Art at The Red House

‘Masked Figure Venetian Carnival’ – Robert Colquhoun (1914-1962). 1950, oil.

To be an art collector is a privilege and, of course, in the past it has mostly been royalty, the aristocracy and the Church who have commissioned as well as collected art. That is why I think it is fascinating to see personal collections of people from more recent times who come from different environments other than the usual suspects so as to speak.

Art at home in The Red House. ‘Portrait of Britten’ – Henry Lamb (1883-1960) 1945 oil on canvas, and also tucked behind the curtain ‘Canal Scene: Venice’ – Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) oil on canvas. Photograph from 2019 visit.

I think the art collected by Benjamin Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, is interesting as it contains commissioned portraits of both men as you would expect, with one a world renowned composer and the other a famous tenor, but it also includes a broader and more diverse range of pictures and sculptures. Their whole collection numbers around 1,200 works with many on display at The Red House within the domestic setting of their home.

‘Double Concerto’ – Maxwell Ashby Armfield (1881-1972). 1969, tempera on canvas.

Although the collection is not all about them specifically or their work, it nevertheless gives an insight into their interests and their daily lives. We are left with a glimpse of them as we see their chosen art ornamenting the rooms where they dined, read, relaxed and entertained. As with any large collection not all the work is on display at any one time, but nevertheless the rooms reflect more than a hint of the essence of the Britten-Pears home.

Drawing Room of the Red House from 2012.

Hanging on the walls of The Red House there are works featuring their friends such as colleague and close friend Imogen Holst. (She is, in fact now buried behind the two graves of Britten and Pears in the churchyard of St Peter and St Paul, Aldeburgh.)

Portrait of Imogen Holst. ‘Memory of Terrington St George’ – Edward Seago (1910-1974), 1962, oil

Also, there are works reflecting their personal taste, with apparently Peter Pears’ preference for strongly coloured 20th-century work.

‘Green Rose’ – Philip Sutton RA (b. 1928 – 92 years old). 1955, oil.
‘Clymping Beach’ – John Piper (1903-1992). 1953 (The lined, green upholstery fabric of the sofa complements the dark, striking lines of the painting.)

However, apparently Britten’s taste was more restrained and, there are many drawings and sketches amongst the collection.

Of course, and not in the least surprising as with many art lovers, there are works featuring Venice.

‘Interior St Mark’s, Venice’ – John Piper. 1973 (Hanging opposite the stairs which I am afraid you can see reflecting off the glass somewhat spoiling the ‘dancing light’ effect of the painting. A better photo of this evocative work can be see HERE at ArtUK.)
Pictures on the stair walls depicting more of Venice including a painting of the Santa Maria della Salute and also within the collection (but I seemed to have missed photographing it) was another painting of the Salute by Walter Sickert (1860-1942) oil on canvas.

Finally, if one is lucky enough to have the means, you can collect pictures by artists from the canon and the Britten-Pears collection has works by William Blake, Walter Sickert, David Hockney and, of course, being men of Suffolk, a painting by John Constable.

‘Portrait of second son Charles Goulding’ – John Constable (1776-1837) c.1835-36, oil on board.

climate, rain, snails

On Monday of this week the IPCC published a report that has finally shocked our complacent media into taking the climate crisis seriously. Even BBC News has well and truly jumped off the fence of ‘balance’ and stopped giving airtime to climate change deniers such as Nigel Lawson. And, they even posted the headline – Climate report is ‘code red for humanity’.

Dahlia ‘Black Jack’ chewed to bits by slugs and snails.

Of course, for many, many people of this country this wasn’t news, but, sadly, a confirmation of the dire situation humanity faces. Where I live, as yet, the worst we have had has been tropical, monsoon-style heavy showers, but no actual flash flooding. Mind you I do live on a hill towards the top, but my father lives down on Ipswich Waterfront. He has received several flood alerts, but luckily high tides and torrential downpours have not coincided and only the nearby car park has flooded.

