Sir Jim Paice, chairman of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, makes his choice – and it's one of the undisputed classic images of the English countryside.

The Hay Wain, 1821 (oil on canvas) by Constable, John (1776-1837); 130.2x185.4 cm; National Gallery, London. (Photograph: www.bridgemanimages.com)

The Hay Wain, 1821 (oil on canvas) by Constable, John (1776-1837); 130.2×185.4 cm; National Gallery, London. (Photograph: www.bridgemanimages.com)

Sir Jim Paice says:

‘The Hay Wain is a constant reminder of my origins as a countryman born and reared within a few miles of “Constable Country”. To the viewer, the picture evokes a romantic landscape full of colour, but it hides a tough and demanding life.

‘We don’t realise how lucky we are to be well fed today; in those days, it was backbreaking work and food was precious. By today’s standards, the landscape was full of trees and hedges with myriad wildlife, but the world is constantly changing.

‘Our challenge is to have as much of yesterday’s wildlife as we can in today’s landscape .’

Sir Jim Paice is chairman of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust. A farmer and countryman, he was Minister of State for Defra, 2010–2012.

John McEwen says:

If one picture epitomises ‘England’, it’s The Hay Wain, or ‘Hay Wagon’; this has been its reputation since it entered the National Gallery in 1886.

It was Joseph Farington RA, best known today for his diaries, who suggested Constable exhibit this picture rather than Waterloo Bridge at the RA’s 1821 Summer Exhibition – a reminder of how vital the show was to artists then, not least for Constable, who had only recently been grudgingly elected an associate member.

‘I shall never make a popular artist – a Gentleman and Ladies painter,’ he wrote to his friend and collector John Fisher, Archdeacon of Berkshire.

Fisher nicknamed the picture ‘the hay wain’. For exhibition, Constable titled it ‘Landscape: Noon’. It was well enough received, but did not sell. The influential Farington died. Lack of sales, the financial burden of two more children, his wife’s ultimately fatal TB, lethargy from blood-letting for neuralgia, Fisher’s inability to loan him sufficient cash and an agricultural depression all made it a difficult time for Constable.

However, the dynamic young French painters Gericault and Delacroix were amazed by the freshness of The Hay Wain. John Arrowsmith, a Parisian dealer, was equally enthusiastic. In 1824, it and other Constable paintings took pride of place in a Louvre exhibition and Charles X presented the artist with a gold medal.

Constable became a major influence on the development of landscape painting in France, from the Barbizon school through to Impressionism.

‘As Fisher wrote: ‘The stupid English public… will begin to think there is something in you if the French make your works national property. You have long laid under a mistake. Men do not purchase pictures because they admire them, but because others covet them.’