What do you think Tobias?

Earlier this week, the Prime Minister announced further changes as part of the loosening of the lockdown in England. Amongst other cultural venues, museums and galleries will once again be able to open their doors and admit the general public from the 4th July .

Tobias Blosse (1565/6-1630/1) 17th century English School 1627-8. Oil on Canvas. Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich. Tobias Blosse was Portman and Bailiff of Ipswich and Captain of the Ipswich Train Band. In this portrait he was aged 62.

I can’t help but consider when looking at this portrait of Tobias Blosse (photo from a pre Covid visit) that his expression and pose suggests he might just be thinking ‘yes, yes I have seen this all before and humans will, as usual, forget surprisingly quickly all the horror of this plague’.

On a personal level, I am not sure how I feel about going to the cinema, which necessitates sitting inside with little ventilation for two or three hours. However, walking through the galleries of my local museum or visiting Christchurch Mansion to find inspiration for my work will be much welcomed. It will be interesting to see if wearing a mask is suggested – I think it might be necessary in some of the smaller venues. Following the advice given at the final daily Downing Street Briefing, Patrick Vallance and Chris Whitty called for individuals to mitigate risk. They said wearing face coverings was one way to fulfil that requirement!

Earlier this morning I received an email from ‘The Wallace Collection’ announcing their reopening on 25th July and informing everybody of the ‘new normal’ procedures for visiting the Collection. Strikingly, the opening hours have been reduced to 11 am to 3 pm and you have to pre-book your visit. I am waiting to see if this version of the new normal at a busy London gallery will be replicated at local museums and galleries across the regions.

Here’s a summary of the instructions for visitors from the Wallace Collection website.

I expect with local museum’s often occupying much smaller premises there may have to be even more restrictions. The days of spontaneously popping in for a 15 minute break to look at a favourite painting, or wander randomly through a display of Roman finds to divert oneself from the present, would appear to now also belong to the past.

Inspirational pattern detail so delicately painted on the portrait.

During the lockdown I have found books and the Internet have been useful along with strolling through the park and cemetery, but I am most definitely in need of being up close and personal with treasured objects from our past, even portraits of grumpy looking gents like Bailiff Blosse. In Tobias’s defence, I would just say that when standing in front of the canvas he does not appear quite so grumpy (apologies for the lens distortion Tobias).

As the gradual loosening of the lockdown continues and we find a new normal we will be reminded that as with much of human life, that some things are simply better experienced directly in person even if it now means more planning and less spontaneity.

Contemporary or Early Medieval?

Sometimes it is only too easy to make assumptions. This image of a rather smug looking cat could be a ‘Good Luck’ greeting card or a contemporary print.

In actual fact it is one of twelve similar, although not identical, twelfth-century lions carved in relief to decorate a marble font bowl.

The square font bowl is made from black Tournai marble and is set on a Tudor stone base. Although Tournai marble fonts decorated with lion motifs are found throughout Europe, there are only nine in England. This particularly fine example can be found in St Peter’s Church, College Street, Ipswich.

There is evidence of a church on this site since Saxon times and further evidence of a stone building from 1130 when an Augustinian priory dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul was established to the east and north of the church. It is thought that the font dates from the latter part of the twelfth century and that it is almost certainly the original priory font.

The font arrangement we see today in St Peter’s was organised by Cardinal Thomas Wolsey when he claimed St Peter’s in 1528 following the dissolution of the priory.

A frieze of monumental lions passant decorate the font.

However, the damage to the font base we see today occurred after the Cardinal’s time. This deliberate defacing of the figures was carried out by William Dowsing, when according to his journal, he visited Ipswich on 29th January 1643.

The black marble font atop the Tudor base featuring now defaced figures.

Through the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries the Suffolk wool trade brought prosperity to Ipswich. The extensive rebuilding of the old church begun by Wolsey was continued after his fall and death with the wealthy parish funding the rebuilding work.

