Two colourful churches

THE SUNDAY MORNING SERVICE at the parish church, St Mary the Virgin, in Haverhill in Suffolk had just ended when we entered the building. My wife chatted with a priest, who said he knew little about this church’s history. She asked him if there were any other churches in the district worth a visit. He mentioned two across the county border in Cambridgeshire, at the villages of Bartlow and at Hildersham. The two churches have something of interest in common: unusual colourful paintings.

Bartlow’s St Mary’s church has a distinctive round bell tower. But this is not the only thing that is remarkable about it. It was built in the 11th or 12th century and modified gradually during the following centuries. A real treat greets the visitor on entering the building: some colourful 15th century wall paintings, two on the south wall and one on the north. They depict St George’s dragon (north wall), and opposite this on the south wall: St Michael weighing the souls on The Day of Judgement, and east of it another shows a portrait of St Christopher carrying the Christ Child. The paintings existed long before the Civil War. On the 20th of March 1644, they were covered up with paint by Oliver Cromwell’s men under the command of William Dowsing (1596-1668), a fanatic iconoclast, also known as ‘Smasher Dowsing’. The frescos began to become uncovered in the 19th century, but it was only in 2014 that serious conservation work was undertaken on them.

St Christopher painting at Bartlow

The artists who created the wall paintings at Bartlow have been long forgotten, but this is not the case for the creators of the colourful chancel at Holy Trinity Church in nearby Hildersham. In 1806, the Reverend Charles Goodwin was appointed Rector of Hildersham. Ten years later, his son Robert was born. He studied at Clare College in Cambridge and whilst a student he joined The Cambridge Camden Society, whose aims were to promote the study of Gothic architecture and ‘ecclesiastical antiques’. This society grew to be a great influence on the design of Victorian churches.

In 1847, following the death of his father, Robert became Rector of Hildersham’s church. Soon, he began to consider how to ‘restore’ his church in accordance with gothic revival ideals. Amongst these ‘improvements’ was the painting of frescos on the walls of the chancel. These were executed using a novel technique known as ‘spirit fresco’, which made use of a complex mixture of beeswax, oil of spike lavender, spirits of turpentine, elemi resin, and copal varnish. This technique, invented by Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-1888), produced durable images that were easier to produce than the traditional fresco technique used, for example, in renaissance Italy. The chancel at Hildersham was painted using the new technique by Alfred Bell, John Clayton, and Stacy Marks. They and many assistants produced a magnificent display of saints and religious scenes, all from The New Testament. They were painted in 1890 and are in wonderful condition. The two churches are just under 4 miles apart and both are well worth visiting. And, when you do go to these buildings, you will find light switches near their entrance doors. We might never have seen them had it not been for my wife engaging in friendly conversation with the priest at Haverhill.

A floral fireworks display

SOME OF LIFE’S PLEASURES are seasonal. Such is the case for the explosion of colour that can be seen in the Isabella Plantation in London’s Richmond Park. During late April and most of May, the azaleas and rhododendrons in the Isabella burst into flower. These alongside many other flowering plants, including seas of bluebells, provide a sumptuous banquet of colour for the visitors’ eyes. It is not so much the immense number of flowers that provides so much joy but the way the shrubs and other plants have been planted that creates a visual experience that easily rivals the best of fireworks displays. Even if I were able to express myself better in writing, words cannot possibly recreate the experience of seeing the Isabella Plantation in full bloom. Although I am keen on photography, I feel that even good photographs of the place can only hint at the impact of seeing the flora in real life. In brief, if you can, you must try to visit the plantation when the blooms are at their most magnificent.

The Plantation is in the southwest part of Richmond Park, not far from both the Robin Hood and Kingston Gates. The latter is open to motor traffic currently (May 2021). Richmond Park was a royal deer park, a hunting ground, established by the 14th century when it was part of the Manor of Sheen (https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1000828).  King Henry VII was particularly fond of the park, which he named ‘Richmond’ after his earldom in Yorkshire (Richmond is a town in that county). He also had a palace built there, of which precious little remains because by the Restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, it was already dilapidated and was never rebuilt. In its heyday, it was one of the few places fitted with a flushing lavatory. This was installed by Queen Elizabeth I’s godson, Sir John Harington (baptised 1560- died 1612; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Harington_(writer)).

The history of public access to the park is of interest (www.trpg.org.uk/perch/resources/newsletter-005.pdf). Between 1637 when King Charles I enclosed the park and the 1730s when Robert Walpole forbade it, there was pedestrian access to the park. In 1758, a certain John Lewis (1713-1792) won a court case that re-established the right of some public access to the paths and roadways within the park. By the mid-19th century, the public could drive their carriages through it. Today, its roadways are popular both with cyclists and motorists.

The history of the Isabella Plantation is detailed on the website of The Royal Parks (www.royalparks.org.uk/), from which I obtained the following information. By the 17th century, the waterlogged area in the south west corner of Richmond Park was known as ‘The Sleyt’, a sleyt being a word for boggy ground or an open space between woods and banks.  The area where the Plantation is today was marked as ‘Isabella Slade’ on maps published by 1771. The name Isabella either referred to a lady with that name, or, more likely, it was a corruption of the word ‘isabel’, which as far back as the 15th century meant ‘dingy’ or ‘greyish yellow’, which is the colour of the soil in the area of the park where the Plantation is located.

