13 June 2024

Regional History Talk: Constable’s Haywain, the Lie of the Land

Composed and painted in his London studio from a series of earlier sketches and memory, ‘Landscape: noon’ (to give the painting we now know as The Haywain its original title) is singularly unheroic, its very ordinariness in contrast to the then fashionable landscape paintings enthral to the ideals of the sublime and the picturesque.

The positive reception and subsequent popularity of Constable’s most famous painting was a function of, as one reviewer at the time put it, his attempt to represent the ‘actual look of rural nature’. Yet for the veneer of everyday normality – a cornmill, a cottage, a waggon and waggoner, haymakers at work in the distance – there is a duplicity at play. When ‘Landscape: noon’ was first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1821, rural England was six years into a wretched economic depression sparked by the collapse in trade at the end of the Napoleonic Wars. Un- and under-employment plagued communities in the south and east; rural workers in places like Flatford – the setting of the painting – in the parish of East Bergholt in the agrarian Stour Valley of the Suffolk-Essex border, were reliant on a changing mix of wages, welfare, credit and crime to get by.

This talk examines these contexts, exploring the impact of war, machinery, climate, repressive policy, and the response of the rural poor to their desperate situation in the form of collective action, incendiarism, machine-breaking, and other tools of rural terror. For all its apparent harmony, the Haywain, as Just Stop Oil activists so vividly exposed, is a text mired in misery and hunger.

Speaker: Carl Griffin, Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Sussex. Professor Griffin’s research examines the transformations and dislocations effected by agrarian capitalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth-centuries, paying particular attention to the interplay between power, resistance and environment.

Due to unforeseen and unavoidable circumstances, this talk will now be solely hosted online, via Zoom. Please do not attend at M Shed in person.

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