John Constable: The radical landscape of The Hay Wain | National Gallery


How many of you… …remember the first time
you saw this picture? When you thought, “I’ve never seen
that before! What is that?” No. It’s one of those weird things. This is a picture that everybody knows. It’s a picture that, if you’re English,
you most certainly know. Now, I’m going to bring you the latest,
cutting-edge genome research, because recently, scientists working at the
Francis Crick Institute have discovered that if you are English, from the moment
you are conceived in your mother’s womb… …imprinted upon your DNA… …is knowledge of Constable’s
‘The Hay Wain’. In fact, after Brexit, this test is going to be used to see
who can stay here and who can’t. You think I’m joking, don’t you? Now, Constable’s ‘The Hay Wain’
has become one of these… clichés of the history of art. How many times it’s reproduced –
you tell me where you’ve seen it. It’s on tea towels,
it’s on jigsaw puzzles, it’s on little ceramic plates
with gold rims that are marketed
as “collector’s editions” that you will find hanging up
on those terrible wire straps and things. It’s a picture
that is absolutely everywhere. But I’m asking the question about
when did you first become aware of it, because I don’t think
you really do become aware of it until you actually stand
right in front of this, right in front of the actual painting. To start with… …how many people
know that it’s six feet across? It’s a massive great picture. And, of course, the reproductions of it
are never made six feet across. One of my earliest memories
was a family friend of my parents’ when we’d go round there
at Christmas or New Year, and they had
in one of their little downstairs rooms, Constable ‘Hay Wain’ wallpaper. And it was wide enough for
a strip of wallpaper. That kind of size. And it was reproduced as a kind
of vignette with the corners bled off, so it would be going up and down the wall
in diagonal sweeps. And I would always be shown
the ‘Hay Wain’ wallpaper, because I was interested in art. “Look Colin, you’ll like this.
This is Constable’s ‘The Hay Wain’.” So my first encounter
with Constable’s ‘The Hay Wain’ is in Constable ‘Hay Wain’ wallpaper. So, how does a picture survive that? Now, I’m going to confess.
I’m going to start off with my conclusion. I think this is a most fantastic,
wonderful, breath-taking picture, that transcends all of the accusations
of cliché and chocolate box that are forever flung at it. I think it’s the most magisterial picture. And just to show you how out-of-kilter
I am with the Great British public, when BBC Radio 4 – and of course, the Great British public
always listen to BBC Radio 4… When The Today Programme
did a listener’s poll to find Britain’s most-loved painting, this didn’t win. I’ll tell you what did win. That monstrous thing that’s up there. Now this end of the room,
we have Constable, at that end of the room, we have Turner. This is the National Gallery’s
room of British painting. Most British painting… The National Collection of British
Painting is up the road at Tate Britain. But this institution has this room
and a few other rooms – you’ve got the Gainsborough’s
outside and Hogarth – that demonstrate British art
in a European context. Now, the picture that won
the “Best Loved Picture of the Nation” was Turner’s ‘The Fighting Temeraire’. I mean, come on. If any picture deserves
to be called a “tea tray picture”, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’ is it. It’s meretricious, ghastly, appealing
to the lowest common denominator. So, I know that because you’ve come
to a talk on Constable, you’re with me. Now the two of them, Constable and Turner,
they are almost exact contemporaries. They are born
within 12 months of one another. Constable was born in 1776. By the time he painted this picture,
he was in his mid-40s. It was shown at the Royal Academy in 1821,
and not many people noticed it. The big summer shows at the Royal Academy,
then, as now, were bun fights. Pictures kind of nose-to-tail,
frame-to-frame, going right up the wall. And of course,
your picture is going to get lost. And apart from that, Constable was not an artist who looked for public opinion
to be on his side. He was not an artist like Turner. Turner was always trying to make things
that would make people love him and make him popular. Let’s not go down that road,
I just loathe the man. And Constable is an artist who didn’t go
out of his way to make himself popular. I’ll just give you one example.
He comes from rural Suffolk. His father, as is well known,
is fairly affluent. He’s an employer. He owns a mill. You can actually see
a bit of the mill in this picture. Just there. A little bit of red brick.