A Deputy Park Ranger, Henry Addington, Lord Sidmouth (1757-1844), fenced off an area of 42 acres of the Isabella Slade in 1831, planted various kinds of trees for timber, and gave the land its present name, ‘Isabella Plantation’. Sidmouth, a Tory politician, was briefly Prime Minister at the beginning of the 19th century, lived in the White Lodge of Richmond Park from 1801 until his death (https://whitelodgetimeline.royalballetschool.org.uk/1800/item/161/). He had been given it as a residence by King George III, who appointed himself the park’s Ranger and Sidmouth his Deputy. Currently, the White Lodge houses The Royal Ballet school.

Getting back to the Plantation as we see it today, it was created chiefly by the work of the Park Superintendent, George Thomson, done between 1951 and 1971. The Royal Parks website explains that:

“The present garden of clearings, ponds and streams was established from the 1950s onwards. It is largely the work of George Thomson, the park superintendent from 1951-1971. Along with his head gardener, Wally Miller, he removed Rhododendron ponticum from large areas and replaced it with other rhododendron species. They established evergreen Kurume Azaleas around the Still Pond and planted other exotic shrub and tree species.”

The Plantation has three ponds, of which the Still Pond is the most spectacular. Surrounded by azaleas and Rhododendrons, its waters are still, that is they are mirror-like. The flowers of the shrubs surrounding the water are reflected in the water, producing a delightful and dramatic visual effect. The other ponds, Peg’s Pond, and one named after Thomson, have their own charms but lack the drama of the Still Pond. Streams and rivulets lined with ferns and other plants flows across the Plantation. The longest stream was dug in 1960 and includes Peg’s Pond.

So far, we have visited the Isabella Plantation three times. Twice, we saw it in its full floral glory and once a few months before the flowering began. Timing is important if you want to enjoy the full floral impact. So, get there in late April or during the first few weeks of May in order to best experience the forms, colours, and fragrances of this beautiful collection of flowering shrubs.

A joyous façade on the Tate Gallery

HERE IS SOMETHING WORTH seeing if you can. It is on display at the Tate Britain until the 31st of January 2021 and you need not enter the gallery building to see it. Originally created to celebrate Diwali, the Hindu Festival of Light, in late 2020, this is a wonderfully joyous celebration of both Indian and British culture in light and colour.

The artist Chila Kumari Singh Burman was born in Bootle, near Liverpool, daughter of Punjabi Hindu parents. She graduated at the Slade School of Fine Art in 1982 after having also studied at Southport College of Art and Leeds Polytechnic.

Burman has temporarily transformed the main (Thames facing) entrance of the Tate Britain, its staircase and pillared portico into a pleasing and often humorous riot of colour that makes many references to her upbringing and India’s culture and mythology. To do this, she has made use of coloured lights, neon tubing lights, coloured photographs, and decorative printed coloured paper. The Tate’s website (https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/chila-kumari-singh-burman) describes Burman’s installation, “Remembering a Brave New World” as follows:

“This magnificent installation, remembering a brave new world, combines Hindu mythology, Bollywood imagery, colonial history and personal memories. Inspired by the artist’s childhood visits to the Blackpool illuminations and her family’s ice-cream van, Burman covers the façade of Tate Britain with vinyl, bling and lights. She changes the figure of Britannia, a symbol of British imperialism, into Kali, the Hindu goddess of liberation and power. The many illuminated deities, shapes and words are joined by Lakshmibai, the Rani (queen) of Jhansi. Lakshmibai was a fierce female warrior in India’s resistance to British colonial rule in the 19th century.”

This description provides a fair summary of what is to be seen. It does not mention the entertainingly decorated autorickshaw (three-wheeler) that was on display in the vestibule of the gallery when we visited. The doorways are also worth examining because they are lined with images taken from the Amar Chitra Katha’s comic books that are published in India to teach Indian children about both Hindu mythology and Indian history. Our daughter, whose background, is both Indian and European, used to enjoy reading these.  Despite what the Tate has written, the artwork does not come across as polemical or anti-British, at least not to me. On the contrary, the artist appears to be enjoying her joint cultural heritage: both British and Indian. My wife said of the installation:

“If this is multi-culturalism, let’s have more and more of it!”

However, words are quite insufficient to describe the visual impact of this wonderful spectacle. It has to be seen to be believed and enjoyed. We saw it during daylight when it can be enjoyed in fine detail, but I imagine that seeing it after dark would also be quite magical.

Nature’s artwork

This wonderfully coloured fish was swimming about in a fish tank in the lobby of a hotel in Gulbarga on Karnataka (India). It illustrates the immense variety of the natural colourings of animal life, which rivals the many attempts of artists to produce original creations

A creature of God’s making

Colourful:

Nature’s original art