The Suffolk Countryside – Part 2

10 09 2006

9-10 September 2006

Part1 | Part2


I am carrying my backpack. The folded tent is strapped to its side. My walking stick is as dependable as ever. My trousers are tucked into my socks to keep them clean and dry.

I approach Ickworth from the south by the woods that surround it. Leaving the woods and a lake behind, there is a short uphill walk. Soon after, I suddenly hit an open field that has been tilled after the harvest. Beyond this large vacant field broken only by a couple of trees, the house comes into view with its breathtaking rotunda. A terrace looks down from the edge of the garden towards the open field, the woods and beyond. To the left, the church is also to be seen. I start to cross the field and walk towards the house. Visitors walking along the terrace stare at me as if they have never seen or expected anyone to come to Ickworth in this manner.

Ickworth House seen from the gardens

Ickworth House seen from the gardens

Ickworth House is unique in its design. Inspired by classical designs and motifs, it is perhaps more Italian than English. Scenes from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey decorate the rotunda in embossed friezes. These friezes are based on Flaxman’s illustrations whose style I had first encountered at the Tate Britain. The rotunda is in two levels. The lower level is ringed by demure Ionic columns. The upper level is more ornamental with Corinthian columns and the friezes above it. From this rotunda span two curved corridors, one towards the East Wing, the other towards the West Wing. In this manner, the central rotunda is a showcase to the world, of wealth, possession and luxurious living; while the connected buildings on either side are private living quarters for the family or for guests. On the whole, it is an imposing structure. It is formal but not charming. It is graceful but not homely. It is balanced but not beautiful. It is more ordered and predictable that the red-brick Tudor facades more commonly seen in Suffolk.

I was more curious to see how this curvature would be handled on the inside. It is an easy guess if one has taken note of the tall full-length windows that cover the rotunda. It is rather typical of country houses to have tall windows. In addition to the practical purpose of letting in light, these afford good views of the garden, the park or larger landscapes. At Ickworth, the garden is at the back. The windows in the library, a semi-circular room, open out to the garden. Without these windows, the space would have been difficult to handle on the inside. The curvature of the wall would have been restrictive and even claustrophobic. It is also difficult to hang a large painting on such a wall. So the windows break up the space along the wall. Paintings if any, hang on the other wall at the centre of the rotunda. Yet for all this ingenuity, the library is not really a comfortable room. One reason is the presence of four tall pillars. These pillars break up the space well but at the same time they are obtrusive. Thus the room stands in a state of divided unity.

The other rooms are designed with a similar concept. The attention of the visitor is always towards the centre of the rotunda and away from the windows. The furniture is arranged to make this happen. But for someone who lives in the house, I wonder if such an eccentric design would have become annoying at some point.

There are a few things in this house that captured my attention. The sedan chairs in the Staircase Hall are things I have only read about but never seen. They were used by the gentile in the 17th and 18th centuries when moving around in London. The floor boards in the corridors are curved. They have been laid so well that there are no gaps or bulges. In Eastern philosophy it is said that water has no shape; rather it takes the shape of the vessel into which it is poured. Such too is the case of these boards.

Long corridors flank the main rotunda

Long corridors flank the main rotunda

The fascination for me lay in John Flaxman’s sculpture, “The Fury of Athamas”, taken from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This was commissioned in Rome for £600 in 1790. It was stolen by Napoleon and later discovered in Paris. It was finally brought to Ickworth at an additional cost of £600. This sculpture is yet another masterpiece of Flaxman. Mad Athamas is about to fling his son who clings to his mother. She tries in vain to restrain Athamas. Thus the eye moves from Athamas, to his son, to his mother and back to Athamas. Closer to ground, the other child completes the composition. The sculpture is balanced by the ingenious use of drapery that falls off Athamas.

The garden at Ickworth has nothing remarkable. The box hedges are pretty. They afford quiet walks but nothing more. There are no surprises. They are as formal as the building and little enchanting. One unique item in the garden is the entrance to the bat hibernaculum, for bats to hibernate in winter. Now, what do bats have to do with the classicism and formality that embody Ickworth?

Bury St Edmunds

Saturday morning market at Bury St Edmunds

Saturday morning market at Bury St Edmunds

I had absolutely no idea what Bury had to offer except that it had a famous cathedral. So, that became my one and only point of visit other than the general walk about the town centre. I was surprised. It is not as large as any of the cathedrals I have visited. For its size it has a lot more fame. Known as the Cathedral Church of St James, it looks more like a church than a cathedral. That such a cathedral should be the only cathedral in Suffolk is a greater surprise. A short walk around this building with its new Millennium Tower explained the reason for such an ancient fame.

