Early nineteenth-century British landscape paintings are constructed from ideological positions. I will argue that the examination of these can illuminate contemporary perceptions of society and class relations. These meanings are often implicit, revealed when the paintings are contextualised. While the titles of both Ploughing Up Turnips, near Slough (1809; Fig 1) and The Hay Wain (1821; Fig 2) explicitly refer to labour; they present it in markedly different ways. Constable paints from a landed perspective. He idealises workers, omitting the reality of their situation and naturalising their role in society. Although Ploughing Up Turnips has been conventionally considered a patriotic piece of wartime propaganda, an alternative reading is possible. Turner exposes the injustice of the class system, undermining the aristocracy.
Constable’s portrayal of agricultural labour is framed by his middle class, landed background. A rural Tory, his family owned land in East Bergholt, Suffolk. He depicts it in Golding Constable’s Flower Garden (1815; Fig 3), the title of which explicitly reveals his aristocratic sympathies and attitude towards nature. Constable is in a position to have possession over natural world. The high perspective is likely to have been attained from windows above the ground floor. This voyeuristic vantage point recurs frequently in his landscapes such as Landscape, Ploughing Scene in Suffolk (1814; Fig 4). Such a proprietorial gaze, also present in The Hay Wain, would have appealed to polite society: Constable’s patrons, who seek confirmation of their own beliefs.
The attitudes of the landed class towards agricultural labours are exposed through the portrayal of the latter in Constable’s paintings. His depictions of peasant workers are represented as upper class idealisations of them. In The Hay Wain none of the labourers are in the foreground, they are kept at a distance. This is illustrative of a growing alienation landowners felt from the responsibilities of their estates. This was the result of an economic shift from feudal to capitalist with the enclosure of land, and the increasing amount of time landowners spent in London as they reaped profits from the Napoleonic wars (1803-14).1 The figures in The Hay Wain are reduced to anonymous dots of paint, particularly the harvesters placed so far away in the furthest field. Despite the subject of the painting’s title, these figures are nothing more than white brush strokes. They are too small to show any emotion at all.2 Constable’s rich, bright colour palette creates a positive atmosphere. The composition of the distant labourers in the sunny countryside gives no indication of the difficulty of their work. Many of Constable’s depictions of the rural labourers from 1815 onwards, including The Hay Wain, are characterised by an industrious devotion to work. The figures in View of Dedham (1814; Fig 5), do not take a break or appreciate the landscape around them.3 Appreciation of both actual and depicted landscape is only for the upper class observer, whose leisure is paid for by the labour of the figures. If the peasants were depicted as anything other than working it would disturb the serenity of the scene and the order of society.4
What these idealised constructions conceal is the reality of post-war depression. The Guardian in 1713 acknowledged that the pastoral tradition found it ‘convenient not to discover the whole truth. But that part which only is delightful’.5 However, any act of omission illuminates values, opinions, assumptions and attitudes. The image of the countryside illustrated by The Hay Wain is of one well farmed, stable and peaceful. Constable substitutes the truth with his nostalgic idealisation of the countryside of his ‘careless boyhood’.6 In reality, after the price of corn fell with the end of the Napoleonic Wars there was widespread unrest, arson, unemployment and poverty.7 In 1822 Constable’s brother told him that there was ‘never a night without [the] fires’ of riots in East Bergholt.8 In such a climate, buyers would have been seeking consolation in the landscapes they purchased. In 1848 one commentator admitted that artwork served to ‘avert painful fears’ of the aristocracy.9 The rich feared revolt, preferring to see the workers distant and hard-working as they are in The Hay Wain.
The figures in the painting, such as the fisherman on the far right, are barely distinguishable from nature. By merging the workers with countryside they are presented as being in their organic, rightful place. Constable naturalises their work and position in society.10 Arguably he is committing an act of oppression, by neutralising any possible objection or discontent. The Hay Wain paints a traditional image of countryside and class relations to reassure the ruling class. Such a harmonious image is also employed to mask the rise in poverty and dependence on landowners for employment as a result of recent land enclosures.11
Turner’s Ploughing Up Turnips has been conventionally read as a celebration of agricultural labour similar to The Hay Wain. It has been interpreted as a patriotic reassurance for the upper class during the Napoleonic wars.12 However, an alternative reading is possible, one that hints at what Constable omits. I disagree with Andrew Hemingway’s assertion that it presents just ‘another misty morning scene of busy activity’; timeless tranquillity and plenty provided by a benevolent monarch.13 I think this is a more appropriate reading for Turner’s Windsor Castle from the Thames (c.1805; Fig 6) which also depicts Windsor castle as a backdrop to agricultural work. The elegant figures are classical in form and clothing, engrossed in pastoral labour. The landscape recalls a Claude Lorrain painting; optimistic bright colours, serene and timeless. The castle, clearly defined in the sunlight, stands proud over the scene.