These days, something that no doubt would have surprised Cardinal Wolsey, St Peter’s is no longer a site of Christian worship. The church, redundant since 1973, was converted in 2006-08 to a music and arts centre. It is a popular venue in normal, non-Covid times regularly hosting ‘The Ipswich Hospital Band’ and a ‘Jazz by the Waterfront’ series.

These cats look like they’ve taken a few sips from those beer glasses momentarily balanced on the rim of the font as enthusiastic jazz fans offer their applause at the end of a set. And, here’s to a return of the music in the not too distant future.

Note – April 2020 – I made this visit before the Covid Lockdown and like many public places this building is currently closed.

Nature drawn and/or photographed – ‘Art Forms in Nature’ Exhibition

It is always a pleasure to visit a thoughtfully curated exhibition.

From top left clockwise: Koelpinia linearis (Compositae), Centaurea Kotschyana – Knapweed, Hamamelis japonica – Japanese witch-hazel, Echinops sphaerocephalus – Great globe thistle, Pale globe-thistle. Photogravures, 1932

And, this was particularly so when I went to see ‘Art Forms in Nature’ at the Ipswich Art Gallery. The exhibition was comprised of four collections of images showcasing nature. The main area had a display of 40 photogravures by Karl Blossfeldt, the main upper gallery showed botanical drawings by Guy William Eves, and two smaller side rooms were devoted to specialist classification imagery.

From the left: Euphorbia – Spurge, Centaurea Grecesina – Knapweed, Cotula turbinate – Water buttons, Buttonweeds. Photogravures, 1932

The photogravures of natural forms by Karl Blossfeldt are fascinating. They are a Hayward Gallery Touring exhibition. Each image is beautifully and elegantly framed and mounted, and with discrete labelling (white on black), the main wall of 16 had both a classic and contemporary appeal. It invited closer inspection of each single photogravure.

Phacelia congesta. Photogravure, 1932

It is hard to believe these enlarged close-ups capturing such detail are nearly 90 years old.

I was new to Blossfeldt’s work and am now a fan not least as I know I will be returning to his images for pattern and motif inspiration.

Erodium chrysanthum – Yellow storksbill. Photogravure, 1932

Whilst the downstairs gallery featured a German photographer’s work the upstairs space was filled with work by the local artist and botanical illustrator, Guy William Eves.

Now here is why I think this is a thoughtfully curated show – you walk up a staircase having just examined how the lens captures plant detail to come to a collection of detailed drawings showing how the eye and hand creates a record of botanical forms.

From the left: Iris, Lily Head, Magnolia. Pencil drawings

Botanical illustrations are about accurately recording the form of a plant, and yet at the same time a visual artist, such as Eves, offers us both the required accuracy and a personal interpretation. A myriad of choices are made as Eves develops each representation. His skilfully drawn studies suggest the presence of living material all created through line and shading.

Ferns. Pencil drawings

I think you can see (even in these photos) there is something added by a fine artist when you compare Eves work with the purely accurately rendered scientific drawings and watercolours such as these of flies and fungi.

Fungi – Leslie Green ( 1918-2007), a Suffolk fan of fungi. Watercolour.

And, furthermore, if we compare Eve’s drawings with Blossfeldt’s dramatic, intense photogravures, you might agree that the drawings certainly differ having a more vital and radiant quality.

Lily Head. Pencil drawing

One final point, of course, you are currently looking at all these natural forms several times removed. The artists/photographer have created these works, I have then photographed them (with varying amounts of light and reflections issues, I apologise for the less than optimal quality) and uploaded them to a computer and you are now viewing these images on a screen. Somehow this has deadened their presence. If you don’t get the opportunity to visit this exhibition, I hope you might spare a moment to take a much, much closer look at the next gift from Mother Nature as it crosses your path.

Ornithogalum umbellatum. Pencil drawing

The Fourth Plinth at Night

Walking through Trafalgar Square in the evening these days is still a noisy and bustling affair, but with all the cleaned buildings and the National Gallery artfully lit, the experience is definitely an improvement from my first memories as a newly arrived student in 1979.

