Spring in Benjamin Britten’s garden

The Red House on the outskirts of Aldeburgh in Suffolk was the home of Benjamin Britten from 1957 to 1976.

The Red House from the croquet lawn.
The Red House through some budding mahonia.

Britten shared this extended, late-seventeenth century farmhouse with his partner, the tenor, Peter Pears, until Britten’s death in 1976.

The Composition Studio with first floor window giving views across the orchard.

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.
Viburnum, mahonia and ornamental flowering currant are planted along the garden wall of the Red House.

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.

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Such changeable weather

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!

Lady Drury’s Melancholy Pines

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.

Bottom panels painted with herbs and flowers.

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.

Scarlet pimpernel and wild pansy

And, I also admire the painted herb and flower decorative panels displayed at the bottom of the panel collection.

Deadly nightshade and dandelion

These panels show bugle, corn marigold, speedwell, dandelion, deadly nightshade, honeysuckle, scarlet pimpernel, wild pansy and a wild strawberry plant.

Wild strawberry
Bird’s eye speedwell, corn marigold, bugle
Honeysuckle

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.

Painting finished and now ready for steaming.

February flowers in the cemetery

On Monday I had a scarf order to despatch and as it was a gorgeously, bright and sunny winter morning I decided to take a detour and walk through the cemetery to the Post Office.

This is my first visit to the cemetery since just before Christmas and what a pleasant surprise.

A tapestry of snowdrops and crocuses in various stages of blooming flowed in between the old headstones and graves.

Of course, the bright, but low winter sun enhanced the scene although the recent storms and high winds has left a muddle of fallen twigs amongst the blooms.

As I walked through this enchanting green space not only was it a feast for my eyes, but there was also a full chorus of birdsong including the sporadic rat-a-tat-tat drilling of a woodpecker.

Sunsets on the Waterfront

During the last two months of 2018 the weather was surprisingly benign with a number of clear winter days ending with beautiful sunsets. 

The low sun and the still water down on at the Ipswich Waterfront provided a variety of opportunities for interesting images, some vivid and some gently serene. Here’s a selection.

One month to go – Blackthorpe Barn

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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.

Economy-International

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.

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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.

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St Edmund’s, Southwold. Revisiting Rood Screens – Suffolk II

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At heart I am a visual culture purist. I say this to forewarn you about my comments regarding the rood screen and pulpit of St Edmund’s Church in Southwold.

St Edmund’s is a beautiful medieval church built in the Perpendicular style. It’s full name is ‘The Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr’. The building we see today (suggested date 1413 in the church’s guide, but circa 1430 in both Pevsner and Mortlock accounts) was built on the site of an earlier thirteen-century church, a smaller building that had been destroyed by fire. According to the church guide during 1758 the foundations of that original building were located underneath part of the present church.

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The straight lines of the Perpendicular style have been emphasised at St Edmund’s by the luxury flushwork of flint and stone. The linear quality of the building is doubly emphasised by the striking effect of an inlaid chessboard decoration on the west tower that is repeated on the exterior walls of the south porch.

From the appearance of the grand, ornate exterior it is evident that St Edmund’s was built at a time when the parish of Southwold and its environs had generous wealthy donors. This is confirmed by the quality of the surviving medieval interior furnishings that include the rood screen, the pulpit and the font.

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Of course, the splendid, painted and gilded rood screen alone is worth a visit to the church, but there is also a fine pre-Reformation pulpit and a beautifully decorated and adorned hammerbeam ceiling together with the original, though defaced font.

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Now here is the issue. Between its glorious fifteenth-century heyday and today, St Edmund’s, along with many East Anglian medieval churches, has had some turbulent, destructive times, and equally, some impoverished, neglected and generally detrimental times. The visit of William Dowsing and the iconoclasts in 1643 brought the first and substantial destructive episode which included the defacing of the font.

SOUTHWOLD, APRIL the 8th. We break 
down 130 superstitious Pictures ; St. Andrew ; and 4 
Crosses on the four corners of the Vestry ; and gave 
order to take down 13 Cherubims; and take down 20 
Angels ; and to take down the Cover of the Font. 

Quote from 'The journal of William Dowsing of Stratford,
parliamentary visitor, appointed under a warrant from the
Earl of Manchester, for demolishing the superstitious 
pictures and ornaments of churches.' Journal commenced
1643, Sudbury, Suffolk.

Defaced-font-St-Edmunds

After this deliberate, seventeenth-century image smashing came the long period of straightened times for Church of England buildings as the eighteenth century saw the rise of the Nonconformists and the subsequent fall in C of E congregation numbers. A neglected St Edmund’s functioned with a series of temporary curates as the chancel roof and wood of the east window slowly rotted away.

