This month's blog is devoted to ongoing environmental research with Dr Jayne Archer and Professor Howard Thomas at Aberystwyth University (see our John Keats blog below). With luck it will form part of a symposium paper, so any feedback is appreciated.
John Constable, The Hay Wain (1821). National Gallery
John Constable’s The Hay Wain (1821) is a National Gallery tourist magnet, and regularly voted among the best-loved English paintings. The iconic Romantic canvas depicts an unladen hay wagon in shallow water between Flatford Mill, whose lease was owned by the artist’s father, and the cottage of tenant farmer Willie Lott. It’s easy to appreciate why visitors to the National Gallery crowd around this canonical work – for many, it opens a welcome window into a calm, bucolic idyll, where contented labourers are gathering up a picturesque crop of hay that’s been drying on the fields. Since its composition, the painting has been busy distracting us from present woes …
Close-up of labourers in the far right of the painting
But while it may appear to offer an escapist’s paradise, The Hay Wain, as John Barrell points out, actually struggles to ignore, or absorb into its aesthetic, wide unrest and "social divisions" affecting East Anglian agricultural communities. In 1816, just five years before the painting’s composition, the region had witnessed “bread or blood” food riots as a result of rising corn prices. Constable comments dismissively on them in an 1821 letter to a friend (he discusses The Hay Wain’s progress in the same letter); the fact that his father owned the local granary might have inflected his views. 1822 saw a spate of hayrick and barn firings, resulting in transportations and executions for arson. Constable’s painting, then, like John Keats’s ode “To Autumn” (the topic of an earlier blog), doesn’t present a scene of rural bliss, even if Constable seems keen to paint, as it were, over the cracks in a community where his own family were influential landowners and merchants. Whatever calm the painting offers is only calm in the sense of that which precedes a storm (both literal and metaphorical, as we’ll see).
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?”
Close-up of hay wain (hay wagon)
It’s an interesting question, but is it the right question? To begin with, the hay wain is not in the “middle of a river”, but is positioned off the River Stour in a mill stream, which is something quite different, as any miller will tell you (we asked two local millers, Anne and Andy Parry, who recently restored Felin Ganol water mill in Llanrhystud).
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.
Google Earth image of land depicted in Constable's The Hay Wain
Returning to the hay wagon’s position in the water ... While it appears stationary, the wain is in all probability hastening – though quite how quickly is a moot point – back to the field. Those menacingly dark clouds in the upper left of Constable’s painting threaten rain, which could spell disaster for hay. Many farmers in the Romantic period, unable to afford barns, risked bad weather and simply left their crop to stand in stacks in the open air. However, in spite of hefty construction expenses, the practice of using barns for storing hay before delivery to market was taking hold. As John Middleton’s influential General View of the Agriculture of Middlesex (second edition, 1813) pointed out, barns were “extremely useful and convenient during a catching and unsettled hay-harvest … In wet and windy weather they afford an opportunity of cutting, weighing and binding hay, none of which operations could at such a time be performed out of doors”. Middleton calculated that in a wet season, securing hay in a barn, preserving its quality and enabling the owner to deliver it to market when the prices were best, had “been known to make a difference in price of twenty shillings per load” (p. 316-17). He added: “In the very common case of approaching rain, when the hay is fit for carrying, every nerve is, or ought to be, exerted to [get] all the carts and waggons loaded, and drawn into the barns.” The alternative was to leave the hay to “take its chance”, and risk the valuable crop rotting and spoiling. We know this was a real danger in 1821: as Paul Muskett points out in an essay on “The East Anglian Agrarian Riots of 1822”, that year “the harvest had been interrupted by heavy rains, and had not provided a period of continuous employment for whole familes”.
Second hay wain being loaded in right of painting
When we look closely we can appreciate that Constable’s painting is far from static, and actually depicts the rhythms of loading and unloading hay wagons. Perhaps the painting should be known as The Hay Wains, since there are two of these agricultural vehicles in the scene (the second one, which Constable has almost blended in with the trees, is being loaded up in the meadow).
Close-up of rain clouds in top left of Constable's painting
In view of those dark clouds approaching from the left, poised over Willie Lott’s cottage, the hay wain is, or at least should be, making all due haste, and then some. Whether the labourers in The Hay Wain are like those underpaid reapers in the second stanza of Keats’s ode “To Autumn”, and too poorly paid to “exert every nerve”, is not clear; but given the wide-spread unrest in East Anglia, which would lead to barn-burnings in the year after Constable completed his painting, we might take an educated guess.
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.