The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist (2018), Michael Rakowitz’s sculpture for the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, London

Also, back in 1979 the fourth plinth beneath the towering Nelson’s Column was empty. In fact it had been empty for 150 years until the current series of temporary artworks was begun in 1999. The present sculpture is the twelfth artwork to top the plinth. It is a replica of an Assyrian lamassu statue that was destroyed by ISIS/Daesh at the Mosul museum in 2015. The original had guarded the entrance at the Nergal Gate of Nineveh (near modern day Mosul) from c700 BC.

Lamassus were protective winged deities with the body of a bull or lion and the head of a man. Some of these statues that stood at the gates of ancient Assyrian cities and palaces as symbols of power are nearly three thousand years old.  

The lamassu beneath Nelson’s Column and in front of the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.

This particular lamassu has been created by the Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz. He is an artist who, within his creative practice, has been considering peoples and cultures that have been under threat of being deliberately erased, and, to this end he has created counter-monuments such as this lamassu. This piece is one of his series  ‘The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist’, a project he began in 2006. His hope is to recreate many of the 7000 cultural objects that have been lost forever. Some of these were looted from the Iraq Museum in 2003, whilst many others were destroyed across the country during the Iraq War.

Detail showing the date tree motif on the date syrup cans.

From the pavement below it isn’t obvious at first glance precisely what this sculpture is comprised of. However, gradually you realise the surface decoration is tin cans. The Lamassu is made from 10,500 empty Iraqi date syrup cans and you can even spot the date tree motifs. Selecting date syrup cans was not a random choice. Of course not, this top decorative layer is informing us about another type of loss as a result of the Iraq War, the loss of one of Iraq’s traditional food export businesses.

Placed on a plinth in Trafalgar Square beneath Admiral Lord Nelson, the lamassu’s style and content is very much a counter to the traditional representation of wars and war heroes as seen with the sandstone Nelson atop his granite column. This lamassu is colourful, transient and recycled, literally made from the remains of everyday food packaging. I think it challenges the hubristic ideas of permanence, stability and the ‘forever’ notion that the stone Nelson monument suggests. Trafalgar Square may not be under water within the next 30 years, but much of a London that even now is a forever changing building site, will probably be looking very different. See London 2050 flood map.

Not all that glistens is gold: The Wickham Market Hoard

Now the statement ‘Not all that glistens is gold’ in this case is a bit of a naughty comment to attach to the Wickham Market Hoard of late antique coins. It implies the coins are not made of gold whereas it is just that they are not pure 24 Karat gold. Pure gold as we know is a soft metal and is unsuitable for circulating coins and therefore over the centuries various gold alloys have been used.

The Wickham Market Hoard on display at the Ipswich Museum.

The Wickham Market Hoard is comprised of tribal coins made of one such gold alloy. The alloy in this case is a mixture of gold, silver and copper. The coins of different tribes of this period are known as staters and were marked with different symbols.

At the time these coins were in use in Britain, around 10 BC to AD 10, Julius Caesar had already been and gone from our shores, and Britain wouldn’t be officially conquered and part of the Roman Empire until Emperor Claudius’s campaign of AD 43 .

The Romans had, of course, been minting coins for the empire and Roman coins circulated in Britain from Celtic times, but regional tribes also minted their own coinage. Roman coinage had consisted of coins of gold, silver, orichalcum (a brass-like alloy of copper and zinc) and copper. However, the tribal finds dating from this time are hoards that comprise of gold coins only.

The Wickham Market Hoard was discovered in 2008 and is the largest hoard of British Iron Age gold coins to have been found in more than 150 years. There has been nothing of comparable size since the discovery of the Whaddon Chase Hoard in Buckinghamshire in 1849.

A couple of the less worn Freckenham staters clearing showing a horse motif.

On display at the Ipswich Museum, the Wickham Market Hoard consists of 840 staters. That is 830 are Freckenham staters, five are Snettisham staters and five are Ferriby staters. These coins are named after the villages in which the coins were originally discovered. Freckenham is a village in west Suffolk and the staters found their were made by the Iceni tribe.

Gold tribal coins. Freckenham staters showing the horse motif.

