Flatford Mill was owned by Constable’s father, Golding Constable, who inherited it from an uncle. The mill complex consisted of a granary, drying kiln, counting house and wharf, as well as machinery for grinding grain. The mill was built in the seventeenth century.
During the summer of 1810 or 1811 Constable painted a number of oil sketches of Flatford Mill, with minor variations. He portrayed the scene from the towpath beside Flatford Lock looking down the river, showing the mill on the left bank and the water meadows on the right, with haymakers at work. He depicted it looking directly into the light (in the opposite direction from Flatford Lock c.1810–12, cat. 9), with an expressive sky and sparkling reflections on the water.
Constable painted this sketch to explore his ideas while preparing an exhibition picture with the same composition, Flatford Mill from the lock (A water mill) (private collection), which he showed at the Royal Academy in 1812. Michael Kitson has suggested that in using the sharply receding lines of the river to lead into the picture, Constable may have been influenced by the two Seaport subjects of the seventeenth-century French landscape painter, Claude Lorrain, in the collection of John Julius Angerstein, which Constable is known to have admired (M. Kitson, ‘John Constable 1810–1816, a chronological study’, Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes, XX, 1957, p. 351).
Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams note that an inscription on the back of this work indicates that Constable painted it in 1810 or 1811, and suggest that the second year is more likely (Tate 1991, p. 124).