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.
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.
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.
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.)
Also, there are works reflecting their personal taste, with apparently Peter Pears’ preference for strongly coloured 20th-century work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
Tomorrow Netflix is showing ‘The Dig’, a film featuring the discovery of the early seventh-century, Anglo Saxon ship burial at Sutton Hoo in Suffolk. The original dig was begun on 20th June 1938 when the owner of Tranmer House and Estate, Edith Pretty, invited a local, gifted yet amateur archaeologist, Basil Brown, to investigate the earth mounds on her property. The film stars Ralph Fiennes (incidentally born in Ipswich) as Basil Brown and Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.
The following year, in September 1939, the ship burial and inhumation were discovered and found to be intact as the excavation proceeded.
When Basil Brown began digging Mound One he had no idea that the excavation would turn into one of the most dramatic events in British Archaeology.
The discovery of the ship burial and a magnificent collection of grave goods is considered to be one of the most significant finds of Anglo-Saxon art to date in Europe.
In a startling symbolic composition, a snake body provides the protective rim across the crown. Its beady garnet eyes and gaping mouth meet the beak of a fierce bird, whose wings make the eye-brows, whose body forms the nose and whose tail forms the moustache of the implacable human armoured face.
Martin Carver, ‘Sutton Hoo Burial Ground of Kings?'(1998)
Since 1997 the site at Sutton Hoo has belonged to the National Trust and is open to the public. Recently, in August 2019 a £4 million Visitor Centre was opened to mark the 80th year anniversary of the discovery. The site now includes a cafe/restaurant and shop joining the purpose-built High Hall, exhibition space.
Last September, when Covid restrictions eased and visitors were allowed inside public spaces, my daughter and I went for a look. Of course, she remembered her first visit when we came down from Norwich in 2005 and it had been much, much quieter.
After walking round the mounds we queued briefly, donned masks and signed in (Covid protocol) to see inside Mrs Pretty’s home, Tranmer House.
Only parts of the ground floor were open and the space where 15 years ago my daughter and I enjoyed a delightful and memorable retelling of Beowulf (with puppets), is now a small exhibition space. A few photographs of Edith Pretty’s life and many photographs of the 1939 dig are on display.
Before leaving, we noticed the queue for the High Hall had disappeared so following the same mask and signing-in routine we entered the exhibition to be greeted by a representation of an Anglo-Saxon, highborn warrior swooping down from the ceiling.
As you progress through the exhibition many of the exhibits are high quality replicas such as the complete helmet of bronze, silver and tin by Ivor Lawton. There are a few early finds from Mound 17 (the warrior horseman and horse burial site) on display. These are similar to some of the artefacts excavated from Mound One.
A look round Tranmer House and the displays in High Hall are interesting, but all the significant finds are in the British Museum in London. However, that’s not really the point of visiting Sutton Hoo. It is about experiencing the site, knowing the history and seeing the strange Burial Mounds set within the Suffolk countryside.
As I write only the estate walks are open due to the current lockdown restrictions.
Back in July of this year the builders of ‘The Hold’ completed their part of the project and handed over the keys to Paul West, the Suffolk County Councillor with responsibility for heritage. On receiving the keys Mr West commented, “We can get on with fitting out and that’s a two to three month project. Then we’ll have a sort of phased opening over the autumn. We hope to have an exhibition in November.” Well, as we all know November 2020 brought us another lockdown.
If you’re not from Ipswich or Suffolk, you are probably wondering what on earth is ‘The Hold’. The answer is, it is the new, purpose-built complex that will house the Suffolk County Archive.
I have followed this project with interest since 2017 when, firstly and sadly, I noticed some large trees were being chopped down. Then a smart black fence of boards was erected securing the site and carrying a display of information about the development.
Over the past 18 months I have been taking the odd photograph as the buildings started to take shape. The Hold is situated on the edge of the University of Suffolk complex and is close to the Ipswich Waterfront. It has been mostly erected on part of the university car park, it was a pity about the trees though.
Originally this £20 million project was scheduled to open around Easter 2020 no doubt with a special, civic event, however that date passed in the middle of the first lockdown and ‘The Hold’ finally opened in October.
It may have taken an extra six months to complete, but the finished building looks interesting and inviting and I look forward to visiting in normal times.
If you’ve been following the news much during this first week of lockdown 2.0, you might have seen or heard that traffic levels in various parts of the country haven’t reduced as they did during the first lockdown. Obviously, the main difference this time is that the schools have stayed open and many children are driven to school. However, when I walked down to see my father on Sunday morning it was very much quieter than usual.
It was so quiet at this normally busy junction in Ipswich that I was able to capture this damp autumn street view. Not a single car in sight. Disappointingly though, by the time I arrived at my father’s flat, the early mist had almost lifted. This was a pity as my photograph would have been greatly improved if the bulk of the hulk had been shrouded instead of spotlit by the morning sun.
It was just a quick picture from his balcony as even though I wear a mask and the door is open for fresh air, I try not to stay too long in his flat, just in case.
Speedy visits are not the only changes to my walks down to the Waterfront. Back on 29th April this year, Suffolk County Council closed the Waterfront to vehicles, apparently for three weeks. This was to enable plenty of space for physical distancing for the 2,000 or so residents who live in the surrounding apartment blocks. Yes, the closure was for just three weeks! Knowing what we all know now it comes as no surprise that the road is still closed half a year later.
Oh dear, what is there to say today? There has been so much bad news and less and less consensus. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? It appears that all hope is being pinned on the production of an effective vaccine.
Let’s leave the Covid Crisis behind and head off for an exhilarating, bracing walk along the North Sea at Sizewell. There is plenty of cool, fresh air and not many people on this stretch of the Suffolk coast in mid October.
