Borderlands – Between Strand and Sea

Where the sea meets the moon-blanched land,
Listen! you hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling,
At their return, up the high strand

Extract from ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold, 1867

I was born in middle England, well away from the coast and my only experience of the sea and the coast, like thousands of middle class families in the 1950s, was the yearly family holiday and, for us, it was mainly on the South Coast.

Money was always tight in those days and we normally spent a week in a chalet or very occasionally bed and breakfast, in guest houses run by fierce harridans. I seem to remember that a greasy breakfast was served at 8 o’clock sharp and then we were locked out of the house all day, as punishment, until we were reluctantly let in during the evening, so that we could sleep in rock hard beds between nylon sheets, in constant fear of electric shocks during the night. In this age of boutique guest houses and ‘Air B & B’, it is amazing to me now, that we were willing to pay for this yearly ritual humiliation.

This should have put me off the coast for life, but my abiding memory of those days was the hours I spent on the beach, whatever the weather, digging sandcastles, paddling on the edge of the water and wading in rock pools foraging for all sorts of miniature sea life.The reality was no doubt different, but in my imagination, it was a time of innocence and wonder.

The author as a young boy learning construction skills ©John Bostock
The unadulterated joy of the seaside ©John Bostock
Building castles can also be tiring ©John Bostock

Perhaps it was those memories that triggered a desire to escape the city after 27 years in London. When we moved down to the coast, was I subconsciously trying to revive those lost days of my childhood? Whatever the motivation, we arrived 9 years ago and a new life has opened up. In recent months I have started to try and analyse my fascination with the coast.

What is it that I love about my new home by the sea? I’ve thought about this a lot and, at the heart of the matter, it always comes back to the quality of light, at that point where the land meets the sea, the borderlands. Every day when I look out the window, the effect is different, the colour of the sky, of the sea, of the beach, the morning is different to the evening, from season to season, from sun to storm, and in fact from second to second. There is an infinite variety of sensations to take in and the natural world is in a state of constant flux.

I now realise that for the last forty years or so, I have been pursuing this quality of light in my imagination and through my love of art. In the early 1980s, my wife and I experienced it in Skagen in the North of Jutland in Denmark. ‘Skagen Odde’ is a unique sandy peninsula which stretches 30 km and varies between 3 and 7 km wide, with a small 4 km long sandbar at very tip, which is growing every year, as a result of longshore drift.

Aerial view of Skagen Odde – The small town of Skagen can just be seen towards the tip
‘Grenen’ the 4km long sandbar at the Northern tip of Skagen Odde
The Northern tip of Denmark, where on the left is the North Sea, Skagerrak and to the right is the Baltic Sea , Kattegat.

Being surrounded on all sides, there is something special about the quality of the light that comes off the water on both sides and it was this light that drew a colony of artists to move here at the beginning of the 20th century.

The Skagen artists painted the sea, the sand and the local fisherman, but above all they painted themselves with the sea and sky as a backdrop. These pictures by Artists such as P.S. Kroyer, Michael Ancher and his wife Anna have become famous well outside the confines of their native Denmark, for their exploration of light and colour. Here on this remote peninsula the beginnings of Danish modernism can be found. More information on the Skagen Artists can be found on the Skagen Museum Website Two of the iconic paintings, which are on display in the Museum, are shown below.

P.S. Krøyer: Summer Evening on Skagen’s Southern Beach (1893)
Anna Ancher: Sunlight in the Blue Room (1891)

At the same as artists in Denmark were discovering Skagen, in the far South West England, another group of British artists were moving to Newlyn, a fishing village near Penzance, in Cornwall, painting many of the similar scenes as their fellow artists in Denmark, again inspired by the extraordinary quality of light in the south west peninsula.

And then moving onto the 20th century a new generation of artists were inspired, in the town of St. Ives. to create pottery, paintings and sculpture. The names of Alfred Wallis the self taught fisherman together with Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, Peter Lanyon, Bernard Leach, Patrick Heron, Terry Frost and many more, have become legendary in the annals of British 20th century art.