Dinner plate dahlia ‘Penhill Watermelon’ (A survivor perhaps because it’s just so big.)

On a lesser issue all this rain and continuous warm damp has provided super optimal conditions for the slugs and snails. My backyard has been invaded and overwhelmed by snails. First they ate all my runner bean plants, then they started on the dahlias (always a favourite with both snails and slugs) and now they have moved on to the lilies. I have been growing lilies for over 20 years and, yes, in the past I have had to fight off the dreaded lily beetle, but this is the first time my lilies have been shredded by snails.

Survival rate of lily blooms about one in three.

Finally, in exasperation last week I went to war against these pests. Now, firstly I didn’t use slug pellets as they are a disaster for the wildlife and, rather incompetently, I had already missed the window of opportunity earlier in the season for deploying nematodes. This has left me with only one option to sally forth in the drizzle at dusk, hunt them down and physically destroy them.

Large slug heading for a feast of dahlia.

It has been very unpleasant and I have wondered how the professional growers of fruit and vegetables produce largely undamaged crops. I know really, mostly they use pesticides, but not for me as I garden organically. In a small, urban space without a pond for frogs or any town-dwelling hedgehogs visiting to snack at the snail bar, my backyard is devoid of predators except for me with my torch and wellies.

In the rain strongly smelling golden fennel, not popular with the local gastropods!

I don’t know about you, but I remember as a child washing mud from locally grown potatoes, picking out tiny slugs whilst preparing lettuce and cutting the odd worm or maggot from an apple. These days we appear to have forgotten the effort and resources that have been used to get near ‘perfect’ fresh food to the shops, but, perhaps this is about to seriously change. Apart from the immediate difficult weather, the climate crisis is already bringing droughts and floods and generally unseasonable weather to other parts of the world, and worryingly there are signs of the beginning of strain on our system of food production.

Seasonal, blemish-free cherries from Kent. (That’s two counties away – can I call that local?)

The IPCC issued another report (not this current ‘Code Red for Humanity’ one), a report that contained an entire chapter about food security back in August 2019 – you hadn’t heard about that? Neither had I. Disappointingly, looking around at all the great and good elected to govern us and lead by example, they too, don’t appear to have heard about it either and, even if they have, they’ve taken no action. Two years on from that report and with COP26 this November and following/despite the publication of the Code Red warning, it’s all still very much business as usual.

The four horsemen of the Apocalypse may be on the horizon but let’s instead fret about exam grade inflation, refugees crossing the Channel and propping up the aviation industry as everybody is (apparently) entitled to cheap holiday flights!

The monument and grave of John Bunyan (1628-1688), Bunhill Fields Burial Ground, London.

Here’s a thought regarding climate crisis action “You have not lived today until you have done something for someone who can never repay you.” John Bunyan (1628-1688).

Boat Trip on Sailing Barge Victor – eventually

“You always have a green light that burns all night at the end of your dock.”

No – we are not standing gazing across from West Egg to East Egg, but sailing down the River Orwell in Suffolk on board the Sailing Barge Victor. I just saw that green light and immediately thought of Gatsby. What an old romantic!

The ships wheel, Sailing Barge Victor.

This special trip had been booked by my daughter for midsummer 2020, but we all know what was happening last June and, in due course, like so many events that excursion was postponed.

Waiting in the drizzle for departure.

You may remember that last year June was warm, dry and summery, but this year it has been just a bit more on the wet side. We climbed on board and whilst waiting to set off, I started taking some photos and noticed it had already begun to drizzle.

Patiently standing by ready to secure the barge in the lock.

Once Victor had cast off it was round the marina to the old lock. As we waited for the lock to empty to the level of the river the persistent drizzle turned to rain proper. It was lucky my camera is fine in less than optimal conditions (it has a sealed, weatherproof body apparently) as we got soaked remaining on deck determined to make the most of the experience.

