The other month my daughter and I went to visit the William Morris Gallery in Walthamstow, London. It has been a place on my ‘to visit list’ since 2003 when I attended a Victorian Society talk about William Morris given by the then Keeper of the Gallery, Peter Cormack. It has only taken me 20 years to find myself in London with time to spare for a trip to the end of the Victoria Line and make the visit.
Of course, 20 years ago my daughter would have endured the visit as one of mummy’s art trips, but now she is an adult she is genuinely interested in the Arts and Crafts movement, and not just for the beautiful designs.
One of the galleries is called ‘Fighting for a Cause’ with an informative accompanying video presentation. We both found that rather interesting.
For me the highlights of the visit were to see original drawings by Morris for his designs and, in particular, the watercolour of his very first wallpaper design.
Also on display were carpet designs in mixed media such as the Wreath Design below and book designs for his private press, Kelmscott Press.
It was good to finally make a visit to the William Morris Gallery, but it wasn’t well-timed. One display room was closed for the preparation of a temporary exhibition, another gallery was shut for refurbishment and a third was off-limits due to some technical issue.
However, the visit was worthwhile and has provided the ideal subject matter for my final blog post. After all, it was the words of William Morris with which I chose to begin this whole blogging affair when I introduced myself on ‘About Agnes’ quoting – ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’.
Thank you for visiting, reading and commenting. Wishing my fellow bloggers all the best and take care of yourselves, Agnes. x
Anybody who knows me in real life knows that I am not big on marking so-called milestone events or celebrating significant dates, birthdays, Christmas, etc, but I am going to make an exception for once.
I am not having a party or anything like that, but I thought I’d just blog a couple of posts remembering some of my favourite scarves to mark my business being in existence for a * * * DECADE * * *.
If anybody had told when I launched ‘Agnes Ashe Silks’ I would still be in business 10 years down the road I would have fallen about laughing.
Back at the beginning I attended a week’s course ‘Starting a business and being self-employed’. One attendee, a helpful chap, told me and I quote “Nobody will fork out 95 quid for a scarf”.
Well, I have sold scarves for £95 and sold others too ranging from £45 to £125.
But back to my favourites. During the process of remembering and choosing my personal standouts I was pleased that I had kept each scarf’s product photo file in my ‘Sold’ folder. It turns out I had completely forgotten some. Perhaps not such standouts after all then, but on re-acquaintance I have been pleasantly surprised and included some of the forgotten.
Of course, much of my work is memorable to me particularly when the original inspiration is associated with specific places or specific works. For example there have been scarves inspired by medieval rood screens (Ranworth and Southwold), painted panels (Lady Drury’s Hawstead Panels) stained glass windows (Long Melford and Bury St Edmunds) and even golden coins (The Wickham Market Hoard at Ipswich Museum).
I have even taken inspiration from 20th century artists. This scarf, below, was inspired by an oil and pigmented wax picture painted by Paul Klee in 1940.
But I mustn’t neglect the floral scarves. There have been quite a few to choose from featuring my go-to motifs for flowers, leaves, curls and bows in various colour combinations using pinks, blues, turquoise, black and old gold.
Naturally, as a Brit, I have been to this place before.
It is a famous historical place nowadays dwarfed beneath the glass and steel of the City. Yes, you’ve probably guessed it is The Tower of London – those Ravens are a bit of a giveaway.
Many of us visit the Tower of London as part of a school trip or, as in my case, are taken by the parents.
And the four things I remember from my childhood visit are; it was a big, proper castle, the ravens were big too, the Crown Jewels were, well, crowns with big jewels and I was utterly bored by the seemingly endless display of armour in the White Tower.
This time, as an ageing adult, I went to the Tower with a purpose. I wanted to walk through the space that Thomas Cromwell had known. I really should have done my research BEFORE this overpriced visit. The Royal Apartments, including the Great Hall, that were the backdrop to the ‘Tudor’ events at the Tower were originally rebuilt by Henry III in the 1220s and 1230s, but are now all long gone.
Most of the Tudor palace of the 16th century was demolished during an extensive remodelling in the 1660s and any remaining parts that had been incorporated into other buildings were lost during the 18th and 19th centuries when more rebuilding was carried out. However, there are still random sections of old wall extant. These would have formed part of the rooms where Katharine of Aragon stayed on the night before her coronation procession with Henry VIII in 1509.