These coins have a horse motif on one side and on the reverse a pair of crescents motif with a cross formed of dots or a flower.

Crescent moons on the reverse of the Freckenham staters.

The Snettisham staters were first found near the village of Snettisham, west Norfolk, and were also made by the Iceni. These staters have a similar horse motif, but this time it has a sun symbol between its legs and the reverse of these coins is nearly blank.

A couple of the Snettisham staters with a sun motif between the legs.

Finally, there are the five Ferriby staters so-called as these were discovered as part of a hoard found in north Lincolnshire in 1900. These were made by the Corieltauvi who were a tribe from the East Midlands. These coins also have a horse on one side. It is a more stylised version as the horse’s head is a triangular shape and the body is made up of a series of crescents. The reverse of a Ferriby stater has a wreath of laurel leaves.

Three of the Ferriby staters with a horse motif made of a triangle and crescents (probably easiest to see on the middle example).

These coins struck with their fascinating images are over 2000 years old, and yet the design for the horse motif on the Freckenham staters has a timeless quality. When I first saw them I knew that they would be the basis for my next collection of silk scarves.

Remembering the Joy of the Mechanical in the Digital Age.

Last week I went to visit the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition currently showing at the Ipswich Art Gallery. It is a fascinating, stylish display of visually elegant and appealing mechanical artworks.

Baba Yaga from ‘Baba Yaga’s House’ by Keith Newstead.

And, what’s more you get to push small, red buttons to make the automata work in all their whirring and squeaky intricacy.

‘Goat and Bucket’ by Paul Spooner. Mechanical sculpture.

In these digital times it’s easy to take for granted all our speedy, convenient tech. We click and scroll without a second thought as to what is actually going on beneath the screen.

‘Sit up Anubis’ or ‘Sleeping Musculature’ by Paul Spooner. Mechanical sculpture.
Pendulum clocks from 1699.

It wasn’t always so and the ‘Marvellous Machines’ exhibition reminds us of all those bewitching clockwork and mechanical objects from the past. Some examples such as mechanical toys were purely for entertainment and some were functional equipment that was often beautiful too.

Hammond 2 Braille typewriter, 1884. Hammond’s company motto was ‘For all nations, for all tongues’. You can swap different parts around to type in 14 different languages.

Functional objects from the past on display in this exhibition included a braille typewriter, a rather attractive ‘shrimp’ sweet making machine

Shrimp sweet making machine. (Donald Storer and Richard Durrant used this machine to make shrimp-shaped sweets at ‘The Homemade Sweet and Rock Factory’ in Felixstowe between 1950 and 1988.)

and a scale model of the an early Otis lift.

Scale model of Waywood-Otis automatic lift, early 1900s. Waywood-Otis used models like this to show-off their technology to customers. Traction lifts use pulleys and counter weights to move up and down.

Of course, humans have used mechanisms to make moving toys for thousands of years.

Naturally, in an Art Gallery some of the works on display are examples of art. These delightful mechanical sculptures by Paul Spooner are exquisitely crafted, and are both beguiling and witty.

Barecats by Paul Spooner. Mechanical sculpture.

I particularly liked the manner in which the mechanics are also on display in this piece. It has become an expression of our contemporary culture to reveal inner workings. Here you can see the cogs and spindles are finely made and are assembled in a functional and satisfyingly ordered arrangement.

Spaghetti Eater by Paul Spooner. (notice the flowing taps too) Mechanical sculpture.

Another work by Peter Markey, Artist-Painter, resonated surprisingly strongly with me. It’s as if he has been spying on me!

Artist-Painter by Peter Markey. Mechanical sculpture.

‘Marvellous Machines’ featuring these quirky pieces from Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, continues at Ipswich Art Gallery until 3 November 2019. If you can’t get to Ipswich a list of upcoming events displaying some of these mechanical sculptures is available on the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre website. Finally, Cabaret Mechanical Theatre sell some of their work online offering one-offs, limited editions and even ‘build your own’ kits.

