Constable and the English countryside: The Hay Wain

. . . Constable paints nature at a point in history when its total destruction by the hand of man had not yet become conceivable.  But only just . . .   Wessel Krul in Green and pleasant land: English culture and the Romantic countryside

“Quintessentially English” is how Constable’s landscapes are frequently described. It’s a source of quiet satisfaction to the painter’s most nationalistic fan base that he was happy to live his life entirely in England, never crossing the Channel, even though his work was much more enthusiastically received by French critics.

Born in East Bergholt, Suffolk, Constable even found the dramatic landscapes of the Lake and Peak Districts too foreign.  Rather than mountains, he was inspired by the vast skies of the East Anglian flatlands where he grew up.

Popular opinion was never bothered by intellectual sneering and by 1880 the countryside of The Hay Wain (finished in 1821) was already being promoted as “Constable Country”.  Visitors ever since have been drawn to the banks of the River Stour, where Willy Lott’s cottage still stands (Grade 1 listed), so they can compare the view with the painting.  It’s reassuringly similar, though the river runs deeper these days, as East Anglia sinks.

For stressed sub/urbanites, this depiction of a long-lost rural England gives a respite from modern realities. All is serene and unhurried. It’s summer, clouds are unfurling across the sky (there might be a shower later), you can hear the wind in the leaves and rest your gaze on the distant hay meadow. Constable was a scrupulous observer of nature and made many outdoor sketches of the Stour valley.  But The Hay Wain was painted in his London studio, when he’d left the landscape of an idyllic childhood behind.  So the painting was steeped in nostalgia from the start.

Constable’s family owed their prosperity to wind and water, which fuelled their mills.  The full effect of the steam-power revolution was still to come, but while The Hay Wain was being painted there were already signs of rural upheaval. Enclosures were usurping common land rights, driving people into the cities to look for factory work or to scrape a precarious living as farm labourers.  Riots were breaking out.  Constable is often accused of trying to pretend none of this was happening and ignoring the hardships and squalor of rural England.  In The Hay Wain, life goes peacefully on and the only thing that will change is the weather and the season.

Prints of The Hay Wain are ubiquitous – multiplied on tablemats, jigsaws, calendars, biscuit tins, tea towels – so the sheer size of the original painting can come as a shock, measuring 6 foot by 4.  If you can’t visit the National Gallery, their website lets you zoom in and explore the painting in detail.

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