John Constable – The Hay-Wain

The Hay-Wain, No. 1207 in the National Gallery, was presented by Mr. Henry Vaughan. It was painted in 1821, and included in the Academy Exhibition of that year under the title of Landscape – Noon. Constable wrote to his friend Fisher on April 1st : ” My picture goes to the Academy on the loth; it is not so grand as Tinney’s (the Stratford Mill). Owing, perhaps, to the masses not being so impressive, the power of the chiaroscuro is lessened, but it has a more novel look than I expected. I have yet much to do to it, and calculate on three or four days there.” The Archdeacon, in a letter dated July 19th, after the close of the Exhibition, refers to the picture under its better known name. “How does The Hay-Wain look now it has got into your own room again? ” he writes, ” I want to see it there, for how can one participate in a scene of fresh water and deep noon-day in the crowded copal atmosphere of the Exhibition? Which is always to me like a great pot of boiling varnish.” Constable replied that the picture looked well, ” but I shall do more to it.” Later on in the correspondence Fisher refers to it as Midsummer Noon.

In the following year it was exhibited in the British Gallery, and the painter received an offer for it of £70, without the frame, for exhibition in Paris. ” I hardly know what to do,” writes Constable. ” It might promote my fame, and procure me commissions, but it is property to my family, though I want money badly.” It was still unsold in 1823, and Fisher was anxious to have it. ” I have a great desire to possess your Wain, but I cannot now reach what it is worth, and what you must have; but I have this favour to ask, that you will not part with it without letting me know. It will be of the most value to your children by continuing to hang where it does, till you join the society of Ruysdael, Wilson, and Claude. As praise and money will then be of no value to you, the world will liberally bestow both.” To this the artist replied that, ” Sir William Curtis has a hankering after my Wain, but I am not sanguine, and you I should much prefer; we can talk about it when we meet. It was born a companion to your picture (The White Horse); it must be yours. It is no small compliment to the picture, that it haunted the mind of the Alderman from the time he saw it at the Institution; but though a man of the world, he is all heart, and really loves nature.”

Early in 1824, he writes again to Fisher saying that, ” the Frenchman who was after my large picture of the The Hay Cart last year is here again. He would, I believe, have both that and The Bridge, if he could get them at his own price. I showed him your letter, and told him of my promise to you. His object is to make a show of them at Paris, perhaps to my advantage.” Fisher’s reply is to the point : “Let your Hay Cart go to Paris, by all means. I am too much pulled down by agricultural distress to hope to possess it. I would, I think, let it go at less than its price for the sake of the éclat it may give you. The stupid English public, which has no judgment of its own, will begin to think there is something in you if the French make your works national property. You have long lain under a mistake; men do not purchase pictures because they admire them, but because others covet them.” The story of the final sale of this picture, its exhibition in Paris in 1824, and the gold medal awarded to it, has already been told (see p. 14).

The scene represents a small farmhouse on the edge of the stream near Flatford, known popularly as ” Willy Lott’s Cottage,” from the name of the owner, who was born in it, and died there at the age of eighty-eight, without having spent four whole days away from it. He was buried in Bergholt churchyard, where his epitaph calls the house Gibeon’s Farm. Con-stable painted it a number of times, and from all points of the compass. The most exact view of it is the one mezzotinted by Lucas for the “English Landscape,” with the title of A Mill Stream. It is also the subject of the famous Valley Farm, dated 1835, No. 327 in the National Gallery, in which picture he has painted the building from the opposite side to the one in The Hay-Wain.

This masterpiece of landscape-painting is so true to nature in all senses, and is so filled with the quiet loveliness of an English country-side seen under the sunlight of a summer day at high noon, that it is difficult to understand why it received such scant appreciation from many of Constable’s fellow artists, more particularly as it is characterized by none of the ” splashiness” and “spottiness ” which so offended his critics. Its repose, indeed, is in marked contrast to the brilliant impressionism and vigorous palette-knife work of the full-sized sketch for it, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum, No. 987.

In the foreground the shallow stream spreads out to form a ford, through which the hay-cart with two men in it is passing, the harness of the horses 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. 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. 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. On the right a fisherman, half concealed by a bush, stands near his punt. The whole forms one of the artist’s greatest achievements, being manly, English, and free from all restlessness of manner.

It differs in some slight details from the large sketch at South Kensington. He has kept the dog in the foreground, but the boy mounted on the drinking horse has been omitted. This sketch, when compared with the finished picture, is full of movement. It is a study in tones of reddish-brown, grays, and deep blues, with little indication of the exact colour of individual objects. The trees, which have been dashed in with the utmost vigour, seem to sway about in the fresh breeze, and the sky is magnificent. The whole has a sparkle and movement which at that date Constable had not yet ventured to display in his exhibited pictures, and in this respect it is, perhaps, finer than the completed work.