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
It’s interesting to see the civic responses to decorating public spaces at this time of year. Some Christmas trees work well for their locations. Down on Ipswich Waterfront the tree elegantly adds seasonal spirit to its setting whether it’s a drab December day or a winter sunset.
And some Christmas trees simply brighten the mundane places for all those travelling at this time of year.
However, some trees are magnificent in their own right only to have their charm reduced by a cluttered civic space that should have been spectacular. It is disappointing that the lovely tree in the newly revamped Ipswich Cornhill is being obscured by a large temporary marquee (which I have tried not include in the photograph). I see from our local paper that I am not the only one to consider this set-up a disappointing mess.
Of course, most Christmas trees are in people’s homes and it’s been seven years since I have had a tree at home. I think it’s probably because it will be my first Christmas in this old house and the Victorian bay is such an obvious and familiar setting for a decorated tree.
It was a little walk down memory lane as I unwrapped the forgotten ornaments for the first time in seven years. I have some of my mother’s decorations and memories of family Christmases with my mother and my grandparents filled the room along with intermittent showers of glitter and the scent of pine.
Sonic artwork ‘Clarion Call’ was performed as part of the Spill Festival, Ipswich 2018. This hauntingly beautiful large-scale sound work was broadcast around Ipswich Waterfront at dusk during the 11 days of the Spill Festival.
Please excuse my wobbly video skills and the occasional breakthrough traffic sounds, but it was an experience worthy of capture and sharing. It lasted for 11 minutes, but despite trying on several different days I only managed two or three minute chunks before a lorry, ambulance or helicopter disturbed the atmospheric impression.
ClarionCall1 from Agnes Ashe on Vimeo.
From the banks of large speakers atop several buildings around the Waterfront the sounds were transmitted across the water and up into the town centre with parts of the recording heard as far away as the Old Cemetery.
‘Clarion Call’ has been part of Ipswich’s commemorations of the First World War centenary using voice and sounds of the emergency sirens. The work evolved from considering the experiences of the town’s womenfolk when many of the local men went off overseas to war and never returned.
ClarionCall2 from Agnes Ashe on Vimeo.
‘Clarion Call’ has been devised as part of the 14-18 NOW, the UK’s arts programme for the First World War centenary. It has been created by artists Byron J Scullin, Hannah Fox and Thomas Supple with performance contributions from Beth Gibbons (Portishead), Elizabeth Fraser (Cocteau Twins), girls from Copleston School, Wattisham Military Wives Choir, South Street Kids amongst other individuals and choirs.
(There is also a longer, two and half minute clip on my Vimeo page, but my iPhone video skills are, as I already mentioned, very poor and the swinging around of the visuals gives me a touch of seasickness! However, it is worth a listen you just need to keep your eyes shut. 😌)
Even though some of the High Street shops and supermarkets have had a sprinkling of their Christmas stock on the shelves for a wee while it’s not feeling wintry quite yet. And, as I put back the hour on our clocks this coming weekend for the end of British Summertime, I will remark as usual that it is only a couple of months to Christmas.
The thought always comes as a surprise to me. All of a sudden it’s family arrangements, stir-up Sunday and last posting dates.
I am not sure why I am surprised as Christmas does come round ever year on the 25th December! And, as soon as Halloween is behind us it is the main event on the calendar. This year I will be at Blackthorpe Barn again just outside Bury St Edmund’s, Suffolk, for their British Crafts 2018 weekends.
I shall be there Week Three, the 24th and 25th November. Here is the full List of makers who will be attending and selling their work in the handsome sixteenth-century barn during the course of the six weekends.
According to my copy of ‘The Popular Guide to Suffolk Churches – No 2 Central Suffolk‘ by D P Mortlock, St Michael’s Church in Upper Orwell Street, Ipswich, might not have an impressive exterior, but a visitor should not be put off because “within is a beautifully spacious setting for worship in the C19 Evangelical tradition”.
As you can see from the photographs since the publication of the guide nearly 30 years ago St Michael’s has suffered extensive fire damage and no longer has any spacious interior. It is now derelict. In one of those twists of fate the irony is that in 1880 the first foundation stones of the church were laid on a site previously cleared of dilapidated, ‘slum’ cottages especially to make way for a brand new church. The architect of St Michael’s was Edward Fearnley Bisshopp and this was his only complete church. Within the remains there is still some original stained glass in two of the three lancets of the east window. It was made by Victorian glassmakers John Underwood & Sons. It shows St Paul, St John and St Luke oddly reversed as unexpectedly viewed from the exterior.
