Walk through liv­ing mas­ter­pieces

a walk through the vil­lages of tran­quil Ded­ham vale re­veals the in­spi­ra­tion for the work of artists John Con­sta­ble and al­fred Mun­nings

Landscape (UK) - - Con­tents - John Con­sta­ble

Lac­ing its sparkling way through rolling farm­lands and an­cient wood­lands, the River Stour forms part of a liv­ing mas­ter­piece. With its hedges, wild­flower mead­ows and pretty vil­lages, this low­land area on the bor­der be­tween Suf­folk and Es­sex has long been im­mor­talised by some of Bri­tain’s great­est artists. Within the val­ley lies Ded­ham Vale, an Area of Out­stand­ing Na­tional Beauty. Home to the vil­lages of Ded­ham, Flat­ford and East Bergholt, it pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion for John Con­sta­ble and Al­fred Mun­nings. Each cap­tured lo­cal set­tings in works that cel­e­brate this quiet cor­ner of Eng­land. This 7½ mile walk starts in Ded­ham, home for many years of Mun­nings. It fol­lows the river to Flat­ford, the sub­ject of Con­sta­ble’s most fa­mous paint­ing, be­fore con­tin­u­ing to his birth­place, East Bergholt. Fi­nally, the route re­turns to Flat­ford, be­fore fin­ish­ing back in Ded­ham.

Ded­ham and Mun­nings

The wa­ter mead­ows of the River Stour pass along the north­ern edge of Ded­ham. Here, they form the bound­ary be­tween the two coun­ties. The open ground is grazed by cat­tle, while pol­larded wil­lows grow along the river­side. Once a Saxon manor, Ded­ham was iden­ti­fied in the Domes­day Book. The vil­lage to­day is an ap­peal­ing com­bi­na­tion of me­dieval and Ge­or­gian ar­chi­tec­ture. The walk starts at Cas­tle House, which sits a mile south of the vil­lage cen­tre, on Cas­tle Hill. This was Al­fred Mun­nings’ home from 1919 to his death in 1959. A mix of Tu­dor and Ge­or­gian styles, to­day it is home to The Mun­nings Art Mu­seum. Al­though mainly re­mem­bered for his mag­nif­i­cent equine por­traits, Mun­nings also painted land­scapes.

A num­ber of his de­pic­tions of the vale and the Stour are dis­played at the mu­seum. Walk­ing down Cas­tle Hill along Brook Street leads to the cen­tre of Ded­ham. Here stands St Mary’s church. Con­struc­tion on it be­gan in 1492, tak­ing 30 years to com­plete. The tower, which was fin­ished in 1519, stands in­de­pen­dently of the main body of the church. There is a lo­cal story that Mar­garet Beau­fort, Henry VIII’s pa­ter­nal mother, paid for the 131ft (40m) high tower to be built. She was a pi­ous woman who en­dowed two Cam­bridge col­leges and a gram­mar school. Nearly 500 years later, Ded­ham’s tower still stands as a bea­con both across the vale and in the artists’ work. It fea­tures in Con­sta­ble’s 1828 pic­ture The Vale of Ded­ham and in Mun­nings’ paint­ing Ded­ham Painted from Lock Cot­tage. The date of the lat­ter is un­known. A view­ing plat­form on top of the tower, open in the sum­mer, pro­vides ex­cel­lent views of the lower Stour Val­ley. Or­nate in its fin­ish, the church is tes­ta­ment to the riches gen­er­ated by the val­ley’s cloth trade in the 15th cen­tury. Me­dieval wool churches, as they were known, were com­mon in the area. Ded­ham’s was the last to be fin­ished. The church is home to the John Con­sta­ble paint­ing of 1821 en­ti­tled The As­cen­sion. This may show Je­sus as­cend­ing to heaven, al­though there is an­other view that it de­picts the Res­ur­rec­tion. Across the High Street from the church stands a row of shops, each housed within pe­riod frontage. El­e­gant homes, some of brick dat­ing from the Ge­or­gian era, oth­ers of tim­ber from ear­lier cen­turies, also line the street. The stage­coach arch­way of the 16th cen­tury Sun Inn stands wit­ness to its past as a coach­ing inn. On the other side of the High Street, set slightly back, is Royal Square. Here stands Well House, dat­ing from 1732 and now Grade I listed. To­day, it is a pri­vate res­i­dence, but was home to Ded­ham Gram­mar School, orig­i­nally founded by El­iz­a­beth I. In front of it is the war me­mo­rial, com­mem­o­rat­ing res­i­dents who died in the First and Se­cond World Wars. In 1937, Mun­nings es­tab­lished the Ded­ham Vale So­ci­ety to main­tain and pro­tect the ar­chi­tec­tural in­tegrity and his­tory of the vil­lage. One of the re­sults of the so­ci­ety’s work is that there are no road mark­ings in the cen­tre of the vil­lage.