Ploughing Up Turnips contrasts highly to both Windsor Castle and The Hay Wain. It’s dim, misty atmosphere shrouds the scene, painted with a much bleaker colour palette. The ill-defined royal residence appears much less majestic than in Windsor Castle. While the figures aren’t much more detailed than those in The Hay Wain, the viewer is forced to confront them in their foreground position. Their ragged clothes and hunched positions imply the hardship of manual labour and poverty of their situation. They could not be more different from the statuesque forms in Windsor Castle. The hues and atmosphere of Ploughing Up Turnips have more in common with Turner’s Frosty Morning (1813; Fig 7). The harsh labour conditions illustrate the workers as men distinct from their employer’s idealisations of them.14 This begins to represent the actuality of manual labour that The Hay Wain conceals. In Ploughing Up Turnips the open expanse of cloudy sky places an emphasis on the juxtaposition between these humble workers with the ominous murky form of the castle. The cold harsh conditions indicated by the mist rising from the nearby river contrast to the bright, warm atmosphere of The Hay Wain. The composition of Plough Up Turnips focuses the eye on the central figure’s face with his frowning features.
Although Turner’s agricultural labourers are in a working situation, they appear inactive. The reason for this is unclear; John Barrell suggests the plough is broken.15 If so, this renders the workers incapable of labour. They differ from the efficient industrious figures of The Hay Wain, who are unable to look around and observe their landscape. They are not the kind of workers to proudly display on a drawing room wall, particularly amid the aristocratic fear of revolt. Does the pause in their labour pose a threat to the maintenance of upper class leisure? Although The Hay Wain depicts a quasi-fictional landscape, Ploughing Up Turnips, Near Slough has a far more specific context. There is a notable difference in tone and title of Windsor Castle from the Thames and Ploughing Up Turnips, Near Slough. Arguably the name of the latter undercuts the magnificence of Windsor castle by proximity the small dwelling of Slough. By contrasting the two residencies, an emphasis is placed on class differences. The Hay Wain avoids any such statement, evading any problematic issues.
If Turner intended to depict a similar tranquil scene, turnips are not the obvious subject to choose. They are labour intensive, much harder to harvest than the crop in The Hay Wain.16 Arguably George Clausen’s choice of turnips as subject matter for Winter Work (1883-4; Fig 8) illustrates their negative associations. In Ploughing Up Turnips, Turner depicts one cow investigating the vegetables and another with its udder directly above the pile. This emphasises their low status as turnips tend to spoil the taste of the milk when fed to cows.17 They are also considered a last resort replacement for meat or bread for peasants in absolute poverty.18 To be reduced to eating turnips was seen as a sign of desperation. The turnip is a highly topical crop to depict, suggesting the effects of enclosure rather than the timeless image of the harvest in The Hay Wain.19 Only very recently had farmers begun using them as a form of crop rotation, to increase the fertility of the landscape.20 I disagree with Christiana Payne’s judgement of Ploughing Up Turnips, that ‘the message is clear: the King is the apex of the nation and the farm labourers are at its base, but both are united in their common effort against the French’.21 Although this kind of progressive agriculture was associated with George III, the turnip has long been used to mock the Hanoverian kings.22 The Going to Market print (1786; Fig 9) ridicules ‘Farmer George’ sending his turnips to market with royal guardsmen.23
Although Turner’s depiction of the poor isn’t explicit, I believe it offered a critique of the class system and undermines the monarchy. These feelings were held at the time by a minority of middle class radicals who criticised aristocratic indulgence and privilege.24 Arguably Turner allows for this interpretation by juxtaposing hereditary privilege with hard labour. The Liberals opposed the French war, considering it to economically benefitting the wealthy at the burden of others.25 This anger was also shared by a crowd of two thousand who attacked George III’s carriage in 1795, motivated by severe winters, crop failures and high wheat prices.26 While The Hay Wain paints a very reassuring image during post-war unrest, Ploughing Up Turnips illustrates something more troubling.