The Wreck of the Alba , Alfred Wallis 1941 (c) Kettle’s Yard, University of Cambridge
Zennor Storm – Peter Lanyon 1958 (c) Estate of Peter Lanyon

The result has been to make St Ives the ‘go to’ destination for art lovers. It was inevitable, with our love of ceramics and art, that we would be drawn to the town and over the last thirty years we have visited numerous times. When walking along the coast from Carbis Bay through a wooded area, you are suddenly greeted by the amazing vista of the harbour at St. Ives, a sight that never fails to lift the spirits. And yes, the light is as unique and wonderful, as it is rumoured to be.

The iconic view of the harbour at St. Ives ©John Bostock

And so, eventually, by a roundabout route, via the North of Jutland and the extreme South West of England, 9 years ago we eventually arrived on the South Coast of England and settled for our own slice of the good life along the coast.

When you actually live in a place, rather than just visit it, you gain a totally different perspective of life on the edge, where you can experience four seasons in one day, and the natural world takes on a reality, rather than being an abstract concept.

Having a view over Beachy Head has enabled me to experience how the landscape changes from season to season, from day to day, from morning to evening and even from second to second. I have tried to capture a feeling of this in an ongoing series of photographs taken over the last few years, a selection of which can be seen below.

However, the seashore is not just about beautiful views and gorgeous sunsets, it can also be a frightening and terrifying place and the storms can be fierce and relentless. We have experienced our fair share of extreme weather since our arrival and, for the most part, they are exhilarating and exciting, but you quickly learn to respect the power of the sea and develop a sense of awe in the face of powerful natural forces beyond your control.

Photographs of Bulverhythe beach during a storm ©John Bostock

Any article about the borderlands, the capture of light and the power of the sea, would not be complete without reference to our greatest landscape painter, J. M. W.Turner. Nobody, before or since, has captured both the beauty and horror of life at sea, from his beautiful sunsets to his realistic and terrifying paintings of shipwrecks, where you feel the total helplessness of the souls fighting for their lives.

The Shipwreck – J.M.W.Turner (1805)

Turner painted dozens of beach scenes, but I find this watercolour below very poignant, showing a solitary dog along the waterside. Ruskin named the painting ‘Dawn after the Wreck’, but there is no wreck and no wreckage. I think it was Turner’s aim to show how sad and desolate the beach can sometimes feel, a place of loneliness. I love the way that there are no boundaries between the strand, the sea and the sky, they almost merge into each other, a true borderland.

Dawn after the Wreck – J.M.W. Turner c1841

Nowhere captures the true nature of the borderlands than at low tide, when the sea retreats, revealing a hidden world, which for a few hours gives up its secrets. Bulverhythe beach is one of St. Leonards best kept secrets, during the short time when the sea retreats; where else can you experience a a 4000 year old Petrified forest, a group of 135 million year old Cretaceous rocks and the wreck of an 18th century Dutch cargo ship, all within the same half hour walk.

Low Tide at Bulverhythe, a borderland which is neither land nor sea ©John Bostock
The sunken hull of the Amsterdam from 1749, only visible at very low tides ©John Bostock
Part of Sunken Forest at Bulverhythe at low tide ©John Bostock

The borderland between strand and sea is a place of coming and going, of departures and arrivals. For centuries people have left for adventure and travel, many leaving these shores never to return. Fisherman sail out every day, risking their lives to bring us food from the sea. Lifeboat crews constantly brave the storms to rescue people and bring them safely to shore.

And in recent years it has become a place of arrival, a safe haven, as thousands of frightened and desperate refugees risk their lives to arrive on our seashore to escape war, torture and oppression. I am proud that in Hastings we have welcomed these souls fleeing oppression through the organisation Hastings Supports Refugees.

With a strange synchronicity, a phenomenon that seems to affect me more and more these days, I have completed this article, just as Hastings Contemporary opens a stunning new exhibition called ‘Seafaring’, which covers, in pictorial form, much of the beauty and terror of life on the borderlands and beyond.

These then are the borderlands that have become our home. The borderlands between strand and sea, between ocean and sky, between beauty and terror, between fantasy and reality, between despair and hope, between past and future, a constantly changing landscape of endless possibilities.

