Fra H Newbery: an artist in Purbeck
George Rawson examines the influential painter and art school head’s time in Corfe Castle
Published in May ’12
A visitor to Corfe Castle cannot fail to notice an unusual painted sign which looks as if it would perhaps be more appropriate adorning the walls of a public house than standing in a prominent position in the village square. The sign, which has occupied the site for almost 85 years, was conceived and originally painted by Corfe resident, Francis Newbery, as a joint gift to the village from himself, his wife Jessie, local doctor Dru Drury and his wife. ‘The Gift of Four’, as it was named, commemorates the martyrdom of the Anglo-Saxon boy king, Saint Edward of Wessex, who was murdered on the site of the Castle in 978. Part of a lifelong project on Newbery’s part to make art, in its widest sense, available to the general public, it was unveiled on 2 July 1927 with great celebrations. These included specially composed music played by the village band, a procession and pageant performed by the children of the Parish School, reciting words, partly in Dorset dialect, written by Newbery himself. The artist, always at pains to recognise art and handicraft wherever it existed described his
And this sign with its picture was made here at home,
Here Artist and Craftsmen, work and dwell,
Joyce and Men forged the iron, Moss and Fooks carved the wood.
And the Painter – thinks he’s no end of a Swell.
Newbery also claimed that the sign was safe for posterity as it was protected by a group of trustees:
More – this gift to the Parish is held here in trust,
The Trustees – Messrs. White; Newbery; Drury,
Three good men and true, and with them round about,
The sign will be safe – I assure ye.
Newbery’s claim, however, was to prove somewhat premature. There were those in the audience who thought differently. As a direct challenge to Newbery’s prominence in the village and probably as something of a joke, the sign was neatly cut down the following night, its post being deposited ceremoniously on the policeman’s doorstep, while the painting was flung, less respectfully, into the village millpond. Despite this, and for the benefit of posterity, the sign was soon re-erected at the behest of Dr Drury and a less resplendent replica on a simpler post, with a new painting produced in 1952 by Robin Pearce, still occupies the site, while Newbery’s recently restored painting is preserved in the village museum.
Newbery’s personality and the fact that he was not a native of Corfe probably had a lot to do with the demolition of his sign. He was born in Devon in 1855 but saw himself as a Dorset man, having grown up in Bridport. The son of a shoemaker, who was only able to sign his son’s birth certificate with a cross, Newbery, through sheer hard work, energetic application and talent, had become one of the most effective British art educationalists of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Principally a painter, he had been the Director of the Glasgow School of Art, from 1885 until his retirement in 1918 and had built up his institution into one with an international reputation. He had also been instrumental in re-housing his school in the best designed and equipped art educational premises in the country. Regarded by architects today as the greatest British building of the 20th century, it was designed by Newbery’s former student and friend, Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
Much of Newbery’s success derived from his managerial and promotion skills. There was also something of the showman about him and part of his showman persona came over as pomposity, a characteristic which did not go down well in the village. Newbery in old age could also be a cantankerous character and he is principally remembered in Corfe for his afternoon walks up Nine Barrow Down, when he would be followed several yards in the rear by his little wife, who unlike him was popular and was known affectionately as ‘Aunt Jessie’. Despite appearances, however, the Newberys were a devoted couple and Jessie was a highly gifted artist and designer in her own right.
The Newberys had arrived in Corfe in 1919, taking up residence in the Greyhound Inn where they stayed until 1921. Newbery had fallen in love with the village making it the subject of many of his paintings. The Castle, however, was his major subject. He made at least four oil paintings of it: two from the Parish Church tower, one looking down on it from the West hill and another atmospheric study by moonlight. He also persuaded some of his neighbours and other Dorset friends to sit for him. These he often painted as occupational types. Amongst these there was a watercolour of a thatcher with his tools, and an oil of Frank Shitler, the parish church’s Verger in his robes of office, exhibited by Newbery as The Beadle.
The Newberys’ original intention had been to build their own house in the local vernacular style, using Purbeck stone. Instead, in 1921, they bought two existing properties in the village, one on East Street, where they would live for the remainder of their lives, and the other on West Street where Newbery had his studio. The studio was situated in a disused Congregational chapel. Its interior, lit by large windows, was the subject of one of Newbery’s paintings, which he appropriately titled A Workshop.
Newbery believed in the value of public art as an educative tool, not only as a means of introducing good quality work to the general public who might not have the opportunity of seeing it, but also to celebrate the history and traditions of the area where it was situated. His village sign was not the only artefact he would produce for the people of Corfe. He also designed their war memorial, a statue of Saint Edward for the Parish Church, and had examples of the village coat of arms made to adorn the pump in the village square.
The war memorial was built as a gateway to the cemetery on East Street. Inaugurated in 1923 it was constructed from Purbeck stone by local quarrymen its design being based on the gate to Mortons House further down the street. Unusually for a war memorial, above its arch, it carries the line “Do’set men don’t sheame their kind” from a dialect poem by William Barnes. Newbery was not a sculptor and his figure of Saint Edward which adorns the eastern gable of the Church was made by the quarryman Walter Haysum, and was almost certainly based on a model made by the artist.
Newbery’s best-known public artwork is probably the series of paintings he made between 1923 and 1927 for Bridport Town Hall. His most important commission in Purbeck, however, was his work on the Roman Catholic Church in Swanage carried out between 1924 and 1930. This involved the construction of the sanctuary at its east end and the design of its interior. He and Jessie worked jointly on this project. It is lit by specially designed windows in the north and south walls and ornamented with stencils on canvas in the Glasgow Style, reminiscent of the work of Mackintosh. The Church is dominated by Newbery’s altarpiece, depicting Saint Edward and the two Dorset Saints, Aldhelm and Elgiva. The Saint Edward which is similar to the figure on the Gift of Four was partly modelled on Newbery’s assistant Neil Thomas and on a Corfe girl, Lucy Billett. The work was completed in 1930 with the decoration of the Lady Chapel for which Newbery painted an Annunciation.
Newbery ceased painting around 1932 and died, aged 91 in 1946. He was followed two years later by Jessie. It is perhaps no coincidence, however, that the Gift of Four looks like a pub sign. As part of his effort to bring art to the public, Newbery established something of a reputation for himself around the county as a painter of pub signs. These, alas, have not survived, but his most ambitious piece, a miniature building, like a well head surmounted by a weather vane, now divested of Newbery’s original paintings of characters from the Arabian Nights, still graces the front of the Shah of Persia at Poole.
- Dr George Rawson is the author of Fra H Newbery: a Dorset Artist, published by Bridport Heritage Forum in 2008. Dr Rawson is an independent art and design historian living in Glasgow who specialises in the 19th- and early 20th century in Britain. He will be giving an illustrated talk on Fra Newbery as part of the Purbeck Art Weeks (PAW) Festival at Harman’s Cross village hall on Wednesday 6 June at 7pm. The talk will be followed by a showing of the STV documentary Charles Rennie Mackintosh Dreams and Recollections staring Tom Conti. For all information on the Festival and to book tickets visit www.purbeckartweeks.co.uk