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.
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.
There are many reproductions of all kinds of art and much written about art too, particularly the ‘Old Masters’, but coverage of female, amateur artists is fairly limited.
This is particularly so for visual images produced during the time of Puritan England when many aspects of everyday existence became very stiff and starchy. For a wealthy Englishwoman prayer, reading and piety would be expected over any hint of personal expression through the visual arts. This is why the Hawstead panels are so fascinating.
The 61 painted panels originally covered the walls of a closet (a small room similar to our idea of a study) in Hawstead Place, the home of Sir Robert and Lady Drury near Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk. In 1924 the complete set of panels was purchased by Ipswich Borough Council and built into a small room in Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich. Nowadays you can visit this intriguing space and experience its almost claustrophobic intensive quality.
It is interesting that despite the survival and uniqueness of this work and its complete condition, there is little detailed writing about these panels except for the excellent 2013 monograph ‘The Painted Closet of Lady Anne Bacon Drury’ by Heather Meakin.
Standing in the centre of this small space, about seven feet square, it is hard to interpret whether there is a narrative thread to be found in the complete set of panels. This question is even more difficult to answer when you discover that the panels are no longer arranged in their original order. This was lost some time after their removal from Hawstead Place to Hardwick House in the early 17th century, and, by the time they were bought by the council in 1924 the panels were no longer part of a square room, but hanging in a long corridor.
Nowadays it is agreed that the panels were painted by Lady Anne Bacon Drury (1572-1624). Most of the panels consist of an image together with a Latin motto that combine to form a single visual device the purpose of which is to prompt Protestant contemplation, reflection and meditation. From this understanding of the panels it is reasonable to consider there was never any conscious narrative to the room as a whole, but instead one can view the panels as a collection of spiritual and philosophical themes.
Lady Drury, most likely took inspiration for her panels from ‘Emblem’ books. Many of her panel ‘prompts’ appear to have originated from two such popular emblem books of the period; ‘A Choice of Emblemes’ (1586) by Geffrey Whitney and ‘Heroicall Devises’ (1591) by Claude Paradin. And, we can see over 41 of the panels have both a picture and motto and a further 15 panels show flowers and herbs with symbolic meanings. It is also worth noting that at the time of their painting there was a wider Jacobean fashion for symbolic decoration with designs and text covering the walls of domestic interiors.
However, it is unusual to find a gentle woman expressing herself through the medium of oil paint even within a private context. Creativity through needlework was the norm even though some religious orders had seen nuns illuminating religious texts as early as Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) in the twelfth century and, indeed, by the seventeenth century a contemporary of Lady Drury’s, Esther Inglis (1571-1624) was a well-known miniaturist illustrating manuscripts for royal patrons. But ‘Ladies’ working with oil paint in Puritan England seems a rarity.
Of course, it might be that many gentlewomen were painting the walls of their private studies in such a thoughtful and considered fashion and the Hawstead Panels are simply the only ones to survive. However, there are several factors which suggest that the Hawstead Panels may be an exception as opposed to the norm. Firstly, Lady Anne was the granddaughter of Sir Nicholas Bacon, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal of England, secondly Anne had grown up in a family that believed in educating their daughters, thirdly she had a generous dowry (£1,600) from her father on her wedding to Sir Robert Drury (1575-1615) and finally she was the older sister of the court, amateur painter Sir Nathaniel Bacon. And, during Anne’s lifetime Nathaniel Bacon was considered to be England’s finest amateur artist. Here, then we have a wealthy, educated woman from an aristocratic family, a family that included an exceptional if amateur painter and it is therefore not unreasonable to conclude Anne Drury had the desire, means and knowledge to create her own very personal and private prayer closet.
Sadly, for Lady Drury despite beginning her married life (1592) in privileged, and hopefully optimistic circumstances, she lost her first daughter, Dorothy aged 4 in 1597 and her second daughter, Elizabeth, aged 14 in 1610. On the death of Elizabeth, the poet John Donne wrote the elegy ‘An Anatomy of the World, wherein, by occasion of the untimely Death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and decay of the whole World is represented’. Lady Drury was a patroness and friend of Donne and corresponded with the poet. According to historical records a family inventory states the existence of 25 letters from him bound together though these are now lost. From this time onwards it appears Lady Drury, now childless, spent much time alone at her Suffolk home whilst her ambitious husband was away fighting his way round Europe or attending the Court. In the end she died in 1624 outliving her younger husband by more than a decade. She left us a painted insight into another time and another way of living.
As most of these panels appear so strange to our 21st-century sensibility I feel a more detailed examination of them is worth the time and I’ve split this post into two with ‘Lady Drury and The Hawstead Panels -Part II’ to follow next week.
How time flies – I have had an online boutique for over five years and this 21st-century way of shopping has become routine.
And, in the last decade everybody, but everybody I know uses online shopping for some aspects of their lives, but sometimes for me it is pleasant and beneficial to meet my customers in real life. This was the case the other weekend at Blackthorpe Barn. I set up my display, took a quick tour round to meet fellow artists and stood by my stall ready for the first customers at 10.00 am.
By 11.00 am the featured scarf displayed was sold to an enthusiastic customer who used to be a silk painter. Obviously, the large poster-style photograph caught people’s attention, but there is nothing like seeing and feeling silk in real life and I hope she enjoys wearing it.
British Crafts at Blackthorpe Barn is a good venue to attend, but there is a newer, 21st-century form of selling. Since the first experiments in Los Angeles, the ‘Pop-Up Shop’ phenomenon has spread across the globe. Pop-ups in all sizes, selling all types of products, from all types of venues temporarily open their doors to the public. And, in my little corner of East Anglia a local artist transforms her charming house into a Christmas Pop-Up Shop for three days selling work by fellow artists from the surrounding creative community.
The Pop-Up Shop at East Cliff House, 24, Harwich Road, Mistley, CO11 1LQ, will be open Friday 7th from 3 pm to 9 pm, Saturday 8th and Sunday 9th December from 11 am to 5 pm.