The cathedral is surrounded by the ruins of an abbey. A poster at the grand abbey gate tells the rich history. A monastery existed in the 7th century. In the 10th century the abbey was founded to honour King Edmund, a saintly king who had been killed in battle against the Danes in 869 AD. In the 11th century it became a Benedictine monastery. While Fountains Abbey near Ripon grew wealthy by the wool trade, here the growth was mainly due to royal grants. The ruins we see today are the buildings that grew soon after the Norman Conquest. After the Dissolution of 1539, it suffered the same fate as Corfe Castle – that is, the townspeople robbed much of the stone as building material. It was a sensible thing to do. Stone would have been hard to find in those days, which is why in Suffolk many houses are structures of timber-frame and wattle & daub.

The church has survived and grown over time. It was only in 1914 it became a cathedral. So it is a young cathedral with a long history. It has been slowly enlarged over the last century. With its new tower completed in 2005, it is set to fulfil its destiny as a Suffolk cathedral for centuries yet to come.

Ruins of the old Abbey

Ruins of the old Abbey

The uninitiated may think that Bury St Edmunds is called by that name because St Edmund was buried here. But the word “bury” is in fact derived from an Old English word that meant a fort or a stronghold. Salisbury and Canterbury take their names from this root. So Bury St Edmunds must have been called Bury from a long time. A yet older name for this town is Bedericesworth. The striking change is its association with St Edmund which must have happened only in the 10th century. So here we find an example where one man can change the name of an existing town. While in St Albans, it is seen that the town was founded by the saint and naturally took his name, at Bury St Edmunds we find something more difficult in the making. To change an established name to something else is indeed an achievement, a testimony to the greatness of the saint or to the love of his people. In our own time, such changes are seen to be more difficult. It is difficult to discard one’s identity to adopt a new shared identity. This is perhaps one reason why the British hesitate in adopting the Euro.

Coming back to the cathedral, I sat through an entire evensong. There were moments of great beauty and an almost perfection. Unlike the practice in most cathedrals, here the visitor is allowed to sit in the nave and listen to the choir without taking part in the service. One is not obliged to stand or kneel in prayer. Thus each one is encouraged to find his own method of worship, his own spiritual path and open up as individual responses dictate. The Millennium Tower is a great achievement of our own generation but the rest of the cathedral did not impress. It is more important, though, to be impressed on a spiritual level and this is exactly what the evensong succeeded with me. The ancient sanctity and atmosphere of prayer of the abbey lingers and evolves in this cathedral.

Following the usual Sunday evensong, I was given the rare privilege to participate in a special service, the 37th Annual Festal Evensong of the Knights Templar of the Provincial Priory of East Anglia. The formal title of this ancient organisation was printed to great length in the printed service booklet:

The United Religious, Military and Masonic Orders
of the Temple and of St. John of Jerusalem,
Palestine, Rhodes and Malta of England and Wales
and its Provinces Overseas

The service was full of ceremony but that did not make the sermon any less meaningful or important. R.E. Kt. Geoffrey Hewitt, the Provincial Prior for East Anglia, gave a humorous lesson and brought out from it important points of religious morality. The choir was only eight voices strong and was composed entirely of women. It lacked the diversity and rich bass of an all male choir. However, some of the hymns were rendered exceptionally well. I was pleased to hear a different tonal range for a change. The greater joy was to see women in the choir which is something I have seen nowhere else. It is important to note that this all female choir sang in the nave, not in the choir.

Despite an illuminating service, I felt this whole episode was a joke. The Knight Templars go all the way back to the time of Richard I and the Christian crusades. What is their relevance today? I asked someone. Her reply was neither satisfying nor encouraging. The most they do these days is to raise money for charity. Anyone can do that. One doesn’t need a fancy title, a costumed dress, sword and banners with medieval coat of arms, or a special ceremony. Most of the so called knights were aging men, some of who were visibly tired after walking a couple of times down the aisle. Most had taken good care of their elaborate robed dress. For some, it was clear that these stained and unwashed robes came out from some humid chest once a year for this very occasion.

Many months ago I had visited Exeter on a very wet day. I had my cap on to keep my head as dry as possible. When I entered the Cathedral for a service I was politely asked to remove my cap. This, I normally do in advance, but the rain had made me forget to keep up the habit. Today, at St Edmundsbury Cathedral, it was quite different. All through the service two women wore fine hats. Many more were dressed in their best, replete with make-up and jewellery. To them this event was less of a service. It was more of a gay social gathering like a summer’s outing on a race day at Ascot, Epsom or Newmarket.

