July 24, 2004

Dixton Manor haymaking: a visual encyclopedia.

Bruegel. Haymaking. 1565. Cole. Haymaking.Very few of the hundreds of paintings depicting the various phases of haymaking (mowing or scything, tedding or turning the hay to help it dry, raking, forking, cocking, carting, stacking, etc.) show several successive activities in the same scene. The most famous exception is perhaps the great Bruegel painting in the Prague museum (see the database ID 2012-2016 for detailed activities). Less well known is a nineteenth century scene by George Vicat Cole. Chronologically between these works is the "Countryside around Dixton Manor" , a magnificent haymaking panorama painted by an artist as yet unknown, in Gloucestershire, England, in the early eighteenth century. John Harris, in the Observer Magazine (4 November, 1979, p.60) called this painting "one of the most evocative pictures in the whole of English art. There is nothing like it either in its day or at any other time: to stand and look at this picture is to be taken through the looking glass."
Countryside around Dixton Manor. c 1715.

Countryside around Dixton Manor. c 1715. left detail Countryside around Dixton Manor. c 1715. right detail.

Unlike Bruegel's more famous work, which conflates the folkways of northern Europe with idealized scenery based on the artist's Italian journey, this anonymous prospect painting, though similarly dramatic in its perspective, is rooted firmly in a specific time and place. The work now hangs in the Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum, only a few miles from a scene depicted so accurately that the view of the same fields, hills and hedgerows can still be identified today. The vista includes some of the rolling limestone Cotswolds, topographically enchanting enough to attract the tourists who now vastly outnumber the population still working in the fields.
Countryside around Dixton Manor. 1991 photographs.

This is one of two intricately detailed landscapes, each roughly 3 feet by 9 feet, painted from the same hill in opposite directions. The other, which hangs nearby and is shown below, depicts Dixton Manor itself, the Manor Farm, a few cottages, several small fields crowded with livestock, the family (named Higford) alighting from a coach, and one barely visible haystack in the middle distance to the left.
Dixton Manor House. c 1730. detailDixton Manor House. c 1730. left detailDixton Manor House. c 1730. right detail.

According to Jane Sales, whose article “The Dixton Paintings” in Gloucestershire History ( 1992, pp. 12-16) is an excellent description and historical analysis of the works, the topographic accuracy of the paintings may reflect the use of some form of a camera obscura. The large, unenclosed meadow which occupies most of the "Countryside"painting and contains most of its human activity was called Mickle Mead (Great Meadow) and lay mostly within the bounds of the village of Stanley Pontlarge. The meadow was divided into square plots rather than linear strips, owned by a few wealthy families, including the Higfords of Dixton Manor. In his Rural Economy of Gloucestershire, 1796, much of which I have transcribed elsewhere, William Marshall noted that while “the Hay is private property…the Aftergrass is generally common to the township...” The patchwork of plots and the vast communal enterprise are both clearly evident in the painting, but the variety of labor shown is unlikely to have been done all at the same time. Since the artist was not concerned with a coherent temporal sequence, it is left to us to parse the scene into a series of separate vignettes, some of which are illustrated below, in barely legible images.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: 23 scythers).Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: tedding).Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: cocking).Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: making cobs from cocks).Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: loading hay on wagon).Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: carting).

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: 23 scythers).The primary activity is done by the line of 23 men in a diagonal line to the left of the center of the meadow. Just beyond them is a section of uncut grass; behind them and to their right are narrow swathes, which Marshall, in comparing the scythers of Gloucestershire with those of more northerly counties, specifically admired. The regularity is due to “the narrowness of the swath-width and the shortness of the sithe…the Yorkshireman drives a width of nine or ten feet before him, the Gloucestershireman of six or seven feet only.”

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: gentry crossing swathes).Just to the right of the section being mowed, significantly almost at the meadow’s center, three riders, thought to be the local gentry, guide their horses carelessly onto the narrow swathes of fresh-cut grass, having crossed the broader windrows that have already been fluffed up to dry.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: tedders).
The actual work of fluffing and turning (tedding) is shown in a section to the right of center. The typical tedding team is apparently one man working with five women with rakes.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: cocking).The next phase, shown just to the left of the mowers, entails the raking of the windrows into small piles or “cocks.” Marshall also described this work. “It is the practice to form hay into ‘windcocks’ previous to its being put into stack. This enables the hay to be made when fuller of sap giving it superior quality.” Like tedding, cocking is also shown being done by a team of one man and five women.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: making cobs from cocks).Three distinct sizes of hay pile are clearly shown in the painting. The smallest and most numerous (143 can be counted) were still called cocks in the hayfields of my childhood. Piles of intermediate size and frequency, of which there are 97 in this scene, we called “cobs.” Another team of five is shown building cobs, in a section just beyond the tedders. Closer to the observer are rows of the smaller cocks. Helped as usual by four women rakers, a man is consolidating the cocks by forking them onto the top of cobs, encouraged by a musician standing nearby.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: loading hay on wagon).The final phase of the meadow work is the loading of the hay from the cobs to the wagons. This is shown in two widely separated sections, one at the lower left, the other at upper right.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: loading hay on wagon).The two being loaded are carefully shown to have a slight hollow at the top of the load to allow the final forkfuls to stabilize them. There are five wagons in the painting, each drawn by four horses in tandem, driven by two men with poles. Jane Sales astutely noted that each of the lead horses wears a differently colored plume, perhaps to distinguish different ownership.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: carting).Two fully loaded wagons are being led off in opposite directions, perhaps to different villages. At the far left one is heading for the lane that angles towards the sunlit distance, and at the end of the swathes being tedded another is being led towards the right (see the large image, below left).

