Much has been written about the negative effects of overly ambitious, pushy mothers in recent times, but sometimes their obsessive drive has been to the benefit of the wider world.
This is certainly the case for Edith Britten a keen mezzo-soprano who sang with, and was secretary of, the Lowestoft Musical Society during the first decades of the 20th century. Edith made early claims that her son, Benjie, born in 1913, would become the fourth ‘B’ after Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.
It is just over six years since I had the privilege of attending the centenary celebrations of Benjamin Britten’s birth with the ‘Grimes on the Beach‘ performance of Britten’s first opera ‘Peter Grimes’. However, it was way back on 7th June 1945 that the premiere was given at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London with Britten’s partner, Peter Pears, singing the title role.
Naturally Britten’s first opera was set in Aldeburgh in Suffolk, his home county, and, for its first production Britten suggested a local artist, Kenneth Green, for the set design.
Green provided realistic visualisations of Aldeburgh as a working fishing town as it was then and not the quaint seaside holiday town that we see today.
The lead character of the opera is Peter Grimes. It is a part for a tenor and Britten wrote it specifically for Pears, who was reported to have been strongly influential on the interpretation of the roll. For him that interpretation was life as an outsider.
Soon after the the premiere, the critic William Glock (Music critic for The Observer in June 1945) wrote “During the last fortnight, I have heard and read several comments on Peter Grimes . . . which describe it as a fierce and challenging work.” And, another critic, Scott Goddard commented, “Peter Grimes is no child’s play. The tale is fierce, its development tragic, and the music fascinating”.
Despite being ‘challenging’ for the 1940s audiences the opera was successful and at the time Britten wrote to his friend, Imogen Holst,
I think the occasion is actually a greater one than either Sadler’s Wells or me, I feel. Perhaps it is an omen for English opera in the future.
Benjamin Britten, Summer 1945
The success of ‘Peter Grimes’ at Sadler’s Wells and its subsequent addition to the canon, firmly placed Britten as an opera composer and, although I am not sure everybody agrees with his mother about Britten being the fourth ‘B’, his oeuvre without doubt places him alongside Purcell whom he so greatly admired.
The Red House, Golf Lane, Aldeburgh is open to the public and well worth a visit.
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 31st March 2020 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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
Time stands still for no one and nothing and that includes formal flower arranging. Forty-five years ago my mother belonged to the local Flower Club. The ladies used to meet once a month with visiting guests demonstrating how to create pedestal, triangular and cascade arrangements amongst others. My mum’s favourite was the Hogarth Curve.
And, as with every other aspect of life, arranging flowers has fashions and favourites and, of course, time inexorably ticks on bringing gradual change, though not uniformly and not for everyone. Here’s a wee snapshot of a formal pedestal competition. The brief was titled ‘In Memory’ with the entrants free to choose a well-known person as their subject as well as their source of inspiration.
Now I realise that the ‘pedestal’ form of arranging flowers is the epitome of formal flowers, not least as it is still used in churches, but isn’t it time to loosen up the form a little. There were a further two, different flower competitions in the Floral Marquee at the recent Suffolk Show, but no entries were to my taste. I wandered away, disappointed and moved on to the displays from the local growers and nurseries. Now this was a completely different story.
Horticultural specialists arranged their flowering beauties as if they were at last month’s Chelsea Flower Show. Thoughtful form and colour combinations bedecked their stands in an informal, naturalistic celebration of plant possibilities for your garden. I can’t help but feel that in these times of climate crisis that the formal displays of cut flowers could move towards a more informal regime to include naturalistic designs and wildflower arrangements perhaps even reflecting local biodiversity.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 . . .
. . . 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.
It’s that time of year, if you are lucky and live near a bluebell wood, to go strolling through one of Mother Nature’s more enchanting realms. Delicate English bluebells form carpets of violet-blue beneath deciduous trees tinged with the palest of lime green.
I remember several childhood ‘bluebell’ walks. A couple were through the woods near Little Baddow, in Essex and another was an occasion when my family visited the woods near Butley Priory in Suffolk, decades before the remaining gatehouse was restored into a wedding venue.
But what if you live in the middle of a town?
Well, Holywells Park, Ipswich, does it again. The wooded area of the park may not be vast nor the ‘Bluebell Walk’ exactly long, but they are there, delicate, bluebells nodding gently in the breeze.
The Woodland Walk partly runs along one side of the park. On the other side of the high, brick boundary wall there’s Bishops Hill, also known as the A1156, busy with traffic. Yet as you walk on down into the peace and quiet of the park you could be forgiven for thinking you were in the middle of a large country estate complete with a wildlife pond.
The Red House on the outskirts of Aldeburgh in Suffolk was the home of Benjamin Britten from 1957 to 1976.
