The Haywain by John Constable, is perhaps the most famous English painting. Painted exactly two hundred years ago, the scene depicts Flatford in Suffolk which I know well as it is only a few miles from where I live and I often take my little West Highland Terrier out for walks in that direction.
To the left of the Haywain is a cottage know as Willy Lott’s House. This was owned by a tenant farmer of that name in Constable’s time. It has not changed much in the intervening years thanks to carefully maintenance by the National Trust. Behind Constable’s viewpoint is Flatford Mill which was owned by the painter’s father and gave him sufficient wealth to contemplate being an artist rather than working on the land. This is a charming collection of buildings despite being built with utility rather than aesthetic in mind. There is very little self-conscious architecture to be seen apart from a Gibbsian entrance door which is shoehorned into a corner.
The Haywain has been reproduced on countless mugs, tea towels, jigsaws and postcards all over the world. This notoriety has made Willy Lott’s House, despite its small scale, the most famous house in the country, more widely recognised than Chatsworth, Castle Howard or Blenheim. In fact, it may well be the most famous house in the world.
Constable depicts Willy Lott’s House as a harmonious part of the whole scene, as natural as the trees, the mill pond and the clouds. Willy Lott, according to legend had never been outside his own horizon and the materials that built his house were similar. The timber framed structure was made from trees which grew nearby; the lime for the rendered walls would have been found in local fields and the clay for the bricks and tiles for the foundations, chimneys and roof would have been dug up and fired in a makeshift kiln close to the site. This house therefore was not an outside intervention but simply made up of the materials from the landscape rearranged.
When Constable painted this picture, it was seen as a surprising subject for such a large scale of painting. At the time, paintings of this size and ambition would depict a biblical or historical narrative designed for the elevation and improvement of the viewer. To paint a simple landscape with a cottage and a cart in a mill pond was not nearly heroic enough. Earlier artists would have replaced Willy Lott’s house with a classical temple in the manner of Poussin or Claude Lorraine and maybe the haywain with Apollo’s chariot.
Constable was part of a shift towards a love of simple country pleasures in the world that was becoming increasingly urbanised, frightening and complex. The countryside which until his time was viewed as a place of toil where crops could be harvested and animals fattened at huge personal cost and endless hours of hard and often tedious work. As agricultural methods made farming more efficient, more people gradually became freer from the onerous labour and unpredictability of farming. Agriculture could then be appreciated from a distance with nostalgic affection.
This new love of all things rural started with the most privileged and then permeated down to the middle classes. The first time this movement became a piece of architecture was with Marie Antoinette and her little hamlet, the ‘Hameau de la Reine’ built for her at Versailles. Here she would milk cows, feed chickens and tend sheep like a shepherdess from a toile de jouy illustration. At the time it must seemed an eccentric pastime for the Queen of France but this ill-fated and misunderstood monarch must have found it a welcome escape from the stifling formality and precarious nature of Louis XVI court.
The English caught on to this fashion during the mid 18th century and it became one of the many styles they adopted along with Chinese, Turkish and Gothic. The cottage style or cottage ornée as it was commonly known started a fashion which has continued in an almost unbroken line down to the present day.
This type of architecture hypnotised the Victorian era with their nostalgia for a golden age of rural bliss before the gruelling cruel realities of the industrial revolution. This led to the Arts and Crafts movement where the cottage and the vernacular approach became the favourite style of many architects. Sir Edwin Lutyens being the most famous exponent designed dozens of cottage style houses throughout the country.
The English love of cottages continued into the 20th century, and when the heroes came back from the First World War the simple cottage within its own garden was seen as a fitting reward for their labour. This led to the extensive interwar suburbs that surround most English towns and cities having houses that refer to cottage architecture in their detailing.
The love of the simple rural life which inspired Marie Antoinette, has come down to us through the eyes of Constable, Lutyens and their followers. Although the French queen’s invented world at Hameau with it’s porcelain milking buckets have been replaced by cheese making rock stars and fiercely protected rural landscapes, there is a love of the simple rural life which touches the souls of each and every one of us. Constable’s depiction illustrates the harmonious partnership between the body of man, the body of animals and the body of the earth, as the Indian environmental activist Vandana Shiva would describe it. This is mankind as part of nature and not separate to it. Now, in these environmentally conscious times this should strike a chord in everyone’s hearts, making the Haywain not only one of the most loved paintings but also one of the most relevant to grow from English soil.