Artist-Painter by Peter Markey.
(Looks like I feel when faced with another weekend of decorating this old house!)

Evocative art: The Family of Man, To Give Light and The Siren Installation

Last week I accompanied my father to a summer’s evening concert at Snape Maltings. I am old enough (just) to remember being driven past the old Maltings when it was being converted into a concert venue from 1965 to 1967. It was one of the earliest examples of an industrial building being repurposed for arts use. The whole site has expanded considerably over the intervening five decades. As well as the main concert hall there is now the smaller Britten Studio, rehearsal rooms, cafes, restaurants and bars, holiday accommodation and a variety of retail outlets including the Snape Antiques Centre and The Maltings Gallery.

The Family of Man is an unfinished sculpture by Barbara Hepworth, which was created in the early 70s and unfinished at the time of the artist’s death.

All round Snape Maltings has pitched itself as a cultural centre and as such hosts visiting art installations that are placed amongst permanent works by Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth.

‘To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms)’ (2018) – Ryan Gander. Close-up of No. 3 Southern Lighthouse Optic (1871)

When I was at the Maltings back in June, for a sublime performance by Vox Luminis as part of the the Aldeburgh Festival, a fitting installation was on display called ‘To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms) by Ryan Gander.

‘To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms)’ (2018) – Ryan Gander. Commissioned by BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead, as part of Great Exhibition of the North, 2018.

1 Lighthouse lamp (1847) – the gas-powered lamp from the first coal-gas powered lighthouse in England, in Hartlepool
2 Cat’s Eye (1934) – invented by Percy Shaw (1890-1976), born in Halifax
3 Southern Lighthouse Optic (1871) – the optic (lens arrangement) from the first lighthouse to use electricity in Marsden, South Shields
4 Incandescent Light Bulb (1860) – invented by Joseph Wilson Swan (1828-1914), born in Sunderland
5 Geordie Lamp (1815) – miner’s safety lamp invented by George Stephenson (1781-1848), born in Wylam, Northumberland
6 Cloisonné Vase Lamp (1878) – the first lamp to use an incandescent light bulb at Cragside, Northumberland; Cragside was the first house in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity
7 Quick Break Light Switch (1884) – invented by John Henry Holmes (1857-1935), the light switch was designed and patented in Newcastle upon Tyne
8 LED light (1907) – the technology behind LED (light-emitting diode) was first discovered by Captain Henry Joseph Round (1881-1996), born in Staffordshire
9 Flamborough Lighthouse (1674) – built by Sir John Clayton in Yorkshire, the first lighthouse in England
10 Safety Match (1824) – the world’s first friction match
‘To Give Light (Northern Aspirational Charms)’ (2018) – Ryan Gander. The walking couple give you some idea of the scale of this work.

Last week, we saw another art installation had joined ‘To Give Light’. Round the other side of the Concert Hall, near the main entrance, there is a slightly raised mound between the Maltings and the River Alde. Set on the lawn, unmissable and incongruous, currently stands a fisherman’s hut complete with ‘A’ board pavement signs.

The Siren Installation – Roger Hardy. Commissioned for ‘Siren Festival’ Aldeburgh, 2019.

However, there’s nobody selling fish from this hut. Instead, a small crowd of carved people trapped inside the hut gaze out at our world in dismay at the polluted and damaged oceans. (This work was originally sited on Aldeburgh Beach facing out across the North Sea. It had been commissioned for the Siren Festival, Aldeburgh.)

The Siren Installation – Roger Hardy. (2019) Humanity separate, desolate gazing out at the damaged marine environment.

The pavement advertising boards draw our attention to the plight of marine mammals and

The Siren Installation – Roger Hardy. (2019) Announcing marine mammal destruction.

the sign written boards hanging on the hut further detail many of the shocking facts regarding the precarious state of the oceans.

The Siren Installation – Roger Hardy. (2019) Rising sea levels.

‘Siren’ is an ecological art installation that disturbs and informs. It is the type of intriguing and evocative work that affirms a place for visual culture within the wider environmental discourse.

A Victorian passion for collecting and display: Stuffed birds at the Ipswich Museum.