Britten shared this extended, late-seventeenth century farmhouse with his partner, the tenor, Peter Pears, until Britten’s death in 1976.
Many of Britten’s world famous operas and music pieces were composed working in his first floor composition studio. Once when giving a talk he said
At the moment in my studio where I work in Aldeburgh . . . there’s a blackbird making a nest just outside my window and I’m very interested to know whether she’s sitting on her eggs when I should be working.
Benjamin Britten, 1963.
When I visited the garden earlier this week it was full of floral potential and already the gorgeous scent of an early flowering viburnum was wafting across the path on the way to the archive building.
There were buds and tightly furled leaves just waiting to burst given a couple days of sunshine.
The orchard has some old apple trees supporting mistletoe and a variety of new fruit trees that were added in 2008 as the garden was rejuvenated and recreated following the 1950s layout. The orchard has been underplanted with daffodils and pale yellow primulas and hellebores are growing beneath the surrounding hedging.
Receipts discovered in the extensive Britten-Pears Foundation Archive show that in 1958 Benjamin Britten ordered 63 fruit trees, 76 roses and two dozen blackcurrant bushes from Notcutts, the local nursery in Woodbridge.
It was a gentle, pleasant English garden and will be worth another visit later in the gardening year.
We’ve had some high winds and fast moving weather systems recently in East Anglia. Clouds, some with and some without rain, have been whipping across the Suffolk countryside.
These photographs were taken in less than a minute as we drove through the pleasant village of Little Glemham. It was almost a Hitchcock moment with the sudden darkening of the sky, but without the multiple flocks of birds.
And, then back in Ipswich on Monday, walking through Christchurch Park, it was all jolly waving daffodils in the bright spring sunshine . . .
and I spotted . . . a flashy, noisy bird who turned out to be camera shy!
Of all the 61 painted panels that originally covered the wall of Lady Drury’s closet at Hawstead House, only one panel was painted without an emblem or a motto. This ’empty’ panel, consisting of a hilly background and two Scots pines, offers a melancholy scene.
The Reverend Sir John Cullum did not discuss this particular panel at all in his eighteenth-century account. Perhaps he simply considered it an unfinished section. However, the twenty-first century scholar, H L Meakin, suggests the ‘blank’ panel may have been deliberately left empty to encourage spontaneous meditation.
It is also possible to read the two, stark, thin pine trees as visual metaphors for Lady Drury and her husband. They’re standing mature, living apart from each other within a dark and hilly landscape. After all they had existed in a world of challenges and grief following the loss of their young daughters.
More generally, in her summary of Lady Drury’s closet, Meakin offers ideas from Seneca and Montaigne as well as current research considering the lives of early modern women. She suggests there was not a simple division between the public and private spheres, and proposes this tiny, private room offered a space to both think about as well as retreat from the wider world.
Despite the gloomy appearance of the ‘pines’ panel, I find the silhouetted trees make a compelling composition.
And, I also admire the painted herb and flower decorative panels displayed at the bottom of the panel collection.
These panels show bugle, corn marigold, speedwell, dandelion, deadly nightshade, honeysuckle, scarlet pimpernel, wild pansy and a wild strawberry plant.
Overall, the panelled room is both intriguing and inspirational. So inspirational I decided to paint a series of neckerchiefs using the two pines, the scarlet pimpernel and the corn marigold. Here’s the first of the series showing how the scarlet pimpernel rapidly morphed into a larger, less delicate flower to balance the composition.
Christchurch Mansions in Ipswich is a fine historical house that these days uses its beautiful rooms to display art. Traditional art, oil paintings, sculpture and a few framed textiles cover the walls in an art gallery manner. However, some of the main rooms are still furnished as for their original purpose in a style you might see in a National Trust stately home and include using paintings and art pieces in a domestic setting.
Personally, I appreciate seeing a Reynolds or a Gainsborough portrait displayed in a drawing room or library with a Georgian atmosphere. I know some folk prefer to summon up their historical imaginations and quibble about authenticity, but I enjoy visiting these ‘posed’ rooms even if purists consider it a borderline Disneyesque experience. I think informed, well-curated rooms help to provide context for the paintings especially when some of the portraits are of people connected with the house’s history.
One such painting is the Reynolds’ portrait of Sir Hutchins Williams (1701-1758). Williams was the father of Mrs Anne Fonnereau (1732-1805) who had married the Reverend William Fonnereau (1732-1817) in 1758. Anne and William lived at Great Munden in Hertfordshire where William was Rector, before in later life they moved to Ipswich. The Reverend William Fonnereau eventually inheriting Christchurch Mansion in 1804.
