Art historian Gus Casely-Hayford looks out over the still waters and verdant banks of one of England’s most familiar landscapes. He’s at Flatford Mill, Suffolk – owned by the family of the artist John Constable, who grew up there and often captured the scene around the River Stour, most famously in the paintings Flatford Mill (Scene on a Navigable River) (1816–17, at Tate Britain, London) and The Hay Wain (1821, in the National Gallery). “The idea that someone sat here 200 years ago and created something that speaks to you so powerfully,” he says, with some wonder, “is enormously important.”
It’s so important that when he discovered that Constable was Richard E Grant’s favourite painter, he took the Swaziland-born actor to walk in the artist’s footsteps. “The way Richard reacted to being there was fascinating,” says Casely-Hayford. “Constable actually saw himself as an outsider, and Richard, who you would imagine to be the quintessence of Englishness, Britishness, is actually someone who sees himself as slightly apart. As if he’s looking from the side of the frame.”
Gus Casely-Hayford and Richard E Grant at Flatford Mill
Today, the area around Flatford Mill is still recognisably the location that Constable knew, and that, says Casely-Hayford, makes it and other places where artists caught the British landscape particularly special. “There are so many museums and galleries where you can see fantastic art, but we should also get out into the spaces where it was created, to get a sense of what triggers someone to want to do that sort of thing – of what the artist was trying to convey.”
For his Sky Arts series, which focuses on a selection of paintings at Tate Britain, Casely-Hayford has done just that with not only Grant but also Miriam Margolyes, Michael Sheen, Simon Callow, Danny Baker and Cerys Matthews. They all reacted in different ways – Margolyes burst into tears, a reaction that Casely-Hayford could identify with. “I was drawn to art history more for the stories in the paintings and of the artists’ lives than for pure aesthetics. So an emotional reaction is absolutely the sort of reaction that I have.”
Matthews, striding through the same Tweedside lanes that JMW Turner once trod to paint Norham Castle, Sunrise (c 1845), became enthusiastically disputatious. “I think that’s glorious,” says Casely-Hayford, “because that’s part of the beauty of art – that there can be multiple interpretations of a painting. I think it’s critical that you come to art not too encumbered by art history, that you try to look at the work and enjoy it. You don’t even have to like it. I can pretty much guarantee that any bookshop or library has a decent section on the visual arts, and that there will be local artists who have brought a landscape that you know to life in their own way. And it might be that you hate it, but that’s fantastic!"
Casely-Hayford and Cerys Matthews take in the real-life view of Turner's Norham Castle, Sunrise
By his own admission, the Londoner of Ghanaian heritage is not natural art historian material: “I grew up in south London, and it felt like art galleries were a million miles away. Not just because of distance but also because people like me didn’t go to such places.”
He remembers standing in front of the steps of the imposing Tate Britain as a boy and willing himself to go in. “Once I did, I was hooked,” he says. “And I collected every single postcard in the shop. I took them to the places where the works were painted and tried to match them up.
“A glorious memory of my childhood is looking at great landscapes and then going out and walking in them. An early one was Monet’s view of the Houses of Parliament, but there are so many other places you can go. Take the view across St Ives where Miriam and I walked. You can still stand on that coastline and match up those points in the picture. You can still walk up to St Nicholas Chapel, overlooking the bay; you can still walk along the headlands – it’s still absolutely as it is in Alfred Wallis’s painting.”
Most of us don’t have a Tate or a Flatford Mill on our doorstep, or a guide of the calibre of Casely-Hayford, but we all have the opportunity to enjoy the British countryside as a place of creation. “To look at a landscape through the eyes of a great artist”, says Casely-Hayford, “is a powerful experience.”
Constable’s Mill walk with Richard E Grant
At a time of industrial revolution, John Constable was a chronicler of the English countryside — especially this patch of Suffolk.
Flatford Mill (1816-17)
Distance: 4 miles return (approx 2 hours and 30 mins)
Nearest town: East Bergholt
Leave Manningtree station car park via the ramp, turn right along a track, then right again under a railway bridge. Follow the path to the river and then turn left along a streamside path taking you through Cattawade Marshes. Walk behind Fifty-Six Gates, and follow the path on the bank to the hamlet of Flatford. You can take a short detour to Flatford Mill, Willy Lott’s House and the site of The Hay Wain. Return to Manningtree by the same route.
Turner’s Castle walk with Cerys Matthews
Joseph Mallord William Turner often visited his favourite Northumberland view, captured here in a late, almost abstract, masterpiece. "I see Norham Castle, Sunrise as optimistic about the future," says Matthews. "It’s about getting closer to heaven, to God. To encounter the beauty of the sunrise over the castle on the borders between England and Scotland was extraordinary.
Norham Castle, Sunrise (c 1845)
Distance: 2 miles (30 minutes)
Nearest town: Berwick-upon-Tweed
From the centre of Norham Bridge, walk down the road towards Norham (English side) and take the staircase on the left of the bridge down to the river. Turn east along the River Tweed at the bottom and follow it for about 15 minutes until you reach the picnic bench and Turner view of Norham Castle, Sunrise. From the Turner view, retrace your steps and turn left opposite the bench on the river bank, walking towards Norham. At the war memorial by the church, bear left towards the village green. Continue down West Street towards Norham Castle. Pass through the castle gates and look back down the Tweed from the ramparts — the reverse view of Turner.
To find the Great British Walks maps and detailed guidance for the walks featured here visit tate.org.uk/visit/tate-britain and look in the section: You Might Like.