However, with the rise of the Evangelical movement across the course of the nineteenth century it was all change again. A widening interest in re-examining the medieval past combined with the Victorian’s obsession for progress, resulted in large funds being provided for extensive renovation schemes at St Edmund’s.

The attractively painted ceiling of the hammerbeam roof adorned with painted angels we see today is one such renovation scheme. The replacement ceiling is a fine example of nineteenth-century carpentry and decorative painting skills as well as an insight into how a previous generation reinterpreted our shared medieval past. The Victorians aimed for reconstructing a perfectly finished past whilst our twenty-first-century sensibility is all about the delicately preserved, authentic original however dilapidated and tatty it looks.

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Painted roof angels – a Victorian interpretation of the medieval aesthetic.

Apparently, the colourful blue and painted details are very near to sketched records of the original medieval ceiling, but how fair a facsimile it is difficult to judge. That situation is brought acutely into focus when we turn to consider the ‘restoration’ of the medieval pulpit during the 1920s.

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Original medieval trumpet-stemmed pulpit. Disappointingly over restored in 1928 under the guidance of F E Howard.

Along with providing designs for the reredos, the lectern and the font cover, an ‘inspired young church architect from Oxford’, F E Howard (1888-1934), oversaw the restoration and painting of the pulpit. Sadly, the once elegant original medieval trumpet-stemmed pulpit is almost obliterated beneath thick layers of overdone paintwork and gilding.

Part-of-rood-screen
Part of the rood screen depicting the twelve Apostles. From the left St Matthew, St James the Less and St Thomas. Disappointingly a heavy piece of church furniture and a large floral display were obstructing a clear view of the north side of the rood screen.  Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1480

Curiously, the writer of the church’s own guidebook gives special credit to F E Howard for making St Edmund’s interior the delight it is today. However, even the guide’s sympathetic author informs us that any desires by Howard to renovate the rood screen were not permitted.

FEHoward-font-cover-and-lectern-detail
The font cover (left) and a detail of the lectern (right) as envisioned by F E Howard (1888-1934) in a medieval style. Painted wood and gilding. 1928

Personally, I am very, very pleased he was stopped.

The rood screen at St Edmund's, Southwold, Suffolk
Part of the rood screen (the south side) at St Edmund’s, Southwold, Suffolk. From the left St Paul, St John, St James the Great, St Bartholomew, St Jude and St Simon. Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1480

I have nothing against Victorian art and it is as much part of the history and culture of this church as the medieval art. Nevertheless from the our twenty-first-century viewpoint the Victorians’ well-meaning yet heavy-handed painting and renovations can border on vandalism. The repainting of the damaged saints’ faces by Sir George Richmond in 1874 are bad enough, but just think what Howard would have done in the 1920s to all that delicate gilding on the rood screen given half a chance.

Victorian-head-on-medieval-StPaul

As I mentioned at the beginning I am a visual culture purist and as such I appreciate seeing what is left of our medieval culture when it is gently conserved, but I do realise that a little active conservation is necessary. Of course, what we have left is still only an approximation of the reality of the past. Today’s impression for a visitor to St Edmund’s is nothing like the spectacle and mystery experienced by a medieval parishioner or even a Victorian church goer as all the medieval stained glass was blown from the windows by a bomb in 1943 during the Second World War.

Revisiting Rood Screens – Suffolk I

Three-hunting-dogsIt was just over 18 years ago that I spent several months visiting a number of medieval churches in East Anglia to photograph their painted rood screens. At the time I was working on the rood screens as part of my research for my Master’s dissertation. Often my mother accompanied me and helped out with the photographs. I was surveying the painted details found within the cloth of gold worn by the saints and prophets. She would patiently hold a cardboard scale slightly in front of the painted motifs embellishing the robes depicted on the screens. It was in the days just before digital cameras became widely available (and affordable!) and I had to wait for my film to return from the developers before I knew if my prints were a fair record for my work.

Page-27
Page 27 of my dissertation ‘Inspiration and Aspiration: The Patterned Silks in the Painted Rood Screens of East Anglia’. Photographs of the ‘hunting dog on nesting swan’ motif.

Following my recent house move my dissertation has surfaced. Looking for fresh inspiration I scrutinised the photographs I used to illustrate my text. What a disappointment! At the time I wrote and produced my dissertation the finished printed version appeared good enough, but compared to my photos today they are, well, of exceedingly poor quality.