At a time of great unrest, The Hay Wain offered a serene reassurance that the working class were emotionless and anonymous. Their continual industrious schedule offers no chance of a break, unlike Ploughing Up Turnips which depicts a moment of inactivity and inefficiency. While Turner does not explicitly depict poverty or social unrest, his figures are more confrontational than those of The Hay Wain. Turner presents his labourers to be real people, acknowledging the harsh conditions of work. By juxtaposing them with Windsor castle, Turner undermines the class system and subtly mocks the monarchy by his association with turnips. The Hay Wain and Ploughing Up Turnips both present a valuable insight into the ideological positions which underpin perceptions of agricultural labour in this period.
Edwin Coomasaru, 2011
1 Ann Bermingham, Landscape and Ideology: The English Rustic Tradition 1740-1860 (Thames and Hudson: London, 1987), p.76, p.88.
2 John Barrell, The dark side of the Landscape: The rural poor in English painting 1730-1840 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1987, First published 1980), p.21.
3 John Barrell, p.151; Ann Bermingham, p.139.
4 John Barrell, p.19, p.132.
5 Ibid, p.1.
6 Brian Lukacher, ‘Nature Historicized: Constable, Turner and Romanticised Landscape Painting’ in Stephen F. Eisenman ed., Nineteenth Century Art: A Critical History (Thames and Hudson: London, 1994), p.121.
7 John Barrell, p.136; Ann Bermingham, p.11, p.73, p.127; Elizabeth K Helsinger, p.23; Christiana Payne, Toil and Plenty: Images of the Agricultural Landscape in England, 1780-1890 (Yale University Press: New Haven and London, 1993), p.2, p.8, p.13, p.23; Brian Lukacher, p.122, p.123.
8 John Barrell, p.135.
9 Christiana Payne, (1993), p.44.
10 Ann Bermingham, p. 11, p.139; John Barrell, p.16; Elizabeth Helsinger, ‘Constable: The Making of a National Painter’ in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 15, No. 2 (The University of Chicago Press: Winter, 1989), pp. 253-279, p.257-8, p.269; Brian Lukacher, p.122.
11 John Barrell, p.4.
12 Michele L. Miller, p.572, p.576.
13 Andrew Hemingway, Landscape Imagery and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1992), p.226, p.230, p.242.
14 John Barrell, p.154-5.
15 John Barrell, p.153; Michelle L. Miller, ‘J. M. W. Turner’s Ploughing Up Turnips, near Slough: The Cultivation of Cultural Dissent’ in The Art Bulletin, Vol. 77, No. 4 (College Art Association: Dec, 1995), pp.572-583, p.579.
16 Michelle L. Miller, p.576; Christiana Payne, (1993), p.16.
17 Michelle L. Miller, p.582.
18 Ibid, p.580.
19 Ibid, p.256.
20 Christiana Payne, (1993), p.19.
21 Ibid, p.88.
22 Michelle L. Miller, p.576-7.
23 Ibid, p.578.
24 Andrew Hemingway, p.30; N. Gash, ‘After Waterloo: British Society and the Legacy of the Napoleonic Wars’ in Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 28 (Royal Historical Society: 1978), pp. 145-157, p.152-3.
25 Andrew Hemingway, p.31.
26 Ann Bermingham, p.77; Michelle L. Miller, p.581.
Fig 1: J.M.W. Turner, Ploughing Up Turnips, near Slough, 1809, Oil on canvas, 102.2 x 129.5 cm, Tate Gallery, London.
Fig 2: John Constable, The Hay Wain, 1821, Oil on canvas, 130.2 x 185.4 cm, National Gallery, London.
Fig 3: John Constable, Golding Constable’s Flower Garden, 1815, Oil on canvas, 33 x 50.8 cm, Ipswich Borough Council.
Fig 4: John Constable, Landscape, Ploughing Scene in Suffolk, 1814, Oil on canvas, 51.4 x 76.5 cm, Private Collection.
Fig 5: John Constable, View of Dedham, 1814, Oil on canvas, 55.3 x 78.1 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Fig 6: J.M.W. Turner, Windsor Castle from the Thames, c.1808, Petworth House.
Fig 7: J.M.W. Turner, Frosty Morning, 1813, Oil on canvas, 113.5 x 174.5 cm, Tate Gallery, London.
Fig 8: Sir George Clausen, Winter Work, 1883-4, Oil on canvas, Tate Gallery, London.
Fig 9: Unknown Artist, Going to Market, 1786, Print, British Museum, London.
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