Piecing Constable’s pond back together, almost 200 years on

Thanks to some enterprising neighbours, the view of the artist’s painting of Branch Hill is to be restored. Dan Carrier reports

Thursday, 3rd February — By Dan Carrier

Branch Hill John Constable

The view of Constable’s painting of the pond at Branch Hill is to be restored

PEERING out of a window in his Flask Walk home each morning, John Constable would see what the weather was doing before packing his paints for a day out on Hampstead Heath.

It wasn’t to ensure he was wearing suitable clothing – it was down to his lifelong fascination with the skies above.

As well as recording what he saw through his art, Constable kept careful notes measuring weather conditions. The details he wrote down have been used by scientists to compare the climate today with the 1800s.

Such fastidious work was a hallmark of the painter – and now, almost 200 years on, a cherished view he committed to paper many times over is set to be returned to a scene he would recognise.

Members of the Redfrog Association, made up of neighbours living in the Redington Road and Frognal area, have found the location of a pond at Branch Hill Constable painted, but was filled in during the mid-1800s. Now they are digging out a new one, restoring a vista the painter loved.

Art critic and historian Estelle Lovatt, who runs walks based on Constable’s Hampstead, has advised the Association. She says the pond was an important element of his Hampstead works.

“Constable’s studies of Branch Hill could possibly run into hundreds, such were the number of times he sketched scenes from the vantage point,” she said.

It was from this favoured spot that Constable filled in his diaries, or wrote down notes on the atmospheric conditions, wind speed, wind direction and cloud formations on the back of pictures as he worked.

“He knew all about the science of meteorology,” says Estelle. “His father was a corn merchant who owned windmills and sail barges. In that trade, you had to understand the science of weather. Constable Senior used wind power to take corn from Suffolk to London, and he used it to power his windmills. John learned about the weather from his father.

The site today. Image: Redfrog Association

“He would always talk about the sky – he called it sky-ing. And the sky would often take up more than three quarters of a canvas. They could be called skyscapes rather than landscapes. So many of his sketches are of clouds.”

Constable first moved to Hampstead in the summer of 1819. He had visited before, and over the course of his life would live in five different homes in the area.

“He loved it, he loved its high position, the fact it was seen as the lungs of the city,” Estelle adds.

“He was a country boy from Suffolk. At the time, Hampstead was not considered part of London. It was farm land, full of the sights he grew up with. There were fields, trees, hedgerows, ponds, animals. It reminded Constable of his carefree childhood.”

And this comes over in the works Hampstead inspired.

“There are often autobiographical additions,” says Estelle.

“They reference his childhood and family. He would include a little boy walking by a river or peering into a pond. He used to walk along the banks of the Stour to go to school. Sometimes figures in his work draw on such memories.”

This was a factor in him choosing Branch Hill for studies.

“He loved the view down to the pond. It reminded him of the River Stour. He would paint horses drinking there, sheep and cows around the pond, tree lines and spires rising in the distance.

John Constanble by Daniel Gardner. Image: Stephencdickson_detail

“Water for him was a way of showing his skill as a painter, it was something with movement, capturing light and reflection. It showed his natural expressiveness in handling paint.”

Constable sought a refuge from the city in Hampstead due to the ill health of his wife, Maria Bicknell.

Suffering from tuberculosis, they hoped a combination of open countryside, fresh air and the famous Chalybeate waters would do her good.

“It was like Hampstead-On-Sea,” says Estelle. “It was somewhere to go for a holiday.”

Constable first discovered Hampstead as an art student. He would walk from the three miles there, three miles back from the Royal Academy , armed with his painting box and paper stuck to its lid.

“He said it had the finest views in Europe. He could see Westminster, St Paul’s and down to Kent,” says Estelle.

“He loved the curious houses he could paint, the church spires towards Harrow, and enjoyed saying that on a good day he could look west and see Windsor Castle.”

It was the subject matter he craved. “He was romantic traditionalist,” observes Estelle.

“He felt he had a moral duty to paint landscapes – he said it was God’s plan. He was a religious man – he was either going to be a painter or a preacher. He saw landscapes as God’s art. That was a key factor behind his work.”

This gave Constable his trademark traditionalist approach.

Estelle Lovatt

“He was not like his contemporary, Turner,” says Estelle. “Turner was interested in advancement. Turner today would have been interested in things like AI. Constable was the opposite, a real traditionalist. That is why he painted what were seen as ‘chocolate box’ expressions of England’s landscape.”

Constable – like the poet John Clare or writer William Cobbett – was also reacting against the huge changes taking place round him.

“He did not always like what he saw,” says Estelle. “Since the Industrial Revolution, factories and chimneys were seeping across the countryside he loved, the landscape was changing. But you do not see that in Constable’s paintings. He said: ‘My art is to be found under every hedge and along every lane,’” adds Estelle.

His urge to capture this rural idyll was unquenchable.

“He would complete three sketches a day looking over the Branch Hill pond,” says Estelle.

“People would stop to talk as he worked, and one day a woman approached and said: ‘I have seen the clouds you paint.’ He replied: ‘They are not my clouds – they were there long before I started.’”

For more details visit: www.estellelovatt.com
Walk Constable’s Hampstead www.estellelovatt.eventbrite.com
Twitter & Instagram: @EstelleLovatt

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