John Constable

The Valley Farm


Not on display

John Constable 1776–1837
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1473 × 1251 mm
frame: 1800 × 1580 × 175 mm
Presented by Robert Vernon 1847


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.

Further reading:
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.

Frances Fowle
December 2000

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Display caption

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. In this painting Constable has made the house look grander by adding 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.

Gallery label, May 2007

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Catalogue entry

N00327 The Valley Farm Dated and exhibited 1835

Oil on canvas, 58×49 3/4 (147.3×125.1).
Inscribed by the artist ‘John Constable R.A. [?fecit] 1835’ b.r.
Prov: bought from the artist by Robert Vernon, March 1835, and presented by him to the National Gallery 1847; transferred to the Tate Gallery 1919. Accession N00327.
Exh: R.A. 1835 (145, ‘The valley farm’); B.I. 1836 (43, ‘The Valley Farm’, size with frame 73×65 inches); Tate Gallery 1937(p.20, No.41); Venice 1950(35); Moscow and Leningrad 1960(61); Landscape in Britain c. 1750–1850, Tate Gallery 1973–4(231); Tate Gallery 1976(320).
Engr: in line-engraving by J.C.Bentley, published in The Art-Journal, 1849, facing p.159 and in The Vernon Gallery, 1st series, 1850, pl.16; in mezzotint by G. Sanders, published by Graves 1875; in etching by A.Brunet Debaines, published by Goupil 1878; in etching by L.Desbrosses, published by M.Ruet, n.d.
Lit: Leslie 1843, pp.98, 101, 102–3, 104, 1951, pp.239, 240, 245, 246, 247–8, 250; Holmes 1902, p.251; Whitley 1930, pp.300–1; Shirley 1937, pp.324, 325–6, 330, 331, 333–4, 335, 337; Chamot 1956, p.263; Beckett 1961, Paintings: Suffolk B (62–3) No.117; Reynolds 1965, pp.125–9; Charles Rhyne, ‘Fresh Light on John Constable’, Apollo, LXXXVII, 1968, p.230; Smart and Brooks 1976, pp.126–32; Hoozee 1979, No.551.

Constable painted Willy Lott's house at Flatford - The Valley Farm, as it was sometimes known - throughout his life. Apart from the long sequence of paintings and drawings connected in one way or another with this final painting of 1835, the building figures prominently in other compositions, notably ‘The Mill Stream’ (see under No.9 above) and ‘The Hay Wain’. According to Leslie, the farmer Lott was born in the house ‘and it is said, has passed more than eighty years without having spent four whole days away from it’ (1843, p.18, 1951, p.45). He was there when Constable was born and there when Constable died. Lott must have seemed very much part of the landscape, and his house may well have become for Constable a nostalgic symbol of a ‘natural’ way of life that was no longer his own. The tortured surface of No.41 suggests an almost desperate attempt to recreate the past.

Constable's first known depiction of Willy Lott's house occurs in a small oil painting of about 1802 (Fig.1, Private Collection, Scotland, tg 1976 No.35, h.22),1 in which a slightly different view to the one later used for ‘The Valley Farm’ can be seen at the left side. A drawing of about 1812 in the Witt Collection at the Courtauld Institute of Art (Fig.2, tg 1976 No.115)2 is a detailed study of the view later adopted for the paintings, that is, looking from the south-west bank of the Stour up the channel which led to the Mill Stream with Lott's house on its far bank. Two slight pencil sketches of the subject are on pages 31 and 70 of the 1813 sketchbook (Figs 3–4 respectively, V.&A., r.121)3 and two oil studies in the V.&A. appear also to belong to this early stage of the composition's development (Figs 5–6, r.373–4, h.187–8).4 In both, a man in a boat is introduced, though in neither is he placed as in the final painting.

