For nearly 200 years, the location of the precise field where John Constable stood to paint his masterpiece The Stour Valley and Dedham Village had eluded art historians and experts who had located most of the other Suffolk spots at which the artist created his great works.
Even those who might have chanced upon the exact spot would have missed its significance, for so much had changed that the view would not have been recognisable.
So it took nearly two centuries and a bit of detective work to determine where the artist would have stood and surveyed the countryside.
Martin Atkinson, a National Trust property manager, managed to identify the location when he studied a map of East Bergholt – where the painter grew up – as it appeared in 1817. But when he turned up at the rustic spot, it looked nothing like Constable's 1814-15 view. The artist was known for depicting local scenes faithfully, especially in his early works.
The reason for the disparity, Mr Atkinson discovered, was that a hedgerow had been planted across the Dedham Vale location – in a field between Flatford hamlet and East Bergholt – soon after Constable finished the painting and another hedgerow from the painter's time had since disappeared.
The Stour Valley And Dedham Village depicts Langham church, Dedham church, Fen Bridge and the bend in the River Stour. By studying these reference points and the East Bergholt Enclosure Map of 1817, Mr Atkinson found that the field boundaries in place in 1817, two years after the painting was completed, had changed dramatically by 1830. It was only upon spotting a young pollard, or trimmed oak tree, both in the present day and in the painting, that the various pieces of the jigsaw fell into place.
Using the oak as his anchor point, Mr Atkinson, found he could see Dedham Church that was in Constable's work, and if he bent down, he could also see the spot where Langham Church stood but was obscured by trees. He also lined up the Stour river to identify the same bend.
"The foreground didn't fit at all, it was quite unusual as we know Constable painted it in the open air so he would have been standing in the scene. The hedgerow in his work no longer exists and there's another hedgerow that runs across the scene today which wasn't there. When you stand on the road on which he would have stood, and use the oak tree as a reference point, you see the same view. It's great to see where an old master stood – and be inspired by the same view," he said.
The Stour Valley And Dedham Village is housed in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, America, as part of the Warren Collection. This corner of Suffolk is known as "Constable country," because the English Romantic painter dedicated himself to "paint(ing) my own places best".
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