After Shingle Street, Sizewell, is my next favourite Suffolk beach. I have been coming here since I was a child. Over the years the small fishing village has been put on the country’s map as a site for nuclear power stations. Initially, supplying electricity for the National Grid from the big old Magnox nuclear power station commissioned in 1966, and then the more elegant (?), pressurised water reactor version, commissioned in 1995.
I have always thought it a slightly, eerie place and you would never guess that its next door neighbour is the glorious RSPB’s Minsmere Nature Reserve. The walk from Sizewell along to Dunwich Heath passes along the edge of the Reserve’s wetlands and is a short section of the 60 mile Felixstowe to Lowestoft Suffolk Coast Path.
On Tuesday I saw that the weather forecasters were telling us to expect the arrival of autumn proper. This was code for prepare for a noticeable drop in temperatures accompanied by wind and rain.
Just as the light was fading, I grabbed my secateurs and nipped out into the backyard to cut any blooms that still looked half decent.
I cut dahlias, cosmos and sunflowers. It was more in error than by design I had planted three sunflower seedlings six weeks later than the main sowing and they only started blooming last week.
And, the dark pink cosmos has been very late this year getting into its stride. With the bright yellow sunflowers and the deep fuchsia pink of the cosmos I didn’t think I’d be able to make a tolerable arrangement, but it turned out that the dark red dahlias saved the day.
What a difference a backdrop makes? I prefer the black to the more contemporary choice for floral images which, I have recently noticed, is grey.
After living here in Suffolk at various times of my life and frequently visiting the county for over fifty years, I finally got round to making a trip to see Leiston Abbey. And, it was well worth the effort.
Most of what we see today is the remains of the 14th-century abbey of Premonstratensian canons. Premonstratensian canons, also known as the White Canons, was an order founded in 1120 by St Norbert of Xanten at Premontre in Picardy, France.
According to English Heritage, Leiston Abbey is among Suffolk’s most impressive monastic ruins retaining some spectacular architectural features.
The abbey church was built in the form of the cross with two chapels on either side of the chancel. The small, roofed chapel we today is the Lady Chapel and is occasionally used for services.
As you can see from the photographs it is mostly constructed of flint with fine examples of knapped flint, which is known as flint flushwork. Naturally occurring stone in Suffolk is in short supply and it appears that some of the stonework of this church, for example the arches, was constructed from re-used stone from the Order’s earlier abbey buildings at Minsmere. The original abbey was founded in 1182 by Ranulf de Glanville (Lord Chief Justice to King Henry II), and was built on an island in the Minsmere marshes nearer the coast. In 1363, the monastery was relocated two miles further from the coast to the higher ground of the Leiston site.
With the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1530s, as one of the smaller houses in the country, Leiston was among the first wave surrendered to the king, then gifted to the dukes of Suffolk. But, even for a small house the commissioners inventory showed there were silver and copper candlesticks and an altar of carved alabaster.
Dissolution might have been the beginning of the end of the abbey as a monastery, but part of the site became a farmhouse and eventually in 1928 the abbey ruins and farm were bought by Ellen Wrightson and used as a religious retreat until her death in 1946.
In 1977 the Pro Corda Trust, the National School for Young Chamber Music Players, a charity running chamber music courses for children, bought Leiston Abbey. It is pleasing that there is an arrangement with English Heritage for the care of the ruins and that free, public access is allowed.
It might be August, just, but it looks as if the weather has decided that that’s it for this summer. I suppose we can still hope for a few bright and balmy days in early autumn.
As a child when we used to come to Suffolk for our family holidays the neighbouring back garden was full of one type of flower – hollyhocks. The entirety of their little plot was hollyhocks. I suspect now that they were mostly self-seeded as it was an open area of free-draining soil and hollyhocks seem to do well in our part of the country. Ever since then hollyhocks have been in my top ten of favourite flowers. Wherever I have been gardening I have tried to squeeze in a few of these essential, cottage garden beauties.
This year I have had pink, white and a very dark, dark red and they have all managed to flower. It is just as well that I took a moment to get some photos of these naturally tall plants before Storm Francis blew in.
Hollyhocks aren’t the only tall flowering plants I’ve grown in my backyard this year. As usual I have grown some cosmos from seed. The packet for this pink variety definitely said ‘dwarf’, but they have grown to over five feet tall, searching for the light. I do think they would have started blooming much earlier and remained dwarf if they had full sunlight all day. As you can see from the almost ‘ethereal’ photo above, the plants only get full sunlight in intermittent bursts. Obviously, this has not been enough and the plants have become etiolated.
At least most of the pink cosmos eventually flowered, but then Storm Francis decided to take down a few plants pulling over the pots at the same time. Luckily, and surprisingly no pots were broken and who doesn’t appreciate having plenty of cut flowers to bring indoors.
The weather may have been very grey and trying to rain most of the time, but it was glorious to be out on the coast and not in lockdown. It is the first drive out of Ipswich I’ve made for over four months.
Of course, we know Coastal Suffolk well and the wind is rarely absent and even in July you sometimes needs a leather coat.
I have been coming to Shingle Street since I was six years old and each time I visit I am surprised at how little it changes. However, it is a long time since I can remember arriving at low-tide and seeing the treacherous shingle bar at the mouth of the River Alde.
Today, as we were walking down towards the shoreline I realised the extent the sea rises and the stormy waves travel during a winter high tide. When I was a teenager I used to imagine living in one of the cottages of this delightful seaside terrace, but now with more and more shocking news about the Climate Crisis I would be too nervous to live so close to the North Sea.
For the time being the sea kale and other wildflowers continue to bloom and seed and partially stabilise this low-lying, marshy coastline and we can enjoy a refreshing walk along the beach.