The clouds struck me first, as I stood in the soggy Suffolk field. Great glowering fluff-balls, they looked just as they did in John Constable's paintings, and no wonder. East Anglian to the core, Constable once described the sky as "the chief organ of sentiment". Along with the willow trees, triangular-eaved houses and the flat, fecund pastures, the vision is so familiar and bucolic that one might dub it "Brand Constable".
Constable's paintings mainline the English soul – which makes it all the more remarkable that you can contemplate The Hay Wain in the National Gallery, then step into almost the exact scene just an hour or so distant from Liverpool Street station. As I alighted at Manningtree station and drove to East Bergholt, the village that Constable came from, I could already feel my urban angst sloughing off, the locals chattering in the spring sunlight, as if The Archers had come to life. Perhaps they were even the descendants of the painter's subjects: his family, cronies and patrons, who can be seen in a new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. After all, as I was informed by a local, there are two living John Constables in the region.
At the handsome church of St Mary the Virgin, the verger Rodney Brundell showed me the funerary plaque devoted to Maria Constable, the painter's wife, and Constable's plan of the church, now safely swapped with a reproduction. This was Constable's church, and he grew up next door, his long-demolished house marked by a plaque on the railings.
I walked around the church, a pleasing hotchpotch of brick, stone and flint, to its most famous feature, the bell cage. Without a tower, these old clangers were grounded: now they're so loud there's a five-minute restriction on their ringing. Brundell brought my attention to the grave of England's most famous pictorial peasant, Willy Lott, whose cottage remains in the nearby hamlet of Flatford, centre of Constable Country. I went straight there, to find the scene rendered even more idyllic by the presence of some thatchers giving Bridge Cottage – the first of the National Trust plums in the Flatford pie – a bit of a hairdo. Once Bridge Cottage belonged to the Constables, and downstairs there is a museum and re-creation of those times.
Upstairs, Martin Atkinson from the NT explained his job, which partly consists of under-publicising the pretty hamlet. "We aim for about 250,000 visitors a year," he said. "It's unsustainable otherwise." They're trying to encourage walkers and interpretation, rather than stop-and-gawp tourism. "It's not a Beatrix Potter scenario with lots of Japanese visitors," added Atkinson. "We manage the views. We don't intend to fossilise them as Constable sees them."
I went for a stroll around Flatford with NT guide Paul Andrae, whose beguiling routine included the use of prints of Constable classics, which he held up at the places where they were painted. Along the towpath I went, stopping as Andrae held up the greats: Dedham Vale, Boat-Building near Flatford Mill, The Leaping Horse, and, of course, The Hay Wain. At Flatford, every tourist has to stand in Constable's holy Hay Wain viewpoint and the forger Tom Keating, also a local, was conceptually minded enough to repaint the picture as if looking back to where Constable would have stood. There was a Constable industry even when he was alive in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. "Constable himself was supposed to have met a traveller who, not knowing who he was, told him, 'Sir, this is Constable's country'," said Andrae, bringing out a photograph of some waistcoated gentlemen enjoying a Victorian mini-break.
Andrae showed me Constable's tricks: the shortened roofline of Willy Lott's cottage, the extra foliage for picturesque effect, the (historically incorrect) red waistcoats for a colour note. "The same dog appears in Salisbury Cathedral as well as The Hay Wain," he said. "It's Constable's version of cut and paste."
From Flatford, I walked across the water meadows to Dedham, the school route of the young Constable, following the Stour, the river that provided a living for his barge-owning father. The sun was out, and my eye tracked another of Constable's subjects: the church tower at Dedham. I went over to the church of St Mary the Virgin to see one of Constable's religious paintings: a Christ with rather impressive pecs. Then I walked over to his school, a Georgian mansion with the pupils' initials carved into a wall outside. And any Constable itinerary should include Ipswich's Christchurch mansion, where the Wolsey Art Gallery has the largest collection of his paintings outside of London.
The way Constable encapsulated the English picturesque has become so powerful that one might even argue that it has led to the modern rigmarole of beauty spots and sightseeing. This son of a Suffolk barge magnate has not only given us art of considerable national sentiment, but he has also had an incalculable influence on the art of tourism itself.
How to get there
National Express East Anglia (0845 600 7245; nationalexpresseast anglia.com) service from London Liverpool Street to Manningtree in Essex; 60 minutes. Advance fares, one-way, from £6. Milsoms Hotel (01206 322795; milsomhotels.com) offers doubles from £108 per night.
Constable Portraits: The Painter and His Circle runs until 14 June at London's National Portrait Gallery (npg.org.uk).
East of England Tourism (01284 727470; visiteastofengland.com).
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