Constable first visited West Sussex in September 1834, as the guest of Lord Egremont at Petworth. Egremont was a relaxed and generous host and allowed Constable, his friend Leslie, and Mr and Mrs Thomas Philips (the portrait painter and his wife), who were also staying, the use of a carriage to explore the countryside.
Constable was extremely taken with the Sussex landscape. While at Petworth he made several drawings of the ruins of Cowdray Castle but was 'most delighted with the borders of the Arun, and the picturesque old mills, barns and farmhouses that abound in the west of Sussex' (G. Reynolds, Catalogue of the Constable Collection, Victoria & Albert Museum, London, 1960, p. 214, no. 369).
On his first visit in 1834 Constable had made two pencil sketches and a watercolour at Fittleworth (Reynolds, op. cit, 1984, nos. 34.45-34.47). He returned for his second and last visit to Sussex on 7 July 1835, this time to stay with his friend George Constable at Arundel. Before his return to Sussex he had written to George about how he longed to return to that county 'that he preferred it to any other for my pictures'. Arundel was considerably further from Fittleworth than Petworth, some eight miles in all, but despite the distance, Fittleworth must have had a special appeal for him, as he returned to the spot on several occasions to draw the mill, church, village and sunken lanes. On 14 July when Constable visited the mill, he took two sketchbooks with him, the smaller of which remains intact (Reynolds, op.cit., 1984, no. 35.19) and includes a number of drawings of the village and church. The larger sketchbook has subsequently been broken up but included two drawings executed on the 14th, one of the waterwheels of the mill, the present drawing (Reynolds, op. cit., 1984, no. 35.13) and also a view down the steep perspective of the sunken lane (see ed. C. Leggatt, Constable, a Master Draughtsman, exhibition catalogue, Dulwich Picture Gallery, London, 1994, p. 249, illustrated). A couple of days later Constable returned yet again and made three more pencil drawings of the lane, possibly because it reminded him of the lane down to Flatford.
At this date, Constable had developed an ideographic style that enabled him to record a scene with minimal means yet enormous freedom. As Ian Fleming-Williams has commented, Constable had previously lost 'himself in the contemplation of the natural world, now he appears to find the keenest pleasure in the performance itself, in the infinite variety of touches he could make with his pencil, from flowing, rippling movements to sharp dots and stubs, from a soft brushing of graphite to the deepest darks' (see ed. C. Leggatt, op. cit., 1994, pp. 249-251, nos. 78-9).
In I. Fleming-Williams, Constable and his Drawings, London, 1990, pp. 316-7, the author asked 'Does the restlessness that informs Dowles Brook, the Fittleworth drawings and others in this last period of [Constable's] working life signify a greater realisation of landscape?' Fleming-Williams goes on to discuss Charles Rhyne's belief that in these drawings Constable was 'attempting more than just the optical experience the countryside provided; that the chronological development of his technique "was a response to his desire to convey his full experience" of the localities he knew so intimately, "that he sought progressively to find equivalents in paint for not only the visual appearance, but also the touch, even the sounds and smells of his native landscape, the full sensory experience of place"'.
Fleming-Williams (op. cit., 1990, p. 318) believed that in this late series of drawings 'we should not discount the probability that...it was the complete experience that...he was endeavouring to capture, an experience compounded of his past - and the reasons that had brought him to that place - with the immediacy of the present, the scene before and around him and all of the living contained therein'.
The present drawing is on a page of the larger sketchbook of 1833 Whatman paper, used by Constable at Arundel and Worcester in 1835. The drawing previously belonged to R.B. Beckett, a noted scholar and collector who was also responsible for compiling John Constable's correspondence in eight volumes. It has been in the same collection since being purchased from Manning Gallery in 1963.