Leaving the lock, conflab between the Master and mate and one of two life boats on board.

Fortunately, it was only a shortish downpour and by the time the barge chugged under the Orwell Bridge the rain had stopped. There was a gentle breeze and the Master decided it was time to cut the engine and hoist the sails.

Sailing down the River Orwell under full sail.

The sudden peace and quiet was delightful as the huge main sail filled with the breeze and the barge gently sailed down the river. This was the first time I’ve been on a boat under wind power and it was enchanting.

Caught between moments ducking underneath the gently swinging foresail.

Of course, sailing is slower than being engine-powered, but why be in a hurry. I think humans, particularly in so-called advanced societies, have lost something that’s restorative that comes with ‘slow’. In our relentless need for speed, continual clock watching and chasing our tails much is missed.

Lights in the night as Victor passes ships docked at the Port of Ipswich.

With the climate crisis making its presence felt more and more perhaps we need to rethink this speed thing and generally take life at a gentler pace and burn less fossil fuel.

Nighttime on the dockside.

Our barge trip was an evening affair and despite being just past midsummer, it was dark by the time we returned to Ipswich. And, what a treat to approach the Old Customs House from the water lit up in all its glory.

I couldn’t resist concocting this photomontage melding my nighttime photo with the embroidered version depicting the Wherry Quay of the nineteenth century as seen as part of the Ipswich Charter Hangings.

Finally, if you were wondering what Victor looks like under sail, here’s a couple of photographs I took from another boat as Victor sailed past us on a very windy day in August 2018.

Sailing Barge Victor with top sail hoisted (too windy for the main sail though).

Exhibitions Tell Stories Too: ‘Power of Stories’, Christchurch Mansion, Ipswich

This week I visited the latest exhibition on show at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. ‘Power of Stories’ is a collaborative endeavour and melds the loan of three of the Oscar-winning costumes from the Disney/Marvel film ‘Black Panther’ with historical pieces already held by the Ipswich Museum. Together with a team of Community Curators made up of local people, the exhibition also tells the story of how and why the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) was formed during the 1970s.

From the left: Costumes for T’Challa, Okoye and Shuri from the Disney/Marvel film ‘Black Panther’.

It is not a new idea that human beings express their lived experiences and histories in narrative forms. Storytelling is and has been an essential part of human existence and as the anthropologists inform us it is present in one form or another in every community and culture across the world.

Queen Hatshepsut (1507-1458 BCE)

To begin with there was the storyteller and the story listener, but each time humankind discovered or invented a new medium for expression then a song, a cave-painting, a stone carving, a stained-glass window, a book, a photograph, a play, a film, a computer game or even an exhibition told a story.

Children’s history book. Circa 1950 (My note – an outdated yet ‘interesting’ storytelling of English history.)

As you enter ‘Power of Stories’ there is a large block of text written on the wall introducing the exhibition. It states:

A world of stories.

Sharing stories is something all people have in common. The more stories we know, hear and share, the wider our view of the world becomes.

Museums have historically presented a European view of history, which has excluded many voices and ways of knowing.

As Community Curators, we have woven our perspectives into this display, recognising that everyone has valuable stories to share. This is part of a developing collaboration around history, community and belonging.

The exhibition begins with a series of cabinets containing objects from the Ipswich Museum collection including puppets, metalwork sculptures, books and comics.

Puppets are part of a long and worldwide storytelling tradition. Punch from Europe and traditional Indonesian Wayang Golek (translates as theatre rod puppet).
Exhibit note – Foxe’s Book of Martyrs – John Foxe wrote this book of people who were killed for their faith by Queen Mary I between 1555 and 1558. Foxe, a Protestant, hoped to convince people that Catholicism was bloodthirsty and dangerous. (My note – the text and imagery persuasive storytelling or obvious propaganda?)
Exhibit note – Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám translated by Edward Fitzgerald. By translating ancient Persian poetry into English, Edward Fitzgerald encouraged fellow Victorians to think beyond their Christian mindset. (My note – this text placed next to Foxe’s Martyrs is perhaps the storytelling of the exhibition in action broadening the visitors outlook despite this being a Victorian English translation.)

