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Constable Gillingham
Gillingham mayor Councillor Barry Von Clemens and the painter’s great-great-great-granddaughter Sasha Constable unveil the information panel.

One of Gillingham’s claims to cultural fame is that the artist John Constable produced two well-known paintings of the town based on his visits here.

One is ‘The Bridge at Gillingham’, which is housed in the Tate Gallery and the other is ‘Parham’s Mill’.

Today the town council marked the 200th anniversary of the great painter’s last visit by unveiling a new information board near the town centre bridge that the artist so famously preserved for posterity.

Fittingly, Gillingham mayor Councillor Barry Von Clemens was joined by the painter’s great-great-great-granddaughter Sasha Constable, herself an artist, and her mother Valerie for the official ceremony on the Town Meadow.

‘Constable would have been standing in this vicinity exactly 200 years ago when he was painting his famous oil painting ‘The Bridge at Gillingham’ which is housed in the Tate Gallery, in London,’ said Councillor Von Clemens.

‘We are honoured that two of John Constable’s descendants – Valerie Constable and her daughter Sasha – are able to be here with us today.’

The mayor continued: ‘I would like to thank the Gillingham Local History Society and Gillingham Museum – in particular Dr John Porter – for researching the history of John Constable’s visits. I would also like to thank Jane Franklin the designer, councillors past and present, and staff members for seeing the project through to completion.’

Councillor Von Clemens added: ‘The Town Council is proud to be able to share part of our town’s history with residents and visitors.’

Sasha Constable, 52, who works with an organisation called Cape Farewell, and who herself lives in Dorset, said having such a famous name inevitably led to expectations. ‘Especially when I was younger – people react a particular way,’ she explained.

But there was perhaps a certain inevitability that she, too, would become involved in the art world.

‘Every generation since Constable has had at least one artist. My son Valya is a very talented ten-year-old,’ said Sasha. ‘He’s already had a piece of his work in the Royal Academy – it was a drawing of my mother’s feet which he did when he was six.’

Sasha said she was very happy to be attending the event to celebrate the 200th anniversary of her great-great-great-grandfather’s last visit to the town and taking part, too, in the ‘Constable Walk’ which was organised as part of the town’s Walking Festival.

‘It’s interesting because we’ve got a copy of the painting of the bridge over the River Stour … we’re not even quite sure who did it,’ she said.

Sasha Constable
Sasha Constable with a copy of her great-great-great-grandfather’s famous painting of the town’s bridge.

‘Coming here today is a way to learn more about Constable’s footsteps and his connections with Dorset, especially as I’m living here now.

‘It’s nice to put together all his links to the south west and especially Dorset. It means something to be here today, absolutely.’

Her mother Valerie joked that she keeps telling everyone she is ‘only an appendage’ because she married into the Constable family, and that it was her late husband who was a direct descendant of the painter. But she added: ‘It does mean something to be here today.’

John Constable visited Gillingham twice during the 1800s, staying with his friend, the vicar John Fisher. During these visits he made sketches around the town and completed two works in oils – ‘The Bridge at Gillingham’, and ‘Parham’s Mill’, which is housed at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

Gillingham is marking the bicentenary of Constable’s visits with a series of special events. At 5.30pm on Tuesday 12 September Gillingham Library is presenting a live-streamed talk by a specialist from the Tate Gallery on ‘The Bridge at Gillingham’. Admission is free. Gillingham Museum – which shares the building with the library – will be open before and after the talk for visitors to view the enhanced Constable exhibit. Admission there is also free.

On Tuesday 19 September local historian Sam Woodcock will give an illustrated talk on ‘John Constable, his last visit to Gillingham’ at 7.30pm at the Methodist Church Hall, High Street, Gillingham. This is free to Gillingham Local History Society members or £3 for non-members.

And throughout September Gillingham Museum’s Constable exhibit will be enhanced with additional material, with postcards of his Gillingham paintings for sale. Gillingham Library will also show a Constable timeline, with paintings inspired by Constable and books that he might well have known.

John Constable Gillingham
The new information board on John Constable at the Town Meadow.
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