In keeping with the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic of 'truth to nature', much of this landscape was painted entirely on the spot. It offers a twilight view, looking east across rolling green fields on the Tenterden estate at Hendon in Middlesex. To the left of the picture, a farmer on horseback addresses the haymakers, who have almost completed the day's work. Another farm worker tends the horses, while a group of children await a lift home in the haycart. In the left foreground the artist himself rests against a small haystack, his equipment scattered about him. A full moon has just risen, and the setting sun strikes a distant house on its west side. Brown's aim in this picture was to achieve the effect of evening light, 'the wonderful effects…in the hayfields, the warmth of the uncut grass, the greeny greyness of the unmade hay in furrows or tufts' (Surtees, p.145). To this end, he began work at 5pm each evening, returning to the same spot about twice a week from the end of July until early September 1855. In October, after moving from Finchley to Kentish Town, he returned on several more occasions, and was sometimes forced to walk the fourteen miles there and back.
During the winter months Brown worked in the foreground details. He sketched a haycart at Cumberland market. He then painted in the artist and his props, working from a set in his conservatory, but he apparently used no models for the farmer, workmen and children. Many of these later features lack the freshness of the landscape setting.
The picture attracted criticism because of its unusual palette. In his 1865 catalogue Brown explained that 'the stacking of the second crop of hay had been much delayed by rain, which heightened the green of the remaining grass, together with the brown of the hay. The consequence was an effect of unusual beauty of colour, making the hay by contrast with the green grass, positively red or pink, under the glow of twilight' (quoted in Parris, p.134).
Brown's dealer, White, refused to buy the picture, claiming that the hay was too pink. Brown retouched the picture and later sold it to his friend and fellow artist, William Morris (1834-96), for 40 guineas.
Leslie Parris (ed), The Pre-Raphaelites, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery, London 1984, reprinted 1994, pp.133-4, reproduced p.133, in colour.
Elizabeth Prettejohn, The Art of the Pre-Raphaelites, London 2000, p.158, reproduced p.161, in colour.
Virginia Surtees, The Diary of Ford Madox Brown, New Haven and London, 1981, p.145.