Waking up after a particularly splendid house party is never an easy task. Too little sleep accompanied by the dull thud of a Cachaca induced hangover suggested that a stroll in the damp air that hung low over the water-meadows of Sudbury was in order. On drumming up support for this idea with my fellow sufferers it was decided that we would make the short drive to Dedham. Here we followed the Stour river as it meandered its way toward Flatford Mill, the site of some of John Constable’s most famous paintings.
Suffolk has produced some of England’s greatest artists with Sudbury’s own Thomas Gainsborough arguably the most widely appreciated. Yet when twenty years ago I was wandering, slack-jawed, through the mesmerizingly magnificent Frick Collection in New York, I found the bucolic nature of Constable’s ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Bishop’s Garden’ surprisingly arresting. Why? Because it engendered the most gentle and positive form of patriotism within me. Living in Europe means that it is easy to see England as a less glamorous, less aesthetically significant patch of land when compared to the best that the continent can offer. But here was proof that the English have some beauty of their own…
…however this does not mean that I like all of Constable’s paintings. His most famous, ‘The Haywain’, leaves me cold. Having arrived at Flatford Mill, the clouds still lumpy and grey after a brief downpour, the view that Constable painted remains virtually unchanged. The water levels have risen, some trees have died whilst others have imposed themselves but the buildings are the same. In contrast to ‘Salisbury Cathedral’, ‘The Haywain’ feels more stylised, more claustrophobic, perhaps a little saccharin but there was no doubting the very real beauty of the reality.
Yet whatever my feelings on ‘The Haywain’, it was an honour to stand where Constable had stood, and with my heart warmed, and with the muddiness of my head clearing, it was time to visit the nearby riverside cafe to partake in another great piece of Englishness: tea and cake.