The Ghosts of Lamb House

Whenever I visit Rye, which these days is often, my spirits rise and I am transported back in time. This ancient town has been special to me for many years and I was collecting vintage Rye Pottery long before I first visited there ( Ref my article Simple Pleasures – Rye Pottery )

However, since moving to the area, I have come to appreciate the amazing atmosphere of this historic town. There is the medieval charm of Mermaid Street and the Mermaid Inn, the 12th century St. Mary’s Church at the top of Rye with its amazing view of the surrounding area from its tower, the elegant Georgian Town Hall, Rye Castle Museum and the Ypres Tower and, last but not least, Lamb House.

The town has long been home to a long line of artists, poets and novelists, but probably its most famous and distinguished inhabitant must be the American writer Henry James, who lived at Lamb House from 1897 until 1914.

The tale I am about to relate includes, of course, Henry James, but it is also about much more, it is the story of Lamb House, the numerous people who have lived there and the ghosts that permeate the house, the inhabitants and the books written there.

Unlike large portions of Rye, Lamb House is a relative newcomer in the town being built by James Lamb in 1722, who was a wine merchant and local politician. A notable incident in the early days was when King George I was driven ashore onto Camber sands in a storm in 1725 and had to stay at Lamb House. James Lamb gave up his bed to the King, even though his wife Martha was pregnant at the time and maybe because of the excitement of having Royalty in the house, she actually gave birth to a boy the same night, she named him George of course.

There is no doubt much to be written about the Lamb family in Rye, but the house’s main claim to fame today didn’t arrive until the beginning of the 20th century, with the arrival of Henry James, followed by a number of other fascinating literary and distinguished figures.

The Front Entrance to Lamb House
The Rear of Lamb House from the Garden

In 1897, James was reaching the height of his powers and was feted throughout America and Europe. He was a dedicated Anglophile and had a number of friends in Rye and on one of his previous visits he had been very taken with Lamb House and was delighted when the opportunity arose in 1897 to lease the house.

Over the next few years, James wrote many of his greatest novels in Lamb House, The Wings of a Dove, The Ambassadors and The Golden Bowl, both in the Green Room, and during the summer months, in the Garden Room, which he loved, but which was sadly destroyed in an air raid, during the Second World War.

The Ruins of the Garden Room destroyed by a German bombe in 1940 ©National Trust / Charles Thomas
Photograph of the the Garden Room in happier times taken in the early 20th century with a figure on the steps, possibly Henry James himself

In its heyday, Lamb House became a Mecca for artists visiting the the great man, from Virginia Wolf, Rudyard Kipling, H.G. Wells, Josef Conrad, John Singer Sargent, Arnold Bennett, the list is endless. What it would have been to be a fly on the wall and listen in to these great minds?

It is was during this period that James acquired his nickname “The Master” and the regal portrait below by that other master of portraiture John Singer Sargent, shows James relishing in his reputation as ‘The Great Man of Letters’.

Henry James, by John Singer Sargent (National Portrait Gallery)

However, as we are dealing with ghosts and the supernatural, I am returning to 1897, when Henry James wrote his most famous ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, one of the most disturbing stories ever written in this genre. James wrote this in London, as he was waiting for some alterations to be carried out in Lamb House, and it was serialised in 12 parts in Colliers Weekly, a popular Magazine of the time.

The story concerns a Governess who is caring for two children on a remote estate called Bly and becomes convinced that the children are in communication with the malign ghosts of two previous inhabitants of the house. Without giving anything away, the tension is ratcheted up very slowly, hence the title ‘The Turn of the Screw’ and much is left to the reader’s imagination. The story is full of ambiguity and one is left wondering who is really haunted, the children or the Governess.

First page of the 12-part serialisation of
The Turn of the Screw in Colliers Weekly

Having recently read the story, I can see how it caught the imagination of so many people, having been filmed many times and even being made into an opera by none other than Benjamin Britten. The horror/ghost story was by no means unique in the writing of James, who wrote many ghost stories throughout his life, but this is his masterpiece; it is indeed a classic of the genre.

The seeds for the story came from an unusual source, the Archbishop of Canterbury at the time, Edward White Benson, who just happened to be the father of E.F. Benson, himself a good friend of James, who would himself later move into Lamb House in 1918, after the death of Henry James and who plays a large part in the history of the House.

Edward White Benson, despite his Christian Faith, was a strong believer in the supernatural and ghostly phenomenon and when he was at Cambridge University, he and a friend formed “The Cambridge Association for Spiritual Inquiry” , also known as the Cambridge Ghost Society by the students. Benson’s interest in all things ghostly was passed on to his children, as we shall come to hear.