Can you see? And… his upbringing was conventional,
rural, landowning, but he wanted to be a painter. And it’s one of those
hackneyed stories about, “You’ll never make a living out of that”. It’s like Aunty Mimi
telling young nephew John, “Put that guitar away
and work hard at school. You’ll never make a career
out of singing songs.” So, Constable it’s the same kind of thing. But, he managed to get support
from his uncle to go and study
at the Royal Academy Schools in London. So off he goes. But then,
his uncle sees one of his paintings. And I’m going to quote you
word-for-word from his uncle’s letter, explaining why
he was cutting off his allowance in future while looking at this picture. “It is scarcely suitable,” he writes, “for a picture to be shown so raw, unless a note be affixed to it, saying that the artist died
before he could finish it.” Now, this picture is coarse, rough, ragged, scrawly, alive. Where I am, close to it, I can see these really coarse,
clumpy brush marks scraping across the surface. He’s not bothering to smooth things out,
to make things neat and tidy. And in fact, he was criticised
for this lack of finish. What does he say?
“I don’t see any finish in nature.” And what Constable is about is attempting to record
his visual sensations, what you might call retinal sensations. Now, of course, we can argue other things, that inevitably, he’s going to have
an emotional attachment to the subject – I’ll talk about that in a moment or two. But if I were to say, “Constable is an artist
whose pictures have no imagination,” Constable would be up there now,
listening to this talk, going, “At last! Somebody who understands me. Somebody who gets what I am about.” Because Constable
is the favourite artist of meteorologists. If you are a weatherman, or to use the BBC preferred term,
if you are a weathergirl… …then you will love this picture. You will look at that and think,
“Yes, I get that.” You’ll look at Turner and think,
“What the hell is he doing?” Because Constable
wants to look at what he’s seeing, understand what he’s seeing,
and represent what he’s seeing. He doesn’t see nature all neat and tidy. The clouds are a scientific representation of specific types of cloud
in specific weather conditions. He’s the only artist – all of my friends who are weathermen
and weathergirls tell me – he’s the only artist
who gets the clouds right. Think “clouds”.
You know what clouds are like. If you’re a painter, paint a cloud.
“Oh yes, white paint…” There’s a cloud for you. Gainsborough does it, Turner does it,
all of those Dutch guys do it. But Constable, he has spent hours,
days, weeks, months, sitting outside watching the clouds, making little studies of them, wanting
to get the cloud formation accurately. Now, let’s go back to Constable
at the Royal Academy Schools. No more money from his uncle,
his pictures are coarse and unfinished. Now, he wants to become
a member of the Royal Academy. Turner – oh dear,
we’re mentioning him again – Turner becomes a member of the Royal
Academy at a disgracefully young age. He’s in there by the time
he’s in his teens, exhibiting. He becomes a full member,
and his career is made. Constable, they kept not voting him in. Every time there’s a new vacancy
for a member of the Royal Academy, it seems that Constable
always finishes second. And one of Turner’s friends
gets voted in. And by the time he’d actually become an
Associate Member of the Royal Academy, it was really too late
to do him much good career-wise. And when he became a full member,
well, really too late. He made a living because he was supported by a small amount
of wealthy, generous friends. That’s how he was able to carry on
painting, and aren’t we grateful to them. Whereas Turner is busy
selling pictures all over the shop, Constable is really having to struggle. Now, he makes the ‘The Hay Wain’ when he is relatively comfortable living
in Hampstead, living in London. And it’s a picture that is recalling his boyhood life. He had a very happy childhood,
and I think that’s important to state. And his childhood
was really this kind of environment. Scampering along country lanes,
