Monday, 9 September 2019

"The Haywain" by John Constable

I had always assumed that the hay wagon in the famous painting was fording a shallow river that flows off between the trees in middle of the painting.

Mrs W and I visited National Trust, Flatford on Sunday, and took the obligatory 'gate crashing The Hay Wain' photo in front of the cottage, which still looks exactly the same.

Two things struck me:

1. That is not actually a river, it is a pond (or non-flowing side-arm of the actual river, or however you wish to describe it), which ends roughly where the trees in the middle of the painting are. Nobody would be daft enough to ford it, they'd just go round it, which would take about one minute. So the event he painted never happened.

UPDATE: Sobers' explains in the comments why the wagon is in the pond.

UPDATE: NT map:


2. While the cottage looks exactly as it did, the National Trust haven't bothered to install a hay wagon in the middle of the pond, which would enhance the overall visitor experience and make those photos all the more enjoyable. Especially if you could wade out and pose on it, like on the zebra crossing in Abbey Road.

Lest ye think this is some sort of sacrilege, there are precedents for this, i.e. statues commemorating something that never happened or somebody who never existed, which become visitor attractions in their own right, for example The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen harbour, Manneken Pis in Brussels or various Swords in the Stone dotted around anywhere with a vague connection to King Arthur. See also Waverley Station in Edinburgh.

21 comments:

The Stigler said...

You can't really do that any more. There was once a time when people would tinker around with something to make it more interesting (with the ultimate aim of getting more visitors to an attraction), but there's an army of anally-retentive bureaucrats getting in the way now, whining about accuracy.

Lola said...

I live near Flatford. (I recommend the Boathouse for a lunch or dinner). It is well known that Constable used artists license with the view. But there was a ford there before there was the bridge. And the river was navigable down to Manningtree. Did you see the barge building dry dock just past Willy Lots cottage?

Mark Wadsworth said...

TS, spoilsports.

L, I will scan in the NT map.

Lola said...

TS Just shows how stupid bureaucrats are. Constable himself 'tinkered' with the view.

Frank said...

When I saw The Hay Wain at the National Gallery I was struck by its size. Having grown up seeing the image on table mats and chocolate boxes to see it full size was something of a shock.

Mark Wadsworth said...

L, map now included.

F, indeed, some of these old paintings are HUGE.

Bayard said...

"Nobody would be daft enough to ford it, they'd just go round it, which would take about one minute"

Well, as far as I can see, the way round it is blocked by the buildings of Flatford Mill, the "pond" actually being the tailrace of the mill. The land beyond, in the back of the painting is an island, so fording the tailrace may well have been the only way to reach it. In any case, Mark, you of all people should know that, just because you can physically "go round" something, that doesn't mean that you can actually do it, there being such a thing as private property. You'd be pretty pissed off if someone drove a hay wain through your garden because "it only takes a minute and this way I don't have to ford the river".

"the National Trust haven't bothered to instal a hay wagon in the middle of the pond, which would enhance the overall visitor experience and make those photos all the more enjoyable."

It would be a bit tough on the poor horses, having to stand there all day up to their hocks in water.

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, the whole of Flatford belonged to Constable's father. The land at the back of the painting is clearly the mainland, look at the map.

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, the horses would be cast out of bronze, same as the wagon, duh.

Dinero said...

I have always thought that it is a cart in a pond. Viewing the painting, and in doing so observing the bottom left quadrant, the water transition is flat and so it is a pond.

Sobers said...

Do you know why the wagon was in the pond? It wasn't crossing, it was sat there for a reason. It was done to soak the spoked wagon wheels, which dried out in the summer, and the joints would loosen and make the wheels wonky and likely to break. So they would sit it in water for a while, slowly moving it so the wheels would soak up moisture and expand, thus tightening the joints. If you look at the picture you'll see its high summer, ie the hottest time of year, when the wagon wheels would be drying out, hence the necessity for a trip to the pond.

Mark Wadsworth said...

S, thanks. That seems very plausible.

Sobers said...

If you google 'Haywain soaking wheels' you'll see that its a fairly common opinion as to what Constable painted.

Lola said...

S Yep. And there was a ford there or thereabouts.

Mark Wadsworth said...

L, I'm sure there was a ford before there was a bridge. Thus would have been further upstream where the water is shallowest, i.e. roughly where the actual bridge us now.

Clearly, they built the mill where the water is deepest/fastest, the worst place for a ford.

Bayard said...

Mark, if you look at the old map, you will see that the so-called pond is actually the tailrace of the mill and therefore connects with the river where there is now dry land on the NT map, so you couldn't have gone round then where you can go round today.

M, it's not a pond, it's the tailrace, so it would be shallow as there is no point in making it any deeper than it needs to be to carry away the water that's been through the mill. Since it's so wide there, it can be shallow and provide a means of access to the island that is now no longer an island.

Bayard said...

Correct link old map

Mark Wadsworth said...

B, yup, old map looks different. But tailrace it ain't. The water flows over the wheel diagonally down to the right on the NT map.

Look at the lock in the bottom left hand corner. The water is high at the left end and low at the right end. The river flows left to right.

Lola said...

B MW The Stour up to Flatford was made navigable by locks
http://www.flatfordandconstable.org.uk/river-stour-in-suffolk/

Mark Wadsworth said...

L, yes it was. But we are getting off the topic that the cart was not fording the river - it's the wrong place. The right place is a bit further upstream, lower banks and shallower water.

We can safely assume that 'Flatford' is called 'Flatford' because there was a 'flat' bit where you could 'ford' the river (see also 'Br(o)adford' and 'Oxford'), and people forded rivers before they bothered building bridges.

Bayard said...

"The water flows over the wheel diagonally down to the right on the NT map."

There hasn't been a wheel for 100 years, according to the Beeb. The listing states that the mill was altered in the C19th which was presumably when the water was diverted from flowing under the mill to flowing across the upstream side of it, as it does now, although now it powers an Archimedes screw. So it is quite possible that the water in the picture is the tailrace, even if it is not now.

In any case, this photo https://www.flickr.com/photos/karen_roe/5559512150/in/photostream/ suggests that the NT map is wrong (not a first for the NT, by any stretch of the imagination) and what was the tailrace is still connected to the river, but that Constable took some artistic licence and moved the connection over to the right in his picture.