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Constable prepares a rural recollection

Who would have heard of Willy Lott's house if John Constable had not painted it?

He did so a number of times. These on-the-spot studies provided the well-known English landscape artist with information he needed to compose a major picture years later –in his studio. That painting, "The Hay–Wain," (1821) is one of Constable's most popular works.

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The first known study of Willy Lott's house was done about 1811. The one shown here was inscribed "29 July 1816." It seems Constable used this study five years later to paint "The Hay-Wain." Willy Lott's house is pictured on the left-hand side of that large canvas.

Constable's art was inspired, above all, by the landscape he knew as a boy in the eastern county of Suffolk. Such local scenes as Willy Lott's house, the shallow ford near it, the trees and hay meadows nearby, became so identified with his art that even in his lifetime people began referring to "Constable country."

Paradoxically, he lived much of his life in London. He first went as a student, though he returned home often to paint. After his marriage, he settled permanently in the capital (mainly because the recognition he needed could not be supplied in rural East Anglia), and then he rarely returned home. But he continued revisiting it in his art. It remained passionately his primary source.

He painted "The Hay-Wain" entirely in the city. But he saw his obsession with a vividly remembered, intimately known agricultural landscape as completely different from the artificialities of the London artists.

He wrote to his friend John Fisher, while still trying to finish "The Hay-Wain" in time for the Royal Academy exhibition, that "Londoners with all their ingenuity as artists know nothing of the feeling of a country life (the essence of Landscape) – any more than a hackney coach horse knows of pasture."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor