Making Hay While The Moon Shines

Ford Madox Brown ‘The Hayfield’, 1855–6

Ford Madox Brown painted ‘The Hayfield’ in 1855 and ’56. Although there is an idyllic pastoral quality here, the site represented is actually only just outside the metropolis: this is Hendon, Middlesex, then a village in the countryside but which has long since been engulfed within the sprawling mass of Greater London, a city whose unprecedented growth was at this midpoint of the nineteenth century particularly feverish. One of the many fascinating aspects of this artist’s oeuvre is his unusual interest in the space on or just beyond the edge of cities and in suburbia, as some of his other paintings such as An English Autumn Afternoon (1852-3) and, his most famous work, Work (1852-67) exemplify, through their depiction of Hampstead. This painting deserves to be read in the context of this spatial emphasis, the suburban being an innovation of subject matter that is sometimes wrongly credited to the Impressionists. Like Monet, Madox Brown too was devoted to painting from nature, en plein air – the summer he made this painting, he would often walk in the late afternoon the seven miles from Finchley, where he was living, to this field, in order to capture the particular effect of twilight on the working landscape. I love the resting figure of the artist himself, in the bottom left, in sandals, leaning against one of the bundles of hay, still clutching his easel, soaking up the warm evening, and appreciating the hard physical work of the farmhands, even as he takes a rest from his own less physically strenuous labours.

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