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Word from Wormingford

23 October 2015

Ronald Blythe recalls his bicycle rides with Constable’s descendant

CLASSIC October days. Plenty of heat left in the sun; hardly a leaf fallen from the trees; mouldy fruit in the orchard grass. Seven horses rolling in the wet meadow, the white cat baking on the wall. A note to myself on the kitchen table: “Tidy back of house.”

This means raking up fat mossy cushions from the cat-slide roof, running my hands along the guttering, and then mowing a green lane to the stream. A one-day-a-year’s toil. A duty much looked forward to at this time of the year.

No sound other than that of my water supply taking a short cut to the Stour. Now and then the ringers add their descant. Cars are lined up by the churchyard for the horse chestnuts to rattle with conkers, although the tombs of the Constable family get the main battering. Not the artist’s. His is far away in Hampstead.

Our Constables say “Gent”, and John made a pencil sketch of their Wormingford patch. They were farmer-millers, and long prosperous by the river. He was very good-looking, and his mother noted the way that women stared at him. And his brother Abram was even more so, but none of them caught him. John married above himself, and infuriated the squire.

Their great-great-grandson became my friend, and we cycled for miles, looking at old churches. As well as handsome faces, the Constables had beautiful voices. Amazingly, staying in an American hotel, I opened a chest of drawers, and there was Constable’s death-mask looking up at me.

But I see him most in our riverside fields, his easel propped up, his eye on the family fields and on Miss Bicknell, his future wife. She, too, would walk this countryside. No will-waving, as they called it in those days, got in the way of their intense love for each other. The only document that Constable carried with him in the Stour Valley, Hampstead — or wherever he happened to be — was a stubby sketchbook, one that just fitted the palm of his hand, and into which he put men at plough, children at play, gossips at gate, and often his dog Dash.

Watching a TV programme, I saw a woman putting on white gloves to handle a Constable sketch, and I heard him say: “There, there,” when his little son accidentally ran a ruler though a canvas.

How did these great artists work in a cottage full of children, maids, dogs, pupils, neighbours, washing all over the place, and uncles whose advice never stopped? Constable, they said, could be short-tempered. Only his friend John Fisher bought a picture. Nobody else. And there was Fisher’s uncle, the bishop. He bought Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows and hung it over the fireplace.

And now the TV arts producer takes the stubby sketchbook from the Victoria and Albert Museum in her gloved hands, and there is a glimpse of pencil, and of something else. Of work in progress, and time immeasurable being valued on a single page.

Painting the Stour Valley in Hampstead, Constable would need to know what wildflowers bloomed there in June, or which cornfields lay fallow there this October. No harvest festivals in the churches there, then, but riotous harvest feasts in the barns, which were none of his business.

Although Constable paintings are among the most looked at these days, most of the figures in them are not seen. Landscape hides them, open though it is.

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