Thus we find among the previous generations decadent practices of tradition. However, it is likely that the Knights Templar do more than what met my eye. A couple of paramedics from St. John’s Ambulance were present at the Cathedral for assistance. Their contribution to society is not to be doubted. Historically, they are perhaps linked to the Knights Templar.

Suffolk Pink

I haven’t travelled much in Suffolk but from what I have seen I am certain of this: in every village one may be sure to find at least one building painted in a pretty pink colour. It is not the pink that is bright and garish. It is not the pink that explodes on a calm country setting. Rather, it is a muted pink in a neutral shade that merges well with the surrounding greens of the country, the browns of stubble fields or quiet blues of the sky after sunset.

A woman explained to me that this colour was made from the red earth so commonly available in Suffolk. This is mixed with pig’s urine among other ingredients to produce Suffolk Pink. This is the traditional view; but the colours that we see today may have been artificially made by newer processes. The name is an indication of the pride locals have in its discovery. We must necessarily admit that colours cannot be invented. They can only be discovered. An apt analogy is in Indian classical music where a raaga cannot be invented but only discovered.

Now we come to specific question of the history of Suffolk Pink. When I was at Waddesdon I noticed a Sevres porcelain vase in a rare “pink ground colour” that looks almost identical to Suffolk Pink. This pot-pourri vase was made in 1763. The colour is said to have been “invented” (so they claim) in 1758 and used only until the early 1760s. This was often called “Pompadour pink”. Could this be Suffolk Pink? Or if Suffolk Pink had come about earlier, could the people of Sevres be taking undue credit for what is not theirs?

The Charitable English

The English give generously. Take the example of the collection after the Knights Templar service. Those sitting next to me at the pew contributed in tens and twenties. I gave less than a couple of pounds. Some weeks back one of my colleagues appealed for sponsorship for a run in London on the 1st of October. This was for Cancer Research UK. Her parents had contributed £50. Many colleagues gave £10 to £20.

Saturday was a special day for the churches of Suffolk. It was the 25th anniversary of what is now called the Suffolk Historic Churches Trust Bike Ride. This explained why the church at Stanningfield was busy on a Saturday morning. So was the church at Lavenham. Entry to this event was free. Participants are expected to get sponsorship and the proceeds go to the trust. I met a couple who had started in the afternoon and had covered twelve churches. Their sponsorship was mainly from friends and family. At Lavenham, I met an elderly man who expected to cover as many as forty-two churches by the end of the day. His was an exception. He knew the country roads and villages well enough to cover that many.

A lot of charitable work in Britain is organised in this fashion. It requires active participation. It appeals to the personal interests and passions in innovative ways that make people want to participate. At the end of the day, money is raised by sponsorship which amounts to begging, coercion or persuasion depending on how one pitches it. However, it rarely happens that sponsorship is obtained from the general public. In so far as I have observed all money is raised within a private circle of friends, colleagues and family members. Within such a circle it is a lot easier to raise money. For the giver, it is like buying a Christmas gift. You know the person and you want to support him in what is seen as a generous act. In some ways, charity has become fashionable.

Yet another method of raising money is one that requires no active participation. One simply contributes for a just cause and a chance to win at a raffle. National Trust raises money in this manner. At Petworth I had observed some volunteers selling raffle tickets. The proceeds will go towards the restoration of one of the paintings in the house.

Travelling through Suffolk

On this weekend I have felt greatly the need for a car. The time and effort spent in getting to and getting around Suffolk would not have been as great. My first intended stop for Saturday morning was Lavenham. I started from Luton at half-five in the morning. I reached Lavenham only at half-one in the afternoon. So the planned visit to neighbouring towns of Long Melford, Cavendish and Clare had to be dropped.

Sure, some of it was lack of knowledge. I could have gone to Hitchin by bus and then taken a train. This way I would have avoided travelling via London. I would have saved both time and money. I had also underestimated the time to walk to the campsite and back from Stanningfield.

