John Constable

The Mill Stream. Verso: Night Scene with Bridge


On display at Tate Britain

Oil paint on board
Support: 210 x 292 mm
frame: 398 x 480 x 85 mm
Bequeathed by Henry Vaughan 1900

Display caption

This study shows the view from the forecourt of Flatford Mill across a side stream of the river Stour in Suffolk, which had been diverted under the mill to work the water-wheel. The water churned up by the water-wheel left the mill through an archway below the forecourt, which explains the turbulence seen in the foreground of the sketch. The house is Willy Lott’s House, named after the tenant farmer who lived there for over 80 years. It appears in several of Constable’s finished paintings, the most famous of which is The Haywain 1821 (now in the National Gallery).

Gallery label, February 2016

Catalogue entry

N01816 The Mill Stream Circa 1810

Oil on board, 8 3/16×11 1/2 (20.8×29.2).
Prov: Lionel Constable, sold Christie's 2 March 1874 (168, ‘The Mill Stream. A sketch for the picture’), bt. Wigzell £43. 1s. for Henry Vaughan1 and bequeathed by him to the National Gallery 1900; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1919. Accession No.1816.
Exh: Tate Gallery 1937 (p.15, No.23).
Engr: etched by R.S. Chattock as ‘Willy Lott's House’ and published in The Portfolio, 1875, facing p.88.
Lit: Holmes 1902, pp.220, 242; Shirley 1937, pp.lxv, 47, 60; Chamot 1956, p.260; Kitson 1957, pp.342, 343, 352, 354, 356–7; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Suffolk B(51) No.106; Smart and Brooks 1976, pp.64–5, 135–7; Hoozee 1979, No.183 (verso: No.184).

Verso: Night Scene with Bridge

The Constable family owned two corn-grinding watermills on the river Stour, at Flatford and at Dedham. No.9 depicts the mill stream at Flatford, seen from the forecourt of the mill. The tail water left the mill through an archway below the forecourt at this point, hence the turbulence shown in the foreground. In the distance the junction of the mill stream with the main course of the Stour can be seen. A short way down the right-hand side of the mill stream there was also a smaller channel through to the Stour, which was used by a ferry plying between the left bank of the mill stream and the fields on the far side of the river. The building at the left of No.9 is Willy Lott's house, a recurrent motif in Constable's art, appearing first around 1802 and finally in 1835 (‘The Valley Farm’, No.41 below).

Constable used No.9 as the basis of his painting ‘The Mill Stream’ (Fig. 1, Ipswich Borough Council, TG 1976 No.129, H.191). The slightly squarer proportions of the Ipswich picture, which measures 28×36 inches, resulted from Constable's omission of the left-hand part of Willy Lott's house and the hut beyond it. Otherwise the only alteration to the composition was the addition of a ferry (the ferry mentioned earlier in this entry), of a woman washing clothes or dipping a vessel in the water near Lott's house and of four birds in the sky. The Ipswich picture was engraved by Lucas for English Landscape as ‘Mill Stream’ and appeared in 1831 (Shirley 1930, No.25). The paintwork in the bottom left-hand corner of No.9 is difficult to read but the Ipswich picture and, still more, Lucas' print show that part of the forecourt parapet is intended.

The Ipswich ‘Mill Stream’ has often been taken to be the work which Constable exhibited at the R.A. in 1814 as ‘Landscape: The ferry’. While it appears to date from about this time, there is, however, reason to think that it was not the exhibited work. In his diary entry for 5 April 1814 Farington said that he had called on Constable and seen ‘his upright Landscape intended for the Exhibition’. The only other picture Constable exhibited at the R.A. that year was ‘Landscape: Ploughing scene in Suffolk’, which is a horizontal composition measuring 20 1/4×30 1/4 inches (Private Collection, TG 1976 No.123, H.193). If the painting seen by Farington actually appeared at the R.A., it cannot have been ‘The Mill Stream’, which is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an ‘upright Landscape’. Again, Farington reported on 23 April 1814 that Constable had seen ‘Thomson at the Academy who was very cordial with Him & spoke particularly of the merits of his small picture, saying also that his large picture had good parts in it’. The Ipswich painting is not sufficiently larger than ‘Landscape: Ploughing scene in Suffolk’ for the one to have been called ‘large’ and the other ‘small’. The version of ‘The Valley Farm’ at one time in the collection of Arthur Sanderson (Private Collection, H.192), which also includes a ferry, seems a more promising candidate, being both an upright and noticeably larger - 49 1/2×39 3/8 inches - than the ‘Ploughing scene’.

For the figure of the ferryman in his boat in the Ipswich ‘Mill Stream’ Constable probably referred to two sheets of pencil studies, one now in an album in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter (Fig. 2)2 and the other in the collection of Mr H.A.E. Day (Fig. 3, Day 1975, pl.213)3. A squared-up, schematic drawing of the whole composition is on the other side of the latter (Fig.4, Day 1975, pl.28); this relates more to No.9 than to the final painting, though it presents the scene from a slightly different viewpoint to either. Other studies of the mill stream and Willy Lott's house connect more closely with the left-hand side of ‘The Hay Wain’ of 1821. In these, e.g. V.&A., R. 110, 110a, 329a (H.185, 186, 143) and the Ipswich study of 1816 (TG 1976 No.144, H.221), the subject is seen from the left bank of the mill stream rather than from the forecourt of the mill, and the vista down the stream to the Stour is consequently obscured.

The subject on the verso of No.9 has not been satisfactorily identified. The tower on the left looks like the Monument but the other features do not seem to relate to the area around London Bridge.

As with No.8 above, there appears to be little evidence for a precise dating of this work. When the Ipswich ‘Mill Stream’ was thought to have been exhibited in 1814, a date of circa 1813 was usually assigned to No.9. The date, circa 1810, given here is intended only as a very approximate guide.

1. In his manuscript volume ‘The Hay-Wain and other Pictures by John Constable R.A.’ (National Gallery Library), Henry Vaughan wrote on p.3A, which faces an impression of Chattock's etching of No.9, ‘This Sketch was bought by me at Christie's at the Sale of pictures belonging to Lionel Constable’.

2. Bequeathed by Mrs Edward Fisher to Exeter Public Library in 1897 and transferred by Devon Library Services to the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in 1978 (Accession No.99/1978), this unpublished album contains sixty-five drawings by Constable and other artists. The drawing of the ferryman is mounted on folio 40, measures 3 1/4×6 3/16 (9.5×15.7) and is inscribed ‘Hight of boat [?&] man - the same as [?over] from water’.

3. 3 1/4×6 1/4 (9.6×15.9): measurements taken from Christie's catalogue, 5 June 1973, when the drawing was sold as lot 27.

Published in:
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981