As 18th century England transformed itself from an agricultural to an industrial economy, its artists witnessed turbulent and disturbing changes that would not meet our modern interpretation of the word ‘romantic’.

Constable lived through one of the most eventful periods in the history of the English countryside. It spanned the agricultural boom years of the Napoleonic wars, the post Waterloo depression and the passing of the Great Reform Bill of 1832. In addition, the first part of the industrial revolution was well under way and brought painful change as:

  • common land was enclosed and given to landowners, denying peasants their source of food and leading to civil unrest including arson attacks (including Flatford and East Bergholt)
  • the countryside was depopulated due to mass migrations of men, women and children from the countryside to work in factories – note: England employed more than a million child workers, often in dangerous occupations, accounting for 15% of the total labour force
  • steam power started to replace horse and man power not just for transport via the railways but also for agricultural jobs that had previously been done by hand – for example harvesting and threshing

Politically anxieties ran high due to:

  • a national fear of revolution as America declared independence (1776) and bloody revolution and wars raging continually in France from 1789
  • the British prime minister Spencer Perceval being assassinated in 1812
  • a fear of invasion due to Napoleon’s ambitions for European domination – he was eventually defeated at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815
  • ideas of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity (watchwords of The French Revolution) driving change.
  • The Reform Bill of 1832 gave the vote to all householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more and The Slavery Abolition Act of1833 abolished slavery in the British Empire. note: thousands of African slaves passed through British ports in abject conditions. It is estimated that British vessels carried 3.4 million or more enslaved Africans to the Americas. The industry went from strength to strength, with profits from the slave trade pouring into British pockets
  • the Palace of Westminster burning down in 1834

As England became the richest trading nation in the world, there was a shift in political power as rich industrialists and merchants lobbied to share political power with land owners – people who were responsible for the country’s wealth wanted a say in how the country was run. Industrialisation brought enormous change to most people’s lives resulting in a higher standard of living for ‘the few’ while ‘the many’ were subject to appalling living conditions, exploitation and cruelty.