Apparently for 21st-century folk, ‘stuff’ is so last century. I am sure there are still plenty of people who are collectors, but generally the marketing people inform us that it’s experiences and not things we prefer these days. Of course, with more and more bad news regarding the climate emergency and all those shocking images of plastic waste, the old mantra ‘less is more’ could not be more necessary. However, for our more prosperous Victorian forebears it was very different and with drawing rooms, parlours and front rooms overflowing with collections of objects, more was definitely more.

Last month I made my first visit to the Ipswich Museum. It was opened in 1881 and was dedicated to the study of science and art. And, in that Victorian tradition of progress and improvement, the museum’s founding purpose was to ‘promote the study and extend the knowledge, of natural history in all its branches’. To this end it still displays its nineteenth-century collections of stuffed animals and birds.

The type and number of birds and animals is not as large as either Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum or Norwich’s Castle Museum (the town museums of the last two places where I’ve lived), yet it still offers visitors a thought-provoking display of the Victorian’s approach to a Natural History collection. Arguably, there is some scientific value from these various collections across the country as examples of life forms now extinct can be seen in their 3D form. However, all is not always what it seems as I read when I looked up ‘stuffed dodos’.

No stuffed dodos remain in any collections. Recently the last two were lost to fire and attack from museum pests. Some museums have made mock-up dodos using pigeon and chicken feathers, and there is a head, leg and single foot remaining at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Grant Museum, UCL, London.

I have mixed feelings about these stuffed creatures. I think today we are lucky. We have the luxury of digital cameras, computer animation, David Attenborough documentaries, wild life centres and opportunities to travel around the world to see some of the more exotic exhibits alive and in their natural habitats. It is understandable that in the past these stuffed creatures were prized objects within a museum setting. It is also intriguing that they found their way into many domestic parlours where exotic birds were the stars of glass dome dioramas. I suppose it can also be seen as part of the Victorian’s wider obsession for collection and display combined with their keen interest in Natural History.

Nowadays, these displays of exotic birds, survivors from over a hundred years ago, are themselves collected. Examples can be found in antique shops and popping up from time to time at auctions, but what other options are available for today’s avid collector interested in Natural History. If it’s now more about experiences than stuff then shooting exotic birds with a camera and not stuffing them must surely be the answer. (Is that a collective tweet of relief from birds around the world we hear?)

Finally, one of the most popular exhibits at the Ipswich Museum, especially with children, is a very large, 3D animal. It is the life-sized model of a woolly mammoth standing just inside the museum’s entrance. The model is based on the bones of a woolly mammoth unearthed in 1976 during the building of a local school. This woolly mammoth lived and died some 186,000 to 245,000 years ago, thousands of years before an accomplished taxidermist or even an experienced Ancient Egyptian embalmer ever drew breath, however the surviving bones tell their own story. It is suggested the animal died as a result of being stuck in the mud.

For a very interesting opinion regarding Ipswich Museum posted June 2019 see, current Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Charles Saumarez-Smith’s post.

Wonder Walls

It’s time to celebrate some rather well known, that would be Gainsborough and Constable, and some less well known Suffolk artists. From now until 28th July 2019 there are 76 works of art displayed in the Wolsey Gallery of Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich. These works are arranged in a salon-style hang, a style first presented to the public by the formidable Académie des Beaux-Arts in Paris during the 18th century.

Paintings by Gainsborough (14 May 1727 – 2 August 1788) and Constable (11 June 1776 – 31 March 1837) hang with works by less stellar Suffolk artists such as Thomas Churchyard (22 January 1798 – 19 August 1865) Accompanying quote from John Constable, 1821.

This exhibition is perhaps one that Goldilocks would appreciate as it is neither too large nor too small. Several of the museum’s familiar favourites by Gainsborough and Constable are on show amongst paintings that have not been on public display for many years.

The earliest work in the exhibition is ‘The Entombment of Christ’ dating from the 15th century.

The Entombment of Christ. East Anglian School circa 1450-60.