And it is to Benson’s son, Edward Frederick Benson, better known as E.F.or Fred Benson, who next takes centre stage as the custodian of Lamb House for over 20 years until his death in 1940. Benson was in awe of Henry James and was himself a well regarded author, who later became famous for his satirical and comic “Mapp and Lucia” novels set in the fictional town of Tilling and featuring a house called Mallards, both unmistakably, Rye and Lamb House.

I have not read the novels, but saw the brilliant BBC adaptation from 2014 filmed in Rye and Lamb House, starring the wonderful Anna Chancellor and Miranda Richardson. It was gloriously camp, bitchy and funny and it apparently satirised real characters in Rye, it is a wonder that Benson wasn’t sued for defamation of character.

Anna Chancellor as Lucia, Steve Pemberton as Georgie and Miranda Richardson as Mapp (copyright BBC)

I was lucky to catch part of the filming for Mapp and Lucia in 2013, where Market Street, in front of Town Hall, had been transformed into a bustling 1920s street, and it was easy to imagine what Rye would have been like a hundred years ago.

E.F. Benson was also a prolific writer of ghost stories and wrote dozens of them, many of them set in Rye. What is perhaps more surprising is that both of his brothers A.C.Benson and R.H. Benson, who were also published novelists, were enthusiastic writers of ghost stories. It seems as if the whole family were obsessed, or should I say were possessed with the supernatural.

But the ghosts in Lamb House did not stay confined to the page and the house itself seemed to have had its own ghostly visitors. Of course, this is hardly surprising, as an ancient town like Rye has its fair share of ghosts with the 14th century Mermaid Inn, just round the corner from Lamb House, having the reputation as being one of the most haunted hotels in the Country.

This particular ghost appeared one hot summer’s day in Lamb House, when Benson and the local vicar were sitting in the garden, which was recounted by Benson in his autobiography, written in 1940, where they saw:

…the figure of a man walk past this open doorway. He was dressed in black and he wore a cape the right wing of which, as he passed, he threw across his chest, over his left shoulder. His head was turned away and I did not see his face. The glimpse I got of him was very short, for two steps took him past the open doorway … Simultaneously the Vicar jumped out of his chair, exclaiming: “Who on earth was that?” It was only a step to the open door, and there, beyond, the garden lay, basking in sun and empty of any human presence. He told me what he had seen: it was exactly what I had seen, except that our visitor had worn hose, which I had not noticed.

This appears to be the only sighting recorded of this ghostly figure, during Benson’s time at the house, although later tenants were also convinced of a ghostly presence. The Bensons were an extraordinary and talented family, with the spectre of bipolar disorder always a constant presence in their lives, and they deserve a story all to themselves.

Is this the doorway where the ghost appeared?

The literary presence in Lamb House continued when another writer moved there in 1967. Rumer Godden is a name perhaps not so familiar with many people and I freely admit that she was unknown to me prior to researching this article. She was however a prolific author and during her career she wrote over 60 books for both children and adults, many featuring her earlier life in Bangladesh, Calcutta and Kashmir. She also, surprise surprise, wrote a number of ghost stories; it appears to have been an obligatory part of living in Lamb House. She certainly felt, at times, that there was a ghostly presence around, when she was alone in the house.

If Rumer Godden is unfamiliar, then one of her most famous novels “Black Narcissus” is probably not, as it became a cult film in 1947, starring Deborah Kerr and directed by Powell and Pressburger the two doyens of the British Film industry at the time. This film, a psychological drama about a group of Anglican Nuns in the Himalayas, was full of repressed sexuality and emotions and was groundbreaking in its treatment of female sexual desire.

Deborah Kerr as Sister Clodagh in Black Narcissus (1947)

By the time Rumer Godden moved into Lamb House in 1968, as a tenant, Lamb House had been owned and run by the National Trust since 1950, when it was bequested to the Trust by a relative of James. They continued to rent out the top floor of the house until 2018, when the last tenant left and it is only now that the house can be enjoyed in its entirety.

By coincidence, I have recently learnt that St Leonard’s A Town Explores a Book Festival has chosen for its 2022 book ‘The Diddakoi’, a novel for young adults about the Romany Community, which won the 1972 Whitbread Prize for Godden. So it appears that this long forgotten author is on the verge of a long overdue renaissance.

