I am indebted to another of our Volunteers, Tony Harris, who, knowing of my interest in the wagon depicted in Constable’s ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’, loaned me a small book entitled ‘Wagons and Carts’ by David Viner (Shire Publications, 2008).

David Viner is a museum and heritage consultant and a freelance curator, with a long-standing interest in carts and wagons.

The first thing I should say is that I am grateful to note that I fortuitously got the terminology right in my previous two blogs, for a cart has two wheels and a wagon has four.  A second issue concerns spelling – is it waggon or wagon? My dictionary shows that either spelling is permissible. Viner says that the former seems the older word, and seems also to be associated more with the use of road vehicles rather than those used in agriculture. However, this terminology is not consistent and differs according to location, as do variations in the design of wagons themselves.

Viner identifies two basic types of wagon, the box wagon and the bow wagon. The box wagon, as its name suggests, is little more than a box sitting on an undercarriage or frame, whereas the bow wagon is of a more elaborate design. Viner says that box wagons, although showing marked regional variations, were common across the whole of central, southern and south-western Britain from at least the Eighteenth Century onwards. Bow wagons, on the other hand, were much associated with the South Midlands, and also featured strongly in the south-western counties and South Wales.

Bow wagons are elegant constructions in which longitudinal timbers attached to the sides of the wagon, called ‘raves’ rise in a “gentle arch” over the rear wheels.  In fact, there are four types of rave, from bottom to top known as the inner rave,  middle rave (or mid-rail), the top rave and the outrave. The outrave, or outer rail, is angled outwards from the side of the cart to facilitate carriage of a greater load. In the bow wagon, the inner and outer raves rise in an arch over the rear wheels.

wagon 1

It is apparent from this description that the type of wagon depicted in ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ is a bow wagon. However, far from ‘rising in a gentle sweep over the wheels’, the curve is much more exaggerated, reinforcing my belief that Constable employed artistic licence in the portrayal of this vehicle.

Viner also says that a further group identifiable within the bow wagons classification are known as ‘ship’ or ‘cock-rave’ wagons, due to the rising up of the body over the rear wheels, evocative of the shape of a ship or of a cockerel’s tail. Thus, instead of turning downwards towards the shutlock (the end cross member of a wagon or cart), the hoop rave remains in a horizontal plain behind the wheel.

The illustration below is a Devon ‘ship wagon’ or cockrave, so-called because of the way the raves ride over the wheels.


Another example is this 1911 horse-drawn Somerset ‘cockrave’ wagon:


It is apparent that the wagon depicted by Constable in ‘Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows’ is of this type, namely a cockrave wagon.


 In writing this piece, I came across Amy Concannon’s article, ‘The Painting’, in Amy Concannon (ed), In Focus: Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows exhibited by John Constable, Tate Research Publication, 2017: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/in-focus/salisbury-cathedral-constable/the-painting (accessed 2nd May, 2017) in which she states, “… the cart (sic) is reminiscent of that in The Hay Wain,  modified here to display the characteristics of a particular kind of vehicle, the bow wagon, specific to the south-west of England”.

In writing this, Concannon made reference to:  Constable, exhibition catalogue, Leslie Parris and Ian Fleming-Williams, Tate Gallery, London 1991, p.364.

Amongst other things I am learning what beautiful things these wagons were… Thank you Alan.