Con­sta­ble and Flat­ford

Di­rectly op­po­site the me­mo­rial is tree-lined Mill Lane. A short walk down, it leads to open fields and the river. At the wa­ter’s edge is a red brick build­ing. Now a pri­vate res­i­dence, it stands on the site of a long-gone mill once owned by Gold­ing Con­sta­ble, John’s fa­ther. Over the bridge, a gate on the right swings open into the fields and onto the Stour Val­ley Path east to­wards Flat­ford, ap­prox­i­mately 1½ miles away. The river­bank is lined with na­tive black poplars. At this time of year, wa­ter voles and ot­ters may be seen in the wa­ter, while stag bee­tles drift through the warm air. In the hedge-lined wa­ter mead­ows, drag­on­flies, red ad­mi­ral and small skip­per but­ter­flies dance above meadow fox­tail and sweet ver­nal grass. In the evenings, barn owls hunt across the river­side and wood­land edges. On the river’s edge, flag iris and wa­ter for­get-me-not flour­ish. About mid­way along this stretch of the walk, a bush-lined path to the left leads to a set of steps on the right. These climb up to a wooden bridge. This is Fen Bridge, a replica of the one the young John Con­sta­ble crossed each day on his walk to

John Con­STA­ble (1776-1837)

Born at East Bergholt, Con­sta­ble spent his child­hood in Ded­ham Vale. The area is a sub­ject in many of his paint­ings, in­clud­ing Fen Lane, East Bergholt (1817), The Church Porch, East Bergholt (1810) and The Ruined Tower of East Bergholt Church (1816-17). In 1811, Con­sta­ble ex­hib­ited Ded­ham Vale, Morn­ing. His paint­ing Flat­ford Mill (Scene on a Nav­i­ga­ble River) (1816) de­picts work­ing life at Flat­ford. His paint­ing Stour Val­ley and Ded­ham Church de­picts the open ground which lies be­tween Ded­ham and Flat­ford along the river. Of his youth in Ded­ham Vale, Con­sta­ble com­mented: “All those things that lie on the banks of the Stour, they made me a painter.” Con­sta­ble was mostly self-taught, but he did study at the Royal Academy schools in 1800. From 1802 on­wards, he ex­hib­ited his paint­ings at the Royal Academy in Lon­don. He moved from Ded­ham Vale to Lon­don in 1816. Re­turn­ing to Suf­folk in 1817 for a hol­i­day with his wife, he painted Fen Lane – East Bergholt. This in­cludes Ded­ham church and shows the path­way that would have taken him down to Fen Bridge. In an in­creas­ingly in­dus­tri­alised world, his work harped back to a way of life that was al­ready be­ing lost. It even­tu­ally helped trans­form Bri­tish land­scape paint­ing.

Al­fred Mun­nings (1878-1959)

Mun­nings was the son of a suc­cess­ful mill owner in the Waveney Val­ley on the Suf­folk–Nor­folk bor­der. He en­joyed draw­ing from child­hood and some of his ju­ve­nilia is on dis­play at The Mun­nings Art Mu­seum. These ear­lier works in­cluded land­scapes. Af­ter at­tend­ing Nor­wich School of Art, he worked as a com­mer­cial artist. He had a pas­sion for horses and be­gan to se­cure very well paid com­mis­sions to paint por­traits of the an­i­mals and their own­ers. In the First World War, he worked as a war artist. On his re­turn, he moved to Cas­tle House in Ded­ham in 1919, where the mu­seum is now housed. His paint­ings The White Ca­noe on the Stour at Flat­ford (date un­known) and A Barge on the Stour at Ded­ham (date un­known) evoke the rest­ful plea­sure and beauty of the nearby river.

