My favourite painting: Christopher Brickell

'This is and has been my favourite painting, now and for many years past.'

The Hay Wain, 1821, by John Constable (1776–1837), 51in by 73in, The National Gallery, London

Christopher Brickell says:
This is and has been my favourite painting, now and for many years past. Constable captures admirably the landscape and life in the tranquil rural countryside near Flatford in Suffolk at his time. In particular, the changes in light of the clouds partially reflected in the pond where the hay wain—a local type of horse-drawn cart—is placed lead the eye across the hayfield to the woodland beyond, a view that happily remains much the same today.

Christopher Brickell is the former Director General of the Royal Horticultural Society and Editor-in-Chief of the newly revised RHS A–Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants.

John McEwen comments on The Hay Wain:
In 1816, Constable—aged 40 and still not a member of the Royal Academy, that passport to artistic success—married his long-time sweetheart, Maria Bicknell, from East Bergholt, where he had also been born and brought up. After the marriage, they moved to London.

Recommended videos for you

To attract attention to his submissions to the Academy’s annual summer exhibitions, from 1818, he embarked on a series of landscapes large enough to vie with the Old Masters, and particularly with Turner, his contemporary, who had already been an academician for 20 years.

‘We found that the scenery of eight or ten of our late friend’s most important subject might be enclosed by a circle of a few hundred yards at Flatford, very near Bergholt,’ wrote his biographer and friend C. R. Leslie after an 1840 visit. ‘In the larger compositions, such as “The White Horse” and “The Hay Wain”, both from this neighbourhood, he has increased the width of the river to great advantage.’

The picture was well received when shown at the Academy, most influentially by two French visitors, one of them the young painter Eugène Delacroix. He was ‘quite stunned’ by its impressionistic brushwork, which, via its effect on Delacroix and the sensation it caused at the 1824 Paris Salon, did indeed influence the French Barbizon school of outdoor landscape painters and, distantly, French Impressionism itself.

Today, The Hay Wain symbolises England as Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People does France and its cottage, named after Willy Lott, its tenant in Constable’s time, is accordingly a Grade I-listed national Trust shrine.