Friday, May 22, 2015

The sound of water escaping from Mill dams

John Constable, Stratford Mill, c. 1820
Source: Wikimedia Commons (National Gallery)

Anglers often appear in the paintings of John Constable, who had gone fishing on the Stour in his youth.  In his 'micro-biography' Constable in Love (2009) Martin Gayford writes that 'angling was a perfect preparation for landscape-painting, which also involved sitting patiently in the countryside, trying to capture something.  By a river with a rod in his hand, an imaginative boy would absorb impressions - the reflections on water, the shadows beneath the willows, the smells, the sounds - while waiting for a bite.'  Constable wrote of a painting of a mill* by Jacob van Ruisdael, that he could 'all but see the ells [eels]' in its water. 'The most famous of all Constable's statements was sparked by the topic of fishing.  In 1821 the younger John Fisher wrote, mentioning that he had been up to his middle in a fine, deep New Forest river and as happy as a 'careless boy'.  He caught two pike and thought of John Constable.  In reply, Constable produced an amazing sequence of free sensory associations:'
"The sound of water escaping from Mill dams... Willows, Old rotten Banks, slimy posts, & brickwork. I love such things... As long as I do paint I shall never cease to paint such Places......"
In a similar vein, Constable exhibited the 'eye of a miller and relish of a connoisseur' in the way he praised another Ruisdael painting, Thatched-Roofed House with a Water Mill (Constable's father operated Dedham and Flatford mills).  The quotation of Constable's is also referred to by Andrew Motion in an article he wrote at the time of the RA's 2006 Ruisdael exhibition
'Constable's brother once said: "When I look at a mill painted by John, I see that it will go round, which is not always the case with those by other artists." It was a smart remark, and takes us to the heart of Constable's genius, where accuracy and authenticity generate a mighty emotional strength. This is what so pleased him about Ruisdael: we can hear it ... in his response to Thatched-Roofed House with a Water Mill. "It haunts my mind and clings to my heart," he told his friend Archdeacon Fisher, the very day he saw the painting, "and has stood between me & you while I am now talking to you. It is a watermill, not unlike Perne's Mill - a man & boy are cutting rushes in the running stream (in the 'tail water') - the whole so true clear & fresh - & as brisk as champagne - a shower has not long passed."'
Constable moves here from technical appreciation with specialised, poetic vocabulary ('tail water') to a simile that describes the painting's overall atmosphere in terms of a taste which, as Gayford says, 'brings with it a feeling: the exhilaration of sparkling wine.'

John Constable, Dedham Lock and Mill, 1820
Source: Wikimedia Commons (V&A)

* Gayford writes 'watermill' but Seymour Slive says that this refers to Evening Landscape: a Windmill by a Stream (Jacob Van Ruisdael: Windmills and Water Mills p12)

1 comment:

tobymarx said...

This post goes straight to my heart; recollections of deeply felt childhood impressions. I think it is my favorite so far of all your posts, though I must admit a lifelong love of Constable's paintings. Thanks for renewing inspiration.