In the shadow of the Chase
Cranborne Chase has acted like a magnet for artists since World War 1. Vivienne Light charts their arrivals and their work.
Published in November ’10
Cranborne Chase is a truly dramatic landscape – a place of high chalk downland, bare escarpments and vertiginous slopes, pocketed with steep-sided valleys, ancient woodland and hazel coppices. Villages are small, scattered and few. Remote habitations and grand estate houses stand within sight of ancient barrows and earthworks. Near Sixpenny Handley the Roman road, Ackling Dyke, intersects the Neolithic Dorset Cursus, while tumuli and ancient settlements seem to be scattered like stars. A place ‘congested by humanity’ in pre-history, the Chase has grown progressively emptier.
In 1910, the writer W H Hudson described Martin Down in the northern part of Cranborne Chase as a ‘wide, empty land, with nothing on it to look at but a furze bush’. It was, though, a kind of emptiness that ‘seemed good for both mind and body’. That sense of isolation, of separateness from the rest of the world, is still present on the Chase, and has always been an attraction for artists and literary folk.
A distinctive and identifiable area, it owes its name and much of its character to William the Conqueror, who claimed it almost a thousand years ago as a ‘Chase’: a royal hunting ground. Since then it has maintained its identity, bounded by the rivers Avon, Allen, Stour, Fontmell and Nadder. However, although the Chase may be isolated – with an approximate perimeter of eighty miles and an area of 250,000 acres – it has the city of Salisbury and the towns of Shaftesbury, Blandford, Wimborne and Ringwood around its edges, and it has relatively good rail and road communications with London. This combination of accessibility, isolation and dramatic land-forms contributed to its becoming a place of retreat for a number of artists during the 20th century. Living in this landscape came to shape the sensitivities and achievements of many of them. A web of connections developed , rather like that of a spider’s web, which continues to grow.
Among the earliest painters to come to this area were Henry Lamb, Stanley Spencer and his brother, Gilbert. This was in 1920 following the end of World War 1. All had seen untold horrors; Lamb had worked as a surgeon close to the front line while the Spencers had been in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Lamb came to Stourpaine to complete a commission for a large painting from Manchester City Art Gallery, having found the perfect barn in which to do so. Stanley then rather forcefully invited himself and Gilbert to join him. Lamb found them lodgings in nearby Durweston. On one occasion when Stanley was painting a view that had yellow charlock ‘weed’ in it, the farmer came by and was much disconcerted to see this charlock in the painting. He felt the ‘weed’ reflected badly on him and so in the evening cut it down. When Stanley arrived the next morning to resume his work, he was proudly informed that the view looked much better now. With a wry grin Stanley painted the charlock out.
For Stanley, his time at Durweston was to be a brief but valuable ‘island of time’, an interval when he was able to work through several ideas for future paintings. Gilbert was to continue an association with the Chase for many more years. Melbury Beacon, south of Shaftesbury, was to become as dear to him as St Victoire had been to Cézanne. For fifteen years he painted here and lived at Burdens, a farmhouse in Twyford.
Two of the Spencers’ visitors at Durweston were the ebullient, larger-than-life Augustus John and T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia). In 1926 Augustus John moved to Fryern Court near Fordingbridge, in the grounds of which he built a Modernist studio – designed by Christopher Nicholson – which drew much attention in architectural circles. He tried to tempt his sister, the painter Gwen John, to come back from France and live in a cottage down the road. She did come but never stayed. Amongst their friends were Nora and Gerald Summers, who in turn were friends of Irish poet Francis Macnamara and his wife Yvonne, whose daughter Caitlin married Dylan Thomas. Nora was to produce a stunning series of yellow summer paintings, after which she more or less retired and took to showing her prize-winning goats at agricultural shows, especially the Dorchester Show.
Nancy Nicholson and E Q Nicholson, related to the Modernist painter, Ben Nicholson, were both textile artists and lived and worked in the Chase area for many years. Nancy’s last exhibition was at the V & A Museum in the 1970s. E Q was also a painter and was first encouraged, when living at Alderholt Mill, by a very young John Craxton, whose name was to become synonymous with neo-romanticism. He would come to stay with his student friend, Lucian Freud, and the two would go out and paint together. As Craxton later said: ‘The great elemental landscapes were too monumental for me…. I preferred the more intimate places: metamorphic fallen trees, mill-houses and cart tracks were places close to my temperament.’ Craxton’s uncle, the painter Cecil Waller, worked for many years for the Eastbury Estate at Tarrant Gunville as he could not afford to live solely by his painting. The same was true of many other artists who came to live on the Chase, including James and Peggy Allardyce, Mavis Freer, Derek Inwood and Christopher Row.
The Hambledon Gallery at Blandford Forum provided an outlet for many painters. It was run for twenty years by Katharine Church (Kitty West), who, besides showing good-quality local work, would exhibit paintings of her London college friends such as Julian Trevelyan, Mary Fedden, John Piper and Frances Hodgkins. These artists, when visiting her, would often paint on the Chase or she would take them to visit friends such as the group of literary and music critics at Crichel Rectory, or David Cecil at Cranborne Manor. Here in turn they would sometimes meet Cecil Beaton, who lived at nearby Ashcombe, a place which nearly broke his heart when he had to leave.
In the book I am preparing, Art and Life in the Shadow of the Chase, the lives of selected artists and their connection with the place are examined. Although the book concentrates mostly on artists from the earlier 20th century, it also includes more recent and contemporary painters such as Ursula Leach, Tim Nicholson, Brian Graham, Paul Jones and Ian McKeever; potters Jonathan Garratt, Richard Batterham, Chris Carter and Lucy Yarwood; sculptors Elizabeth Frink, Ian Middleton and Catherine Row; and rug makers Louisa Creed and Rod Hill. Tracing the stories of these artists and others will have involved nearly eight years of biographical research and interviews. It has been a fascinating journey, and one in which the landscape of Cranborne Chase has been constantly present.
[Art and Life in the Shadow of the Chase will be published by Dovecote Press in association with Canterton Books in the autumn of 2011. Many of the paintings illustrated in the book will be included in an exhibition at the Dorset County Museum, Dorchester, Cranborne and its Art: past and present 22 October 2011 – 21 January 2012, to coincide with publication.]