looking for sticklebacks and tadpoles, really enjoying himself. And he had got a whole collection
of little drawings and studies made in oil and pencil drawings of this view, going back 15, 20 years
when he decided to paint this picture. So it’s full of his boyhood memories. But also, it’s a very specific view. Now, again, can I just ask you,
how many of you have actually been here? About kind of 10%. So 90% of you have got a huge treat,
because you can go here. And about a quarter of a mile away,
there’s a National Trust car park, and you can park your car,
and there are signs that direct you. And the best time to go
is about February, March, really, before the coach parties
exploring Constable Country all come. Because the car park will be empty. If you’re really lucky,
it will be pouring with rain like it was the last time I was there,
and you’ll have the place to yourself. You walk down
a little muddy path, which is… …here. And on this side
there is buildings and windows, and if you’re going off-peak,
out of season, you can kind of
wipe the grime off the windows, and you will see inside piles of ‘Hay Wain’ jigsaw puzzles
waiting for the summer season. But if it’s February, they’re not there. And you come down and I remember vividly
the first time I actually went down it, this little muddy path, and suddenly,
you are standing here. And you go, “It can’t be.” It’s like time travel. It’s like you’ve suddenly ended up
in a picture that you’ve always known. And there’s the cottage,
there’s the mill pond, and the trees, of course, are different
because trees do grow and change. But you can actually see
through to the horizon beyond the green English fields
and everything. And the only thing
that’s really different, is that here, there’s a sign
that stops you going to the cottage that says “Private Property”. And so you can’t go there, because there’s
some unfortunate family living there, who from about March, April onwards
through to September or October, every time they look out of their window,
there are hordes of people, going, “Oh, it’s just like in the painting!” And up here, there’s now
a nature centre for school parties. Coach parties of small children to come and fish the aforementioned sticklebacks
and tadpoles from out of the mill pond and have nature lessons. So it’s there, it’s real, and you feel it’s almost
faintly absurd somehow that such a kind of ordinary view should have become
such an English national icon. Now, how did he choose
this composition then? Well, Constable liked to give this idea that he did not want to imitate paintings
that were already in existence, and of course the standard way
of making a landscape at this time was to go and look at Claude Lorrain, and we have a great collection
of Claude Lorrain paintings here, some of which we know
that Constable knew and loved, but the Claude Lorrain pictures
are smoothly painted. So consequently, late 18th century,
beginning of the 19th century, if you’re a landscape painter, you paint
your pictures nicely and smoothly, but more importantly,
you put classical ruins in them. You put temples to Apollo in them. You show little figures of Aeneas
and other ancient heroes in them. Because the vogue for classical literature
and landscapes showing classical history, classical mythology,
classical poetry, are what sell. And Constable paints Suffolk. You don’t have nymphs
and satyrs and Aeneas, and classical heroes in Suffolk. And in fact, one of Constable’s retorts
to those members of the Royal Academy who were criticising him
for his choice of subject, is that, “they prefer
the shaggy posterior of a satyr to a true feeling for nature.” Now, satyrs, of course,
are those men with hairy goats’ legs who are skipping around in
the Roman countryside, even as we speak. Although, personally, I’ve never seen one, but that’s the whole idea, that the
classical world, the Roman campagne, Italy is what landscape is all about. Constable ignores that completely, because, as I said,
he had this very happy childhood, and he’s got these memories of growing up
here round the River Stour, and these are the memories
that he’s drawing on when he paints these epic pictures. I say “epic pictures”.