The possibility has already been mentioned (see under No.9 above) that the ex-Arthur Sanderson ‘Valley Farm’ (Fig.7, Private Collection, h.192), 5 which shows a man and boat in yet another place, was exhibited at the R.A. in 1814. This work would, in any case, seem to be Constable's first attempt at a large painting of the subject. The smaller ‘Valley Farm’ once belonging to James Lennox and now in a private collection (Fig.8, tg 1976 No.137, h.210)6 appears to be later in date. Some of the details it includes - the post in the left foreground (used also in ‘The White Horse’ of 1819), the figures on the far bank, the man at the gate, the bird skimming the water, and so on - were adopted with little alteration in the final painting. Pentimenti in the bottom right corner suggest that there was also originally a boat similar to that in No.41. Writing to Lennox about the painting in 1848, Leslie said that Constable ‘afterwards painted a larger picture of it, which is in Mr. Vernon's collection’ [i.e. No.41],7 while in the Life he said that the latter was taken ‘from an early sketch’ (1843, p.98, 1951, p.240). It is not clear whether Leslie was thinking here of Lennox's picture, which is hardly a sketch, but there is, at any rate, a close connection between the two works and it seems likely that Constable had the other in front of him when painting No.41.

A major difference, however, between the 1835 picture and the preceding versions lies in the treatment of the trees at the right. In the final painting the foremost tree of the group is based on a drawing of an ash tree probably made at Hampstead in the 1820s (Fig.9, V.&A., r.163).8 Constable prepared a full-size, squared-up drawing from this for transfer to the canvas (Fig.10, V.&A., r.375),9 adding some extra branches in the painting which are not present in the drawings. On 14 February 1835 he asked John Dunthorne senior at Bergholt for ‘two or three of poor John's [Dunthorne junior's] studies of the ashes in the town meadow, and a study of plants that grew in the lane below ... I am about an ash or two now’ (JCC I, p.287, from Leslie 1845, p.261), but it is not known what role, if any, these played in the painting. In No.41 Constable also restored a large roof noted in the painting of c. 1802 and the Witt Collection drawing but suppressed in the other works, added a window to the left of the chimney-stack and the suggestion of some half-timbering in the same area, cleared the foliage which, again except in the two early works just mentioned, previously obscured the south-east elevation of the house, and added at least one extra window on this side too. Lott's little farmhouse finally emerged as a venerable pile, a ‘romantic house at Flatford’, to adapt the title of another of Constable's pictures.

The ferryman poling his fare up the channel in No.41 (as well as generally punting about in some of the earlier versions of the composition) is seen also in the Ipswich ‘Mill Stream’ (see under No.9 above), where he is shown about to land a passenger on the bank near Lott's house, having passed through the channel and crossed the mill stream. He appears again in two works of the 1830s, a watercolour known as ‘The Farmhouse near the Water's Edge’ (B.M., tg 1976 No.294, Fleming-Williams 1976, pl.44) and an oil study related to it (V.&A., r.403, tg 1976 No.328, h.561). John Dunthorne senior also painted him, in 1814, in a study of Flatford Lock (Colchester and Essex Museum, Colchester, tg 1976 No.339).

The V.&A. has a study of a young girl which was used in reverse for the figure of the woman in the boat in No.41 (Fig.11, r.377).10 A miniature ink and wash sketch of the composition in the Fitzwilliam Museum (Gadney No.35) may be more or less contemporary with No.41, though it does not correspond with it in much detail.

When Constable began work on No.41 is not recorded. It might have been the ‘large picture’ which on 12 November 1833 he told H.S. Trimmer he had planned (JCC V, p.67). Fairly certainly it was the river subject (‘another canal’) which he told Leslie on 8 September 1834 he was ‘almost determined to attack’ (JCC III, p.119) and also the ‘large canvass’ he said he was ‘foolishly bent on’ in a letter to Purton on 17 December 1834 (ibid., p.43, from Leslie 1843, p.97). In March 1835 Constable sent Leslie a report on the work: ‘My picture must go - but is <wh> <wh> woefully deficient in paint & places - yesterday Mr Wells saw it & though he said - “perhaps it is a little better” - yet he added - “You know I like to be honest” - but fortunately for me and the art, I am sure it was not at all to his liking - can you come and see it - Boner will tell you more about it. Mr Vernon [?soon] after called with the Chalons-he saw it free from the mustiness of old pictures-he saw the daylight purely - and bought it-it is his = only I must talk to you about price for he leaves all to me-’ (JCC III, pp.123–4). The price determined on was £300 (JCC I, p.289), paid in September 1835 (JCC V, p.191).