There couldn’t be an exhibition about stories that didn’t include comics. Naturally this exhibition includes some of the most iconic Marvel issues, including copies of editions from ‘The Amazing Spider-Man’, ‘X-Men’ and ‘Iron Man’ series. And, of course with the main draw for the exhibition ‘Power of Stories’ being the three costumes designed for characters from the Marvel film, ‘Black Panther’, there’s versions of the earliest Black Panther comic book appearances.

Exhibit note – All of the comic books in the exhibition have been kindly loaned by Matthew C Applegate. These comic books are part of a collection of over 40,000 Marvel comic books which is believed to be one of the largest and most complete collections in the UK. (My note – Iron Man first appearing in 1963 a troubled, wealthy, individualistic superhero played in the films by Robert Downey Jr an equally troubled, wealthy, individualistic Hollywood star!)

I have not seen the film, ‘Black Panther’ but I know it was critically acclaimed and heralded for its mostly black cast especially for the lead actors’ strong performances and, notably, an all-female army.

Okoye’s Final Battle Scene Costume. Exhibit note – Marvel Studios’ Black Panther (2018). Worn by Danai Gurira. Okoye is the head of Wakandan armed forces and General of the Dora Milaje, an elite group of all-female soldiers. She represents heritage, tradition and loyalty.

Predictably from a film franchise based on comics that revel in the mythic superhero, Thor/Loki, Iron Man, X-Men, Spider Man amongst others, and, with only 12 percent of the superhero comics having female protagonists, it is not surprising that ‘Black Panther’ is about a king, T’Challa, and his kingdom of Wakander. Despite two of the three costumes on display being those for the female characters, Shuri and Okoye, the story is not primarily their story, but the king’s.

Shuri’s Final Battle Scene Costume. Exhibit note – Marvel Studios’ Black Panther (2018). Worn by Letitia Wright. Shuri harnesses the powerful fictional metal Vibranium to create Wakanda’s technology.

The film costumes for fictional characters are, no doubt, the crowd-drawing, eye-catching spectacle and next to them the real life, local story of how and why the Ipswich and Suffolk Council for Racial Equality (ISCRE) came into being feels quiet in the telling.

The ISCRE Story – Portraits by Loleitha Evelyn and Cartoon Strip by Dan Malone

However, there’s no doubt though that the loan of the ‘Black Panther’ costumes has offered an exciting opportunity for the wider community of Ipswich to be engaged with the presentation of the town’s heritage, identity and culture. And, this sentiment was expressed by Carole Jones of Ipswich Borough Council when she said:

“The exhibition is a thrilling collaboration between museums and Ipswich’s community. We did not want to tell people how to get the most out of Power of Stories – we wanted them to inspire each other and visitors with their stories and, hopefully, to bring new audiences to the mansion.”

Carole Jones, Ipswich Borough Council (portfolio holder for planning and museums).

The exhibition as a whole is offering a variety of stories to coax the visitor to consider how storytelling can either unite or divide peoples. However, one of these stories more in focus than the others is the predictable ‘individualistic hero’, particularly as told through the hereditary king. In the 21st century perhaps we need dramatic tales of collaborative governance and democracy as surely this is the way forward for a united and peaceful planet regardless of gender or race. We are, after all, all members of one storytelling species.

From the left: T’Challa (king), Okoye (general of elite force), Shuri (princess) Exhibit note – Costumes are one of the many tools a film director uses to tell a story. Ruth E. Carter understood each character deeply before creating clothes which brought them to life on screen. Her research drew on many traditions and features of life for different people across Africa. She won many accolades for her work on these costumes, including the 2019 Oscar for Best Costume Design and the 2020 Gold Derby Costume Design of the Decade award.