Thomas Gains­bor­ough (1727-1788)

Al­though not a res­i­dent of Ded­ham Vale, Thomas Gains­bor­ough was an­other artist in­spired by the beauty of the Stour Val­ley. Gains­bor­ough was born in Sud­bury, 16 miles west of Ded­ham. Best known for his por­traits, in­clud­ing that of Ge­orge III, he also cap­tured im­ages of the land in the west of the val­ley. He con­sid­ered his land­scape paint­ing a lib­er­a­tion from the con­straints of por­trai­ture. His works in­clude the 1748 Cornard Wood and the circa 1750 Mr and Mrs An­drews. This lat­ter paint­ing is im­por­tant both as a por­trait of a cou­ple and its re­al­is­tic de­pic­tion of land­scape. It is his, for the times novel, de­pic­tion of the skyscape and weather that makes it stand out. For Gains­bor­ough, the lo­cal land­scape rep­re­sented an ideal.

school in Ded­ham. The orig­i­nal bridge col­lapsed in the 1930s, but was fi­nally re­placed in 1985, thanks to the ef­forts of lo­cal coun­cils and so­ci­eties. Over Fen Bridge, steps go down into a field where the path along the river’s edge is well trod­den. Swifts race low to the ground be­fore sud­denly swing­ing up­wards and arc­ing high over the trees. This is a haunt of the heron, some­times seen glid­ing in silent, steady majesty above.

Iconic views

Round the bend of the river, a thatched roof and a hump-back bridge an­nounce that Flat­ford has been reached. The roof be­longs to the 16th cen­tury brick-and-tim­ber Bridge Cot­tage. Once lived in by ten­ants of Con­sta­ble’s fa­ther, it now houses an ex­hi­bi­tion of the artist’s work. The cot­tage also fea­tures in two of his paint­ings, the 1813 Land­scape with Boys Fish­ing and View on the Stour near Ded­ham from 1822. Over the bridge, the walk turns right, then runs for a quar­ter of a mile down the curv­ing lane to­wards Flat­ford Mill. On the left sits Val­ley Farm, the old­est build­ing in Flat­ford. This is a large tim­bered house that was once the vil­lage’s orig­i­nal manor house. The old­est build­ing in Flat­ford, it is a me­dieval Great Hall House. The orig­i­nal build­ing had no up­per floor, the hall be­ing open to the roof. In the 16th cen­tury, an in­glenook fire­place and chim­ney were added, and an up­per floor for bed­rooms. It is the sub­ject of Con­sta­ble’s 1835 paint­ing The Val­ley Farm. To­day, the house is owned by the Na­tional Trust, which leases it to the Field Stud­ies Coun­cil for stu­dent ac­com­mo­da­tion. It is ac­ces­si­ble to the pub­lic on Her­itage Open Days. To the right stands The Gra­nary, a large barn-like pri­vate res­i­dence edged with pink and red roses in bloom. At the end of the lane, an iconic scene

opens up. This is where Con­sta­ble painted The Hay Wain in 1821. This 51in by 73in (130 x 185cm) paint­ing is one of the best­known land­scapes. The view to the open land that is seen in this work is now ob­scured by trees, but oth­er­wise it re­mains true. On the left of the pond is the large, plas­ter-walled build­ing known to­day as Willy Lott’s House. The orig­i­nal tim­ber-frame cot­tage dates from circa 1600, with ex­ten­sions added in the 17th and 18th cen­turies. Willy Lott was a ten­ant farmer who worked the land around the farm then known as Gibbeon’s Gate Farm. Born in 1761, he lived here for all of his 88 years. He even­tu­ally made enough money to buy the farm in 1825. By the 1920s, both the cot­tage and mill were in di­lap­i­dated states. The build­ings were first re­stored by an Ip­swich builder, be­fore be­ing taken on by the Na­tional Trust. Like Val­ley Farm, they are cur­rently leased to the Field Stud­ies Coun­cil. Re­turn­ing to Bridge Cot­tage, a right turn heads up the lane to­wards East Bergholt. This mod­estly-sized vil­lage com­prises many ex­am­ples of late me­dieval build­ings. It is also no­table for its strik­ing abbey, com­bin­ing 18th and 19th cen­tury ar­chi­tec­ture. The vil­lage lies 1¾ miles away along Flat­ford Road.

An artist’s child­hood

John Con­sta­ble was born in East Bergholt House, a red-brick build­ing that was pulled down in 1840/41. Painted by Con­sta­ble in 1809, it stood close to the vil­lage church. To­day, only a sta­ble block and out­build­ing ex­ist. The artist was bap­tised in the 14th cen­tury St Mary’s church, and it is here that both his par­ents and Willy Lott are buried. The Con­sta­ble fam­ily tomb lies in the north east cor­ner of the church­yard. The stained glass in the south aisle of the church is ded­i­cated to John Con­sta­ble. In the church grounds is a struc­ture known as the Bell Cage. This was orig­i­nally con­structed as a tem­po­rary

“the sound of wa­ter es­cap­ing from mill dams etc., wil­lows, old rot­ten planks, slimy posts, and brick­work, I love such things.”

