Engineer the Future with Constable

The Wheat Field 2050, Constable X Lovett

Salisbury Cathedral from Lower Marsh Close (1820) by John ConstableNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Artists in the 19th century captured on canvas the daily lives of people in rural and urban settings. These ‘old masters’ depict scenes that will be familiar, but they tell a story that belongs firmly in the past.   

Landscape with Windmills near Haarlem, after Jacob van Ruisdael (1830) by Constable, JohnDulwich Picture Gallery

The UK's goal of reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050 is a massive undertaking. Decarbonisation on this timescale and of this magnitude will bring widespread changes to every aspect of daily life.

The Wheat Field (1816) by Constable and John ConstableMuseum of Engineering Innovation

From how we produce our food to how we travel around, our futures will be shaped by today’s engineers and engineering. 

If Constable was alive in 2050, what stories of change might spark his creativity? What feats of engineering might help us to live more sustainable lives? What, through Constable’s eyes, could a net zero world look like in 2050?

The Net Zero Wheat Fields (1816) by Constable, Lovett, John Constable, and Ashly LovettMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Constable depicted a traditional farming community harvesting wheat, with harvesters, gleaners, a boy with a dog and a distant ploughman.

This reimagined landscape captures how engineering could be used in farming landscapes that might be needed to help the UK reach its goal of net zero by 2050. Improving our land use, energy consumption and how we grow crops will help us protect the planet.

Engineer the Future - Ashly Lovett Commentary (2021) by Lovett, RAEng, Ashly Lovett, and Royal Academy of EngineeringMuseum of Engineering Innovation

In discussion with Ashly Lovett

Behind the scenes with the digital artist who reimagined Constable's The Wheat Field

The Net Zero Wheat Fields (1816) by Constable, Lovett, John Constable, and Ashly LovettMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Whereas farmers were historically relied on manual labour, this re-imagined painting shows how agricultural engineering could transform the way we work to produce food and fuel in 2050. 

Kit Franklin, Senior Lecturer in Agricultural Engineering at Harper Adams University, says: “The artistic reinterpretation of Constable has removed the hard physical labour and repetitive tasks of agricultural farmhands as autonomous robots take on the work humans would have traditionally done.”

Hidden in the field, and in the foreground of the painting, the artist imagines solar-powered robots. These robots could help to automate farming processes, from weeding to harvesting, carrying out pre-programmed tasks to give farmers more time to focus on other agricultural work.

Using robots in farming will help reduce food waste by ensuring that fruit, vegetables, and grains, are picked at ideal times. 

Data-driven farming can also help reduce food waste, pesticide use, over-watering and over-fertilising. Technology could allow enough food to be produced for our growing population without a reliance on hands-on labour. 

Hovering above the field, the artist paints agricultural drones, showing how precision farming techniques may alter the way we pollinate and water crops, providing reports on crop health and surveying large stretches of farmland in a reduced timeframe.

Soil compaction occurs when heavy machinery drives over fields and land. If we use drones for more agricultural needs, we could reduce soil compression and increase the health of our fields. This can help with drainage and increase soil nutrition, resulting in healthier crops. 

Kit Franklin says " we’ll see smaller machines in future to help preserve soil quality and health.  A healthy soil is not only vital for growing food, it can also sequester carbon more effectively than one that has been compacted by large machinery."

Drones can also work alongside insects in the farms of the future. From delivering insects to reduce pesticide use, such as bringing ladybirds to a field being attacked by aphids, to drones helping pollinate crops that are out of season for particular insects, we could see more technology being used in harmony with nature.

In the sky, traditional aviation may give way in favour of hydrogen planes with zero-emissions flight. The shape of these aircrafts may diversify in order to maximise efficiency and range.

To the far left of the painting, several bison can be seen, providing an insight into the part rewilding may play in reaching net zero. By re-introducing native species into our environments, it may be possible to reduce the biodiversity loss we’re currently seeing, while also providing several environmental benefits.