However, it is not only art on display at Christchurch Mansions, in the library the curators have arranged a room full of smaller, functional pieces such as an antique desk that is set with writing paraphernalia and a gorgeous, elegant clock.
The room contains an eclectic mix as you might see accumulated over a century or two.
The library was not only a place for reading, it perhaps also provided an agreeable environment for a serious game of chess.
On a small table an Indian ivory chess set is displayed, pieces ready for the next move. These chessmen are typical of the work from the two neighbouring towns, Berhampur and Murshidabad, located in the West Bengal region of India.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century it was the custom for British families resident in Calcutta (now Kolkata) to take a voyage up stream on the Hooghly river to these two towns.
A chess set was a typical souvenir purchased by these visitors and was eventually brought to Britain when the family finally returned home. This set comprises of intricately carved figures, one set has pawns clothed as East Indian Company Sepoys and the other set are Marathi spearmen.
The Hawstead panels are a complete set of painted panels that covered the walls of a private, domestic closet, a room we would now consider a small study. The panelled closet was originally constructed for Hawstead Place near Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk and was created during the Jacobean times when domestic interiors painted with symbolic decoration were popular.
As discussed in Part I the Hawstead Panels were painted by the amateur painter Lady Anne Bacon Drury, and she most likely took her inspiration from the popular emblem books of the Jacobean period. For the English aristocracy there was an in-the-know understanding of symbolic imagery and mottos linked with heraldry. They could read overt information presented in the combined text and image device, but could also make additional, more subtle interpretations. (I must just say here at the outset that the Latin translations from the gallery guide (GG) and those offered by the academic Heather Meakin (HM) in her detailed monograph ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’ frequently differ so I have included both.)
At first glance many of the panels appear of a simple, unprofessional standard though not completely lacking in technique. And, when you look at each one in turn their content appears bewilderingly strange to our 21st-century eyes. Most of the panels have a motto in Latin although there’s one in Italian too. As I mentioned in Part 1 there doesn’t appear to be any conscious narrative to the room as a whole, but instead one can view the panels as a collection of spiritual and philosophical themes. The panels were painted within a Puritan Christian context, but include some philosophical notions of a stoic nature.
In her book ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’, Heather Meakin has put forward a slightly different order of panels to the one now on display at Christchurch Mansion in an effort to unlock meaning. She has based her selection on seventheenth-century records and a 1784 firsthand account of the panels installed as a closet by the Reverend Sir John Cullum in ‘The History and Antiquities of Hawsted and Hardwick, in the County of Suffolk’.
Group One – six panels
The first grouping of six panels has the heading ‘Quod sis esse velis, nihilque malis sumam nec metuas diem, nec optes‘. Translated as ‘Neither fear nor long for your death’ (GG) or a more nuanced and informed translation ‘Wish to be what you are, wish nothing better/don’t fear your last day, nor yet pray for it’. Both the ape/monkey panel above and the camel one below are in this grouping. The motto with the camel is ‘Pura iuvent alios’, ‘Pure things may help other people’ (GG) or ‘Let pure things please others’ (HM). The camel is shown standing in the centre of a pond in the process of muddying the water. There was a longstanding idea from the Ancient Greeks that camels only drank dirty water and such emblems were used to convey the idea that some people preferred and benefitted from troubled times. There are accounts that mention Lady Drury’s husband was a career soldier. Of course, there is always the obvious Christian reading that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter heaven. Overall these panels seem to be a meditation on the balancing of worldly wealth with spiritual well-being.
Group Two – six panels
‘Quae cupio, haud capio‘,
‘My wants remain unsatisfied’ (GG)
‘What I desire, I do not get’ (HM).
This group has one of the most striking and strange paintings showing an elephant held in the talons of an airborne bird of prey. The painting also shows a living and a dead tree.
In this strange panel we could see trees representing family lineage, or in the Christian tradition as referencing the Crucifixion. Then there is the tradition in 17th century of the elephant emblematically standing for purity, intelligence, chastity and strength. Further complicating the panel is the bird of prey which is quite likely a Ruc, an enormous mythical bird. Finally add the motto ‘He has no leisure for trifles’ and Lady Drury has created an intriguing statement of symbolic imagery with text combining to give a whole, but what was she saying? A 21st-century reading could see this panel as a woman attempting to come to terms with the loss of her expected existence as a virtuous wife and mother.
Group Three – six panels
‘Parva sed apta mihi: nec tamen hic requies‘,
‘Small but suitable for me, yet there is no rest here.’ (GG)
‘This house is small, but fit for me, and yet I find no rest here’. (HM)
In this grouping we have a bearded man with the ears of an ass and
a neighbouring panel depicting an ass or mule.