Let’s think about the way he’s painted it. I’ve heard people say, “I love Constable
because his pictures are so detailed. It’s like he paints every leaf
on the trees.” Well, he doesn’t. When we look at this tree here,
there are big clumps of leaves, and the way he’s painted them
is he’s got a lot of green pigment, a big fat brush, and he’s gone “boompf, squelch,”
and pulls the brush away. “Boompf, squelch,” pulls the brush away. “Boompf, squelch,” pulls the brush away. It looks detailed. When you stand back from it,
it looks as if it’s detailed, but it’s a brilliant,
improvisatory way of picture making. It’s a way that his contemporaries
just didn’t get. And also, when we look
at that amazing green field at the back… Now, green. I’ll talk more about green in a moment,
but I’ll just show you how he’s done that. If you are short of green in your paint
box and you’ve got a yellow and a blue, you know what to do. You mix them up, and you’ve got green. What we’ve got here, is that Constable, first of all,
lays on a kind of mid-tone of green. That really bright, fresh green. He lets that dry. Then he’s using a method
known as “scumble”, where he’s using half-dried paint, and
he’s loading up his very bristly brush, but not completely loading up
his bristly brush – he’s loading it up with a bit more yellow
in to make the green a bit brighter. And he’s just kind of doing that a bit. And he’s loading up
with a bit more blue in his brush to make the green a bit bluer,
and he’s doing that a bit. You can see, you’ve got
the yellow-green, the blue-green, the mid-green, the yellow-green… There are brush marks
shown on the surface, letting the mid-green show through. Because his brush is only half-laden,
when he does that, the underpainting –
the mid-green that’s underneath – doesn’t get completely covered up. Do you see what I mean? So consequently, the whole surface
of that wonderful green area is catching the light and sparkling. Now, we mentioned Monet – this talk
was once going to be about Monet. Monet came to the National Gallery
when he was here in 1870, 1871. He came to London very wisely
when the Franco-Prussian war was on, the Siege of Paris and all of that. Monet thought it would be a good idea
for the future of the history of art that he shouldn’t get himself killed,
and should come to London. Good choice, Claude. We know he came here
because he was asked about it, because… the connection
between Constable and Impressionism is a really interesting one. And he was asked… And Pissaro. Pissaro was in London, too, they
came to the National Gallery together. They looked at paintings by Turner
and Constable, and how did they react? “Well,” says Monsieur Monet, “not
interested. No. Didn’t really like them.” Which, to me, proves that Monet looked
at paintings by Constable and thought, “Crikey! There’s something
I can learn from.” The French connection
is actually deeper than that, because in 1821, when this picture
was shown at the Royal Academy, and didn’t attract much attention, one
person of great significance saw it. And I’m talking about the great
French Romantic painter Géricault. Now, Géricault was in England
for quite a considerable time and made some of his
most interesting work in England, and, fortunately, went to this Royal
Academy show and saw this picture. So we can imagine Monsieur Géricault standing in front of this picture
in the Royal Academy – Somerset House as it was then –
thinking, “Now that is some picture.” And because of Géricault’s interest
and Géricault’s intervention, Constable was invited by the Paris Salon to exhibit this
at the annual Salon exhibition in 1824. So the picture was packed up in a crate and sent off to be shown
at the Paris Salon, where Géricault’s great follower –
Delacroix – saw it, and so the story goes, Delacroix saw this, stood in front of it
and thought, “Crikey,” in French, rushed back to his studio, and immediately
started repainting all of his pictures. And what it was,
when you look at Delacroix’s pictures, it’s this way of breaking up the colour that gives the surface
its sparkle and its animation. So from Géricault, Delacroix,
and then who… Which young artists
get obsessed with Delacroix and worship Delacroix as a kind of God? Well, Monet, Pissaro, the Impressionists. So, there are two ways in for Constable
to have had an effect on Impressionism. First of all, they directly encountered
him during the Franco-Prussian war – at least Monet and Pissaro. Then, the Salon exhibition
affects Delacroix, and so Delacroix
starts repainting all of his pictures. So this picture is utterly seminal in
terms of the way modern art developed. Now, I said
I was going to talk about green. One of Constable’s… We can’t call him a patron, because he
never bought a picture from Constable, but I’m talking about
Sir George Beaumont. And Sir George Beaumont was one
of the founders of the National Gallery, who very generously gave
his own collection to the nation, as part of the original National Gallery. Beaumont was a land-owning arts supporter. He was an amateur painter himself,
not a very good amateur painter. He exhibited at the Royal Academy. But he allowed artists
access to his collection. Now, if you’re a young painter, and it’s 18-something –
say 1805, 1806 or whatever – and you want to see old master paintings,
there’s no National Gallery. The nearest great collection
of old master paintings is the Louvre, but we’re always at war with the French,