Constable had already been in touch with Robert Vernon, one of the leading collectors of modern British art, before the March meeting, having invited him to dinner the previous December (JC:FDC, pp.138–9) and having had a call from him in January when, in Constable's absence, he left his card (JCC V, p.179). Nevertheless, when he bought it Vernon had not seen the picture before ‘in any state’, Constable told his namesake George Constable on 8 April 1835 (ibid., p.20, from Leslie 1843, p.98). By that time Constable felt happier about the work: ‘I have got my picture into a very beautifull state’, he wrote in the same letter, ‘I have kept my brightness without my spottiness, and I have preserved God Almighty's daylight, which is enjoyed by all mankind, excepting only the lovers of old dirty canvass, perished pictures at a thousand guineas each, cart grease, tar and snuff of candle’. Constable's ‘spottiness’ was still much in evidence, however, when the picture appeared at the Academy and he received the usual abuse from the press on this score.11 John Eagles' attack in Blackwood's Magazine was sufficiently virulent (‘conceited imbecility’, ‘magnified folly’) for the journal to have to publish an apology in a later issue.

Constable himself was not altogether satisfied with the finish of his painting and he resumed work on it after it returned from the R.A. exhibition. ‘I have been very busy with Mr. Vernon's picture’, he told J.J. Chalon on 29 October 1835, ‘Oiling out, making out, polishing, scraping, &c, seem to have agreed with it exceedingly. The “sleet” and “snow” have disappeared, leaving in their places, silver, ivory, and a little gold. I wish you could give me a look, as it will go in a few days’ (JCC IV, p.278, from Leslie 1843, p.102). In fact the picture did not go to Vernon's Pall Mall house until December. On the first of that month Constable wrote to Leslie: ‘I don't wonder at your working so much on the same picture ... now that I see what can be done by it - I want you of all things to see my picture now - for it has proved to me what my art is capable of when time can be given sufficient to carry it home ... My picture is to go into the place - where Etty's “Bumboat”12 is at present - his picture with its precious freight is to be brought down nearer to the <eye> nose’ (JCC III, p.132). On 9 December Constable wrote again: ‘Mr Vernons picture is not gone - but he has been fidgetting about it - but it never was half so good before - and I will do as I like with it - for I have still <the> a great <est>er interest in it than anybody else-’ (ibid., p.133). As he anxiously awaited the delivery of his purchase, Vernon may have recalled an exchange that took place when he first saw the picture in March 1835 and which Leslie records: ‘Constable told me that Mr. Vernon asked him if the picture on his easel was painted for any particular person, to which he replied, “Yes, sir, it is painted for a very particular person, - the person for whom I have all my life painted”’ (Leslie 1843, p.98, 1951, p.239).13

1. Oil on canvas, 13 1/4×16 3/8 (33.7×42.6).

2. Pencil, 7 1/8×11 1/2 (20×28.4) on paper watermarked 1807.

3. Pencil, page size 3 1/4×4 1/2 (8.9×12).

4. R.373, oil on canvas, 13 3/8×11 (34×28). r.374, oil on canvas, 10×8 1/2 (25.4×21). Reynolds dated these circa 1835 in the belief that they were made about the time Constable was working on No.41. However, no comparable oil sketches are known to date from so late a period and these two fit quite easily with dated examples of the years 1810–15. Since he already had a more complete prototype, the picture later sold to Lennox, Constable would in any case have had no need to produce fresh studies of the subject when he came to paint No.41.

5. Oil on canvas, 49 1/2×39 1/2 (125.7×100.3).

6. Oil on canvas, 24×20 (61×50.8).

7. Leslie's letter to Lennox, 10 March 1848, is quoted in the catalogue of the New York Public Library sale, Parke-Bernet 17 October 1956 under lot 41.

8. Pencil, 13×9 13/16 (33×23.8).

9. Pencil and watercolour, 39×26 1/4 (99×68) on paper watermarked 1833.
10. Pencil and watercolour, 7 1/4×5 3/8 (18.4×13.7).