End of Spring or Beginning of Summer?

It certainly has been late coming this year, but finally we’ve had sunshine. And, enough sunshine for the flowers to truly get into their blooming stride. My backyard, not the sunniest of spaces, now has the late-flowering pheasant’s eye daffodil, a selection of aquilegias and a few alliums all out together.

Narcissus poeticus – pheasant’s eye daffodil
Aquilegias
Allium hollandicum

Also this week a visit and wander around the local park offers a fine testament to the sun’s essential, life-giving force. It was delightful to see the azaleas and rhododendrons bringing colour to the partial shade of the fresh green canopy of deciduous trees.

Underplanting of deciduous tree in Christchurch Park, Ipswich.

And, out in the more open area there was the wild meadow-style planting of cow parsley mixed with clumps of spurge.

Cow parsley in a town park.

Even the more formal park-planting that borders the park entrance was full of loose, cheery colour. Although pansies and forget-me-nots are usually a spring combination, the answer to the question ‘End of Spring or Beginning of Summer?’ is, I think, most definitely the beginning of summer.

Bolton Lane entrance to Christchurch Park, Ipswich.

One small aside, even without deliberately or even mildly consciously choosing to take inspiration from all this welcome floral spectacle, it is most undoubtedly influencing my work.

Currently on my frame subliminal floral inspiration at work.

‘The Ipswich Charter Hangings’ – Celebrating the Past

The Suffolk county town of Ipswich was granted a Royal Charter by King John in the year 1200. Back at the end of the last century to mark and celebrate this 800 year anniversary a discussion at the Ipswich Arts Association suggested some kind of tapestry in the tradition of the Bayeux Tapestry might be created.

Left Panel One – The Vikings sponsored by Ipswich Borough Council. Right close-up details.

The project was a community endeavour under the direction of Isabel Clover, a lecturer and tutor at Suffolk College at the time. She is known nationally for her ecclesiastical designs and embroidery and it was she who researched and designed the eight panels that make up the finished Ipswich Charter Hangings.

Left Panel Two – The Charter Hanging sponsored by Ipswich Decorative & Fine Arts Society (NADFAS). Centre and right close-up details.

This commemorative work was an extensive collaborative project that took three years to complete and involved embroiderers, local historians, sponsors and finally a craftsman to make the presentation frames.

Left Panel Three – The Medieval Town sponsored by The Ipswich Society. Centre and right close-up details.

The team of volunteer embroiderers (at the time past and present City & Guild students at Suffolk College) worked at creating the eight panels that each represented 100 years of Ipswich history.

Left Panel Four – The Tudor Period sponsored by Ensors Chartered Accountants. Right close-up details of Christchurch Mansion now and then.

It is over 20 years since the Charter Hangings were commissioned and created and during the intervening time they have been displayed not only in Suffolk, but also in Arras, France (twinned with Ipswich) and Ipswich, Massachusetts, USA.

The people who, along with Isabel Clover, created the Ipswich Charter Hangings.

Now they are back in Ipswich on display at St Peter’s by the Waterfront and just before the Covid pandemic closed public sites, I went to take a look at the eight panels.

Left Panel Five – The Stuarts funded by the people of Ipswich, who gave donations during the 2000 IAA Lecture Series. Right close-up details of the Ancient House now and then.

At this point I must just apologise for the quality of the whole panel photographs. When I visited the full sequence of the eight panels they were lined up in a single row opposite the south-facing church windows and each panel was individually spotlit.

Left Panel Six – The Georgians sponsored by the Rotary Clubs of Ipswich. Right close-up of the race course that closed in 1902 and Gainsborough’s Tom Pear Tree.

Unfortunately, as the hangings were behind glass for their conservation, this arrangement and lighting resulted in photographs with unwanted reflections and additional points of bright light reflecting off the protective glass.

