The strange death of Constable’s rural idyll

Daniel Villar explores how the English countryside has changed since John Constable painted The Cornfield

IMAGE: Wikimedia Commons

We often look to the British countryside as a place of solace. In a forever changing world, the countryside is a place where things remain still – where hardworking men with calloused hands labour from the cock’s morning crow until the sun’s western farewell, where the problems of modern Britain seem distant.

Urbanites might even remark that some patch of the countryside resembles the paintings of Gainsborough or Constable. Yet a passing glimpse of one of those paintings will show us how wrong we are to imagine that the land in rural England has remained constant. Look at John Constable’s The Cornfield (1826), and you will see a landscape unlike any that survives in Britain today.

The Cornfield is a particularly apt painting for discussing the changes in the British countryside since the advent of the industrial revolution. It depicts a boy leading sheep down a dirt path, stopping for a moment to take a drink from neighbouring stream. Above him tower mighty elms, and on the other side of the dirt path there is a hedgerow which demarcates the end of a field out of frame.

In the background is a farmer with his plow, working in the titular cornfield. The whole scene is the picture of unchanging rural idyll. And yet today no such landscape exists. Look at a modern British landscape, and you will see no elms, and rarely a hedgerow. Even the shape and structure of the cornfield will be radically different.

Let’s begin with the elms. Most British landscape paintings from before 1900 feature a treescape dominated by elms. Far more than the beech, ash, and oak with which we associate our rural woodland today, elm was the British tree. Yet today you hardly see any elms. Indeed in Britain, elms are a conservation priority. Over 90% of all elm trees in Britain died in the span of only a few decades, due to one invasive fungus from China.

Related  Films for Freshers

This fungus causes Dutch elm disease, which blocks the xylem from moving nutrients up the elm, killing it. In elms’ place, trees which are more familiar to us – such as oaks – have grown, and your average British countryman would likely be unable to point out his nearest elm.

Hedgerows are often seen as being a quintessential part of the British countryside. These strips of hedge have delineated fields from each other for millennia, and in that time have evolved a unique ecosystem. Many birds and butterflies have evolved to be obligate on hedgerows, unable to live anywhere save this artificially constructed environment. The last half-century has seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of hedgerows found in Britain, and with it a decline in those species which rely on hedgerows.

This change in the landscape is a byproduct of the Green Revolution, when farming became properly industrial. Farms grew in size, and with that growth came the removal of the hedgerows separating fields. But more devastating for the hedgerows was the growth of fencing. Aided by government subsidies to modernise British farming, and driven by a new industrial profit driven mode of production, hedgerows across Britain have been torn down to make way for more efficient, but less ecologically useful, fences.

Farming itself has changed more in the past 50 years than in the previous 10,000, a product of the Green Revolution and the widespread use of scientific methods in agriculture. Of course, in the early 20th century, the sort of hand-driven plough that we see in The Cornfield had long disappeared, but the principles of farming hadn’t changed. The growth of synthetic fertilisers, pesticides, and herbicides, as well as scientific breeding, has changed all that.

Our crops are more uniform than they would have been in Constable’s day. Our corn grows in straighter lines, and requires less tilling, meaning that we are getting more food for less manpower. Even the structure of the soil has changed with industrial agriculture, killing off native communities of micro-arthropods, earthworms, and fungi in favour of bacterial monocultures.

Related  Review: Swim Deep - Where The Heaven Are We

Look at The Cornfield again. Is it still that unchanging rural idyll that you see as you drive between Oxford and London? Or is it a bygone era, with a flora and a fauna unlike any which we see in modern Britain? Less than two centuries separate us from The Cornfield, yet it is unlike any cornfield you will see in Great Britain today.