Blackberries ripening with the season

Blackberries ripening with the season

Travelling by car is an experience of a different kind. I would probably see more but notice less. I would probably travel faster and farther but be in a state of rush. In any case, I would not have seen the kind of things that were seen in these two days. At a farmhouse, three bottles of milk were waiting at the gate. This is milk delivery in the country. At another farm, eggs were on sale at the price of a dozen for a pound. At Stanningfield, Bramley apples had been heaped up in a cardboard carton by the roadside, all free of charge. At Lawshall, a push-cart was filled with vegetables along with a money box for payment – a cucumber for 30p, a courgette for 20p, a marrow for 50p and so on. Then a sign at a farm read,


Public transport here is not as convenient or as cheap as in the South of England. For example, I needed to take only one bus for the entire Saturday but they did not have any day pass. Getting single tickets for every ride proved expensive. One possible reason is that there are many independent bus operators in this region. Neither Stagecoach not Arriva has a strong presence. This means that if you change buses, the costs add up. Planning has to be exact because convenient connections are likely to be less.

The situation on Sunday was worse. There were no buses from Stanningfield to Ickworth or Bury St Edmunds. So with my tent and backpack I had to walk to Ickworth. Finally I opted to take a taxi from Ickworth to Bury giving myself more time at the Cathedral.

The most difficult situation of the weekend came unexpectedly on Saturday morning. I needed some cash. Usually when I arrive at any place I need a couple of minutes to locate a cash machine. At Bury I spotted one almost as soon as I wanted to withdraw. To my surprise I discovered that my card had been cancelled. A new card had been issued and no reminder had been sent. Fortunately I had twenty pounds with me. I had to spend carefully. The cost of every bus ride mattered. For food, I had to ration with one loaf of bread and a cake. I had packed three apples from Luton that served up the required fibre and vitamins for the weekend. I had to reserve six pounds for the night at the campsite. I still had enough money to pay five pounds for the taxi ride on Sunday. Just two days and the experience had been difficult. What about the jobless, the homeless and the less fortunate for whom everyday is like this? I once spent forty pounds for a meal at London. I know it was a luxury but now I feel it’s almost obscene.

Part1 | Part2


The Suffolk Countryside – Part 1

10 09 2006

9-10 September 2006

Part1 | Part2


Of all the villages and towns in Suffolk I decided to start my weekend at Stanningfield for no particular reason save the fact that it was accessible by public transport. There is not a great deal in this village. It is so small that it has only one pub called the Red House. It is so small that it has no local shop where I could buy even a loaf of bread. If you look at the OS map it is identified by a couple of intersections of thin yellow lines that represent the narrow country roads. Other than the pub, the village has two other public buildings. One is the church. The other is the village hall. Who goes to church these days? And can a wandering visitor like me ever be invited into a village hall? Indeed, the pub is more public than the other two, by etymology and more.

Milk delivery in a Suffolk village

Milk delivery in a Suffolk village

Here there is a green where I noticed some children playing. According to an old man who has lived all his life in this small village, there used to be a pond here. It was covered and converted to this green in the 1950s. Looking at it today no one would guess that it was once a pond. The landscape has its secrets in its history and keeps them well. It is only local knowledge that speaks the hidden details of history. In this day of printing and publishing, I am sure this nugget of Stanningfield’s history is documented somewhere. But what about those secrets which go back further into the past? How are we to tap them from the experiences of the locals? And how much has been lost with each generation?

Here we are not in remote country. Here we are not trapped in another century, untouched by the amenities of the modern world. But there are yet practices that are slow to change either due to lack of investment or communal need. Take the example of the village post office. It shares the same building as the Red House. It occupies a small room at the corner of the building. It was closed on this Saturday. Pasted on its window was the following notice printed on an A4 paper:





A village as small as this doesn’t need to say so little in so many words! I bet in the old days such a notice would have been unnecessary. The communal bonding would have been greater. Everyone would have known everyone else. The shared feeling of community would have been so strong that it would not have been possible to organise an event without everyone in village knowing about it. If anything, everyone would have had a hand in planning the event that would have been as much for the village as for the family.

I passed the village church on the way out of Stanningfield. The day was for walking. I had ambitious plans of visiting for the day. I didn’t plan to visit the church but how could one refuse a welcome invitation from a local? He was seen watering the plants and arranging flowers in the church. This was unexpected because it wasn’t even Sunday. The church has one faded wall mural and waggon vaulting. Nothing else interested me in my brief visit of a couple of minutes.

I had read somewhere that there are in Suffolk a great many country houses which are from the Tudor period. The first encounter came soon after leaving the church. This was Coldham Hall. This is a great building of red bricks and stones. Pointed gables and rising chimneys can be seen at all angles. The driveway to the entrance of the house is long. This cuts a neatly mown lawn. Outside the main gate, the driveway continues along a sloping avenue of trees. There are no gardens here. I am not even sure if anyone lives here, if it is a working farm or a weekend country accommodation for wealthy tourists. To me it was yet another landmark which I had to pass on my way to the campsite.

