There’s more to contemplating art than admiring it in museums. From a disused railway embankment beside the River Stour, just outside the Suffolk village of Sudbury, a panoramic view opens up across vivid-green meadows that is crowned by the steeples of three churches. It’s a timeless scene that’s changed little since the days of Thomas Gainsborough, the 18th Century artist who was born there.
Although Gainsborough made his name as a portrait painter, the countryside was his passion, and Sudbury’s surroundings inspired some of his greatest landscapes, such as The Watering Place and Wooded Landscape With A Peasant Resting.
Today, art lovers can follow in his footsteps on the three-and-a-half-mile Meadow Walk. It’s the first of three circular walks that will eventually become the Gainsborough Trail (gainsboroughtrail.org.uk). Once work on linking the other two is complete, Gainsborough fans will be able to wind their way through 12 miles of familiar countryside.
Timeless beauty: The Stour Valley, and in particular Flatford Mill, which was owned by John Constable’s family, featured in many of the artist’s most famous works, including The Hay Wain
Timeless beauty: The cottage and ford have barely changed since the day they were painted 200 years ago. Pictured is Constable’s The Hay Wain
As well as exploring the landscape, the route also touches on Sudbury’s industrial heritage – many London townhouses are built with bricks made from Stour Valley clay – and offers the chance to spot wildlife such as water voles and kingfishers.
Sudbury itself provides further artistic immersion at the Gainsborough Museum, in what was once the artist’s home. It’s currently under renovation but is set to reopen later this year (gainsborough.org).
Make a weekend of it by booking into the Mill Hotel, which has B&B rooms overlooking the meadows from £108 a night (themillhotelsudbury.co.uk).
Just down river from Sudbury lies Dedham Vale – also known as Constable Country.
The Stour Valley, and in particular Flatford Mill, which was owned by John Constable’s family, featured in many of the artist’s most famous works, including The Hay Wain. Now managed by the National Trust, it’s possible to stand beside the Stour and see that the cottage and ford have barely changed since the day they were painted 200 years ago (nationaltrust.org.uk/flatford).
Plans are afoot to join this into a series of a dozen such sites to create a Constable Trail.
Sudbury, pictured, provides artistic immersion at the Gainsborough Museum, in what was once the artist’s home
Alternatively, pay tribute to a less familiar name in the Sussex town of Seaford, where the South Downs end abruptly in sheer, white cliffs plunging into the English Channel.
Local artist Eric Slater recreated this arresting landscape in Japanese-style woodcuts, gaining international acclaim in the 1930s. His works are brought to life on the Slater Trail (ericslater.co.uk). You’ll soon appreciate why he was so captivated by this dramatic coastline.
However, there are scenes all over Britain that have inspired our greatest artists, from Glen Feshie in Scotland – where Sir Edwin Landseer did preliminary sketches for Monarch Of The Glen – to the Isle of Wight’s chalky Needles, depicted in J. M. W. Turner’s Moonlight At Sea. But it’s not just natural landscapes that have caught artists’ imaginations. L. S. Lowry, from Manchester, loved visiting Berwick-upon-Tweed in Northumberland to sketch and paint, populating its streets and industrial backdrops with crowds of his signature matchstick men.
Artistic merit: An easel on the Renoir Walk in Guernsey framing the view that he would have painted
He is commemorated in the Lowry Trail, which weaves along the river and city walls, taking three hours to complete (visit berwick.com/what-to-do/the-lowry-trail). At 18 points along the route, a reproduction of a Lowry painting is positioned so the viewer can almost imagine themselves watching the artist with brush in hand, immortalising the scene.
When in town, stay, as Lowry did, at the Castle Hotel – B&B rooms cost from £95 a night (thecastleberwickupontweed.co.uk).
Artist trails generally celebrate home-grown talents, so Guernsey’s Renoir Walk is something of an exception (artforguernsey.com/renoir). It was launched last year to mark the centenary of French Impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s death. Renoir spent a holiday on the isle in 1883 when it’s said he was shocked to see naked bathers.
During his stay, he painted compositions such as Enfants Au Bord De La Mer amid the coastal scenery of Moulin Huet Bay.
Five spots where he set up his easel are indicated by picture frames through which walkers can, as with the Lowry Trail, share Renoir’s perspective.
Stay close to the bay at La Barbarie Hotel, where B&B costs from £114 a night (labarbariehotel.com).