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In the course of the 18th century, almost all of the rivers and streams of England had been canalized with dams and mills. This was especially true of the Stour, which flows rather listlessly through a flat, swampy landscape. In order to make the river "useful," therefore, man had everywhere interferred with its flow, deepening and straightening its course so that river boats and barges could carry the land's produce to the sea-port of Harwich. By the first decades of the 19th century, these early works had become obsolete as the new railroads worked more efficiently and rapidly.
The result was a sort of gentile decay, which provided marvelously beautiful scenes such as this abandoned mill at Flatford. In his childhood, the mill had been owned by Constable's father, and John had worked there for a number of years. The scene is one of Constable's most beautiful. A young boy sits astride a horse (with that characterstic touch of red on the bridle) while his employer (father?) removes the line to a flat boat which the horse had pulled up to this point. Now it will have to be poled under the low bridge to the left. The boy has dropped his hat and whip and waits eagerly for the rope to be discharged, so he can "gallop" his horse for a few feet beyond the bridge, where again it will have to be hitched up. In the distance is a lock through which the boat will have to be drawn.
But such details are only the setting for what is one of Constable's masterpieces. He aimed at presenting minutely details of people, trees, river, and water plants with loving accuracy, and, at the same time, capture the play of light and shade of a summer's day. The result is a world of beauty and harmony rarely equalled in any work of art.