Both these panels allude to a person or people as fools not least as the old man dressed in a combination of English and classical dress most obviously has ass’s ears. And, in the second picture the ass is half hiding behind a painting of a horse perhaps in attempt to deceive the woodcock (a bird easily trapped). Meakin suggests we could be looking at a subtle reference to an elderly King James I. At a time when outright criticism of the King and/or Parliament was impossible even a guarded negative opinion was highly risky. These were the times of the Gunpowder Plot. It is tempting to consider these images were coded dissent, however much of the closet content is personal and the space was only for Lady Drury’s private use and one wonders whether perhaps the criticism was for somebody else in her immediate family and she is herself represented by the woodcock. These panels are afterall under the heading ‘and yet I find no rest here’.
Group 4 – a group comprising nine panels
Nuquam minvs sola quam cum sola
Never less a lonely than when a lady alone (GG)
Never less alone than when alone (HM)
The above panel shows the frequently used icon of faith, the dog displaying trust approaching a hand from a cloud, perhaps the ‘hand of God’. Indeed in this group of panels the word ‘fides’ translated as ‘trust, faith, belief’ is used in three of the mottos. An interpretation of this section could suggest Lady Drury’s reflections on living a faithful life and its benefits during times of solitude. Another panel (below) in the section includes the familiar skull emblem as a memento mori. Lady Drury also added the motto ‘Live knowing you will die one day’ to reinforce the symbolism although the verdant growth from the eye sockets seems to allude to a vigorous existence after death.
Group 5 – six panels
Amplior in coelo domus est
There is plenty of room for me in my heavenly home (GG)
A larger home in heaven (HM)
The above panel is the first panel in this section under the group heading, a heading that may derive from scripture, ‘In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places’ and yet this panel shows two dead trees and what in the 21st century we could read as, if not a self-effacing motto, then an expression of withdrawal. However, Meakin informs us that the heavenly stars and a moon with a face could show a pious Lady Drury (represented by the moon) dying and faithfully, according to St Paul ‘For wee walke by faith, and not by sight’ (a scriptural interpretation of the motto) rising to heaven (depicted by showing stars).
Group 6 – the final six panels.
Frustra nisi dominus
Unless the Lord build the house, their labour is but lost that build it (GG)
In vain without the Lord (HM)
The beehive panel is the first under the heading ‘In vain without the Lord’. It appears to be a very personal reinterpretation of a popular 17th-century emblem representing ‘Home is where the heart is’, a popular idiom even to this day, and yet, Lady Drury’s motto is ‘Cum melle aculeus’, ‘With honey, a sting’. The panel shows, along with the motto, a beehive (possibly Lady Drury in her home) in the midst of a flower strewn meadow beneath a tall, healthy tree (possibly, her husband, Sir Robert Drury), however, in the foreground there is a withered tree stump (her dead offspring). From the little we know about Lady Drury’s life we could surmise that despite living a privileged life within her substantial Suffolk home, all was not as it seemed, and the repeating of dead trees in various panels could be more than a representation of her dead children, it could also signify the end of her lineage.
A first brief reading of the various mottos suggests each offers a succinct possibly simplistic statement, but once we attempt to fuse these words with their respective images and then apply any in-the-know understanding, meanings become far more nuanced, complicated and difficult to decipher. No doubt for Lady Drury they offered multiple readings and advice and comment for both a practical and also a spiritual experience of the world.
Interpretation of even a single panel is not straightforward and with the pervasive academic preference for text above image inevitable assumptions occur. I have to comment as somebody who works in a visual field and, at the same time wearing my Art History hat, that to casually accept text comes first is a coarse assumption. If we believe that Lady Drury was inspired primarily by her Christian faith we could wonder whether she sought specific emblems to express an idea, a sentiment or a feeling? Indeed she may have experienced a thought that crystallised into an image in her mind’s eye offering a visual form she felt compelled to paint. Then once satisfied with her painting she added her text to complete the panel.
Looking at this work over the distance of 400 years some context can be provided by scholarly research, but even having read the details and multiple ideas in Meakin’s ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’ and also appreciating her historical imagination to help the reader gain insight, we are still left with many, many questions. I agree with Meakin when, towards the end of her account, she suggests of Lady Drury she had ‘a mind and heart not yet at peace with the path her life has taken’. I would further submit that the panels collectively display a talented, thoughtful and creative woman who, like so many similar women across history, have had to live lesser lives in the shadows and at the margins of the world of men.
Please note As you have probably realised I have only skimmed the surface in this post and for those seeking far more detailed and informed interpretations I strongly recommend tracking down a copy of the excellent ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’ by Heather Meakin, 2013 ISBN 978-0-7546-6397-3