so you can’t get there. Although, Turner, as soon as
the Peace of Amiens was signed, Turner was the first over there
to visit the Louvre. But you needed to be well-connected,
and unless you’re well-connected, you can’t see
these great old master paintings. But Beaumont allowed artists
access to his collection. He had a stately home in Leicestershire, and he would take many of his pictures
there for the summer season, and Constable stayed in Leicestershire
in a place called Coleorton Hall, with Sir George, and they would go out into the estate
on painting expeditions. Now, Constable and Sir George Beaumont
are buddies, but Beaumont really didn’t get Constable. Because Beaumont would go
and paint his landscapes – all the green grass, the green trees –
he would paint them all brown. And he would paint them all brown, because it was believed by dear old
Sir George and his contemporaries, that proper landscape painting – like paintings by Claude Lorrain, the
paintings by Claude that Sir George owned, that are now here
in the National Gallery – they were brown. The reason they were brown
is they were filthy dirty. Dear old Sir George
hadn’t actually worked out that if you put your painting
by Claude Lorrain in your dining room, and you have all your gentleman friends
blowing cigar smoke over it for several generations, it will end up brown. So, Constable goes out on a painting
expedition with Sir George into the green landscape,
and paints a green landscape. And so Sir George looks at this, and says, “Well, where are your brown trees?” What he actually says,
and we’ve got this recorded – not recorded in sounds,
you know what I mean – “Paintings should have the tonality
of an old Cremona fiddle.” Now, of course, stately homes
are full of old Cremona fiddles, so Constable trudges back to the house,
finds a violin, comes out back to where they are painting, puts it on the grass, and just goes… And off he goes. With Sir George going,
“What’s he done that for?” And obviously, Constable
just wanted to show that brown is brown, and the grass is green. He paints green things. And I’m using the expression
“green thing”, advisedly, because at last, after Constable had
become elected to the Royal Academy, he can exhibit his pictures as of right. You no longer have to have your work
chosen by the selection panel. And one year,
Constable had painted a picture, and it should have been exhibited as of
right, but it got put in the wrong pile. And accidentally, it got shown
to the jury who were selecting. And one of the aghast members of the jury, when he saw
Constable’s green painting, said, “Oh! Take away that green thing!” Now, as chance would have it, Constable is standing there,
steps forward, and says, “Actually, that’s mine.” And of course,
the jury are most apologetic. “Oh, we’re terribly sorry, Mr Constable. That’s your painting.
Of course it must go in.” Of course, what Constable did, was tuck his painting under his arm
and stomp off having a hissy fit. Quite rightly. Because again, this idea of these vivid,
sparkly, green, fresh pictures, is what invents, I think, our
understanding of the English landscape. And the picture – you’ll have seen it used
by cartoonists, political cartoonists. There’s a famous one that was made
at the time of Greenham Common with cruise missiles
stuck on the back of the Hay Wain, and of course,
this has become a symbol of England. Was it ever like this? It might have looked like this, but we also know that the idyllic quality of the picture
is hardly truth-telling, because in the 1820s, the condition of people that worked
on the land was hardly happy, but Constable avoids all of that. He avoids factory chimneys. Now, think Turner – we started off
mentioning Turner, how dreadful he is – I was only kidding. Turner, of course, paints railway trains,
factories, the Industrial Revolution. All of these things that are happening
now, when Turner’s alive. They are happening
when Constable is alive… …but he ignores them. He chooses instead
to paint what he can just frame up and see as something
that reminds him of the past. Yes, he is an incredibly nostalgic artist. The nostalgia is there in the picture
even when he’s making it. But for me, what gets me
is that I come in here on a hot day, and I can stand in front of this,
and feel the breeze blowing. And for Constable, even though,
yes, it’s a valid criticism – all his pictures look the same… I mean, look, ‘Stratford Mill’. I’m sorry, John.
You’ll have to cut that in later. It’s the same composition. Trees, people, water,
open bit at the side. There are so many Constables
that have this composition. But, who cares, when you’ve got
a picture as breath-taking, and as wonderful,
and as radical as ‘The Hay Wain’? There you have the paradox of Constable. Politically, he’s very conservative – we didn’t really cover that in the talk – but artistically,
he’s one of the real radicals. There’s nothing traditional
about this picture. It’s a picture that is overturning the accepted norms
of what a picture should be. And quite honestly,
that’s what all the great artists do. They overturn those norms
of what a picture should be. And if you can come up with something
like this, well, here’s to Constable. And although I’ve been doing Turner
down a little bit, he’s quite good, too… …but not as nice. Thank you.

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