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Part of the rood screen at St Helen’s, Ranworth, Norfolk. From the left St Paul, St John, St Philip, St James the Less and St Jude. Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1470s (recent digital photograph)

There are six rood screens in East Anglia that are particularly fine and are known as the ‘Ranworth Group’. These late-fifteenth-century screens include from Norfolk; St Helen’s, Ranworth; All Saints’, Filby; St Mary’s, Old Hunstanton; All Saints’, Thornham; St Mary’s, North Elmham and from Suffolk, St Edmund’s, Southwold. Maybe one day I will be back up on the North Norfolk coast and visit Old Hunstanton and Thornham again, but for my immediate needs Southwold is my nearest resource. (I have already been back to, rephotographed and worked from Ranworth – see here.)

The rood screen at St Edmund's, Southwold, Suffolk
Part of the rood screen at St Edmund’s, Southwold, Suffolk. From the left St Paul, St John, St James the Great, St Bartholomew, St Jude and St Simon. Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1480

It is the case that the Ranworth screen is by far the best preserved, but Southwold is also in a reasonable condition despite some Victorian renovation work. All six rood screens of the Ranworth Group appear to have been made and painted by a single workshop. The designs and motifs for the cloth of gold used to adorn the saints and prophets probably came from the same pattern source book. If you look carefully at the examples above (Page 27 -apologies for the poor quality) you can see a dog with collar attacking a nesting swan. This motif is found clearly on five of the painted screens, the exception being North Elmham which was too dark and damaged to see the detail clearly. All measured 6 x 7 cm suggesting the motif was traced from an original source. There are other motifs and stencilled patterns that are also seen repeated on the rood screens, including the screen at St Edmund’s, Southwold, providing consistent evidence to support the long held view that a well-respected artisan workshop from Norwich created these masterpieces during the period 1470 – 1500.

Earlier this week I went back to Southwold to rephotograph its glorious rood screen and you can see from the image below that modern technology, a better camera and a better lens have enabled me to record this treasured medieval art as it should be done.Southwold-dog-swan

Parched

Hot-at-Shingle-StreetEnd 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.

Green-but-not-grassWalking 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.Parched-grass-cemeteryIt 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.

Back-of-Coastguard-Cottages-Shingle-StreetNaturally, 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.

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Old hands and newbies

BB-OneLast weekend and again this coming weekend I will be selling my work at ‘British Crafts at Blackthorpe Barn’. The venue is a fantastic, timber-framed Suffolk barn dating from about 1550. Over its long history the Barn was used for threshing and storing grain. Indeed, the Barn was still used as a grain store up until 1985. It is a beautiful airy space with the massive timbers supporting a 30 metre long, thatched roof.silk-scarves.jpgDuring the course of the weekend it was a pleasure to meet so many people, especially some very talented crafting folk not least my neighbours, Karen, of Karen Risby Ceramics, and, Kerry, Kerry Richardson Designer Jeweller.Karen-and-KerryA big thank you to these experienced and accomplished designer makers for their warm welcome to this newbie to ‘British Crafts at Blackthorpe Barn’.

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Ipswich Maritime Festival

Ipswich-Maritime-Festival

Every two years the Ipswich Waterfront hosts a Maritime Festival. Held over a weekend the event is a nautical celebration featuring boats, international street food and a temporary fun fair.

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Visiting boats line up along the quayside and the largest visitor this year was the Earl of Pembroke (1945) all the way from Bristol. Originally a schooner, the Earl of Pembroke was restored between 1985-1994 and commissioned as a three masted eighteenth century barque. You may have spotted her in Tim Burton’s film ‘Alice in Wonderland’ or in the TV series ‘Longitude’.

Another sailing beauty, the slender Essex smack Pioneer CK18 (built 1864), was moored up at the Waterfront joining some of the Old Thames barges (Victor, Thistle and Centaur) recently returned to the quayside for the Festival.

It wasn’t just sailing boats that were flaunting their nautical credentials. One of the last surviving steam inshore craft, Vic 96 (built 1945) was tied up alongside the tugboat Motor Tug Kent (1948).

This year’s theme was the recapture of Ipswich from the Vikings in 917AD and we did eventually spot a small group of folk with their historically accurate helmets and mail vests sitting at the back of the fun fair area. I am not sure authentic Anglo Saxon or Viking food would have been big sellers, but there were wild boar burgers, venison sausages, and a full hog roast available for hungry visitors.

Many of the ships and boats around the marina were decked out with colourful flags, but the best part of the weekend was the closing firework display. My photos were all shot through the rigging of the Earl of Pembroke.

I think the firework finale (below) flashing and banging over the ship gave a hint of what it might have been like in the past in the midst of a naval skirmish.

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PS – Newsflash – July 2018 –

As of this year the Ipswich Maritime Festival is to take place annually. Perhaps this August I will get better firework photos!