A farming landscape in Suffolk

A farming landscape in Suffolk

Soon after leaving Coldham Hall, I passed a couple of houses whose front gardens where in full bloom. On every wall, baskets overflowing with flowers hung from wall brackets. The lawn was neat. It was covered on every side with rows of flowering beds. Unsatisfied with the result, even the paved paths to the house had not been spared. Flower pots lined the paths and covered every possible corner. Even the garage entrance was blocked. The flowers were in many varieties and colours, but there was no focal point. There were no highlights that could lead the eye from one item to the next. Here was a classic case where too much and too many have made the garden an ugly space. There was no harmony. It was overwhelming and unnatural. It presented the end result of moulding nature too far in man’s own way. It was what one could call a beautiful ugliness. The fact that two houses stood next to each other in exactly the same fashion only doubled the displeasure. Here may be yet another classic case, of neighbourhood rivalry.


The main attraction in Lavenham is the Guildhall of Corpus Christi, a timber-framed Tudor building erected in 1529-30. From the start, it was a disappointment. The main reason, I guess, was that I had expected something different. I had expected the bare bones and skeleton of the building. I had expected to see unfurnished rooms and walls stripped to their natural essentials. I had expected to see the grains on the wooden supports and timber-frames darkened with the passage of time. I had expected to see crown posts performing their important function. I had expected to witness first-hand the various joints, pegs and interlocking mechanisms in the rafters.

For a medieval building of this nature, if it is to be of any interest to the visitor, it must have been presented in this manner. It would have brought out in the building its special place in National Trust ownership. It turned out, unfortunately for me, a building like any other, housing an exhibition. Here I had to content myself with seeing scaled models, posters and photographs. Here I had to divert myself to learning the history of guilds, the growth and decay of Lavenham, the process of making wool and broadcloth. To visit such a museum elsewhere would have been pardonable but to be right inside the building and not being able to see it in the real sense!

The beautiful town of Lavenham

The beautiful town of Lavenham

This is not to say that the visit was a waste and the exhibition ineffectual. If the building failed to thrill at least it had the power to inform and educate. The wealth of Lavenham was made from wool which had been a main export even from the 13th century. When the power of adding value was realized it was soon after, in the 1390s, that export of woollen cloth overtook that of wool. Since then the prized export of Lavenham had always been fine quality broadcloth, in particular a blue broadcloth. This is the same broadcloth that is mentioned by Daniel Defoe in his letters collated in “A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain”. Today I have understood what exactly is a broadcloth: pure woollen fabric with both the warp and weft employing carded wool.

There are many processes involved in the production of broadcloth: wool sorting, carding, spinning, washing, dyeing, weaving, fulling, tentering and finishing. The process of adding colour is an interesting one. The “Lavenham blue” was made from a plant called woad. Although it was available in England, it was more common to import it from the Continent. Here again we find the importance of adding value to raw materials, the economic advantage that is gained by the possession of skill, process and enterprise. The benefits of trade and commerce are not new to the modern age. The colour was “dyed in the wool” by which is meant that the yarn was dyed before weaving.

Timber-framed building leaning dangerously!

Timber-framed building leaning dangerously!

Almost in equal importance to wool and broadcloth is the advantage of guilds, then spelt as “gilds”. There have been primarily three types of guilds: religious guilds, merchant guilds and craft guilds. A guild was a formal system of organisation amongst people in the same business, industry or human activity. The Guildhall was built by a religious guild that had strong links with the merchant guild that produced all the wealth for Lavenham. Undoubtedly, members of the craft guild would have been involved in the construction of these medieval buildings. Every guild established a system of rules and principles. Hierarchy was a part of them. A strict system of apprenticeship was established and no upstart could start practice on his own without going through this system. This established the quality and reputation of the guilds who wielded enormous power. Perhaps, this also made them slow and unresponsive to quick changes that came in later centuries.

It is mentioned that Richard II demanded a loan in 1397 from the 70 richest towns of England. Here, Lavenham is listed as the fifty-second. This is a considerable achievement for a small town of this size. When I say small I mean it in a real sense. It takes no more than ten minutes to walk through this town. There are no big stores. There are only two small shops selling sundry stuff. The rest of the shops lack character because they are only for tourists, selling antiques, postcards, souvenirs and such devoid of any local flavour.

