THE HAY WAIN

(CONSTABLE)

C.L. BURNS

A little strip of country on the borders of Essex and Suffolk, not ten miles in length, and but two or three in breadth, presenting to the casual observer few features more striking than are to be seen in many other parts of England, but hailed with delight by painters for its simple charm, has exercised a wider influence upon modern landscape painting than all the noble scenery of Switzerland or the glories of Italy; for here was nurtured that last and greatest master of that school of English landscape painting, which made the Eastern Counties famous in the annals of art. He was so essentially English, it might be said local, in his feeling, that he never left his country, and produced his greatest works within the narrow limits of his native valley; in whom love of locality was indeed the very basis of his art.

The Hay Wain.

The Hay Wain.

Constable, for it was he, like Rembrandt, was the son of a miller, and was born at a time when the winds and flowing waters were powers in the land, bearing a golden harvest on their health-giving and invisible currents, turning sails upon countless hill-tops, and wheels in every river—before the supplanter, steam, was even dreamed of. His earliest recollections were mingled with the busy clatter of wheels, and the whirr of sails, as they sped round before the wind, was the music of his boyhood. His father, good man of the world as he was, holding a high opinion of the solid comforts gained by following his own profitable calling, placed his son, at the age of seventeen, in charge of a windmill, hoping thereby to curb his rising enthusiasm for the more glorious but less substantial pursuit of art. Alas! how little can we predict the effect of our actions. This one, framed to divert his purpose in life, was the very means of leading him to study more closely the ever-varying beauties of the sky, with its matchless combinations of form and colour, and all the subtle differences of atmosphere, which in after-life formed a distinctive feature in his work; and, for a landscape-painter, perhaps no early training could have been better. His daily occupation by bringing him continually face to face with Nature, and necessitating a constant observance of all her changing phenomena, trained his heart and eye to discover her secrets, hidden from the careless, but revealed to all true lovers of her wisdom.

The effect upon a temperament so artistic as Constable's was as permanent as it was quickly apparent. In less than a year we find his father reluctantly converted to his son's views in the choice of a career, and consenting to his sojourn in London, to learn the principles and technicalities of his profession, which he soon strove to forget and subsequently set at defiance. Two years of studio work was sufficient to convince him that his school was the open air; and in his own country, amid the scenes of his boyhood, he could shake off the chains of fashion, which bound the landscape-painter of that day, and go straight to nature for his inspiration. Concerning this he writes: "For the last two years I have been running after pictures, and seeing truth at second-hand. I have not endeavoured to represent nature with the same elevation of mind with which I set out, but have rather tried to make my performances look like the work of other men; I shall return to Bergholt, where I shall get a pure and unaffected manner of representing the scenes which may employ me—there is room for a natural painter;" a prediction which was hardly fulfilled in his lifetime, for, with the majority of even intelligent lovers of art, his works were rarely understood and never popular, though the appreciative sympathy of an enlightened few kept him from despair. But, appreciated or not, he had found his life's work, and henceforth his mission was to depict the scenes around his old home, and to express the love he felt so keenly for "every stile and stump, and every lane in dear Bergholt."

"Painting," he writes, "is with me but another word for feeling, and I associate my careless boyhood with all that lies on the banks of the Stour—those scenes made me a painter, and I am grateful."