home for the church bells un­til a tower was com­pleted. Work be­gan on the tower in 1525, but stopped when Car­di­nal Wolsey, one of its sup­port­ers, met his down­fall. He had failed to se­cure an an­nul­ment of Henry VIII’s mar­riage to Cather­ine of Aragon. Work never re­sumed and the Bell Cage be­came per­ma­nent. In­stead of be­ing swung by a rope and wheel, the five bells are struck by han­dling the stock of the bell. Weigh­ing a com­bined to­tal of ap­prox­i­mately 4.5 tons, they are the heav­i­est set of bells in Eng­land. By the church is the Old Hall. Once a manor house it then be­came a con­vent. Bene­dic­tine nuns ar­rived in East Bergholt in 1856-7, re­lo­cat­ing from Winch­ester when that town was deemed too pop­u­lous. Dur­ing their ten­ure at what be­came Old Hall Con­vent, pre­vi­ously St Mary’s Abbey, a chapel and bell tower were added. The nuns left East Bergholt in 1940. It was then used suc­ces­sively an army bar­racks and a Fran­cis­can fri­ary. Fi­nally in 1974, it be­came home to a com­mu­nity of fam­i­lies. In the cen­tre of the vil­lage is Moss Cot­tage, a fas­ci­nat­ing foot­note in the Con­sta­ble story in that it was once his early stu­dio. It is now the re­cep­tion for a garage, di­rectly op­po­site the vil­lage shop. The vil­lage is no­table for a range of listed build­ings. One such is a house named Giss­ings on Rec­tory Hill. This was built in the 16th cen­tury as a cloth­ier’s house, tes­ti­fy­ing to the wealth that the in­dus­try once gen­er­ated in the vale. The walk now re­traces the route to Flat­ford and, from there, to Ded­ham. Ded­ham Vale’s al­lure to­day hinges on the peace and soli­tude it can of­fer. It is easy to imag­ine that, for artists such as Con­sta­ble and Mun­nings, the vale felt like a sanc­tu­ary from an in­creas­ingly in­dus­tri­al­is­ing world. This beau­ti­ful place still con­jures up an at­mos­phere of hav­ing stepped back in time, to a slower more tran­quil era.

Con­sta­ble’s ex­hib­ited at the Royal Academy in 1821.

The Hay Wain,

Ded­ham East Bergholt Flat­ford

Walk­ers can fol­low John Con­sta­ble’s daily jour­ney to school when they cross Fen Bridge. The wooden struc­ture is a replica of the orig­i­nal over the Stour.

Cas­tle House, now The Mun­nings Art Mu­seum, is home to sev­eral hun­dred of his works, the largest sin­gle col­lec­tion.

The flint tower of St Mary’s (cen­tre). For­mer school, Well House bears the in­scrip­tion ‘Thomas Grim­wood Hu­jus Scholae Mag­is­ter 1732’ (bot­tom)

Con­sta­ble’s Ded­ham Vale (1802) is a view of the Stour Val­ley from Gun Hill. A group of gyp­sies are camped in­con­spic­u­ously in the fore­ground.

The White Ca­noe on the Stour at Flat­ford fea­tures Mun­nings’ wife and friend; Gains­bor­ough’s Mr and Mrs An­drews, sit­ting in their es­tate, il­lus­trates the wealth of the coun­try­side.

The river is the fo­cus for the val­ley land­scape and sup­ports a rich di­ver­sity of wildlife.

The Grade II listed, 16th cen­tury Bridge Cot­tage is an­other build­ing de­picted by Con­sta­ble.

Val­ley Farm was once home to mem­bers of the Lott fam­ily and wealthy yeo­man farm­ers.

For nearly 100 years, from 1742 to 1846, Flat­ford Mill was owned by the Con­sta­ble fam­ily. It con­tin­ued as a work­ing mill un­til 1900.

Willy Lott’s Cot­tage was re­named Willy Lott’s House be­cause this was the name Con­sta­ble used in his paint­ings.

St Mary’s, East Bergholt with its Bell Cage. It was moved from the east side of the church in the 17th cen­tury fol­low­ing a re­quest from a fam­ily at the Old Hall who dis­liked the bells’ sound. The heavy bells of St Mary’s are swung by hand ap­plied di­rectly to a wooden head­stock.

Moss Cot­tage, Con­sta­ble’s first stu­dio, which he is said to have rented for four and a half old pen­nies (ap­prox­i­mately 2p) a year. Cows in the shal­lows of the river and graz­ing on the open pas­ture be­yond.

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