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: haystacks and empty wagon).The fifth wagon is empty of hay but full of people. Ironically, the empty wagon is shown being pushed, perhaps playfully, by a small boy, one of several lads enjoying the lively environment, from which small girls are apparently absent. In the background, beyond a section of cobs and behind a hedge, we see a group of the largest size stacks, substantial enough that they may be left to stand there until they are fed to the animals.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: carting)Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: procession of haymakers)Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: Morris dancers)

The three images above, two scanned from postcards, the third, downloaded from the excellent Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum website, show more clearly some of the wonderful details of the painting. The one on the left depicts women with rakes making cobs, a wagon with its usual complement of two drivers and four horses, the leader with identifying plume, and two small boys rushing across the windrows. The one in the center shows a musician leading a dozen workers, nine women with rakes, and three men with forks, two of whom are merrily dancing, along an aisle of cocks, beyond contrasting textures indicating an uncut section and a corduroy of swathes. Two other women with rakes stand by the background hedge talking to a reclining male. The right-hand image above shows many of the details already discussed, along with a line of seven colorfully dressed morris dancers led away from the field by two musicians. Apart from the child’s play, the musicians, the procession of workers and the Morris dancers, there are several other recreational scenes around the fringes of the work, showing the artist’s familiarity with the time-honored conventions of haymakers’ rest and romance.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: haymakers resting). One flirtatious group is near the left entrance to the meadow, whence one of the wagons has just lumbered. A woman is walking towards them with a lunch-basket on her head. Nearby a couple dances in front of one of the musicians.

Dixton Manor, haymaking (detail: haymakers resting).Another group rests at the center of the painting by the far hedge, some lying, others leaning on their rakes. Sitting nearby is an animal, possibly a dog, apparently huge because of the naïve perspective, which while topographically accurate shows, for example, sheep in the foreground and on the distant hills at almost the same scale.

Countryside around Dixton Manor. c 1715. left detail Countryside around Dixton Manor. c 1715. right detail.

Such charming inconsistencies only enhance a scene which is both epic and intimate. The details reproduced here are insufficiently sharp to do the painting justice. Recently, I was fortunate enough to be able to visit Cheltenham, where I closely inspected the original, and, with the generous guidance of curator Paul Mckee, browsed through a thick pile of documentation. Careful examination revealed a peaceful army of at least 133 people (71 male, 62 female) waging a cheerful collective campaign to bring in the hay before the weather, signified here by scudding clouds beyond the Cotswold horizon, could spoil the harvest on which the animals in the companion painting depended.

Like the other hay paintings in our database, "Countryside near Dixton Manor" may not describe precisely the process of haymaking during its period. But the meticulous attention to detail both of its separate sections and of the stage on which they are set, along with Marshall’s partial but almost contemporary descriptions, give us some confidence that this, more than most hay in art, is a visual encyclopedia of haymaking. The internal consistency and repetition of several of the elements, for example, the wagon teams of four horses and two drivers, and the work groups of five women rakers with one male forker, also increase our documentary confidence. Especially gratifying is the corroboration of our earlier essay on Women with Rakes: there are in this landscape no fewer than 46 women with rakes, some resting, most working. Finally, many of the activities shown here survived from the early eighteenth century until my own 1940s boyhood in Warwickshire, at the other end of the Cotswolds from Dixton Manor.

In the words of John Harris, the Dixton haymaking scene is "an epitome of rural England. Our unknown painter has taken out of time a moment in the hay harvest and expressed on one canvas all the joy that accompanied this hallowed annual event...The scene is like a rite -- we perhaps forget that haymaking was as redolent of meaning as a church service." Paul McKee, noting the immense and growing popularity of the work among visitors to his museum, has suggested that [it] "may be used by imaginative teachers as the starting point for all manner of educational work in artm history, geography, music dance, drama and creative writing" (TES, 29 January, 1999). Indeed, of all the works in our own virtual collection, few bring together as many of the multiple themes which the Hay in Art project is exploring.

Posted by Alan Ritch at 02:01 PM