I accredit my maternal grandparents with providing me the first living memory I have of British culture.
They lived in a simple house on the edge of town, eclipsed by a huge chemical refinery. My grandfather, my father, our neighbour, my friends’ fathers, in fact most of the men in town seemed to work there. The small cluster of basic two-bedroom houses was cut off from the rest of the town by a toxic canal. Its green, sluggish waters ran from the swampy marshes of the east, straight through the industrial plant and into the mile-wide river that separated us from the next state.
Every house was exactly the same design, distinguishable from the next only by colour. I would stretch-out on my grandparents’ sofa as a young child and gaze above at the wall. Thereon hung a large reproduction painting. It was the type you would buy at Sear’s or any large budget department store; mass produced and uniform. It echoed the homogeneousness of the houses that consistently lined the street.
It is only for having spent hours on that sofa, staring at that picture, that I remember its detail. As a 4, 5, 6 year old I would spend the night and fall asleep with the painting being the last thing flickering through my drooping eyes. Its images became familiar friends.
In my head I would make up stories from figures within the frame. The wagon driver was a mean and shrunken old man. The black horses were scared that the river ford would suddenly and irretrievable deepen. The friendly dog on the river bank looked the same as the one in my school reading book.
I never knew the name of the artwork as a child but its image was embedded in my memory for life.
Fast forward 20 years and I am living 3000 miles away in another country. I am flicking through the four television stations which served as British viewing options in the late 1980s. There is a programme about Britain’s most beloved works of art. I watch the countdown as the presenter works his way through Turner, through Hogarth, through Blake. He announces what he professes as the most beloved British painting of all time…
…my hands went straight over my mouth in disbelief. There, filling the screen was John Constable’s the Haywain. It was my grandparents’’ painting. I immediately recognised the old man, shrivelled and mean; the quaking horses fearful of drowning. The laughing dog came running into my arms as if having missed his master for 2 decades.
Skip forward two and half more decades. And a bit more. To today.
Me: You could combine the project with some work on John Constable. He painted The Haywain only about 25 miles from where you will be taking the children on the school trip.
Teacher: (scribbles down notes)
Me: It is a small village called Dedham. In fact, you can stand on the very spot where Constable painted it. It would be a really good chance for the children to do some historical comparison of environments.
Teacher: (continues scribbles down notes)
Me: I took a group there myself a few years back. We sketched the view as it is now and compared it with the original.
Teacher: (furiously scribbling)
Me: There is now a huge tree on this side of the river where the dog is and only a section of the mill remains. Obviously the trees on the far bank are gone…
Teacher: (still scribbling) …obviously
Me: …one of the children I took wrote a fantastic poem afterwards about a seed of one of the now long-dead trees being the origin of the new tree on this side of the river.
Teacher: (shaking cramp from hand before returning to note taking) …fantastic poem…
Me: I’ve got a great personal story about The Haywain.
Teacher: (having stopped scribbling) can I ask you a question?
Me: Of course. (poised, dear readers, to recount the story which opened today’s blog)
Teacher: Who is John Constable?
Keep the Faith,