In Constable Country
At the Royal Academy summer exhibition of 1821 a painting entitled Landscape: Noon was shown for the first time. It failed to attract a buyer and seemed destined to fade into obscurity until it was exhibited again at the 1824 Paris Salon, where it was awarded the gold medal by Charles X and inspired French artists from Delacroix to the Barbizon school and the Impressionists. It is now known as The Hay Wain.
Constable’s work depicts a quiet, pastoral scene on the River Stour, which forms part of the border between Essex and Suffolk. It’s often said to show Flatford Mill, but the building is in fact the cottage of a tenant farmer, Willy Lott – the mill itself is just out of frame on the right. One reason for the painting’s modern mass appeal is the way the airy summer sky, clear water and open fields bordered by trees seem to offer a retreat from contemporary urban life. But the painting was actually completed in London. Constable worked at his studio in Hampstead from open-air sketches and memory. Even at its inception The Hay Wain was steeped in nostalgia.
Visit Flatford Mill today and the scene appears largely unchanged; an English rural idyll. But the area around (like many other parts of the Dedham Vale AONB) is carefully managed, not just for the benefit of wildlife and farming, but specifically to maintain the appearance of Constable’s paintings. These aims are not necessarily incompatible, but there is an acknowledged desire to maintain a look that can be marketed as ‘Constable Country’. The landscape is to some extent a simulacrum; a present sculpted around a romanticised vision of the past. And it isn’t possible to recreate the scene of The Hay Wain exactly as it was two hundred years ago. The challenges of doing so offer a glimpse into a future we are already being forced to come to terms with.
None of the trees that frame Constable’s scene survive today. Most, if not all, were elms, wiped out by Dutch elm disease in the latter half of the 20th century. Pockets of native trees survive, in areas such as the Isle of Man and parts of Scotland: the main vector of the disease, the elm bark beetle, Scolytus scolytus, needs a summer temperature of 20 to 25°C and low wind speeds to spread effectively. But stable temperatures and climate are no longer a given. In order to retain the overall impression for visitors to Flatford, other species of tree have been planted instead.
In Constable’s painting, the position of the cart (or wain) in the river suggests it was shallow enough to ford. Today the water level is higher, and the Stour is carefully managed by the Environment Agency with a series of sluices and gates. This part of East Anglia has sunk into the North Sea by around thirty centimetres since Constable’s time. There is now a long embankment lined with trees that interrupts the view of the water meadows behind, built in 1949 to protect against tidal flooding. Since the 1970s there has been a larger sea wall at Cattawade, a couple of miles downstream, but the smaller barrier at Flatford is still maintained as a second line of defence. Given current trends – sea levels in the East of England are projected to rise another fifty centimetres by the end of the century – it may soon be needed again.
The water meadows in the background still flood today, but in Constable’s day the floodplain would have been full of different grasses and wildflowers, a fertile plain for producing hay. Today the meadows are grazed by (very companionable) cattle. Haymaking is now rare. Livestock are instead fed silage, which is cheaper and easier to produce. Such changes have contributed to the loss of more than 90 per cent of Britain’s wildflower meadows since the 1940s. Soil, plants and insect life that relied on them have been drastically compromised. The burden of reversing these trends can’t lie with farmers alone, many of them already struggling to make a living. We need government policy to provide viable strategies that harmonise the goals of increased biodiversity and profitable farming.
The Hay Wain is often described as ‘timeless’, but we are running out of time. Unless there is real progress on the climate crisis, sustainability, land use and species loss, the view of Willy Lott’s cottage hanging in the National Gallery may soon become unrecognisable. And that will be the least of our problems.