Painted and first exhibited in 1814, The Ferry is Constable’s first large upright landscape painting. One of his earliest attempts to represent his native Suffolk scenery on a large scale, it shows the view from the south bank of the River Stour at Flatford, looking across the river to the house occupied by a farmer called Willy Lott. In the foreground is a small ferry boat, with the ferryman in a red coat leaning towards the stern. Lott’s house is in the middle ground, partly obscured by trees and set against an expanse of sky and cloud. The house stood adjacent to the Constable family’s corn-milling business at Flatford Mill; Constable later made the house and its surroundings the subject of his iconic painting The Hay Wain 1821 (National Gallery, London). The Ferry takes its title from the boat which plied backwards and forwards across the Stour at this point, taking the most direct route from the far bank of the river to the bank of the mill stream by Lott’s house.
The Ferry marks an important turning point in Constable’s development as a painter. In his correspondence he described how it brought him face to face with the problem of ‘detailing out’ a large canvas in the studio (letter to John Dunthorne, 22 February 1814; see R.B. Beckett (ed.), John Constable’s Correspondence: The Family at East Bergholt 1807–1837, London and Ipswich 1962, p.101). In the event, though admired at the 1814 Royal Academy exhibition for its fine design and colouring, the painting was criticised for its lack of finish. This criticism contributed to Constable’s decision, in the period soon afterwards, to change course for a few years and adopt the more radical practice of painting medium-sized exhibition pictures mostly in the open air.
Constable reworked this subject some twenty years later in The Valley Farm 1835 (Tate N00327).
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991.
Anne Lyles (ed.), Constable: The Great Landscapes, exhibition catalogue, Tate, London 2006.