This work shows a view of Willy Lott's House at Flatford from the River Stour. The farmer lived continuously in the same house for over eighty years and for Constable it came to represent an important part of the Suffolk landscape, a nostalgic symbol of the 'natural' way of life. The building features prominently in earlier works by Constable, including The Mill Stream (circa 1810, Tate N01816) and The Hay Wain (1820-1, National Gallery, London).
The house is viewed through the cutting that led from the river Stour to the mill stream of Flatford mill. The composition is based on two earlier workings of the subject, The Ferry (1814, private collection) and, more particularly, Willy Lot's House from the Stour (1816-18, private collection). A number of features are based on this second and slightly smaller version, including the timberwork in the left foreground, the figures on the far bank and the boat just beside it, the man at the gate and the tiny bird skimming the surface of the water. The most obvious additions to The Valley Farm are the ferryman, boat and female passenger (based on a study in the Victoria and Albert Museum, London), and the three cows that precede them, the last one turning its head to look up. The house has been modified and made to look grander with the addition of half-timbering on one side and some extra windows. The trees on the right of the picture are also larger, more expressive and more contorted than in earlier versions and there is a development towards looser and more expressive handling of paint. The surface of the canvas is is heavily worked and Constable has applied flecks of white paint to bring the picture to life.
Constable devoted a large amount of time to reworking The Valley Farm, and there is, in this painting, a sense of the aging artist attempting to revive old images and past emotions. Constable himself was extremely enthusiastic about the results, but when the picture was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1835 it was not well received and one critic wrote, 'He ought to be whipped for thus maiming a real genius for Landscape' (quoted in Parris and Fleming-Williams 1991, p.378). Nevertheless Constable sold the picture in the same year to the notable collector Robert Vernon (1774-1849) for his new house at 50 Pall Mall. Vernon paid him £300, the largest price Constable had ever received for a picture. It was later included in Vernon's gift to the National Gallery, London, in 1847.
Robin Hamlyn, Robert Vernon's Gift - British Art for the Nation 1847, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1993, p.40, no.17, reproduced p.40.
Leslie Parris, The Tate Gallery Constable Collection, London 1981, pp.157-63, no.41, reproduced p.161, in colour.
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Constable, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1991, pp.376-8, no.216, reproduced p.377, in colour.