Wednesday, 7 April 2010

A Spot of Historical Perspective



It strikes this writer that some people hold their so called "ramblings" in rather high regard. Thus the following may be of useful enlightenment, so do pay attention.

In September 1841 John Sell Cotman, husband, father of five, Norwich man and artist of true genius, wrote to his old friend, the Rev James Bulwer. Cotman was planning a trip back home to Norfolk as a break from his job as Drawing Master of King's College, London, and knew exactly what kind of action he was looking for.
"Get your sketching maps in good order, my dear Bulwer, for I meditate a descent on you: 'tis hard if, between us, we don't demolish a church or two."

Bulwer, now settled in his native Norfolk as curate of Blickling after years in London, was a gentleman with antiquarian passions. Or, to put it commonly, he was mad about history. Norfolk history in particular. He was also a dab hand with a watercolour brush, and many of his crisp, clean watercolours survive in national collections. Colourful things, with a good eye for the country surrounding those churches he loved to visit and examine. Would have made a good artillery man, I'd say.

So, Cotman looked forward to a much needed furlough of tracking down Norfolk churches with his old chum, sketchbooks in hand, the two of them scrutinising ancient portals and cooing over Decorated windows like grannies at a christening. Cotman was a master of ancient architecture, and for thirty years had produced stunningly original watercolours, etchings and drawings of ruined abbeys, crumbling cottages and various tottering piles, to the admiration of fellow artists. Nobody could capture the tricky curves of a Romanesque arch like Cotman.

Unfortunately, the blasted public couldn't see what was good for them. Brave & brilliant artist, but an awful business man, he never managed to chip himself out of the bunker of having to teach for his family's living. How he must have looked forward to that trip. His eldest lad, steady old Miles, would take care of the job while he was away.

He came by boat, London to Yarmouth, up the slow curve of the East Anglian coast, loving every minute of it, I'd say, as he knew boats. He would spend the next few weeks travelling all over north Norfolk, with the energy of a man half his age, undaunted by atrocious weather and heavy floods, and drawing, always drawing. British Museum's got a load of'em, pencil & chalk, landscapes on Mousehold Heath, views of grand Norfolk country houses, trees in Blickling Park, all of them ideas for pictures to be painted later. And of course, a church or two - old pews in Aylsham, Bulwer's home patch, the ancient wooden door of Tuttington, the light in the vestry at Marsham falling onto an old communion table.

How often Bulwer & he drew side by side, none can tell. There's one definite known example of the same subject by both, some old poppyhead pew ends in Wickmere, but let's hope the old sketchers managed to demolish more than just one or two together.

And what were those "sketching maps", one wonders? In 1841 there was no tootling down to the local stationers to buy an OS map, you know. Norfolk didn't get it's first till about 1838, so hardly widely available, or cheap. Bulwer's intelligence was probably the outcome of many a fruitless reconnaissance along boggy byways, and endless conversations with some rough old yeomanry. Finding your way to over grown ruins would need local knowledge, so need to speak the local lingo - can be hard enough today, what?

Just listen to Cotman describing a much earlier Norfolk journey he made, admittedly with a carriage & ladies to complicate the job:
"We went on & on till down went the horses… We took the ladies out, the horses fresh kicked & plunged until… they laid down quietly.. and were dug out. We turned and took another road… it was only five miles and we were three hours going."

Doesn't sound conducive to fitting in a few hours sketching, or even keeping your paper dry. Just all the travelling alone would have done in most of you chattering classes. Most of it on horseback, nothing but a hat and greatcoat to keep the rain off. None of this "rambling" by motor, with a thermos and sandwiches - best a chap could hope for then was a hip flask and a few slices of beef jerky, tough as a Scotsman's wallet.

But none of this sort of thing stopped Cotman, and his letters from that autumn visit bound with enthusiasm for re-discovering his own county: "Oh rare & beautiful Norfolk!"

How reluctantly he must have returned to London that November. Back to the grind and the worries (two of his younger lads had turned out very wobbly). The drawings would have been crucial to him, to be discussed and considered later, lying always in his mind like seeds in Norfolk earth, waiting to be grown into paintings.

But the galloping dream of that visit was to be his last. Cotman would not push open the heavy wooden door of a silent Norfolk church again, and the drawings remain only drawings to this day. Dead, within the twelve month, of "natural decay", according to the quack, at the age of sixty.
So open those plentiful maps & guide books with some blasted humility, for oft' times we follow with ease in many a hard-won footstep.

Major S. G. Hodgeforth (Retired)

1 comment:

  1. Dear Major Hodgeforth,

    I heard you read this to the assembly at Barton St Turf nine months yonder, and this is a most accomplished perambulation - splendid! I had meant to ask you then about your opinion of that man Crome, but unfortunately my wife was overcome with the vapours, hastening my departure. If you would be kind enough to proffer an opinion of his work, it might uplift me, for I am currently in the condition of the most piteable funk...

    Archibald Tussock-Flake

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