These would be the same rooms where later in 1535 Thomas Cromwell would interrogate Thomas More, and where a year later Anne Boleyn would be held before her execution on 19th May 1536. And then later still, those same rooms would be where Thomas Cromwell would spend his last hours before he was beheaded on Tower Hill (outside the boundary of the Tower) on 28th July 1540.
Interestingly, the bodies of Thomas More, Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell were all buried in the Chapel Royal of St Peter ad Vincula, the parish church of the Tower. Their graves had no markers until the Victorians, undertaking renovations in 1876, found human remains. These remains were re-buried and marked with marble slabs (no photography is permitted in the church).
Both Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell were imprisoned during the time of Henry VIII and endured relatively short stays in the Tower unlike those incarcerated during the reign of Elizabeth I. The leading Catholic peer, Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel was imprisoned in the Beauchamp Tower for 10 years. Many of the ‘long stay’ prisoners left their mark as graffiti carving signs and symbols into the stone walls.
On the day of my visit I arrived just after the Tower had opened and their were no queues. I stayed over two hours and by the time I left it was very busy despite the pouring rain. I didn’t bother to queue to see the crown jewels again, but I did walk up (all 247 steps) and through the White Tower and traipsed past all the armour again (still boring). However, there were one or two gems like the first official guidebook to the Tower by John Hewitt printed in 1854.
And, down in the basement there was a rather delightful video installation featuring significant historical events with ravens flying through and across the centuries.
The ravens in the video are luckier than the Tower’s resident living ones as they have their wings clipped to stop them flying away and spend most of their days caged.
Spring is most definitely on the horizon when you find yourself tidying up and decluttering in an attempt to let the increasing daylight hours suffuse your home with hope-laden brightness. One task on my decluttering list is to seriously, and I mean seriously, start deleting some of the 17,000 plus photographs clogging up my hard drive.
The process is time-consuming and mostly boring, but every now and then I discover a forgotten encounter. And, one such occasion was a presentation given by Bob Entwistle, Conservator at Christchurch Mansion, about this beautiful and intriguing black and gold japanned cabinet.
The talk was on a Saturday morning in March 2020 just as the world was learning about a formidable, novel virus and a global pandemic heading our way. At the time we weren’t required to wear masks, but we were given latex gloves to handle precious objects and we joked gently as someone stepped back turning away to cough. Whoa – how little we knew then and, strangely, how long ago it all feels now.
Anyway, I digress, back to this magnificent object. Overall, it is about 1.4 metres tall and 45 cm in width. The main cabinet was made in China sometime in the late-seventeenth century or perhaps in the early part of the eighteenth century and is decorated with gold flowers and birds on a black lacquer background. It has European additions possibly from the nineteenth century which I think you can tell from the photographs. The legs of the cabinet have a curved European style. These cabriole legs are also decorated with Western floral motifs.
There are a number of drawers which make up the main body of the piece. This main drawer arrangement can be extracted as a whole section from the carcass and put aside.
Then another ten ‘secret’ drawers can be accessed in the walls of the carcass. During a restoration that was undertaken in 2005 tiny seeds were found hidden in one of these draws.
The cabinet is now on display in the Green Room of Christchurch Mansion and it is a splendid example of chinoiserie that could have been collected by the Fonnereau family living in the mansion during the eighteenth century, but that is not the case. Following the donation in 1894 of an empty Christchurch Mansion by a property syndicate to Ipswich Borough Council the process of buying back furniture and art as well as buying similar pieces to decorate the mansion began. And the lot, ‘Queen Anne lacquer cabinet with black and gold decoration fitted with cabriole legs’, was listed in the country house sale of over 1,500 lots of the furniture and effects of the Brooke family of Ufford Place near Woodbridge, Suffolk. The cabinet was purchased for the Mansion from that 1930 sale for £110 and five shillings. That is about £8,300 in today’s money, but when I looked at recent values for similar antique chinoiserie cabinets they have sold from between £15,000 to £38,000. A good investment for Ipswich not that the Museum Service is going to be putting it up for sale anytime soon.
