Instead of the agricultural markets of London, Norwich and Ipswich, where “disturbances” over rising food prices were regularly reported in newspapers of the day, John Constable’s artistic produce was destined for very different customers – namely, the art connoisseurs of London. Karl Kroeber suggests that The Hay Wain, one of the painter’s “six-footers”, completed from sketches in a London studio some seventy miles from the Dedham Vale scene it portrays, was (and is now more than ever) “addressed to an audience of non-haymakers”. The painting, he adds, “recall[s] our imagination to a function of our society that we have grown accustomed to overlooking” (p. 29). True enough. But perhaps the extent to which we’ve grown accustomed to overlooking farming techniques such as haymaking might surprise even Kroeber. In fact, Kroeber overlooks or misreads a few things himself with regard to the agrarian practices recorded in The Hay Wain.
What Kroeber’s discussion of Constable’s painting does so well is to alert us to the fact that the famous canvas is a “provocation towards story”, one that urges viewers to “recreate imaginatively” its “human meaning”. In that sense, the painting becomes something akin to a lyrical ballad, dramatizing an episode whose moral import the viewer is invited to decode, just as the reader of Wordsworth’s “Simon Lee” is asked to make a moral tale out of a seemingly trivial incident in a rural community. Consider the hay wain, says Kroeber. “What is this one doing in the middle of a river?”
Leaving milling nomenclature aside though, it strikes us that the most fruitful question to pose is this: “Where has the hay wain come from?” Because if the wagon’s destination seems clear enough – those fields being harvested by the stooped labourers in the right of the composition – the other end-point in its journey is evidently less obvious, certainly if the critical literature is anything to go by. The candidate often mooted, Flatford water mill, which stands just behind the painting’s viewing perspective, is patently nonsensical. Ann Bermingham is by no means alone in asserting in an otherwise excellent book that the wagon has come from there – “Flatford Mill from which the hay wain returns” (Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition, 1740-1860, p. 142). However, the fact is that grass and hay belong to pastoral agriculture, whereas the business of watermills is with arable produce such as wheat and barley.
The most likely place from which the hay wagon is returning, as Roger Friedland and Deidre Boden point out in NowHere: Space, Time and Modernity (1994), is a barn. Misinterpretations arise from forgetting our historical relation with the worked land. Here’s another possible misprision: Kroeber refers to the hay wain’s crossing of the River Stour as a “short cut” (p. 29). Presumably, the route from the meadows and back again would not have been a short cut, as such, but simply the most direct and traditional route to the landowner's barn (on a future research trip we intend to find out who owned the leasehold on those hay fields, and also to identify the barn they owned or rented). Such journeys across fords lie at the heart of sustainable communities – and also, of course, at the heart of a vexed nexus of leaseholds, tenancies, water rights and wages, as well as arrangements between tenant farmers and landowners, and in broader terms, local power structures, at the heart of which lay Constable's father.
A single, picturesque hay wain without two ends of a journey might appear disconnected or abstracted from the nexus of East Anglian farming practices, suppressed wages, rising food prices and labouring disturbances; it might indeed appear to be serenely static, or “stand[ing] in the water”, as the National Gallery puts it. This enormously popular “wain at ease” version of Constable’s iconic painting is reassuring, and represents for many gallery visitors the quintessence of “ye olde England”, buildings unbothered by CCTV cameras, skies untroubled by drones, a scene ready-made for biscuit tin lids. But once we’re able to "see" a barn in Constable’s canvas, along with the agricultural and financial ecosystem in which barns (new techology for many farmers), played an integral part, what changes in our appreciation of the painting? For a start, we can begin to re-connect the mowers, the wagon(s), the drivers and a powerful landowner – along with his leisured, conservatively minded son, who loved to “paint my own places best” – in what is a scene of steady, purposeful labour, steady, though perhaps not justly distributed, profit.