Caught by the River

Hay Wain Watcher Watching

Adam Scovell | 20th April 2018

Adam Scovell observes members of the public as they interact with John Constable’s 1821 paintingThe Hay Wain’

“A large part of seeing depends upon habit and convention.” – John Berger, Ways of Seeing


A driver is allowing his horse to cool in the River Stour, trickling through the border between the counties of Suffolk and Essex. A dog is watching on from the side, curious as to why a cart has stopped in the water. Willy Lot’s Cottage of Flatford Mill is shaded by trees whilst a small wooden boat is moored among the reeds. Watching the dog is man who is much taller than the rest of the figures. He is wearing a puffer jacket and has a shaved head, Diesel Jeans and a mobile phone which is hovering over the cottage. The river and the building are seen through a screen whose white light is cast briefly in a rectangle, a quick flash capturing the image before the modern giant moves on. The man is in the National Gallery in London looking at John Constable’s 1821 painting, The Hay Wain and I am watching him.

The National Gallery has a pleasant atmosphere on weekdays. Unlike at weekends, when certain rooms feel more like a rugby scrum, those early morning meanders on dreary Tuesdays and hopeful Thursdays provide a respite in what must be the most exhausting square mile of the capital. Sometimes, in between working around Soho cafes, the shining lull of the National Gallery’s crimson and turquoise rooms holds a special draw. But Constable’s painting has a very particular pull over my wayward meander around the gallery, not least because of its own undeniable beauty; a defining moment in English pastoral art. Having sat staring at it for too many hours, however, a new and far more unusual hobby has developed: Hay Wain watcher watching.

Observing how people engage with traditional paintings is nothing new but there’s something about The Hay Wain that elicits interesting and puzzling responses. It also has one of the gallery’s rigid mahogany and green leather seats directly opposite it from which to enjoy the spectacle in comfort. Such a hobby developed from initially finding frustration in the distracted bodies of people walking past and stopping in front of the painting. A twenty minute stare could be broken with ease by someone idling into view, blocking the horse and cart or Willy Lot’s Cottage enough to bring me out of the work, so to speak. But quickly, the desire to actually see how others engaged with the work grew, to the point where it overtook actually looking at the painting itself.

It’s a Wednesday morning and I’m avoiding work. The gallery has only been open for an hour and it is already unusually busy. Footsteps echo with muttered voices and people perform in that unique way when in such a space, like the hushed reverence of a church but with a better gift shop. The seat opposite The Hay Wain is taken by a young couple kissing and remains so for most of my stay but the adjacent seat is empty. I begin to watch as viewers pass by. A woman pushes another in a wheelchair, elderly and wearing a red coat. The older woman indicates with a simple gesture of her hand that she wishes to stop. They come to a standstill and stare on in a moment of silence. “You like this one don’t you?” I hear one of the women ask, breaking the quietude like a pebble in water. The other acknowledges with a nod, clasping her hands together and looking towards The Stour as if in polite respect.

A woman and her young son walk by. “That’s a famous one,” she says to the boy, pointing at the painting. They fail to stop to admire it but instead throw it a lightening glance on their way out of the room to somewhere presumably more interesting. The other pair of women leave slowly, making way for three members of a family. The man is looking deep into the painting, getting so close as to almost seem to be smelling the oils or the passing water; as if his proximity to it will yield some new meaning. His partner is reading a small piece of paper about the rest of gallery whilst the young man with them reads the information panel. “Nice light in the clouds,” the older man says. “There are Turners in here,” his partner responds as if raising the ante. They move on to the Turners further into the room, seeming almost disappointed before leaving with a walked sigh. More people arrive, trickling like the river but never stopping for long.

Time to enjoy the painting becomes nearly solely measured by the time taken to photograph it. Almost uniquely, such photographs only take in a small segment of the six-foot painting; the size actually denoting The Hay Wain as part of a series that the artist painted on this particularly sized canvas. I was reminded of the dramatic opening from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing television series where, without any context or opening, the writer walks towards a hung painting and, Stanley knife in hand, proceeds to cut the head off one of its figures. His point was that, building on certain ideas of Walter Benjamin, the act of seeing a painting changed variously and dramatically in the age of mechanical reproduction. Though not so dramatic as Berger cutting into the canvas, most viewers of The Hay Wain were in some way engaged in this act; the cut being digital, the knife being their phone.

The groups became larger as the hour drew on, making this act of digital cutting more necessary – that is if the photographer did not want people in front of their own personal, segmented Hay Wain. In groups of three and four, people stood around the painting in concentric semi-circles, as if performing a ritual. The painting was dredging up memories for some but not always strictly connected to its East Anglian landscapes. “I think we were near there once,” a man said to another, hinting at a minor holiday perhaps long ago. “Our booking at Garfunkel’s is at 12:15 remember,” another said agitatedly, breaking his glance from the painting regularly to check a watch. What were these people really looking at? Was it a painting of a river, a capital investment worth millions, or an idea of a good painting? I thought briefly about Fathers4Justice who, only a few years back, stuck a picture of an activist’s son onto the painting, though not damaging it. The personal held most sway over us all and our time spent with a work, even if that time was fleeting and mediated on a screen.

As lunchtime approached, people began to disperse and the hour of Hay Wain watcher watching was soon to end. Individuals came occasionally, forever photographing the cottage of the painting in particular again and again. This reignited my own memories and made the action seem comical. Willy Lot’s Cottage is now used as accommodation for courses run by the Field Studies Council. Because of this, I’d stayed in the cottage thrice with my father when much younger; pond dipping where the horse cooled off, moth trapping in nearby forests, identifying fungi with the local expert, and even learning some of my earliest swearwords from a hungover Nick Baker who ran a course one particular summer.

Constable’s painting had become mixed with memories of these experiences. I could even picture my Longworth trap hidden in the scrub of the field seen behind where we caught and weighed a vole. It was far from an airy Pastorialism and was instead a place that held fond memories, intricate almost due to the range of activity there explicitly linked with its landscape. But, so I thought, with all of these cameras out snapping that treasured moment in the presence of The Hay Wain, would the viewers be so trigger happy with their roaming digital eye if they knew that the part of the building captured then by Constable in his beautiful painting, was now a toilet?