The Hay Wain, by John Constable,1821
Voted the second most loved painting in a BBC poll, The Hay Wain has been a marketing success for Suffolk tourism, and cemented Constable’s reputation as a great English landscape painter (after his death). It has also been regarded as the definitative image of a nostalgic Englishness.
So, it will come as a shock to its millions of admirers that The Hay Wain is a deeply political picture whose calm hides a darker reality. This painting is in the National Gallery, London.
The Hay Wain captures a pleasant summer day in the English countryside. The scene is based on Constable’s childhood home - an area near Flatford Mill, Suffolk where his father owned around 90 acres of farm land, a couple of mills, and controlled profitable navigation rights on the River Stour.
The river forms the centrepiece of the painting with a hay cart or hay wain and two farm workers not doing much, a woman washing and a fisherman. Across the fields we can just make out a group of farm workers haymaking.
In the foreground the shallow stream spreads out to form a ford, the hay cart stops for the horses to cool down and take a drink, the harness of the horses are decorated with red tassels and trimmings. The red roof of the house on the left, in front of which a woman is kneeling to fill her pitcher, stands out well against the background of dark trees, which throw the lane on the other side of the water into deep shadow. Behind it is a mill owned by the Constable family.
On the right a fisherman, half concealed by a bush, stands near his punt while a duck glides by. The ripple and movement of the water is finely indicated, as are the masses of white cloud drifting across the sky, and the darker ones on the left, a sign of an approaching shower.
A dog by the bank is barking at the hay cart, adding to the atmosphere of this idyllic rural scene
On the right of the stream the flat meadows stretch out, golden green in colour, with groups of trees casting cool shadows on the grass, and backed by a distant belt of woodland of rich blues and greens. We can also make out dots of white indicating haymakers in the background. Nearby a full hay wain is waiting to be moved, suggesting that the harvest has been good.
The power of the painting to impress comes from Constable’s inspired use of paint and careful choice of colours. He applied his paint in various ways, using short and long strokes, both rough and smooth. This gave a variety of textures. The colour palette is restrained, being mostly greens and browns (apart from the sky).
Constable used white sparingly, although his use of white for reflections in the water was innovative and not generally welcomed by contemporary art critics. A small dash of bright red, on the harnesses of the horses, draws attention to the intended focal point. Constable’s use of light is almost photographic, in that, on a cloudy day like this, shafts of sunlight are allowed to brighten parts of the landscape more than others. The light catches the whitewashed sides of the cottage, but other places are in shade.
Technically, Constable was inspired by Claude and Rubens and adapted their techniques to the area he knew so well – rural Suffolk. However, he was no copyist but created a new style of English landscape painting that by the 1880s overtook other artists in terms of popularity.
England in the 1820s
Constable worked on The Hay Wain at the time of a social crisis in the English countryside coupled, with his own personal obsessions with landscape painting. Throughout his life he avoided directly addressing the former while paradoxically making landscapes that captured nature but not the part humans played in its construction.
In short, he didn’t tell the whole story in The Hay Wain.
It is difficult to imagine from the painting that Constable was working at a time when the evening skies of his home village in Suffolk were literally lit up with the glow of fires of burning grain stores set alight by disgruntled workers.
Rising prices, the high tithes imposed by the Church on the poorest, and the unreliable nature of seasonal work on the farms created a perfect storm. Those unable to find work were forced onto poor relief and a bread allowance even less than that of prisoners.
While some workers moved away from villages in the autumn to join the herring trawlers at Lowestoft and other East Anglian ports, many remained trapped in their villages. The movement of farm labourers outside their birth areas was restricted by law, and even minor social crimes (such as catching rabbits) could lead of long periods of transportation. The poor were in a catch22 situation. Only the well off could get a game license and so the poor could not even live off the land to supplement their meagre incomes.
While much Suffolk farm land had been enclosed in the 18th century, there remained pockets of common land around Flatford. Once land was enclosed, local people could no longer gather fire wood from the commons, forcing people to buy expensive fuel – one of the sources of income for the Constable business.
