s family, and the distant tower of the village church in Dedham.
Although now Constable’s most famous work, The Hay Wain (1821) failed to find a buyer when originally exhibited at the Royal Academy in London. It did, though, attract attention from some of the French visitors, including the artist Théodore Géricault. The following year, Constable exhibited it at the British Institution and asked 150 guineas (£157) for it, but it again failed to sell. One of those who saw it there was a French dealer named John Arrowsmith, who made Constable an offer of £70 which he declined, but it opened opportunities for him to exhibit and sell successfully in France.
Flatford Mill and Willie Lott’s Cottage, shown at the left, are downstream on the Stour from Dedham.
The Cornfield (1826) is a view looking down Fen Lane in East Bergholt, to the north of the River Stour, although its distant church is an invention of Constable’s.
Trees again dominate Constable’s favourite view of The Vale of Dedham from 1828, painted from Gun Hill over the village of Dedham and its church tower, looking towards the estuary of the River Stour in the distance.
During the twentieth century, Constable Country attracted many visitors, including a succession of artists. Among them was the New Zealand painter Frances Hodgkins.
In 1930, Hodgkins spent the summer painting at East Bergholt, Suffolk. Two paintings from that summer have near-identical titles: above is Flatford Mill (1930), now in the Tate Gallery, London, and below is Flatford Mill, Suffolk (1930), now in a provincial gallery in Eastbourne. She wasn’t tempted to revisit Constable’s compositions, choosing elevated viewpoints to look down on the mirror-like surface of the water from the treetops.
The Suffolk coast is far enough away from London to have remained more unspoilt than that of Essex. While its strongest artistic connections are with music, particularly Benjamin Britten and his festival in Aldeburgh, this section of coast became popular with some of the British Impressionists in the late nineteenth century.
In the late 1880s, Philip Wilson Steer regularly visited the coast of north Suffolk, painting in two small but popular resorts, Walberswick and Southwold, which are only a mile apart. Among the scenes he painted there are Girls Running, Walberswick Pier (1888-94), above, and the next two works. Originally, the two girls were shown to be holding hands, but Steer reworked that to leave only their shadows with their hands together.
The last paintings for today show The Beach at Walberswick above, and nearby Southwold below, both painted by Steer in about 1889.
Tomorrow we’ll travel north into Norfolk.