WIVENHOE PARK, ESSEX

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The Major General Francis Slater–Rebow commissioned John Constable (British, 1776-1837) to paint a picture of his country house at  Wivenhoe Park in 1816.

The General intended Wivenhoe Park to serve as a visual record of the improvements to the estate carried out during his tenure as owner. He specified the parts of the property to be shown in the picture, including the house, built in the 1750s; the artificial lake and the dam that regulates it; the palings and fences that protect the trees from deer and keep out poachers; the fishing of the lake by net; and the establishment of alleys and paths for carriage traffic.

The conspicuous fencing reflects the practice of enclosure, whereby access to manorial lands, traditionally open to tenant farmers for their use, was restricted to the owner. Judicious landowners such as Rebow who correctly managed and protected their estates by enclosure insured its undivided and unencumbered transmission to the next generation.

Enclosure preserved the landed gentry’s hegemony at the expense of the tenants and villagers who, deprived of arable and pasture land, were driven into poverty. The Black Laws of the 18th century granted landowners the right to shoot peasants caught poaching on their properties.

The ideology of enclosure of Wivenhoe Park extends beyond its iconography. The stipulations of the commission required Constable to depict aspects of the property that could not be seen at once from a single viewpoint. To solve this problem, he created a custom-sized, panoramic scene by stitching three pieces of canvas together and adjusted the positions of the house, lake and trees so they could all be apprehended at once. Just as the General had transformed the estate’s contours and reasserted its boundaries, Constable enclosed the estate in a single, unified, artificial point of view.

Wivenhoe Park was purchased by the British government and transformed once again into the campus of the University of Essex, which opened 50 years ago. Wivenhoe House is now a four-star hotel managed by the University’s Hospitality School and its students.

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