In my whole walk across Suffolk this weekend not once did I see any sheep. Today much of the surrounding land is arable. Broadcloth is no longer an export commodity. When religious guilds were abolished in 1547, Lavenham had exited its golden age. The power of the guild was gone. Lavenham fell into general decay when it failed to catch up with the Industrial Revolution or compete against new processes, materials and imported fabrics. This is perhaps a good thing because subsequent generations lacked resources to keep up with the latest fashions in housing and architecture. So today we see Lavenham in its original creation of the 16th century.

Despite the disappointment in the Guildhall, the village as a whole was a delight. I walked through the same streets many times, admiring the elegant facades. One building in particular, coloured in Suffolk Pink, was built on sloping ground. The windows peeped out into the street. The walls bent and bulged. The gable was poised precariously on these swaying walls. The timber frames, straight, curved or angled, added to the overall delicate balance. Here the timber frames were determined to stamp their native character and mould the building with it.

Timber has been the main element in most of the buildings. Bricks came to be used much later. The walls are said to be “wattle & daub” structures. Wattle is nothing more than thin pole-like stems from coppice woodland used for thatching and fencing. Daub is a mixture of clay, chalk and straw. Taken together, wattle & daub fill the spaces between the timbers. They reinforce the frames and provide insulation. The National Trust manages many coppice woodlands where trees are cut almost to the base of the trunk periodically (say every 18 years).

Yet another unique feature often found in houses from this period is that the upper storey projects out over the lower. Sometimes it may be just a window or part of the wall in the lower storey that projects in this manner. The wall is termed as being “jettied”. When such an architectural feature is employed on adjacent sides of a building, a “dragon post” supports the projection where they join.

The last stop at Lavenham was the Church of St Peter and St Paul, a beautiful church in Perpendicular style. It reminded me very much of the church of the same name at Northleach in the Cotswolds. Both are “wool” churches and are of the same style. Both contain memorial brasses except, in the case of Lavenham, I could see none. Only nails driven into a bare floor remain.

Part1 | Part2

Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire

3 09 2006
Church seen across a green at Leighton Buzzard

Church seen across a green at Leighton Buzzard

Today it has been refreshing and relieving to walk again in the countryside. All the lost days of spring and summer suddenly seemed distant. All the lost opportunities had been in a small way compensated in a few hours. Unlike yesterday, today was a warm sunny day and as such perfect for an enjoyable walk. An easy path by the Grand Union Canal pointed the way. I started from Leighton Buzzard and walked south. I walked past the village of Slapton. The next notable village was Mentmore. Finally I passed Ascott before returning to my starting point.

There is not much to relate of the day. It was enjoyable just to be back walking, to take an OS map and follow its marked public paths. The pleasure was one of walking that in itself was the reward. No further thoughts or interpretations were needed to make it worthwhile.

Mentmore is a quiet village but so are all villages on a Sunday afternoon. The most spectacular and unexpected view of the day was that of Mentmore Towers. Under an afternoon sun, it was gleaming as if covered with gold. The highlights on its pinnacled towers and windows only increased its magnificence. Both Mentmore Towers and Ascott House were or are still part of the Rothschild family. Here we find the impact of one wealthy family in the county of Buckinghamshire.

Petworth and Arundel, West Sussex

2 09 2006

Only last week at Waddesdon I had commented that it is rather uncommon to visit a renowned country house that didn’t contain an enfilade. This fact was borne out once more today at my visit to Petworth House, in the delightful county of West Sussex. To begin with, there were no surprises. There are more rooms than one would need. There are more rooms than one would build in our own time. There is art in every corner. Unlike the standard off-the-shelf furniture of today, of Ikea, Courts or Dfs, there is here a personal expression of the owner or the artist or both. Every piece of furniture, painting, carpet or decorative item is a collectible.

View of the house from the landscaped gardens

View of the house from the landscaped gardens

Thus the architecture of Petworth House did not have much to impress. At least for me, by now well-initiated into English architecture, there was not much here to make a journey of more than two hours from Luton worthwhile. But the fame of Petworth is elsewhere. It lies in its collections of paintings and sculptures; and this was what I had come to see.

English paintings from various periods form the bulk of the collection. Here we have the watercolours and drawings of William Blake; the highly acclaimed landscapes of J.M.W. Turner; the refined portraits of Joshua Reynolds; the flowing brushwork of Thomas Gainsborough; the formal portraits of Anthony Van Dyck or Peter Lely; the Shakespearean themes of Henry Fuesli.