11. The Literary Gazette, 9 May 1835: ‘We have heard of dust being thrown into people's eyes to prevent their seeing defects: Mr. Constable seems to be in the habit, when he has completed a picture, and while it is yet wet, of sprinkling flake-white over its surface, from a dredging box, for the purpose of concealing its beauties. If so, however, he has in the present instance been but partially successful; for the truth and vigour of his work manifest themselves, notwithstanding all his insidious and suicidal effects to hide them.’ The Observer, 10 May 1835: ‘... This gentleman can, as we understand, afford to be eccentric, which is a very fortunate circumstance, when he clearly has not the skill to become a finished artist. Among the other Sotises of the R.A., often ludicrous, as well as mischievous, it is not amongst the smallest that we find Mr. Constable, who is lamentably deficient in drawing, one of the visitors in the life - it is his office to direct the students in their drawings! - “to teach the young idea how to shoot” - round a corner. This piece excels in chiaroscuro, and has fewer faults, perhaps (though sufficiently devil'd with pepper and salt), and more of his tact and power, which consist in snatches of truth and a happy transcript (at a distance) of the freshness of Nature's “green livery”. But the sky - what a sky! - the “tossing about of the stuffings of pack-saddles among remnants of blue taffetta”, with a witness to it - if he had made a present of it to little Martin for a “Chaos is come again”, it might have served him, and left Mr. C.'s picture with one blot less; he might also have bestowed in him his figures - they belong to Martin's family. Why did he not get the same good-natured hand that supplied his Cat to draw his Cows, or make his Cows the same size as his Cat? He has rarely, however, on the whole, done anything so creditable to his talent - a talent, which he has, through some flaw in his cranium, been so diligent in rendering ridiculous. He ought to be whipped for thus maiming a real genius for Landscape. His defence is, as we hear, that it is only necessary to keep his picture a certain number of years, and it will sober down - you will not know that Mr. C. painted it, it will look so decent....’. Fraser's Magazine, July 1835, p.60: in contrast to David Roberts, Constable ‘is generally all articulation, even in landscape; his “Valley Farm” (No.145) is a strong sample of this peculiarity. As Etty's picture conveys the idea of veneering, so does Constable's seem to be executed in tesselated work, or mosaic; it being rather spotted with paint than painted. It is, therefore, more remarkable for spirit and sparkle than for breadth; it has brilliancy, but it has also too much glitter ...Still we would not have him imagine, that his oddity of manner blinds us to his merits; for merits he undoubtedly has. If through whim he is voluntarily unnatural, he also shews that he can both feel and express some of the most lovely qualities in English rural scenery; and although his skies are too literally “pure marble air,” he at the same time makes us sensible of the fresh and refreshing breeze.’ Blackwood's Magazine, August 1835, p.201 (Revd John Eagles): ‘There is nothing here to designate a valley nor a farm, but something like a cow standing in some ditch-water. It is the poorest in composition, beggarly in its parts, miserably painted, without the least truth of colour-and so odd, that it would appear to have been powdered over with the dredging-box, or have been under an accidental shower of white lead, which I find on enquiry is meant to represent the sparkling of dew. The sparkling of dew!! ...Did ever Mr Constable see any thing like this in nature? for if he has, he has seen what no one else ever pretended to have seen. Such conceited imbecility is distressing, and being so large, it is but magnified folly.’ Blackwood's Magazine, October 1835, p.486 (Revd John Eagles): ‘It has ... been pointed out to me, that in my critique on Mr Constable's picture, I used expressions that are too strong, and I regret having used them, because they may be misconstrued. I know not Mr Constable even by sight - have seen few of his pictures. I have seen some prints from his works, which certainly gave me a high opinion of his ability; and “conceit” or “imbecility” are the last terms I should apply when speaking of them. I was disappointed in his picture of the “Valley Farm,” as in no way coming up to the expectation that those works of his which I had seen had raised in me.’

12. ‘Youth on the Prow, and Pleasure at the Helm’, Tate Gallery No.356.

13. For correspondence relating to No.41 but not cited in this entry see JCC III, p.131, IV, pp.122, 149, 424–5, 426, V, pp.26, 28, 30, 185, 196–7, and JC:FDC, p.139.

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

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