The gallery display is loosely chronological as you progress round the room with small groupings by theme, such as portraits or landscapes. For example, below and to the left, the pair of Constable paintings of the East Bergholt area, ‘Golding Constable’s Flower Garden’ and ‘Golding Constable’s Kitchen Garden’ are placed between Suffolk scenes of Woodbridge, Ufford and the River Deben painted by the 19th-century, Woodbridge artist, Thomas Churchyard.

The pair of landscapes on the left are by Constable with the three smaller paintings underneath and the two above are by Churchyard. Accompanying quote Constable, 1821.

Thomas Churchyard was born in Melton near Woodbridge, Suffolk in 1798. He was an artist who also worked as a solicitor in Woodbridge. Although, he was unable to support himself and his family through his creative endeavours during his lifetime, he left a legacy of paintings of local towns and villages and the Suffolk coast that now hang in art galleries around the world.

Fifteen Scenes of Melton and Woodbridge. Thomas Churchyard. Oil on canvas.

Wonder Walls also includes sketches and paintings of Ipswich in the past including a drawing of the beached whale that had lost its way and swam up the River Orwell in 1811. (The skull of this unlucky creature is now hanging from the ceiling in the Geology section of the Ipswich Museum).

‘The Whale at Denham Beach, River Orwell’. George Frost (1745-1821) Pencil.

Not all the art on display has a direct connection to Suffolk. There is a Walter Sickert oil painting of Bath, a Joan Miró lithograph, and, as you finish your circuit of the gallery, a Patrick Caulfield screenprint that brings us, chronologically speaking, almost to the present.

‘Interior Light’ Patrick Caulfield (1936-2005). Screenprint.

But for me this exhibition provided an opportunity to photograph a personal favourite. It normally hangs in a narrow corridor and is easily missed, but now on display in the gallery you can’t fail to notice this captivating yet somehow whistful interpretation of a very English moment.

‘The Felixstowe to Ipswich Coach’ Russell Sidney Reeve (1895-1970) Oil on canvas. C. 1940-50.

From then to now

It’s late May and the irises are in full bloom. Irises are definitely in my top ten favourite garden flowers along with roses, foxgloves, poppies, lilies, hellebores, tulips, clematis, dahlias, and, those great favourites of the medieval illuminators, columbines. Each May when the aquilegias flower I think of illuminated manuscripts and the unnamed artisans who spent hours in their workshops decorating religious texts.

Columbines (aquilegia vulgaris) decorate this page from the Isabella Breviary, 1497, Flemish. MS18851, f.124

And, it wasn’t just aquilegias that filled the margins, for illuminators included images of the different flowers found growing in their own local districts. From about 1300 onwards there is a wonderful variety of illustrations including daisies, honeysuckle, clover, cornflowers, the dog rose along with the blossom of fruit trees and the blooms of flowering herbs.

Irises decorating the Bourdichon Hours, early 16th century, French.. MS 18855, f.33

Gradually, during the course of the 14th and 15th centuries, the making of illuminated texts became a specialist business with the production of breviaries, prayer books, psalters and books of hours from workshops across Europe. Stylised and simple motifs of flowers gave way to more naturalistic representations such as the irises seen in the Bourdichon Hours (above) and the almost ‘impressionistic’ iris seen in the Huth Hours (below).

Iris from illuminated page of The Huth Book of Hours. 1485-1490 Flemish. MS 38216, f130v

I haven’t got any irises in my backyard as yet, and I’m still wondering if there would be enough hours of direct sunshine for them to bloom, but, fortunately, halfway down my road I spotted some in the little community plot.

Irises bringing some colour to the raised vegetable beds at the local community plot.

This plot was one of those small, unloved areas which didn’t belong to anyone and has now been turned into a shared space, a community veg plot with a handful of raised beds and some seasonal flowers to brighten the whole affair. A number of local people who live in neighbouring flats or homes without gardens, spend their spare time planting, weeding and harvesting. This attractive project was instigated by one of my neighbours who’s also the Green Party candidate for our ward.

