East Anglian farmer and aircraft artist called ‘The Boy Constable’ dies aged 90
PUBLISHED: 18:00 05 June 2020
North Suffolk farmer, painter and aircraft enthusiast John Constable Reeve was a man of quiet authority and a lot of talent. We take a look at an eventful life
Suffolk farmer and popular artist John Constable Reeve, who has died aged 90, was something of a local legend gaining a wonderful reputation for his stunning East Anglian landscapes and his evocative paintings of Second World War aircraft.
Although, born in Sproughton, just outside Ipswich, at Valley Farm, he spent most of his adult life living and working in the village of Mettingham, just outside Bungay.
A self-taught artist, he nevertheless won prizes for his work and exhibited in London galleries as well as illustrating magazine articles, as well as providing accurate and atmospheric paintings to adorn the walls of the Norfolk & Suffolk Aviation Museum at Flixton.
Growing up on his parents’ farm at Sproughton, he was regarded as something of a child protégé when he entered art shows and competitions while still in his teens. He started winning prizes at Ipswich Art Club shows while only 14.
Aged 18, he entered exhibitions staged by Royal Drawing Society and The Children’s Royal Academy and participated in exhibitions at The Guildhall in London.
An adjudicator at the Guildhall exhibition pointed out that Reeve was a distant relation to the great Suffolk painter John Constable and his ‘mature painting and drawing style makes one believe in heredity. His work shows wonderful promise. He is certainly a young John Constable.”
The award winning painting of Sproughton Mill is now in the Queens collection.
Despite this praise John was a modest young man and was unmoved when family investigations into their ancestry have failed to uncover any direct link to his famous namesake.
In 1950, aged 20, he held a one man exhibition in Beccles, displaying, both oils and watercolours, with the opening ceremony being performed by the town mayor JE Coney – however, the one person who wasn’t there, was John Constable Reeve, who, according to the EADT, was sitting on his father’s tractor ploughing fields because he couldn’t face the fuss.
His reputation grew to such an extent that he was referred to in press reports as ‘The Boy Constable’.
Despite his artistic talent, he was determined to follow in the footsteps of his family and continue the farming tradition. When his parents moved to the Norfolk/Suffolk border he went as well and he remained at Mettingham until his death on March 14 2020.
He continued to paint and sell pictures as a hobby. He wrote short articles in the Suffolk Farmers’ Journal in the 1950s, and illustrated them with ink drawings of local buildings and nearby villages such as Laxfield and Rattlesden.
The Second World War made a huge impression on John Constable Reeve and left him with a lifelong love of aircraft, particularly the planes that he saw taxi-ing along the runways of East Anglia’s wartime airfields.
Even before the war, he had a fascination with flying and recalled visiting air shows at Martlesham Heath. As East Anglia became littered with fighter stations during 1940 and 1941 before they were transformed into bomber bases, he had the opportunity to see a dazzling number of iconic aircraft up close.
He described seeing a Tiger Moth which landed in fog at Burston, a photo-reconnaissance Spitfire which finished up in a garden at Sproughton, and the horror of seeing human remains following a mid-air collision between a P-51 and P-47 in April 1945.
He also told a self-effacing story of how his first solo attempt at ploughing with Suffolk Punches was ruined by the aerial explosion of a V-2 rocket over Raydon on January 5 1945. Of course, the horses bolted.
Having had a lifelong love of wartime aircraft it was not surprising that he should become involved with the founding of the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum at Flixton in the early 1970s.
Many of his pictures hang in the museum illustrating the role that East Anglian airfields played during the conflict. His artwork not only provided visual references to aircraft based in Suffolk and Norfolk but also provided context for the displays and offered additional information.
He was a trustee for many years helping out with everything from cleaning (he was often seen with a vacuum cleaner or brush in his hand) or driving a tractor towing a F-100 Super Sabre into place on a meadow, with a number of “counterweight” people hanging on for dear life in the front bucket.
Son Jonathan Reeve said: “Although he had a natural gift for painting and drawing, capturing the light on canvas and board, and was offered a scholarship to the Royal Academy, going to London to study art sounded too restrictive.
“As he said to me in hospital, he got great enjoyment from the drawing and painting, I don’t think it was something that challenged him, but farming did. By the time he was offered the Scholarship he had already set his mind on farming, so much so that the first two years of apprenticeship were completed without any pay.
“After moving to Mettingham, became an active member of the Young Farmers club and Chairman, member of the Young Conservatives and played drums in a band.
“He also spent a considerable time as treasurer of the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum and became one of the longest serving committee members. His father was Clarence Reeve, who carved several of the village signs in the Waveney area, and his Uncle was Russell Reeve, who also made a name for his art, so he came from quite an artistic background.
“He started painting when a child sick in bed around the age of six. The interest in aeroplanes was reinforced during the war with aircraft always being in the sky, crashing around Sproughton and the Army Air Corp having a training school in a field next to the village. Some of my earliest memories are of model aircraft hanging from my bedroom ceiling.”
He left school in December 1943 at 14, and went to work at Manor Farm, Hintelsham for Mr Stanley Warth. He was unpaid for a year as he served his apprenticeship learning how to do the tasks on the farm – everything from working with a dairy herd, working horses to driving a tractor.
In addition to his aviation art, John was also known for his landscapes and farm scenes working in both oils and watercolours. Daughter Catherine Orr said: “Father had a particular liking for clouds, and left behind hundreds of photographs of skies which he used as inspiration in his paintings.
“He also made models initially in cardboard. He continued to build radio controlled aircraft and boats from balserwood until his death. He took great delight in flying the planes on calm evenings in the fields.”
He married Freda J. Bower at Lothingland, Suffolk in 1955. They had daughter Catherine and son Jonathan and lived at Prospect Farm, Low Road, Mettingham, Bungay. He died on March 14 2020.