I was delighted when Ruth Philo mooted the concept of the River Stour Festival. it seemed to me there has long been a need to link together in some way the many attractions of the river Stour from its source in Cambridgeshire to the North Sea at Harwich. The Festival aims to do that and also will integrate themes and ideas of its own. I am so pleased to be part of the Festival team.
Personally, I have enjoyed many aspects of the Vale all my life. From spring visits to Arger Fen to see the bluebells and to Lawford to walk the watercress beds in the fifties; enjoying the many pubs, most of them now gone, in the sixties and seventies and moving to the edge of the AONB in Boxted in the nineties and travelling from there to work at a small business unit in Manningtree for a short time too. So, I am delighted now to be able to do something to ensure this wonderful stretch of countryside will be enjoyed by everyone well into the future. I am proud to have been involved with the Dedham Vale Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) and Stour Valley Project for fifteen years, the last nine as chair of the Joint Advisory Committee (JAC). I have lost count of the number of times I have been asked to explain what AONBs are and what does the Project organisation actually do. AONBs are part of a group of nationally protected landscapes that include National Parks and Heritage coasts. Our Project area is around 117 square miles. AONBs are designated to ensure that the natural beauty and special qualities of an area are conserved and enhanced for future generations.
Much of the eastern end of Dedham Vale AONB is associated with the celebrated artist John Constable and many of the views he painted are recognisable today. Further west the area is connected to the nationally recognised artist, Thomas Gainsborough.
The local authorities in the AONB have a statutory duty to produce and review a five-yearly management plan. This is drawn up by a partnership of organisations that have an interest in the area, including the local authorities, and the work is co-ordinated by the project team, who also do similar work in the adjacent Suffolk Coast and Heaths AONB.
The JAC comprises elected members and officers from the seven local authorities that fund the Project; a none executive board if you like. We also receive funding from the national Government through Defra.
The vision as set out in our current Management Plan is, ‘The AONB and Project area is a distinctive landscape with agriculture and wildlife at its core that retains its natural beauty and special qualities, which is conserved and enhanced by a wide-ranging partnership.It is an area where residents feel a strong sense of belonging, visitors are welcomed to enjoy the countryside and the heritage is understood and appreciated by all’.
Although tourism is not a responsibility of the AONB Project team, we are well aware of the economic impact visitors have on the Stour Valley and that the prime attraction is the very things that we are there to conserve and enhance.
Our visitors come from around the world but we must equally recognise that the population of north Essex and south Suffolk will continue to increase over the next few years and many of these people will want to enjoy, exercise and relax in and around this area. I am encouraged by the number of families, who having moved to the area, have discovered the Stour valley and enthuse to me about all the area has to offer and are as keen, as I am in a ‘Natural ‘ Health Service! I frequently quote Octavia Hill, the 19th century social reformer and one of the founders of the National Trust, who put it so vividly when she wrote, ‘the need for quiet, the need of air and, I believe, the sight of sky and things growing, seem human needs, common to all.’
In this blog post he explores John Constable’s painting of a rainbow over Salisbury Catherdral. The Archdeacon John Fisher he refers to was once the Parish priest of Langham, at the side of the Stour, and that is where Constable and Fisher became friends.
John Thornes writes…
When and why was the puzzling rainbow in Constable’s Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadow painted?
As part of Tate’s In Focus: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited 1831 by John Constable, I have been researching the rainbow and I have found new meteorological evidence that supports the theory that the rainbow was added over a year after the painting was first exhibited at the Royal Academy.
John Constable’s powers of observation and his thirst for meteorological knowledge propelled him to paint more natural-looking skies than nearly all other English artists before or since. In his own words:
‘Painting is a science, and should be pursued as an enquiry into the laws of nature. Why then may not landscape painting be considered as a branch of natural philosophy, of which pictures are but the experiments?’
This experimental approach was certainly applied to the clouds and weather in Constable’s paintings, but it was not the case with all of his depictions of rainbows. Unlike clouds, rainbows are seen much less frequently in his work and may be considered more mysterious in their symbolic function. Although Constable knew that the sun must be directly behind the observer of a rainbow for the rainbow to be visible, this is plainly not so in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows , in which the sun’s rays emerge from the right of the composition. Why should Constable be such a perfectionist about the weather in his scenes – his accurately depicted clouds, the effect of wind and harmonic daylight – and yet be content to introduce a meteorologically inconsistent rainbow?
My theory is that Constable’s remarkable scientific knowledge enabled him, at a later date, to add a rainbow that corresponds to the time of his friend Archdeacon John Fisher’s death on the afternoon of 25 August 1832. Resting on Fisher’s house, ‘Leadenhall’, the rainbow in Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows has been painted into a sky that is lit by sunlight coming from due west, which is confirmed by the way light illuminates the west front of the cathedral. A rainbow produced from this solar geometry and resting on Leadenhall would only have a height in the sky of up to about 22 degrees, and would occur in early August at around 5pm (GMT).
Constable has magnified the size of the cathedral and rendered the rainbow much taller than would have been possible. Solar geometry confirms that from the artist’s viewpoint close to the Longbridge, a full 42-degree rainbow resting on Leadenhall and arching over the cathedral would have been visible during the late afternoon of 25 August at around 7pm (GMT). This reasoning suggests that Constable expressly chose to add the rainbow to a painting in which the sun is not directly behind the viewer as a magnificent remembrance of his friend John Fisher.
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. So for a painter a tree in a landscape is like a mark on a drawing. Our responses may have been 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. Sarah can point to oaks around East Bergholt and Flatford which were there when Constable walked by. 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, there’s our cart and horses. These images stayed with him even though he was in London. His work is a prism through which we see the landscape which both exists and for us – living long after the Industrial Revolution – is like a dream. 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.