To bring together all the myths surrounding ghostly visitations in Lamb House, it was left to another one time resident of Rye, Joan Aiken, who published ‘The Haunting of Lamb House’ in 1991, mixing truth and fiction over the life of Lamb House and spanning nearly three centuries.

Joan Aiken, the daughter of American Pulitzer Prize winning poet, Conrad Aitken, was born just around the corner in Mermaid Street. Her novel was divided into three parts, the first set during the time of the original Lamb family, then moving on to the Henry James era and finally in the third part to the time of Fred Benson, all different stories but all linked by a ghostly visitation, mixing fact and fantasy to great effect.

The Cover of ‘The Haunting of Lamb House’ by Joan Aiken 1991, now sadly out of print

Other Tenants of note at Lamb House were the MP and writer H. Montgomery Hyde, who lived here between 1963 and 1967, and who was best known for his tireless campaigning in respect of Homosexual reform and Brian Batsford, an artist, publisher, designer and politician, who became best known for his illustrations, in particular his brightly coloured posters and for the cover to the travel guide ‘The Villages of England’.

And what of Lamb House today? I can state, from personal experience, that it is thriving in the excellent hands of the National Trust. Now that it no longer has tenants, the upstairs has been opened up to visitors and a complete restoration of the rooms has taken place to reflect the glory days when Henry James held court to a constant stream of literary visitors.

There is not much trace of the other writers that spent so much productive time here, but I am sure that they would not mind, after all, they all acknowledged that Henry James was ‘The Master’.

The Garden is a wonderful space and is reputed to be the largest garden on Rye. Although, James confessed that he was no gardener, he employed a close friend Alfred Parsons to design the layout and planting and in time he took great delight in the garden. The Trust admits that the garden is still a work in progress and the aim is to restore the garden to its original design as envisaged by Parsons.

But what of the ghosts? On the warm spring day that we visited, there wasn’t much of a ghostly feel, at least not of the clanking chains and wailing variety. However, I did feel the spirit of the place. My belief is that certain buildings and places carry the residue of the people who have lived and passed through there. That is why great churches and cathedrals give off a certain aura.

Lamb House is certainly in that category and, although I am sceptical about the physical manifestations of the dead, I am convinced that Lamb House is permeated by all of the great writers and artists who have passed through its doors, and in that respect, it truly is a haunted house.

The Boy who Loved the Sea

When Paula Rego brought her stories to Hastings

Catalogue produced to accompany the Exhibition

In May 2017, a documentary film was made for the BBC, by Nick Willing, the son of Paula Rego and Victor Willing, which revealed for the first time, in Paula Rego’s own words, how her life had impacted on her art, Paula Rego, Secrets and Stories. Following this film, the Jerwood Gallery (now Hastings Contemporary), held a major exhibition of her work, showing a large amount of new material for the first time.

For me, having been a volunteer at the Gallery, since moving to the area in 2013, the exhibition was a revelation. I must confess, rather ashamedly, that her work had mostly passed me by until then, but when I walked into the gallery that first day of the exhibition, I was smitten. Here was a unique vision of the world, forged through pain and trauma. But despite the darkness in much of her work, there is also, paradoxically, a radiant humour that shines through, a ray of hope that lifts the spirits, as you walk through the exhibition.

Paula Rego’s life has been well documented, from her childhood in Portugal growing up under the oppressive dictatorship of Antonio Salazar, to her arrival in England aged 17 to study at Slade School of Art, her subsequent marriage to the artist Victor Willing and his tragic decline and death as a result of Multiple Schlerosis; finally Paula’s well deserved recognition as one of the great figurative artists of the late 20th and early 21st century.

However, for me, it is ultimately her art which defines Paula Rego and, in this exhibition, she demonstrated this, having produced an exciting series of relatively new work, based on books or stories that had made an impact on her life. These stories, which formed the mainstay of this exhibition in the large Foreshore Gallery, consisted of 2 or 3 large scale pictures for each story, mostly in Rego’s favourite medium, Pastel, all in vibrant colours.

These pictures, with echoes of myths, folk tales and Old Master paintings are laced with characters, who display a mixture of humour, sadness, evil and innocence – all human life is on show here.