We know from letters to his family written when he was living in London that Constable knew about these things. He was also sufficiently concerned to share his pessimistic views on the future of the countryside and his family’s privileges with his brothers and mother. This concern was not financial as his families diverse interests prospered in the 19th century. They were much deeper than that – an emotional attachment for a society that only ever existed in his childhood memory.
The Bigger Picture
Constable produced landscapes so memorable that only the most hardnosed inquisitive viewer would want to see through their facade.
We are so fixated by his brilliant use of colours, composition and painting techniques that somehow it seems mean to look behind the painting, and ask how the white specks of paint in the far background really lived out their lives.
His pictures capture an image of rural bliss that still remains, nearly two hundred years later, most people’s idea of rural England in the days before industrialisation.
That is the power of illusion.
Painting was a way of feeling for Constable. It represents a world view of nature, land and family. It had enormous emotional power to Constable, and to us two centuries later.
He demonstrates a passionate belief in a way of life that the enclosure of common land and the growth of capitalism undermined. He gives us a myth not just of humans at one with nature and their work but also harmony with a bountiful nature. The experiences of his own family - bad harvests, unreliable grain prices and floods – are erased from his memory, and replaced by an imagined and dream-like world of a rural bliss.
The beauty the landscape paintings totally ignore the harsh realities of what it meant for rural families to live in Suffolk in the early 1800s. The humans are eclipsed by the texture and power of landscape.
Constable's Rural Myths
Constable in painting his rural landscape cannot be accused of trying to please art buyers. No one in England was much interested in his idea of rural beauty in the 1820s.
Constable’s decision to paint these scenes was an emotional reaction to a crisis beyond his control, and probably understanding. He painted images that he saw in his mind, drawn from his happy childhood days. His attachment to such images of the nature of the countryside never ceased in his life.
At the heart of Constable’s landscape paintings is a deep down class fear of the farm worker, which he depersonalises by merging them into the landscape. Look closely at the figures in The Hay Wain; none of the people have recognisable features, the farm workers are mere blobs of white in the background. In fact the dog is painted in more detail than the human figures. The distance of the farm workers from the foreground in The Hay Wain can be interpreted as illustrating Constable’s emotional recognition of the growing tension between landowners and their workers, and his inner feelings towards the latter.
Even the river is reduced to an image of tranquillity. It is hard to believe from Constable’s East Anglian landscapes that after heavy winter rains the Stour flooded the cottage on the left. Fishing would have been a forbidden activity for most people in Flatford.
Constable loved skies, and when in London he used to sketch the sky above Hampstead Heath every day. In The Hay Wain the sky is dominated by detailed cloud formations – although these suggest a cooling rain shower is on the way rather than class war raging in the villages below.
Like many rural Tories, Constable was afraid of change; he was a traditional rural Conservative whose world was under threat. We can get a glimpse of his anxieties in his opposition to the 1834 Reform Act - the first attempt to expand voting rights. Such moves he believed were the start of a slippery slope to anarchy and disorder. To Constable, workers were needed but they should not be able to share the rights that benefited his family and their class.
Whereas other artists, such as George Moreland, moralised about the workers lack of commitment or heavy drinking, Constable chose to leave people out of his compositions.
That is why The Hay Wain is a deeply political work.
Its politics lies in what it leaves unsaid, and how it has been appropriated over the years.
Constable worked within moral and social constraints that determined how the poor could be represented to the well-off in society. Traditionally the poor have been differentiated into the deserving and undeserving poor. The latter were prone to idleness, drunkenness and wild living. Some painters in the 19th century took a moral tone whereas others, like Constable, erased them from their paintings entirely, no doubt influenced by the perceived dangers of an active and militant rural working class who said enough is enough even in relatively prosperous Suffolk.
And in some ways there lies the painting’s success and lasting appeal. As the Industrial Revolution took hold in the 19th century, the rural areas were seen as not places to work but an ideal. By 1890 Thomas Cook, the travel agent was even running day trips to what was called 'Constable Country' for views of England’s glorious rural bliss. There are not many painters whose work has made such an impact on the psyche of a nation.