Of equal value are the sculptures of antiquity that are to be found in almost every room. These have the unfortunate circumstance of being overshadowed by the paintings. The paintings take much space. Their numbers are greater. It is difficult to escape their presence. It therefore takes great effort to notice the sculptures, tucked away in the corners on pedestals, in the niches and alcoves. So too is the fate of Greek vases or Chinese porcelain. The audio guide does not make much mention of them either and one is compelled to seek the assistance of supplementary printed guides that are available in every room.

Such was my verdict before I entered the North Gallery. I must confess that this gallery was a surprise. If this had been part of a museum, it would have been in its proper place. To find such a gallery in a country house is not just unique; it is unexpected. It is like Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire where the passion for collecting occupied every living space, so much so that the house became more of a warehouse.

The North Gallery is a treasure house of paintings. Not one wall has been spared. There must have been over a hundred of them covering every available space. The problem really was that the room was not well-lit. Many paintings were not at eye-level and therefore it was often difficult to find a good spot from where I could appreciate each one to its best advantage. So my attention naturally shifted to the sculptures and deservedly so for what glory there is in some of them!

Without doubt, the centre stage is taken by the 1826 sculpture of “St Michael subduing Satan” by John Flaxman. One of the important attributes of any great sculpture is that it must live up to its greatness from any angle. It must present a balanced composition far and near, high or low. Moreover, it must draw the viewer to walk around it and feel the movement of lines and curves. It must engage the viewer in an active manner so that he becomes a witness to the unfolding drama that is playing before his very eyes. Then, it must exercise the viewer’s wonder and draw him to inspect the details. The skill of the artist will thus be seen in the smooth roughness and the soft toughness of a yielding stone. A sculpture as this is not a static piece as a painting. It is ever-present action. It is active movement. It is silent energy.

Such is the beauty of this centrepiece by John Flaxman. It is not the more familiar theme of St Michael slaying the dragon, as the Dragon Hill in Uffington says to us. Satan is depicted as fallen, but not as an angel. His rough bearded appearance is more human than a fallen angel of Paradise. Here he can only crawl, for his legs under metamorphosis have changed into his once assumed serpent form. The coils in vain try to grasp St Michael but only manage to dislodge his garment. His taut muscles and veins almost ripping out of the skin are indications of the intense struggle with the saint who towers over him with a spear poised to strike. In all this intensity, there is perfect calmness in the expression of St Michael. There is beauty and grace in his posture, in that very moment before he strikes. The end is near and the outcome is certain.

This by no means is the only piece that deserves praise. There are a good number of admirable sculptures by Irish sculptor John Carew. “Venus, Vulcan and Cupid” (1827/8-31), “The Falconer” (1827/8-9), “Adonis and the Boar” (1823-25/26), “Prometheus and Pandora” (1835-7), “Arethusa” (1824), are among the best of his work. There are many sculptures – heads, busts and restored fragments – from the ancient world; but the true worth of this gallery is in the collection of comparatively modern British sculptures that are not so easily found elsewhere.

Thus we come to the specific question of patronisation. The 2nd Earl of Egremont acquired many antique sculptures. The 3rd Earl of Egremont, on the other hand, did more than acquire. He commissioned works. He fed the painters and sculptors. Without him, John Carew would probably have been out of work. Without him, many of treasures of Petworth would never have come into existence. He is also well-known as a patron of Turner. Just as one falls back to the antique past and looks up to it with pride, the other believes in the potential of the present at its new frontiers and endless possibilities. Could there then be an argument that patronisation is better than preservation? One is active; the other passive. It is only when preservation leads to creation it can be meaningful and worthwhile.

The North Gallery was by no means the only room that captured my attention with its uniqueness. The other was the Carved Room which is too long to be a proper room, certainly not to the rules of Palladian architecture. The point to admire in this room is the elaborate woodwork by Grinling Gibbons in the late 17th century. The carvings here are the best that I have seen in this medium. The skill in the use of tools is well-matched by the artist’s mastery of balanced composition that is so beautifully displayed in the three dimensional collage of carved bouquets, garlands, flowers and vases. His eye for detail is not to be overlooked. It is present in the figures on the vases. It is present in the feathers of the quill. It is present in the notes on the stave that echo their songs to the strings of the violin. In this room too are four notable paintings of Turner – warm views of Petworth or in connection with Petworth.

There is something to be said of Turner and his paintings. Peter Ackroyd, in his biography on London, mentions Turner as being “the true child of the river [Thames]”. Looking at Turner’s paintings at Petworth, it brings me one step closer to the truth in this. The characteristic of most of his paintings is the presence of a water body, be it a river, a lake, the sea or the shore. “Teignmouth” is a beautiful painting. So is “Hulks on the Tamar”. His views of the Thames are numerous, captured at different places – Windsor, Eton, Weybridge.