There were 4 stories, which Rego illustrated, ‘The Relic’ and ‘Cousin Basilio’ both based on 19th century novels by the Portuguese writer Eça de Querios, ‘The Boy Who Loved the Sea’, a contemporary Portuguese novel by Helia Correia and finally ‘The Last King of Portugal’, the true story of how the last King of Portugal had to escape for his life and ending up in the suburbs of London.

The 2 books by Eça de Querios are essentially morality tales, full of avarice, hypocrisy, misogyny and lust and it is not difficult to see why Paula Rego, the artist of human frailty, was drawn to these books.

The Relic is a comic novel, revolving around a dissolute young man hoping to inherit his religious aunt’s fortune, by pretending to be pious. Inevitably, his plans are scuppered by a farcical mix up, where instead of giving his aunt a gift from his travels, he gives her a negligee from a prostitute.

In the below picture the nephew Teodirico meets the prostitute Adelia for the first time. She lies on the couch looking exhausted after their encounter, surrounded by various onlookers.

Meeting Adelia 2013 – Courtesy of Artist and Hastings Contemporary

In the final picture of the series, Teodirico is undone, clutching the negligee looking totally chastened, whilst his aunt points an accusing finger at him, the title of this this image, full of humour, says it all “Get out of here, you and your Filth”.

Get out of here, you and your Filth, 2013 – Courtesy of Artist and Hastings Contemporary

Cousin Basilio is a dark story of bourgeois marital infidelity and blackmail; in the picture below there is plenty going on, the husband Jorge is lazing on the couch, whilst his wife Luiza dreams of her lover, Cousin Basilio, who is due to arrive at the house, when Jorge is away on business. The maid, presumably the blackmailer, looks on taking in the whole scene, while the large portrait of Jorge’s mother, hanging on the wall, looks on menacingly.

Breakfast 2015 – Courtesy of Artist and Hastings Contemporary

The story, which gives the Exhibition its title, is a dark story full of child abuse, cruelty, sadness and the childhood hope of something better in this world, which is represented by the sea. The boy in question believes his father is the sea and in order to escape his awful life he runs away, but dies when he reaches the sea “The sky was blue, the sea was blue and the boy was also blue…because he was dead”.

The Boy who Loved the Sea series, 2017 – Courtesy of Artist and Hastings Contemporary

The story that made the biggest impression on me was the true story of the Last King of Portugal, also known as Manuel the Unfortunate, a story that also had enormous significance for Paula Rego. Manuel was crowned the King of Portugal in 1908, following the assassination of his Father and Brother, but in 1910 he had to flee for his life after a Republican revolution. Manuel and his Mother Queen Amelia fled in a small boat into exile, from the tiny fishing village of Ericeira, eventually ending up in England. Paula Rego had spent a lot of her childhood in Ericeira and had lived there for a time with Victor and their daughter, so this place had a special significance for her. The picture below shows Manuel escaping in a small rowing boat, cradling his elderly Mother, with crowds of people watching on from the top of the cliff.

Rowing from Ericeira, 2014 – Courtesy of artist and Hastings Contemporary

A photograph taken of the actual event, shows an almost identical scene, the only difference being the rather larger boats. Paul Rego, in her picture, uses artistic licence to create a more intimate and emotionally satisfying scene.

Actual footage of the King’s escape from Ericeira 1910

Manuel lived for many years in Fulwell Park, a glorious mansion, near Twickenham in South West London, which was sadly later demolished to make way for suburban housing. Manuel’s great passions were Portuguese literature, opera and tennis. Although fit and healthy, having played tennis the day before, on the 2nd July 1932, Manuel was taken ill with a bad throat and died a few hours later.

The official cause of death was oedema of the throat, a swelling which blocks the air passage, however there has always been suspicions around his sudden death and rumours abounded that he had been poisoned. These suspicions were fuelled by the fact that in 1931 an intruder had been discovered in the grounds of Fulwell Park who, when arrested, was confirmed as being a prominent member of a Portuguese republican terrorist group. The true facts will never be known.

Below is a photograph of Manuel taken a few hours before he died, looking hale and hearty. He could have died of an allergic reaction, but a sudden death feels rather unlikely when looking at this man. I lived in this area of South West London for 27 years and it is difficult to imagine a more unlikely setting for Regicide than this middle class leafy suburb, but stranger things have happened.