Bison can help reduce wildfires as they break through dense undergrowth, and they have large appetites – eating plant material that would be vulnerable to burning. Many European countries are at risk of wildfires doubling if there is a 3°C increase in  global warming. 

Bison hooves also help to churn the soil, reducing the amount of surface runoff and reducing the risk of flooding. 

Today, there are more trees than there were 35 years ago but there’s a lack of species diversity.  Grown for paper and fuel today, in 2050 increased woodland means increased variety of trees to support biodiversity. 

More hedgerow highways could also be used to support insect and bird life and more varied forests could enrich our ecosystems.

As temperatures rise, new ways of creating buildings will be needed.  Making sure temperatures are correct inside a building without wasting energy heating or cooling it, is one problem engineers are currently working on. 

We may see tented structures in the future, where the shape of the building itself regulates temperature – cooling when it is hot outside, and warming when it is cold. This reduces energy consumption and is actually inspired by termite mounds, which funnel air throughout to maintain an even temperature.

Strip farming may become more common. As opposed to whole fields being planted with a single crop, different crops can be grown and harvested alongside one another. Between harvests farmers can grow cover crops to naturally capture large amounts of CO2, restoring soil organic matter and reducing flooding.

This can help soil health as part of a crop rotation system as the soil won’t be overworked. It can also be used when a slope is too steep to farm and can help prevent soil erosion. The use of drones and autonomous lighter farm machinery allows strip farming to be more efficient and better uses our land.

In the future we might look out on an intricately patterned landscape of different shapes and colours, strips of land that curve round contours, with stripes of multi-coloured crops, bordered by wildflowers and rapeseed.  Our future landscapes might be works of art!

Kit Franklin says " If Constable were to walk in the British countryside in 2050, he’d see smaller fields with strips of different coloured crops, and less productive fields rewilded with trees, wildflowers and shrubs to boost biodiversity and pollination.” 

This landscape highlights engineering feats of the future that may help the UK reach its goal of net zero by 2050.  

This artwork was reimagined by artist Ashly Lovett, based on Constable’s 1816 The Wheat Field.

The Wheat Field (1816) by Constable and John ConstableMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Reimagined Wheat Fields labelled (2021) by Lovett, Constable, RAEng, Ashly Lovett, John Constable, and Royal Academy of EngineeringMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816) by John ConstableNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

John Constable is known principally for revolutionising the genre of landscape painting with his pictures of Dedham Vale, the area surrounding his home – now known as "Constable Country" – which he invested with an intensity of affection.

Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816) by John ConstableNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Entering the Royal Academy Schools as a probationer, he attended life classes and anatomical dissections as well as studying and copying Old Masters. He believed that landscape painting was scientific as well as poetic. 

Wivenhoe Park, Essex (1816) by John ConstableNational Gallery of Art, Washington DC

Science, nature, and art are entwined, and creativity and ingenuity are both required to reach our net zero goal. This artwork is one in a series to capture the engineering feats of the future that could help to decarbonise the UK by 2050. 

Ashly Lovett Headshot by Ashly LovettMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Known for her captivatingly ethereal artwork in chalk pastel, Ashly Lovett is a freelance illustrator, writer and gallery artist. Inspired by folklore and mythology, she hopes to bewitch her viewers with a deep sense of wonder. 

Ashly Lovett Headshot by Ashly LovettMuseum of Engineering Innovation

She has done licensed work for Jim Henson Company, Adult Swim, Netflix, SEGA, and more. She received her BA in Illustration from Ringling College of Art and Design and has exhibited in galleries from California to New York. She lives in Louisiana, USA with her  husband Matthew, son Leon, and fat cat Skeletor (a.k.a. Skelly.)

TIEday masterpieces - Constable timelapseMuseum of Engineering Innovation

Watch behind the scenes of this digital reimagining 

View the other exhibits in the reimagined series:

Engineer the Future with Monet

Engineer the Future with Pissarro

Engineer the Future with Van Gogh

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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