Chestnut in the gardens of Petworth House

Chestnut in the gardens of Petworth House

Only last week at Waddesdon I had witnessed the formal gardens that were so much in fashion in the 17th century. By the time Waddesdon was built, it was already out of fashion; but we know that at Waddesdon the objective was to create something of the past in the style of French Renaissance. Petworth, being older, too started with such formal gardens but nothing of that remains now. They were deliberately swept away by the ever capable “Capability” Brown to make way for the prevailing taste of the 18th century in landscape gardening; and what a park he has created and with what great success! The serpentine lake is the focus of the park. This is framed by hills clothed with clumps of trees. These trees are not so many that they assume the impenetrable proportions of a wood. There are adequate gaps and clearings to lead the view to farther landscapes. The paths to enjoy such landscapes are many. These offer enjoyable views far and near. The monuments are hardly impressive and are not placed to their best advantage, but to be fair I didn’t have enough time to enjoy the park to the full. It is likely that I might have missed many views that show these monuments in a better light.

The next sensible thing to put down is the village of Petworth itself. It is quite a surprise to find that the house is part of the village, not the usual instance of finding such a house in the middle of a large estate few miles from the nearest village. The most prominent thing to note in this village is the number of antique shops. For such a small village it has a disproportionately large number of them. There is at least one in every street and every corner. So I decided to spend some time at an antique bookshop. Some books are truly worthy of such a status but others are no more than worthless stuff carrying a high price tag. The expectation is that it will be worth something for someone. Take for example the following book as described by a bookmark:

Six Lectures on Light delivered in America in 1872-1873, London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1873. FIRST ENGLISH EDITION, pp xiii, 277, engraved frontispiece by Prof. Lockett, many illustrations, a crisp untrimmed copy in original mauve cloth, spine faded. £85

The lectures were given by John Tyndall, a well-known physicist of his time. He is best remembered for the Tyndall Effect that I had learnt at school. In this book he talks a great deal on the properties of light, details of experiments, results, analysis, doubts and postulations. It treats light purely as waves. The particle theory of light, in his time, had still not seen the light of day. Although the particle theory existed even at the time of Newton, it had not been popular. Today we know a great deal more about light. There are much better books. Can this book be worth such a high price? Can an original mauve cloth be a strong enough reason to supplant the faded theories of light? Certainly, it is a good book but I would not pay more than £5. It someone does buy it, one can be sure that it is not the subject matter that interests him.

There is yet more to relate on this store. I noted Peter Ackroyd’s biography on London, crisp and new, without a crease or a smudge. So quickly the world changes! So quickly things can get obsolete and become an antique! I think the shop owner got a little offended when I told him that this book wasn’t an antique.

I walked out of this store as the proud owner of what is definitely the oldest book I have purchased in my life – “The Ingoldsby Legends” by Thomas Ingoldsby, the Carmine Edition printed in 1881. The first edition was probably released in 1840 and my copy cannot be worth much. However, it is a beautiful book. The very first legend makes a mention of Grinling Gibbons, a name I had never heard of before today, but heard twice within the same day! Thanks to the Carved Room and the patrons of art, the name and its context in the legend were not alien to me. This book is now mine for only £1!

It is fair to say that Petworth has more antique shops than restaurants or pubs. It is perhaps an indication that during the day the village centre has more visitors than locals; and at night it is deserted. I enquired of a woman at the bus stop for a decent restaurant. She could recommend none. She never comes here for food. So I decided to visit Arundel which is not more than ten minutes by train from Pulborough. In fact, the bus from Petworth to Pulborough crosses a bridge over the River Arun.

The fame of Arundel lies in two things. Both are visible from a distance for the simple reason that they are situated on a high prospect. One is the grand castle. The other is the cathedral. It was too late in the day for me to visit either of these. I had come for dinner and my detour had not been in vain. Arundel has a selection of restaurants that will satisfy any serious food connoisseur. I roamed the streets at leisure, read all the menus out of curiosity and took my time to pick what suited my wallet. Finally I settled for grilled fillet of salmon drizzled with white wine sauce and some garlic bread at the Norfolk Arms. There is a coat of arms on another building nearby that mentions the close association of this town with the Duke of Norfolk.

Before leaving Arundel I took note of the sparse ruins of a medieval Dominican Friary, otherwise called Blackfriars. I have passed through London Blackfriars many times but never really questioned what the word meant or how it came to be. Here is one more variant of the practice of Christianity, one more monastery left barely standing and one more river still flowing.