Constable knew this scene well: the Stour Valley from just outside the grounds of Old Hall in East Bergholt, with the churches of Langham and Stratford St Mary villages in the distance. He depicted the ploughmen at work in a manner typical of Suffolk, using a swing plough, which was light and required only a single ploughman and two horses working side by side (rather than a team of four), considered to be an efficient, modern mode of ploughing, contributing to the productivity of the area (Rosenthal 1983, pp. 18–19). And he depicted a ‘summerland’, a field that was ploughed and harrowed in the spring, left fallow over the summer months as part of a two-year crop rotation system, ready for manuring in autumn and sowing in winter (ibid., p. 12). The contemporary farmer or countryman would have appreciated this image of agricultural life of Suffolk (Rosenthal, p. 21).
Constable exhibited this first version of the subject at the Royal Academy in 1814 and at the British Institution in 1815, from where it was purchased by John Allnutt, a Clapham wine merchant and collector. As a result of this sale Constable was encouraged to pursue his career as a painter.
Beckett has suggested that ‘in Constable’s memory such scenes were gilded with the light of eternal summer and the picture stood for a symbol’ (R.B. Beckett, ‘A Summerland by John Constable’, Art Quarterly, XXVII, summer 1964, p. 176). Constable certainly stressed the poetic aspect of the landscape, linking it to an established literary and pictorial tradition. In the 1814 Royal Academy catalogue, the entry for this work had an accompanying quotation from Robert Bloomfield’s The Farmer’s Boy – a long, 1500-line, four-part poem in heroic couplets composed between 1796–98 and published in 1800. This poem pointed to the solitary nature of the ploughman’s work:
But, unassisted through each toilsome day, With smiling brow the Ploughman cleaves his way.
In making this reference to poetry Constable implied that the image was not just of a particular place, but also expressed a more general mood and atmosphere, the ‘feel of nature’. Bloomfield was a ‘peasant poet’ of Suffolk, whose work appealed to Constable. He stressed the virtues of honest, hard farming life. Albert Boime has suggested that Bloomfield’s vision of farming life ‘appealed to the gentry, who identified themselves with his nostalgia for a bucolic past and his moralising posture on rural labour’ (A. Boime, Art in an Age of Bonapartism 1800–1815, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990, p. 174).
Commentators have questioned whether Constable was sympathetic to the ‘toilsome’ labour of the workers in the field, or whether he had a more conservative view and simply saw them as part of the scene. Certainly, he portrayed this scene from a high vantage point so that the ploughmen seem to merge into the natural elements, small figures within the landscape (Rosenthal 1983, pp. 71–82).
In a letter to John Dunthorne senior of 22 February 1814, Constable wrote aboutthis painting:
I have added some ploughmen to the landscape from the park pales which is a great help, but I must try and warm the picture a little more if I can. But it will be difficult as ’tis now all of a piece – it is bleak and looks as if there would be a shower of sleet, and that you know is too much the case with my things(Beckett I, p. 101).
Constable based this view over the Stour Valley on drawings in his 1813 sketchbook. He also referred to his sketches of ploughmen in this sketchbook. With the inclusion of the figures of the ploughmen he not only added a point of interest but made the scene an agricultural landscape, celebrating country life.
This version of A ploughing scene in Suffolk was used as the basis for the mezzotint A summerland engraved by David Lucas .Constable made a second painting of the subject, A ploughing scene in Suffolk (A summerland) c.1824 .