Interestingly, back in 2015 the cabinet returned to China for six months to be part of the display for an exhibition ‘Georgian Life’ taking place at Nanjing Museum, Nanjing, Jiangsu province, China. Bob Entwistle accompanied the shipment of the museum pieces on loan from Suffolk to Nanjing.
When the cabinet was unpacked at the museum Bob showed his hosts the Chinese classical script found on the woodwork at the back of one of the drawers and he was finally able to learn its meaning. Apparently, somewhat disappointingly, it translates as left and right simply providing functional information for the correct fitting of the drawer into its slot.
This picture that hangs as part of the permanent collection of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, is one of my favourite oil paintings. It is called ‘Interior with Mrs Charles Burnand’ and was painted by Anna Airy (1882-1964) in 1919. The photograph was taken with my phone and I think something of the soft and welcoming warmth that is so enchanting in the real-life painting is lost with the sharp automatic focussing and exposure of the phone camera.
Fortunately, I had my DSLR camera in my rucksack, but, not so fortunately, I had the single focus lens attached, the one I normally use for scarf portraits. All wasn’t lost as, although I couldn’t physically get far enough away to capture the whole painting in one shot (it’s situated in a narrowing part of the room just before a doorway), the lens easily coped with the gallery low lighting.
And, the resultant photographs are interesting as the daubs and brushwork are clearer and the mellowness of the painting is more noticeable.
Paintings of interiors, and particularly domestic interiors, are less common than views of landscapes and portraits of people. Could it be that the themes and subjects of Art when commissioned for the private and not public sphere are often as much to do with fashion and status as with any other aspects of human societies? Landscapes of my estate/lands/view yes, portraits of me/my family/my connections yes, but interiors of my personal private space not so much. Or, could it be simply pragmatic as before the arrival of gas and then electric lighting it was difficult to paint interiors from life? Or, could it even be that the subject matter was too domestic for many male artists? This painting is an example of a woman’s visual creativity. It is interesting to consider that aside from the 18th-century Conversation pieces it isn’t until the Victorian era that painting of interiors become more popular as subject matter.
If you haven’t come across Anna Airy before here is the biographical detail provided by the curators at the gallery.
Airy was born in London in 1882. In 1899 she entered the Slade School of Art. She had a great artistic talent. During her five years at the Slade she won all the first prizes awarded, including the Slade Scholarship and the Melville Nettleship prize for three consecutive years. From 1905 she regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy. In the following years, she became a member of many important artistic groups and societies.
During the First World War she was employed as a war artist, producing some of her most outstanding work of munitions factories and women working in a gas retort house. After the war she concentrated on figure painting, landscapes, flower compositions and still life. She was a highly skilled and gifted artist who was able to work well in all mediums, including oils, watercolours, pastels, etching and crayon. Airy and her husband moved to Playford, a village five miles from Ipswich in 1933. In 1945 she was elected the President of the Ipswich Art Club, a position which she held until her death in 1964.
In 2018, Sotheby’s in London sold the painting ‘Walton Bridges’ by J M W Turner to an overseas private buyer. According to the Arts Council, once certain cultural goods reach or exceed specific age and monetary value thresholds, the goods require an individual licence for export out of the UK.
‘Walton Bridges’ was painted by Turner in 1806 and as such is considered a significant early Turner work. It is now also worth £3.4 million thus meeting the requirements for an Export Stop, a pause in the granting of an export licence. This became the point at which the process of fundraising to save the painting for the nation began. In 2019, with considerable funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, the Art Fund and a private donor, the painting was purchased for the country. And, as none of the public museum collections of Essex, Suffolk or Norfolk held a Turner for public display, it was decided that ‘Walton Bridges’ would have a new home at the Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery. East Anglia would at last have a Turner.
As is the way these days, there are loans and sharing between museums across a region and as part of this practice ‘Walton Bridges’ has so far been shown at Colchester Castle Museum and Lynn Museum. It is currently at Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich, as part of the ‘Landscape Rebels’ exhibition and will eventually return to Norwich in 2023.