Left Panel Seven – The Victorian Period sponsored by the Ipswich Port Authority. Right close-ups of the County Courts and the Town Hall now and then.

Of course protecting these textile hangings behind glass is important, but the introduction of a hard although transparent layer over the textiles and stitching also alters the visual experience and you can see less of the surface quality of the fabrics and embroidery.

Left Panel Eight – The Twentieth Century sponsored by the Suffolk College. Right close-up of the award-winning Willis Building designed by Norman Foster now and then.

And, just to make capturing the quality of the work doubly awkward there was also a table, chairs and a grand piano directly in front of the display restricting any direct front-facing shots and entirely eliminating any chance of a photograph showing the entire work in sequence.

For those interested there’s further information in this newspaper article and below is a short sequence of close-up photographs showing stitching, fabrics and a variety of braided, woven and gimp trims.

At last, homegrown tulips

Last autumn I made bulb lasagne (as the Dutch would say). In a couple of large pots I planted layers of tulip bulbs that had arrived from SarahRaven.com courtesy of my sister. Now spring has finally arrived here are the results.

Tulips on the front doorstep. (Photo from about three weeks ago.)

The tulips in the pot that have been on the front doorstep are about three weeks ahead of those potted up in the backyard.

Two parrots and a double.

Of course, it’s all very well having a welcoming show of flowers as you arrive at the front door, but you’ve soon found your key, opened the door and stepped inside and that’s it. During one fleeting glance I noticed three dark red tulips, I think they’re a double version of Queen of the Night, had shorter stems and were a bit swamped and so I cut them for indoors. Now I see a lot more of them on my kitchen table.

Cut from front door display, on the kitchen table and lasting well.

This year it has been a noticeably cool spring, but now at last the backyard tulips are also out. It has been a lesson for me that before mid-May my backyard probably doesn’t get anything like the necessary six hours of direct sunlight for good flowering. The pear tree blossom has been and gone and currently there’s only the tulips, a small clump of forget-me-nots and some sparse cherry blossom. However, there are also nine pots that look empty, but actually, hopefully, contain dahlia tubers that might just have survived last year’s freezing winter weather. Fingers crossed that there will be more flowers . . . eventually.

Tulips in the backyard. (Photo yesterday afternoon.)

Spring in Holywells Park

After such a long and very dull winter and a slow start to the spring I see in the park that leaves, blossom and early blooms are bursting into life.

Perhaps the most graceful example of a tree in the first green of spring is the willow. And, in Holywells Park this beauty grows in the middle of one of the ponds, with the drama of drooping, feathery greenery enhanced by the still water.

Holywells Park also has a couple of old magnolias now putting on their annual outrageous blast of sugary pink.

Of course any park worth its salt has an ornamental cherry or two, but the only one in blossom when I visited was this semi-double white cherry.

For the handful of folk who have not noticed this has been a very dry spring particularly here in East Anglia, and, the park’s dry garden looked suitably resilient. The daffodil display was just coming to an end as the first green spikes of the ornamental grasses pushed up through last year’s neatly pruned brown clumps .

One of the aspects of Holywells Park that I appreciate is that it isn’t a particularly ordered or a heavily maintained park. There are areas of light-touch maintenance where primroses peek out from under the hedges and

weeds/wildflowers such as red campion and nettle are left to thrive in a naturalistic manner not least to the benefit of the wildlife, and a human with a camera.

The Very Old and the Very New

Sometimes the mixing of old and new can work well and the result can be quite beautiful, both enhancing the past and showcasing the new. One example of this is the south porch of St Peter’s Church in Ipswich. It has a 21st-century metal grille door set within a 15th-century stone and flint arch complete with Tudor roses.

The gates of gilded steel were made in 2008 by Paul Richardson (1967-). The work was commissioned by the Ipswich Hospital Band, when the church was deconsecrated and became a concert venue. If you look carefully you can see the two musical angels are partially constructed using metalwork from musical instruments. They also wear gowns patterned with the Tudor rose motif.
I particular liked the golden fish weaving through the scrollwork waves, referencing St Peter as a fisherman and also the proximity to the nearby Ipswich Waterfront.

