Painting of Flatford Lock by John Dunthorne 1814

John Dunthorne senior - 1770-1884

John Dunthorne was born in 1770 and became a plumber and glazier in East Bergholt. Six years older than John Constable, John Dunthorne was a talented artist as well as the local plumber, glazier, painter and village constable.  However, he was an unconventional free thinker, suspected of harbouring radical ideas and of fomenting dissent and insurrection in the countryside.  He was an aetheist and like many farm labourers of the time, did not attend church which had become largely a congregation of the middle classes. In addition, it is said he treated his wife badly and fathered an illegitimate child.

The Dunthorne cottage was owned by John Constable’s father and situated close to the Constable house.  As young boys he and John formed a friendship and enjoyed sketching together in the Dedham Vale. He painted  inn signs and funeral hatchments and was asked to help restore a historic seventeenth-century perspectival wall-painting in St Mary’s Church, Hadleigh. However, the only painting definitely attributable to John Dunthorne senior is Flatford Lock (1814) – see above – title picture.

Dunthorne’s devotion to outdoor sketching and his practical knowledge of the materials and techniques of oil painting were a crucial source of encouragement and tuition for Constable who, prior to his move to the Royal Academy in London in 1799, was receiving little of either from anyone else. Constable expressed his deep attachment to Dunthorne, whom he included among ‘those whose love and friendship I most value’.

John Constable’s mother did not approve of John Dunthorne but more importantly neither did Rev Dr Rhudde, Rector of East Bergholt Church nor his grand-daughter Maria Bicknell whom John was anxious to marry. Maria considered Dunthorne too low in social class to be worthy of John Constable’s time and company. 

In order to appease Dr Rhudde’s opposition to him marrying Maria Bicknell, John Constable asked Dunthorne to never call at the Constable home again except in his capacity as plumber.  The break was short-lived because it failed to placate Dr Rhudde and Constable and Dunthorne shared a much more important interest – landscape painting.

John Dunthorne lived in East Bergholt until his death in 1844 at the age of seventy-four. His wife Hannah had four children, the third of whom, John Dunthorne (junior) was born in 1798.

Portrait of John Dunthorne Junior

Self portrait c1820

Johnny Dunthorne junior 1798-1832

Constable’s attachment to the Dunthorne family extended to his son Johnny who became Constable’s apprentice and companion. Johnny was the third child of John Dunthorne senior and his wife Hanah. He showed an early aptitude for art and in his teens was assisting Constable during the artist’s visits to East Bergholt, ultimately joining him in London in 1824 as his assistant.  

As a young man of 21 it was the younger Johnny Dunthorne, who drew the outline of the harvest wagon (haywain) on a bitterly cold February morning and sent the sketches to John Constable in London. John Constable had decided to include a farm vehicle fording the water at Flatford in his painting, but it was as an afterthought and he had left Flatford in the summer without sketching it himself. 

Responsible for the preliminary stages of Constable’s studio paintings and for occasional replicas, Dunthorne is also known to have painted his own versions of Constable compositions and it is possible that paintings formerly attributed to Constable should be re-attributed to Dunthorne.

Johnny Dunnthorne was a serious painter and engraver and as well as helping John Constable, contributed his own work to the Royal Academy exhibitions from 1827 to 1832 and occasionally to the British Institution. He was a successful picture-cleaner and restorer and was highly praised for his restoration of a Reynolds portrait, a commission gained through the recommendation of Sir Thomas Lawrence.

Sadly in July 1832, having suffered severe bouts of dropsy (build up of fluid in the soft tissues caused by heart failure), Dunthorne returned to East Bergholt where he died from heart disease on 2 November 1832. He was buried seven days later aged 34 in East Bergholt Church

Paintings by Johny Dunthorne

All the paintings on this page are owned by Colchester and Ipswich Museum Service