There is something heartening and positive about the continuing existence of a genus of flowers, admired and illustrated, that way we can track through the centuries. It would be nice to think that humans will be around for the next 700 years to enjoy the iris and the rest of the natural world, but that requires the present generation of world leaders to put their own personal ambitions aside, take a longterm view and start to deal with the climate crisis – seriously.

Pears for your heirs – planting for the future

In one of those strange moments several threads of my life came together over the Easter weekend. As a keen gardener a four day break with glorious weather was not wasted and I eventually managed to plant two pear saplings and a fig tree.

I also visited my nearest park, Christchurch Park, and popped into the beautiful Christchurch Mansions to take photographs of their 17th-century exhibits. It has been on my to-do list for a while following hearing the rerun of the brilliant recording of ‘God’s Revolution’ by Don Taylor (original broadcast back in 1988). The drama takes us through the English Civil War and as I listened I remembered how my school history lessons had completely drained me of any interest in the 17th century. I had also been left with the impression that the 17th century had been very grey, plain and practical under the influence of the Puritans. It has been a pleasure to discover that this was not the case.

Embroidery panel – Satin stitch appliqué and canvas work scattered on a satin ground. Circa 1650

Of course, skills and craftsmanship did not suddenly evaporate overnight with the Puritans and even though much religious art was destroyed or defaced by the likes of William Dowsing, plenty of interesting examples of visual culture survived the 17th century including new work created during that period. Just think of the monumental splendour of Wren’s St Paul’s. And, then we have at the other end of the scale of English creative expression, small, private handiwork such as this beautiful embroidered panel (above) dating from around 1650.

A startled or slightly comical lion was a popular motif to include. (Bottom right corner of Christchurch Mansion panel).

The full embroidery panel shows a young woman in a garden filled with images of nature. These flowers, animals, birds and insect motifs represented natural gifts from a bountiful God and were celebrated as such. The abundance of nature was a common theme for domestic pieces at this time as displaying overt religious imagery became less popular. It is interesting that the lion and leopard each have their own corner. Their placement is probably significant as it is not an uncommon arrangement, as seen below, in another similar embroidery from the mid-17th century.

Laid silk embroidery circa 1660. Image from Witney Antiques.

Also included in the embroidered menagerie of the Christchurch panel is a unicorn. According to Ruby Hodgson of the V&A, when a lion, leopard and unicorn appear together it is thought to be a reference to royalty.

Looking at the Christchurch panel the most striking representation of the abundance of nature is the pear tree laden with ripe pears in the centre of the composition. It occurred to me that as this example shows a young woman alone in her garden, that the pear tree with fruit maybe a symbol of fertility and allude to her as a potential wife and mother, especially as she stands with her hand outstretched drawing the observer’s attention to the tree.

However, it might simply have been the convention to include a fruiting pear tree as the visualisation of the 17th century English proverb, ‘Walnuts and pears you plant for your heirs’. Old English varieties of pears take years to mature before they bear fruit perhaps not fruiting during a single lifetime and therefore are grown to benefit future heirs. I know that planting avenues of trees for the future such as the famous Spanish Chestnut avenue at Croft Castle, has been a long tradition for the grand and wealthy, but ‘pears for your heirs’ is a discovery for me.

Another pear tree. Mid-17th century embroidered panel. Photo from Wilkinson Auctioneers.

And, that brings me to the third thread of my Easter Weekend, my heir, my daughter. She spent most of her four day holiday break in London moving between Waterloo Bridge, Oxford Circus and Marble Arch as part of the Extinction Rebellion civil disobedience protests. Like so many others including all kinds of folk from all generations, she wants the climate crisis at the top of the global to-do list. Since Easter the recent summary from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has highlighted even more bad news regarding human beings’ detrimental effect on biodiversity. We have become accustomed to disregarding our natural environment and it appears that since the 17th century ‘pears for your heirs’ has faded from common use and yet . . .

It is time we started planting for the future.

. . . attempting to finish on a more optimistic note, it is not just me who has been planting a tree or two, the Woodland Trust hope to plant 64 million trees over the next decade.