St Peter’s Gate -Paul Richardson. Gilded steel, 2008.

Sadly though not all the local medieval treasures of Ipswich have fared so well where redevelopment of the harbour waterside has seen a mushrooming of tall residential tower blocks. The new blocks have replaced drab, utilitarian warehouses, but the trouble with these new blocks is that they are much taller buildings and they dwarf the Old Customs House and the medieval churches nearby.

Quay Place Heritage and Well-being Centre. The repurposed, redundant medieval church, St Mary at the Quay dwarfed by the newly opened Winerack (the tall, white residential block).

However, although the site of Quay Place from the north is no doubt nothing like the look and feel of its original 15th-century setting, the view from the east, as it lines up with St Peter’s is very pleasing. And, despite the fact that Key Street is now part of a busy one-way system, this is is one of my favourite views in Ipswich. (Sadly, my photograph doesn’t do it justice.)

Town Centre Updates

In the 1990s I lived in a village 20 minutes from Ipswich and every now and then I would drive into the town with my mother and my toddler daughter to visit the shops. Just off the Buttermarket was the newly built Buttermarket shopping centre that opened in 1992 and I remember visiting one of its main shops ‘Owen Owen’, a department store, now long gone.

The Buttermarket has been some kind of street since the 15th century, but by the 20th century it had become a shop-lined urban road with passing traffic and pavements for pedestrians. However, over the course of the last 25 years the Buttermarket has been completely pedestrianized with vehicular access being time-restricted and permitted for deliveries only. It has made it a quieter, cleaner and safer space for shoppers, but even before the year of Covid lockdowns the numbers of people visiting and shopping were on the slide.

The Buttermarket during Lockdown 3 – 11 March 2021

Pedestrianization has been one tool in the box of tools urban planners and town councils have used to encourage visitors and shoppers to town centres. Along with the Buttermarket more recently, in 2010, the top of Queens Street at the junction with Princes Street was also pedestrianized and in the process Giles Circus was created. It has become a meeting point and the redevelopment has even included some trees.

Left photo: Giles Circus and the Corn Exchange, Right photo: Queens Street.

In normal times this area has regular market stalls, but when I passed through last Thursday on the way to the bank all was very quiet indeed.

Top photo: 1960s photo (Archant Press). Left photo: 2021 Parr’s Bank building (1899, listed Grade II) from Giles Circus now with trees. Right photo: 2021 Corn Exchange (built 1882, listed Grade II), Princes Street, Ipswich.

Hopefully, from 12 April onwards life and energy and bustle will return to the town centre even if some well-known retailers will no longer be reopening their shop doors.

Still, for the time being here is a charming bronze dog, Butch. He is part of ‘The Famous Giles Family’ sculpture erected in honour of ‘Giles’, the well-known cartoonist Ronald Carl Giles, who used to work in an office overlooking this road junction in Ipswich.

Butch, the dog, detail from ‘The Famous Giles Family’ aka ‘The Grandma’ statue, Miles Robinson, bronze, 1993.

Look Away Now

If you’ve not already seen the film ‘The Dig’ (currently available on Netflix) and would like to come to it fresh and with an open mind, then don’t read on.

Views of the River Alde were used in the film although the actual ship burial was overlooking the River Deben.

Where to begin? The disciplines of archaeology and history are concerned with the substance and interpretation of the past, but interpretation of our past is not the preserve of the academic. This stuff, this substance of the past, provides material for the work of writers, artists and filmmakers to make their own reinterpretations as they create offerings that enrich our lives and entertain us.