The three saints filling the other lancet are St Matthew, St Peter and St Andrew although it is hard to distinguish their attributes. Within the general body of Victorian stained glass this work is unremarkable and is of a plain workmanlike utility, but its mere survival amongst the ruins has endowed it with a special quality.
The overwhelming drama of the roofless church is the unexpected effect of seeing the exposed, jewel-like glass illuminated by bright, clear early evening light from the inside.
More photos of the interior of the church immediately after the 2011 suspected arson attack can be seen here.
Last weekend the Ipswich Maritime Festival took place. This year’s theme was ‘Pirates’, but to my big disappointment no tall ships turned up at the Ipswich Waterfront. I had been hoping for a visiting replica brigantine, or failing that, a nifty, suitably bedecked, sloop. According to nautical history both brigantines and sloops were favoured by 18th century pirates. Despite the restrictions (no hoisted sails within the dock area), a brigantine moored up along the quayside with a Jolly Roger fluttering in the breeze would have greatly added to the ‘pirate’ themed festival.
Of course the old Thames barges, Victor and Thalatta, that are based in Ipswich were present and they were joined, visiting from Harwich, by the Thames barge Kitty with her eye-catching green hull.
Along the quayside there were a variety of attractions amongst whom were representatives of the King’s 18th-century navy, sailors and marines, as well as a fine living statue of Admiral Lord Nelson himself! My goodness did the children jump when he came to life to greet them!
And, what is this . . . .
I think some of our younger visitors were quite overwhelmed and just a little intimidated when coming face to face with the star of the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ Jack Sparrow. I wonder at what age, if ever, we outgrow the thrill of seeing up close a celebrity favourite even if they are only a look-a-like! I have no idea what the kids thought of the giant octopus hanging out (literally) at the Old Customs House. I was less than impressed and thought it simply looked large and bizarre.Another oddity, and new to me, were the daytime fireworks. I think these might have been more effective in a different setting where the coloured smoke could have added some mystery to an old castle or a still dark lake. As it was the mundane background of boatyards and a muddle of yacht masts were all too prosaic.
However, the best event of the festival this year was definitely the Saturday evening fireworks – my photographs are better than last year’s, but there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Maybe next year I will remember to bring my tripod!
End of July, hottest day of the year so far (35 degrees C) and there’s still no sign of significant rain for the eastern side of England. We are used to low rainfall as the norm here in East Anglia, but this heatwave is taking its toll even in our region where we tend to plant for dry conditions. The main barley crop has been harvested two weeks earlier than usual and there is concern that wheat yields may be down as much as 50% from their normal average for some Suffolk farms.
Walking around Ipswich the grass is bone dry and the colour and crispness of ancient mummy bandages. Let’s pause and think for a moment who would spend hours irrigating with drinking water to keep grass green? Surely no-one as the grass will quickly recover when the rain returns and it is such a waste of clean water. Oh and, don’t be fooled by the ‘green’ photograph from Ipswich Cemetery (above), in fact that is fallen blossom from the Pride of India/Golden Rain Tree (Koelreuteria paniculata) dusting the path. The grass is the same as everywhere else, parched.It is pretty much the same about 15 miles away on the Suffolk coast at Shingle Street. Here the grass is dried out too, but it is dotted with colour from the wild thistles and mullein (Verbascum) enjoying the hot, dry weather and free draining coastal soil.
Interestingly more green vegetation and floral colour has been achieved by some judicious planting at the back of the Coastguards Cottages. Still hot and dry conditions for the plants, but here they are protected the rest of the year from the east wind coming off the sea.
Naturally, on the beach side of the cottages it is tough Mother Nature doing her thing as clumps of sea kale (Crambe maritima) survive on the windswept pebble shore.
Last Saturday some seriously energetic folk climbed into their boats and spent the day racing in the Fresh Start Charity Dragon Boat Challenge. Dragon boat racing is an ancient Chinese tradition rowing to the rhythm of the drum and has grown into a global sport. On this occasion the racing was all part of a fundraising initiative to collect money for the Fresh Start Charity which provides support for children who have suffered sexual abuse.
Down at the Ipswich Waterfront 18 crews from a variety of local businesses rowed heats of 200 metres during the course of the day. The challenge was finally won by the Ipswich Canoe Club. I guess no shock surprise there!
But, of course, the big winner was the Fresh Start Charity as £10,000 was raised for such a worthwhile cause.