The exhibition ‘Landscape Rebels’ explores how human activity impacts landscapes and has split the exhibition into different categories of rebels. These include Nature Rebels, Art Rebels, Coastal Rebels, Global Rebels, Local Rebels and Material Rebels. Naturally, ‘Walton Bridges’ is part of the Art Rebels section as Turner’s works are known for challenging how landscapes and seascapes were traditionally depicted particularly with his painterly expression of light. His painting of this particular Thames crossing is complemented in the exhibition with a loan from the National Gallery, London, of Claude Monet’s ‘The Thames Below Westminster’, painted in 1871.
It isn’t just that both these paintings feature the River Thames, but Monet too was an artist who offered a new, different way of seeing and can also be considered an Art Rebel. I thought it was fascinating to see these two paintings side by side and up close as well. To stand before the work of two artists, a couple of generations apart, but both 31 years old at the time they painted these pictures, was fascinating. They both challenged the received conventions of their time and rebelled.
And, finally if you were wondering about the header photo, it’s another river, not the Thames, but the River Orwell shrouded in mist. I wonder what Turner and Monet would have made of the digital revolution and today’s pictures taken on mobile phones? Detail, colour, mood all achieved instantly, momentarily assessed, perhaps saved and shared, but just as likely to be instantly deleted.
Today, 24th November, marks a couple of birthdays in our family. My great-grandfather, Harry Whatmore was born on 24 November 1879 in Limehouse, London. He was probably born in the family home, 32, West India Dock Road. According to the 1891 Census he was still living there 12 years later along with his parents, William and Ann, and his four sisters and three brothers.
In this photograph of Harry, I gather he was over 80 years old at the time, you can see a small statue in the background on the windowsill. A strange oriental piece that shows a Chinese man growing out of a lump of knobbly wood.
The sculpture has been in our family since one of Harry’s older brothers, Bill, a seaman, brought it back from a stint in the Far East. It is carved out of a single piece of irregularly, lumpy wood. I think it might be cedar root and possibly an example of the Chinese traditional folk art of cedar-root carving.
As I look at the old family photo, below, I wonder what happened to the sisters and the other brothers of Harry and Bill. I don’t remember my grandmother every talking about them although she did once mention the Limehouse Whatmores had been involved with running some kind of Christian Seamen’s Mission on the West India Dock Road.
I expect Bill brought other gifts back from overseas, but my grandmother was a great one for selling off stuff as and when required. She was certainly not sentimental by nature. This is the only known ‘art’ survivor from her family and it was not appreciated by my mother at all (she thought it rather creepy), but it was a favourite with my father.
The exhibition ‘Soheila Sokhanvari: Rebel Rebel’ at the Barbican opened on 7th October 2022 and runs through to 26th February 2023. I thought it brilliant and extremely memorable, and, the ‘space’ has everything do with the shows impact. Sokhanvari has created an environment that envelops, almost strangely cosseting the visitor, and hung within this world of engulfing geometric pattern, are miniature portraits of 28 Iranian women from pre-Revolutionary Iran.
Last month, it felt timely to visit ‘Rebel, Rebel’, as this exhibition shows portraits of Iranian women who were working in the creative arts before the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
As we have recently seen on the news there are ongoing protests in Iran challenging some of the laws of the clerical regime. This period of protest began following the death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who apparently did not have her head appropriately covered. She was arrested by the morality police in Tehran on 13 September for apparently violating Iran’s strict rules requiring women to cover their hair with a hijab or headscarf. These laws are part of the theocratic society of Iran that came into existence in 1979.
The women featured in this exhibition were active in Iran before its Islamic Revolution during the Pahlavi era between 1925 and 1979. Their stories from this time have rarely been told.
Nowadays we might call these women feminist icons of the period. Despite the conservative, male-dominated society of their times they successfully worked in the realms of literature, theatre, film and music.
Soheila Sokhanvari has painted a series of portraits using egg tempera painted on calf vellum. The finished paintings have a soft lustre and are bright with colour bringing a vivacious quality to her subjects. Short biographies of all 28 creative women can be read here.
Also as part of the exhibition, there are a couple of hologram installations showing ‘Cosmic Dance I’ and ‘Cosmic Dance II’. And, at the very end of the gallery space there is a suspended star, made of two-way mirrors and perspex.
Once settled on a large comfy cushion you can watch clips of Iranian films shining out from the centre of the star showing some of the women whose portraits hang in the exhibition.
