In the sleepy, unspoilt village of Flatford, a mile outside of East Bergholt, the serenity of the early 18th century mill building is reflected among the wildlife activity in the little mill pond. As a prosperous businessman and landowner, Golding Constable took over the lease of Flatford Mill in 1765, and lived there with his family for nearly a decade. By the time that John Constable was born in 1776, the family had moved to a larger house in East Bergholt, but he was well acquainted with his father's mills, being taught the miller's trade both at Flatford Mill and Dedham Mill. All the while he was milling, Constable would find time for his consuming passion. Sitting contentedly on the banks of the River Stour, he would study the natural landscape of the Dedham Vale and transfer his observations to a sketching pad or canvas.
At the turn of the century, Constable was training as an artist in London, his younger brother having taken over the milling business in Suffolk. Returning home as a professional painter a couple of years later, he completed a few of his notable works before moving away to live in Hampstead. Using his father's dry dock as the subject for his 'Boatbuilding' picture, the mill and surrounding countryside for other early paintings, Constable was always inspired by the place where he was born. Before leaving East Bergholt he spent years filling sketchbooks with local material that he called upon later to immortalise in his famous pictures, and in later life he returned regularly to those haunting childhood scenes. From the gate-post of Willy Lott's cottage, Constable captured the rustic scene across the old mill pond, depicted in 'The Haywain', probably the most well-known of all his paintings.
Although there is no public access today to Flatford Mill or the other old buildings in the village, the National Trust do run guided walks to point out the sites that Constable illustrated in his works, and to give some background information on the relevant buildings. There is a tiny 16th century thatched cottage beside the river, now owned by the National Trust, which houses a permanent exhibition of Constable's work, including several showing the delightful 'Bridge Cottage', and offers the opportunity of viewing the restored dry dock. Unlike the majority of other properties that once were homes to the rich and famous, where it is possible to spend hours rummaging among personal memorabilia and looking at galleries of family portraits, at Flatford Mill the attraction is less obvious.
Something quite different is waiting here for the adventurous and open-minded visitor. Physically exploring the area to appreciate its rural diversity, and employing the powers of observation attuned to the countryside environment, will assist in uncovering the lifestyle enjoyed by one of Britain's most celebrated landscape painters. In the words John Constable used when writing to a friend in 1821 "those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful". Thankfully, little has changed.
Flatford Mill is presently leased to the Field Studies Council, and courses based on the arts and the environment are available to anyone with an interest in these areas.