New research reveals missing constable viewpoint
The exact spot where the landscape artist John Constable painted The Stour Valley and Dedham Village  has been identified for the first time in almost 200 years.
Since it was painted in 1814-15, gradual changes to field boundaries meant that the exact location of the viewpoint that inspired Constable was difficult to identify, making it one of only a handful of Constable’s landscapes still to find.
However, new research by the National Trust, which owns and looks after much of the countryside surrounding the village of Dedham on the Essex/Suffolk border, has helped pinpoint the exact location where Constable once stood to paint this particular scene.
Martin Atkinson, National Trust property manager for East Suffolk, and a Constable enthusiast, used features from the painting and historic maps of the area from the Suffolk Records Office to identify the exact location.
Martin said: “It’s great to see where an old master once stood – and be inspired by the same views as them. When I discovered that I had worked out the location where Constable painted this particular masterpiece, I couldn’t believe it. All the pieces of the jigsaw finally fitted together.”
Today, the view is not easily recognisable, as hedge boundaries have moved and trees have become established, blocking out some of the buildings behind. However, the view is still as beautiful and inspiring as it was back then and visitors can peer through a gap in the hedge, which frames the landscape perfectly. It doesn’t take much to imagine what John Constable once saw.
Painted between 1814 and 1815, The Stour Valley and Dedham Village depicts Langham Church, Dedham Church, Fen Bridge and the bend in the River Stour, all of which sit within the picturesque Dedham Vale Area of Natural Beauty. By studying these reference points and the East Bergholt Enclosure Map of 1817 Martin found that the field boundaries in place in 1817, two years after the painting had been completed, had changed drastically by 1830. Martin explained: “Many had disappeared altogether and new hedges appeared at different angles. By plotting out where the field boundaries would once have been, we were able to pin point the exact location from which Constable painted this particular view.”
He continued: “Most of Constable’s landscapes painted in the Dedham Vale are now known, but questions do remain over some. This one in particular had confused us, but once we were able to identify the changes in the landscape, many of which had been made in Constable’s lifetime, we were able to solve the 195 year mystery.”
The Stour Valley and Dedham Village is now housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, as part of the Warren Collection. It is an accurate representation of the landscape that Constable painted, for which he is not renowned in his later work. He would on occasions use artistic licence and add trees, but later on he would rely on memory and sketches, carrying out more work in the studio than on site.
The direction of light shows it to be a morning painting and from records about Constable it is strongly believed that he worked on The Stour Valley and Dedham Village in the open air, walking down to Flatford where he painted the better-known Boat Building in the afternoons.
From Constable’s documents we also know that this painting was commissioned by Thomas Fitzhugh of Plas Power, Deputy Lieutenant and High Sherriff of Denbighshire, as a present to his bride Philadelphia Godfrey of Old Hall, East Bergholt. She would have been familiar with the scene, but surprised at Constable’s version, which depicted the realism of labourers excavating a dunghill for autumn manuring.
The top five Constable landscapes at Flatford, in the heart of Constable Country, are:
- Boat-building near Flatford Mill, 1814-15
- View on the Stour near Dedham, 1822
- The Hay-Wain, 1820-21
- Flatford Mill ‘Scene on a Navigable River’, 1816-17
- Boys Fishing ‘A Lock on the Stour’, 1812
- Oil on canvas, 553 x 781.
- Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Warren Collection-William Wilkins Warren Fund.
- Inscribed ‘No2 View of Dedham – John Constable’ on a label on the back, presumably applied at the time of the 1815 exhibition.
- Provenance: Commissioned by Thomas Fitzhugh of Plas Power (1770 – 1856), Deputy Lieutenant and High Sherriff of Denbighshire, as a present for his bride Philadelphia Godfrey of Old Hall, East Bergholt 1814; she died 1869; acquired by James McLean, USA, c.1885 -1900; his daughter, Mrs Alice T McLean; John Mitchell, New York, from whom bought by Boston Museum of Fine Arts 1948.
- Exhibited: Royal Academy 1815; Tate Gallery 1976; Romance and Reality: Aspects of Landscape Painting, Wildenstein, New York 1978, New York 1983.
- Information taken from the Tate Gallery’s Constable, by Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, published in 1991