At Flatford Mill: Real Life as Metaphor

Yesterday I was at Flatford Mill, the site of John Constable’s family business and the setting for some of his most famous paintings. Constable, like Van Gogh, is one of those painters whose work is so famous that it is difficult to actually ‘see’ it anymore. With Van Gogh, usually you ‘see’ the paintings once, the first time, and then you just see the t-shirts, coffee cups, and place mats after that.  I never ‘saw’ Constable at all, though. His paintings are so famous, and so ubiquitous on tea towels, coasters, and jigsaw puzzles, that I never even looked once, much less actually ‘saw.’ But with my daughter’s class at Flatford Mill, I looked at Constable for the first time—or at least, at the color reproductions we carried with us as we walked around the lush, green countryside visiting the places that he painted—and was amazed at what I saw: vivid, vivacious scenes of everyday life, painted with incredible intensity and love for the people and places depicted. I finally understood why Constable is so famous.

So yesterday morning, I was sitting in front of Constable’s father’s mill, on a bench that afforded me a view of Willy Lott’s house identical to the one that Constable painted in The Hay Wain, when a FedEx van drove up and parked right in front of my nose, blocking my view of Willy Lott’s house and the little mill pond and replacing it with the passenger door of the FedEx van, which had the slogan

The world on time

painted on the side of it. I was annoyed at the driver’s thoughtlessness—disrespect even—until I realized what a perfect example this was of metaphor imitating life, or life imitating metaphor, I’m not sure which. The FedEx van and its slogan are the perfect metaphor for the way the constant pressure of work and worry and deadlines obstructs my appreciation of the commonplace beauty of daily life—of looking at, really looking at paintings; of walking in the countryside on a gorgeous sunny day with my daughter; of sitting on a bench and simply doing nothing.

FedEx delivers the world on time, and for that I am truly grateful. But it also gets in the way of another world, a world that is just as important and, in fact, far more permanent than the one FedEx delivers. Constable painted a world so intensely present and so detailed that it is both a world completely in and of its time and a timeless world, too. The world that’s happening in The Hay Wain happens forever, and the fact that it happened at all is because John Constable stopped the other things he was doing and ‘saw’ it.

The FedEx driver picked up or dropped off whatever package he needed to pick up or drop off, and then he drove away, restoring to me my unobstructed view of Willy Lott’s house and another world—just in time, too.