Littoral Press, 15 Harwood Place, Lavenham, Suffolk, CO10 9SG
mervyn linford littoral press
A sample chapter of Journey Down the Stour by Mervyn Linford
Valley of Artists
This is a valley of artists. The wide East Anglian skies and the quality of the light have attracted many famous names. Two were born here of course: Gainsborough in Sudbury and Constable in East Bergholt. Thomas Gainsborough was born in Sudbury where now stands his statue and the Gainsborough House museum and gallery. He was baptised in 1727 and he died in 1788. His great love was ‘landskip’ (landscape) painting but unfortunately at that time it was not profitable so he had to concentrate on portraiture. Along with Joshua Reynolds he became one of England’s greatest portrait artists. Towards the end of his life he said: “I’m sick of portraits, and wish very much to take my viol-da-gam (stringed instrument) and walk off to some sweet village, where I can paint landskips and enjoy the fag end of life in quietness and ease.” He was famed for his speed of execution and the lightness of his brushstrokes when painting. Also for his observations of nature instead of the more formalised painting of the time. In his most famous painting ‘Mr and Mrs Andrews’ he gets as much of the landscape into the picture as possible. The painting shows Cornard Wood, close to Sudbury. If you look closely you can also see Little Cornard church and St Peters in Sudbury itself. The neat and parallel rows of corn in the picture show that this is a thoroughly modern painting of a thoroughly modern farm that utilised the controversial and revolutionary seed drill invented by Jethro Tull. The Andrew’s estate, Auberies, was actually sited on the other side of the Stour Valley at Bulmer Tye in Essex.
John Constable was also a very modern painter. What he painted for the most part was a working environment observed from nature and not just in the studio. This was very unusual for the time. The ‘Hay Wain’, barges, horses, locks and mills were all grist for his modern palette. Painters like Constable and Turner were not truly appreciated in their own time. The Royal Academy was very critical of their works. Yet in France they were admired- not to say acclaimed - and in fact the later impressionists cite both of them as major influences. If you see some of Constable’s really free work such as ‘A Windy Day on Hampstead Heath’ – at least that’s what I think it’s called – you’ll see what I mean. It’s all atmosphere. You’re not just seeing a work of art; you’re actually ‘feeling’ the weather, experiencing a real, blustery moment in time.
John Nash lived and painted in the Stour Valley. His house was called Bottengoms and is situated down the end of a lonely track close to the village of Wormingford in Essex. His friend, the writer, Ronald Blythe – famous for his 1960s book on village life ‘Akenfield’ – still lives there. I love Nash’s work. Like his brother Paul Nash he had a very unique style. You couldn’t mistake his work anywhere. If he couldn’t get outside to paint or draw because of the weather he would sit indoors and use the windows as a frame for his pictures. And very effective they are too. I know of very few artists who can paint or draw snow and ice in as chillingly realistic a manner as John Nash.
Cedric Morris, artist and plantsman, was born in Swansea in 1889 but chose the country life in 1929 and moved to Pound Farm in Higham, Suffolk. Along with a colleague he opened the East Anglian School of Art in Dedham, Essex, in 1937. One of his early and most notable students was Lucian Freud. Sadly the school in Dedham was destroyed by fire along with some of his works. Within a year they were open again in a rambling ‘Suffolk Pink’ farmhouse at Benton End near Hadleigh. He was said to have had a distinctive and somewhat primitive post-impressionist style and painted, portraits, very decorative still life’s of flowers and birds and, of course, landscapes. He died in 1982 at the ripe old age of 93.
Another Stour Valley artist was Alfred Munnings – the famous horse painter. He was born in Mendham, Suffolk in 1878. He was also famous for his outspoken and derogatory views on ‘modernism’. Apart from horses he painted rural scenes – especially those involving gypsies. As a war artist in the First World War he painted the ‘Charge of Flowerdew’s Squadron’ known as ‘the last great cavalry charge’ at the ‘Battle of Moreuil Wood’. He died in 1944 at Castle House Dedham, Essex. The house is now open as a museum and gallery.
Sitting at my study window musing on the Stour Valley and its many artists, the light, the racing clouds and the reflections and refractions of the river, highlight just what it was they were looking for – wide skies and brilliant light. The Impressionists went south to Provence and our boys came to the Essex/Suffolk borders - and why not? Thinking about light I am reminded that it is Good Friday. Why ‘Good’? Aren’t we talking about the Crucifixion? It has other names: Great Friday, Holy Friday, Black Friday and Passion Friday for instance. It’s only good in the sense that the outcome of the Crucifixion is the Resurrection – meaning that we’re all saved because of Christ’s death and resurrection. According to ‘Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable’ ‘good’ means ‘holy’. Both Christmas and Shrove Tuesday were known as ‘The Good Tide’. It’s close to my own thoughts on the matter. I felt the ‘Good’ might be a corruption of ‘God’. Well it’s a thought! Good Friday superstitions say that it’s a good day for planting potatoes and parsley and that leftover hot cross buns stay fresh forever because they are marked with the cross. Good Friday comes early this year – March 29th. Close to March the 25th – the ‘Annunciation’ also known as ‘Lady Day’. It is said to be unlucky for Good Friday to fall on ‘Lady Day’ – “when the Lord falls in Our Lady’s lap”. It was also the first of the ‘Quarter Days’ when legal contracts between tenants and land owners and farm workers began and ended.
Despite the houses on my side of the river the pheasants still come across to feed on the seeds the small birds spill as they utilise the feeders. There are a couple of cats on this side of the river which is a bit of a worry. Once or twice I have seen the small black cat with tails hanging out of its mouth – voles and mice no doubt. One day there was actually a pheasant’s wing lying in the grass. Reg, our King Charles spaniel seemed very pleased with himself as he trotted around with the offending article clasped between his grinning teeth. I like cats, my partner of 33 years standing has two beautiful examples. But when you think of how many millions of them there are in the country and how many millions of birds and small mammals they kill every year it’s frightening. They must have an enormous effect on the natural environment. I should explain. My partner doesn’t live with me. She lives in Leigh on Sea in Essex. We’ve always lived together apart – if you see what I mean. I spend most weekends with her by the sea and she comes to stay with me by the River Stour whenever she has the time or the inclination. We both feel that we have the best of both worlds - the seaside and the countryside. We also have another dog to care for – a cross German shepherd cum collie left to her when her ex-husband died. Katy as she’s called is getting on in years but is settling down quite nicely. Although much bigger than Reg for all her growling and grumbling Reg is the boss. Given the chance he even pushes her out of her bowl when she’s feeding. He’s pushing his luck as well in my opinion. The old Colchester to Cambridge railway bridge that crosses the river a 100 yards beyond my study window is part of the Stour Valley Walk. Today being a holiday sees a succession of ramblers and cyclists moving across it in either direction. It’s cold, the afternoon clouds are building up and there’s even talk of more snow. It’s all very bracing but dry and no doubt very enjoyable for all involved. I must get ready for my 50 mile trip down to Leigh on Sea for the weekend. Next Wednesday we’re off to a hotel in Calais for six days. No doubt the weather in Northern France will be much the same as it is here – perhaps slightly colder being a continental climate.