Manuel II just hours before his death at Fulwell Park; 2 July 1932.

In Paula Rego’s interpretation, Manuel is lying in his bed clutching his throat in agony, while his maid stares impassively at him, clutching something in her hand. Her expression is ambiguous and even more so with the reflection in the mirror, a technique that Paula Rego uses to good effect in many of her pictures. There can be no doubt that something bad is going on here.

The King’s Death, 2014 – Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary

This painting also had a big impact on my son-in-law, when he visited the exhibition. As a result he was moved to write an excellent poem of the incident, which with his permission I am publishing here.

Manuel, The Unfortunate
(after Paula Rego’s Last King of Portugal)

Both sides of the story of your death
involve striped pyjamas, a maid, and the deep rich red
of your bedroom wallpaper. Was your outpost
at Fulwell, Twickenham, private and secure enough
to keep at bay those Republican activists
who might by various means have poisoned you?
Or can we assume you over-exerted yourself
one too many times at tennis, and in so doing
activated some hereditary bronchial condition,
hitherto undetected, with fatal consequence?
None at Scotland Yard had strength or means
to piece together the evidence either way.
Goodnight, sweet prince.
Let acrylic, graphite and pastel on paper
mounted on aluminium be your epitaph.

Published with kind permission of William Kemp (copyright)

These series of stories, show the influence of Old Master paintings on Paula Rego’s later style, following a period as artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, and I can see echoes of Velasquez in some of the characters.

Paula Rego, in her career, has never shied away from controversy, highlighting women’s issues, misogyny and abortion. Her shocking series of abortion pictures played an important part in the campaign to legalise abortion in Portugal. In this exhibition, a number of Works on paper from her ‘Depression’ series created in 2007 were on show. These works, which were exhibited for the first time in 2017, show that Rego is not afraid to expose her soul to the world. She has made no secret of her struggles with her mental health over the years, which make these works all the more poignant and moving.

The Depression Series, 2007- Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary
Eleven, 2007 – Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary

What hasn’t been mentioned is Paula Rego’s superb draughtmanship and this can be seen in her lithographs and etchings illustrating classic novels such as Jane Eyre, Peter Pan and children’s nursery rhymes. Of course, Rego always puts her own twist on things and there are always a number of challenging images, such as the grotesque mermaid drowning Wendy.

Lithographs and Etchings illustrating Peter Pan, 1992 – Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary

Her illustrations for Jane Eyre are equally disturbing, showing scenes of misogyny, male dominance and abuse, giving a feminist perspective to this well known work, long before the ‘MeToo’ movement.

Lithographs and Etchings illustrating Jane Eyre, 2002 – Courtesy of the artist and Hastings Contemporary

Not long before the exhibition, Paula a suffered a very bad fall on a concrete path, causing serious bruises and nasty cuts, but in her typical way she used the situation to produce a series of quickly executed self portraits. There is complete honesty and a total lack of self pity in these portraits, which are also full of life and humour and demonstrate that even in old age, Paula, has not lost any of her edge.

Over many years as an artist, Paula Rego has changed her method of working, and today works almost exclusively in her studio, using her long term friend and assistant, Lila, as a life model and, in more recent years, utilising a large number of props and what she calls her dollies, models of all types, which she constructs in paper-mache. These models have become works of art in their own right. Below can be seen some of the dollies on show during the exhibition and Paula, in her studio, together with her grotesque mermaid dollies.

Photograph – copyright Nick Willing

No article about Paula Rego would be complete without mentioning Victor Willing, who since his untimely early death has been somewhat overshadowed by his wife, as her fame has grown. Victor Willing was a fantastic artist in his own right and, in my opinion, has been sadly neglected. Hastings Contemporary have attempted to remedy that with a major exhibition of his work in 2020 and we were able to appreciate the quality of his art and what he might have achieved, if his health hadn’t declined, resulting in his relatively early death.

Despite many years of exile from her homeland and the controversies of past times, Paula Rego, is now regarded as a National Treasure in Portugal and, in 2009, a dedicated museum was built in her honour in Cascais, where she had spent much time as a child called ‘The Paula Rego House of Stories’ housing both art by herself and her late husband Victor Willing.

