John Constable (1776-1837), probably England’s most famous landscape artist, grew up at his father’s Flatford Mill not far from Dedham.
Constable lived in the heyday of the waterways when heavy cargo in the area was transported by Stour Lighters or barges. And at his father’s dry dock, the young man would have watched the wrights building and restoring the barges which serviced the mill along the River Stour.
It was his early sketches of lighters passing through the locks, and of boatmen and their boat-horses which were the inspiration for many hi famous works.
‘Boat-building near Flatford Mill’ (Constable - oil on canvas - 1815) depicts a barge sitting in Flatford Mill’s 18th century dry-dock.
Until recently this boat lock had disappeared - covered over by tons of earth.
When it was discovered in 1985 and excavated by the Stour River Trust, the dry-dock was uncovered, together with a barge which was still lying on the original timber supports.
As part of the restoration work, the Trust rebuilt the dock gates and steps (near front left in picture) using Constable’s detailed sketches.
Wandering the area a few weeks ago, I noted that Flatford Mill and Bridge Cottage, Granary Barn and Willy Lott’s house all attracted much attention, but few visitors took interest in the remnants of the dry-dock which was so significant in Constable’s life and paintings.
Photo: M Muir – July 2006