The mill and cottage Constable painted were handed to the National Trust in 1943 for safeguarding for the nation. Moreover, the National Trust acquired many of the physical elements of The Hay Wain landscape, and are committed to preserve them for eternity. However, the Mill passed out of the Constable family hands in the middle of the 19th century.
The location is probably the most recognised in England, and is used for painting exercises by literally thousands of budding artists every year. Tour companies continue to offer day trips to Constable Country from London for mainly Japanese and American tourists.
Born in 1776 John Constable lived the first 23 years of his life in East Bergholt. His family were well off. While working in the family business at the mill, he turned down the running of the business preferring, much to his father’s disgust, to become a painter. He left to study at the Royal Academy Schools in 1799. Whilst at the schools Constable spent the winters in London, and travelled to Suffolk in the summers. In fact, he never lost his strong Suffolk accent.
Constable’s father, Golding, was an entrepreneur. He owned flour mills at Flatford and Dedham and a windmill at East Bergholt. He also ran a string of lighters (commercial barges) along the River Stour running between Sudbury and Mistley Wharf and two sea-going Thames barges running between Mistley Wharf and London. John Constable painted many canal scenes in the early 1800s.
Constable and his family’s world was one that readers of Jane Austen would be familiar with. Constable was probably a high Tory who associated his family’s future with an ideal world that was unravelling across England. His family were probably not gentry although they were pillars of village life in East Bergholt. They did all the things these families did: gave to the deserving poor at Christmas, played bridge with friends and attended church on Sunday.
Yet like Austen's novels, John Constable’s paintings do not let us glimpse at the world of workers in work, except as add-ons to the landscape. Their omission as real people is not accidental but integral to a view of society and the desire to protect the privileges of the few.
An important shadow over Constable’s work was the relationships with Maria Bicknell. In 1809 Constable met and fell in love with the granddaughter of the rector of East Bergholt.
Constable was 33, still a relatively unknown and struggling artist, who despite a modest allowance from his father could ill-afford to keep a wife and family. She was 21, from a wealthy family all strongly disapproving of their relationship, particularly her grandfather, who threatened her with disinheritance should she marry him.
For seven years they remained loyal to each other and were on the verge of eloping when John's father's death in 1816 left him financially secure and they could at last marry. Even then, none of her family attended the wedding.
Their marriage was very happy but short-lived. Maria died from tuberculosis in 1828, at the age of 40, leaving Constable with 7 young children. He adored his children but his wife's death plunged him into depression and a melancholy he never really recovered from.
In his early days as a painter he had used family connections to paint portraits of the local Suffolk gentry. Yet his interest was in landscapes of the part of the world he knew and loved.
His marriage sparked a new creative energy in Constable, and he began work on his "six-footers', a series of large canvases on river subjects (except for Hay Wain), which became some of his most famous and best-loved work. His first in this series, The White Horse, was exhibited at the Academy in 1819. This time his work was "too large to remain unnoticed" and he began at last to achieve critical acclaim. Others in this series were Landscape: Noon (Hay Wain) (1821), The Lock (A Boat Passing a Lock) (1824), The Leaping Horse (1824-1825), and View on the Stour near Dedham (1822). Other major works from this period were Hampstead Heath (c.1820), Salisbury Cathedral, from the Bishop's Grounds (1823), A Mill at Gillingham in Dorset (Parham's Mill) (1826), The Vale of Dedham (1828), The Valley Farm (1835), Old Sarum (1829 - watercolour), Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows (1831).
He had to go to the world of another great landscape painter Claude in France for success. In 1824 he sold the Hay Wain and View on the Stour near Dedham to a French dealer who exhibited them at the Paris Salon, which created a flurry of excited activity, the King of France awarding him a gold medal for his Hay Wain that same year.
In 1829 he was finally elected a full member of the Royal Academy.
He sold only 20 paintings in his lifetime. lHe died in March, 1837 working on his last picture Arundel Mill and Castle (1837) leaving the bulk of his work to his daughter Isabel.
In 1888 Isabel donated them to the Victoria and Albert Museum. His paintings are also in the National Gallery and Tate Britain.