My wife is a painter and works for the National Trust. It was with her that I started to explore the valley of the Stour river. I think we are both moved by trees and always have been. That response may be formal – in general landscape goes from side to side and trees go up and down. A tree in a landscape is like a mark on a drawing. It may have been a response to the increased unnaturalness of the post-industrial world we inhabit. We seek out trees in landscape because their scale reflects the human scale and their generally long lifespan appeals to us. It may have been just a colour response – people feel happier, appear handsomer, just look better against a green leafy ground. The effect is doubled if water runs through the scene. The Stour valley is an uplifting place to be.
Of course on the Essex and Suffolk Stour we have the extra element of John Constable. He dominates the landscape as much as he reflects it. Constable’s childhood is just before the industrial revolution and his adult life takes place during it. He lived in East Bergholt and was schooled in Dedham, across the valley and across the Stour. His paintings often feel to me to be reflections on his walk to school – there’s my father’s mill, there’s Fen Lane, there’s the bargemen on the river. These images stayed with him even though he was in London. His work is a prism through which we see the landscape. If you take photographs in the Stour valley, especially close to Dedham and Flatford, you can’t help but find little glimpses of Constable in your pictures. Much has changed but many of the shapes remain – bends in the river, hand-fired brickwork, calves in a field, sometimes even the very same trees he saw. And this remains true though we are 180 years after Constable’s death.