The title seems first to have been used by the subscribers who presented the picture to the National Gallery. Constable referred to it familiarly as 'The Drinking Boy'. It probably shows a lane leading from East Bergholt towards Dedham; the distant church could be an invention.
The painting was exhibited several times during Constable's lifetime, first at the Royal Academy in 1826.
Chris Watson: What caught my ear, looking at this painting… I was imagining as much as I could, Constable in his studio in London, re-visioning this painting, maybe from childhood and it’s so full of memory the painting, even though, you know, it has to be a contemporary scene. But it’s something that… you know, I’m sure he did that – I’m sure he lay down, pushed his face into some clear cool spring water on his way to school or on the way home and had a drink. You know, you can imagine yourself from this point of view looking out across the landscape of that woodland. Very physical sensation you can feel, looking at the painting, and feeling the sound and the wind on your back.
And the great thing with sound design for a painting such as this is that you can let the sounds drift and fade in the same way that you would gaze around, and then suddenly find something to catch your eye, like that patch of corn behind what appears to me to be a dying birch tree. I can hear that dry crackle and rasp, and also something that you would, you know, associate with the dead twigs and leaves around that tree as well. And those greater wafting sounds… that wonderful sigh and hiss of the wind sort of billowing through the leaves of the mature trees.
And also again the boy being attracted not only by the water but I’m sure by the sound of it. It’s something that we all find intriguing… that beautiful sort of silvery trickle of sound of water which would be very enticing on a hot summer’s day, like that, to go and bathe your face in and drink in. And then that gradual sense of distant perspective, which we’re these days not that fortunate to enjoy because of noise pollution, but we can hear sounds way off into the distance – that hiss and sigh of the ripe corn seed heads and maybe a distant sky lark, which I wanted to include in this piece. I could almost imagine it singing out of sight, way up towards those distant clouds.
And then that very distant suggestion, almost dream-like… I could imagine Constable gazing out across that field and imagining hearing a distant church clock tower in the distance. Something that we would never hear these days because of the way our landscape is suffused unfortunately with noise pollution.
My idea was to – and I presume this is one of the aims of the project – to get people to engage with paintings for a longer period, and using sound, I think, is a really beautiful way of doing that. It’s a snapshot of a few moments, a few minutes that happened several centuries ago.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Chris Watson. 'Sounds of the Gallery' is available from audio guide desks, and features work by students from the Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication, as well as sound artists Jem Finer, Simon Fisher Turner, and David Toop.
From The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty Seven, November 2009