However, there is a confidence bordering on audaciousness in taking past events, particularly people’s lives, and re-presenting them in a manner that distinctly departs from the factual, historical record. The question is how far does an interpreter go with invention to bring a history to life? Does it really matter if a film, that in no way suggests itself as documentary, changes the maturity and physicality of a central character. This is the primary difficulty for me with the film, ‘The Dig’. It is a film that retells the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial by Basil Brown and his working relationship with the landowner, Edith Pretty, who commissioned his excavations.

Portrait of Mrs Pretty painted in 1939 and newspaper clipping showing Mr Brown in 1939.

‘The Dig’ has made no claims for historical accuracy and itself is a film drama based on a historical novel (‘The Dig’, John Preston, 2007) which itself is a dramatised retelling of the actual events of the discovery of the ship burial in 1939. For example, in the novel a fictionalised RAF officer, Rory Lomax, photographs the dig replacing the original amateur photographers Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack, who were two visiting school teachers on holiday in the Woodbridge area during the excavations of September 1939.

Literary licence is sanctioned in historical fiction to bring a story to life and when a book is made into a film that licence is often expanded to accommodate other constraints such as, let’s say, a film’s marketability. The long held view from the film industry seems to be that for commercial success well-known stars are required. The brilliant casting of Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown (with the best Suffolk accent I’ve ever heard from a screen actor) is met with the odd casting of Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.

Portrait of Edith Pretty painted in 1939. Still shot of Carey Mulligan playing Edith Pretty in ‘The Dig’, 2021.

My response to the whole film is coloured by this choice. Casting Carey Mulligan (35 years old) as Edith Pretty (56 years old and unwell at the time of the excavations) was possibly a choice for marketability at the expense of any vague nod to the lives of the real people in this historical drama. The sidelining of twenty years of a woman’s life and experience is seemingly of no consequence. In fact this woman, Edith Pretty, had had an unusual life for her class and times; she had travelled extensively, married late at 43 years old and had her only son, Robert, at 47 years old. However, this (dialogue below) is how her full and colourful backstory is summarised in the film. Using one scene Mrs Lyons (the housekeeper and cook), describes Mrs Pretty’s life for the benefit of Mr Brown:

She’s only been here 12 year. Came down from Cheshire. Then she married the Colonel. He first met with Edith when she was still at school. And then on her 17th birthday he asked her to marry him. She turn him down. She say she can’t possibly leave her father. She care for her father another 13 year, until he died. She finally accepted the Colonel’s proposal. He’d been asking every year on her birthday. Just after they had Robert her husband went and died too. Imagine that.

Mrs Lyons, Cook & Housekeeper. Film ‘The Dig’, 2021.

During the course of the film there were also a couple of scenes where Edith Pretty experiences episodes of illness and a trip to a London physician for her to receive a diagnosis of serious heart disease. The film gave no indication of her previous adventurous life at all and sadly, all the melancholic staring across the Suffolk landscape together with make-up to both age and make Ms Mulligan look poorly, still did not make her interpretation a believable Edith Pretty. Perhaps actors such as Saskia Reeves (59), Helen McCrory (52) or Tamsin Greig (54) could have brought some depth and drive to the role of Edith. This was after all a woman who had visited excavations in the Nile Valley, served with the French Red Cross at Vitry le Francois in 1917, became one of the first women magistrates and turned down a marriage proposal over 25 times.

Modern times and the River Deben not far from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site.

If filmmakers are going to paint a watercolour of a central character rather than give us the oil painting and thus alter the dynamics at the centre of a story why not just make a different film. This film is based on the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial where the word ‘based’ is doing the heavy lifting, particularly where the female characters are concerned.

Still from ‘The Dig’ showing Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown watching Thames Barge Cygnet from Snape on the marshy waterways of the River Alde.

The best part of the film was the gorgeous shots of Suffolk’s coastal waterways. The most surprising and unexpectedly disappointing aspect of the film was there was no grand reveal at the very end showing the treasure found on the Anglo-Saxon boat which is now on display at the British Museum thanks to the generous gift of Edith Pretty.