Sometimes I see an old painting and immediately it strikes me that something about it is not of its time and has instead a familiar, more contemporary quality. And this was precisely the case when I looked at the painting of the Gosnall twins, Master Thomas and Master John, painted in around 1749 by Francis Cufaude (c.1700-c.1750).
The twins were born on 8th August 1745. and their family, the Gosnolds/Gosnalls, claimed descent from Edward III through their great-great-grandmother, Winifred Pole. This painting is currently hanging in the Rococo Drawing Room of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich.
Obviously, this representation shows the twins in the appropriate dress for their age and class during the eighteenth century. However their staring, blank expression with a hint of smugness, looks modern to me. They could just as easily have turned up with the twin girls in Stanley Kubrick’s ‘The Shining’. I think it’s the foreheads?
Tucked behind the main buildings of Christchurch Mansion there is a small tranquil garden, the Wolsey Garden, and despite its formal structure it has beds planted in a loose, informal style. The main walkway is bordered with a hedge of clipped yew whilst the smaller beds of the garden are edged with lavender that spills over the paths softening the hard edges.
The garden is planted with a mixture of herbaceous perennials with evergreen domes of yew in the middle of the beds to provide yearlong interest and structure.
At this time of the year it is the floriferous lilac asters that bring colour to the design and complement a delicate silvery sculpture that makes an elegant focal point for this small space.
The sculpture, ‘Triple Mycomorph’ by Bernard Reynolds, was donated to the garden by local businessman and prominent member of The Ipswich Society, Tom Gondris, in memory of his parents Eugen and Else. Tom’s family were a Czechoslovakian Jewish family living in Sudetenland in 1938. When his parents recognised the imminent threat from Hitler they were able to arrange for their only child, Tom, to board the last Kindertransport to leave Czechoslovakia. Nine year old Tom left his home and, sadly never saw his parents again. More about his fascinating life story can be read here.
When I visited the garden earlier this week it wasn’t only the asters still in flower, but a few semi-double white roses added both colour and a light scent to this quiet and peaceful space.
Before I wrap up this post I must draw your attention to the magnificent, mature cedar that stands on the western boundary of the Wolsey Garden.
Its striking evergreen form will become more and more prominent when its deciduous neighbours drop their leaves as the autumnal changes gather pace.
Sometimes a national event becomes a moment to note that nothing is fixed forever. The recent ten days of state mourning and a state funeral is one such example.
Visit any local parish church and you can see how the great and the good have been memorialised in stone or glass to be remembered to the end of time! Naturally, as with most aspects of human society the expression of commemoration is subject to the form of the times and the ability to pay for the memorial. The fine and elaborate tomb of Sir Robert Drury and his wife, Lady Anne, reflects the status they enjoyed whilst alive and the elite memorial fashion of the early sixteenth century.
By the time of the eighteenth century more and more middle class professionals and their families were worthy enough and had means enough to be publicly remembered and were able to afford wall monuments.
But if we revisit the medieval period we find memorials which are less a decorous celebration of a life, but more a prompt to the onlooker to consider their own mortality. One expression of this sentiment is the Transi or Cadaver Tomb. There are over 40 medieval cadaver tombs extant in England and Wales and one of these is for John Baret (d.1467) and it can be found in St Mary’s Church, Bury St Edmunds. Baret was a wealthy cloth merchant and a gentleman of the household of the Abbot of Bury St Edmunds who had his memorial constructed in 1463, four years before his death.
This particular cadaver tomb is unusual as traditionally the tomb had a clothed human effigy on the top of the tomb, and the naked emaciated corpse below. Baret reversed the convention and had his single-carved, three-quarter sized, naked corpse on the top with his miniature, clothed version below on one side of the tomb in bas-relief.
Baret also had these words carved near his effigy’s head, “He that wil sadly beholde one with his ie, May se hys owyn merowr and lerne for to die“. (‘He that will sadly behold me with his eye, may see his own morrow and learn for to die’.)
These days it appears we have travelled a long way from the clear-eyed almost brutal memorials of the medieval dead to a time where youth is lauded to such an extent there is almost a denial that death exists at all. If there’s one positive to be taken from the ten days of national mourning, it is that it provided an opportunity for ordinary people to discuss their own experiences of loss and bereavement more openly.