At the time of writing this article, Hastings Contemporary (formerly Jerwood Gallery) is about to celebrate its first 10 years as an Art Gallery in Hastings. For much of that time, I have also been part of that journey, working as a volunteer for a few hours a month. During these years, much great art has flowed through the gallery attracting visitors, both locally and from further afield. The Paula Rego exhibition was a superb show and definitely one of the high points of the first 10 years.

Hastings Contemporary has become part of what has been known as The Coastal Art Trail, a ring of cultural highlights running though Kent, East and West Sussex including the Turner Contemporary in Margate, Hastings Contemporary, De la Warr Pavilion in Bexhill, The Towner Gallery in Eastbourne and further along the coast, the Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. Art is flourishing and regenerating the South East Coast of England, long may it continue.

The Crumbling Cliffs of St. Leonards (and other tales)

To understand the crumbling cliffs of St. Leonards on sea and indeed the whole landscape of Hastings through to Rye, via Fairlight and Pett, you have to go back millennia. Hastings and St. Leonards on Sea are part of a large area of land called the High Weald, which is a ridge of sandstone and clays, which extends southwards from Tunbridge Wells down to the coast at Hastings and St.Leonards. This area was created millions of years ago by the deposition of sand and silt from rivers and estuaries, which have been shaped by earth movements and glaciers to the landscape that can be found today.

Where these sandstones are layered with silts and clays, as is the case in Hastings and St. Leonards this has resulted in landslides and mud flows over centuries, as water has penetrated into these various layers, a process that is still at work today.

West Hill in St. Leonards (not to be confused with West Hill in Hastings), as seen on the below map extract, covers a relatively short distance from the ‘Royal Victoria Hotel’ in Burton St. Leonards to just past the ‘Bo Peep’ Pub, a distance of less than a mile, but an area which is full of fascinating history and human interest, visited and lived in at various times, by writers, artists and poets, not to mention smugglers. At the bottom of the cliff along the seafront is West Marina and running parallel along the top of the cliff is West Hill road. To call them cliffs is almost a misnomer, as they are somewhat modest compared with Fairlight just east of Hastings or the majestic chalk coastline on the South Downs at Seven Sisters and Beachy Head.

The extent of the West Hill in 1846, prior to the massive development in the 20th century, can also be seen on the plan below.

Plan of St. Leonards on Sea and West Hill in 1846

However, what cannot be disputed is that this landscape is very unstable and has been slowly disintegrating over the last 200 years, ever since the area first became a seaside resort and many examples of earlier and recent falls can still be seen.

In the early 19th century, a rather foolhardy individual, a certain William Smith, excavated a series of passages and caves, some of which extended over 300 feet into the cliff. He installed his family in furnished apartments with kitchen, bedrooms and parlour and would give visitors a guided tour for a small fee. Smith, who by trade was a milkman, stored his milk in the caves and had a tradesman’s card which read “Milk from the Cow at the door”. There were also rumours that the caves were used to store smuggled goods, a strong possibility, in light of the extensive smuggling activity in the area. Inevitably, the caves were doomed and in 1855 a rock fall sealed off the mouth of the caves. Today, after further subsidence over the years, there is no trace left of the caves or even of their exact location.

Another example was the original St. Leonards Church, built in 1834, which survived numerous cliff falls until it was destroyed by a German rocket in the 2nd World War and its replacement has now been closed permanently due to the danger from the unstable cliffs (Further information on this can be found in my earlier article An Iconic Church in St Leonards)

In 2002, Sussex steps, a short cut from the top of West Hill Road down to Caves road, collapsed suddenly and some workers in the electrical substation had to run for their lives. The remains of the steps, suspended precariously, can still be seen to this day.

High above the church, on West Hill Road, is a memorial garden containing a strange tomb in the shape of a pyramid. This is where James Burton1, the founder of St. Leonards in the early 19th century, is buried together with his wife and other members of his family. Unfortunately, this garden has not been spared the march of time as, also a result of subsidence, the garden has now been temporarily closed to the public. It is hoped that a solution can be found to allow this unique tomb and memorial to remain in place for the public to enjoy in the future.

The Burton Pyramid with the spire of St. Leonards Church in the background

Various methods of halting the erosion have been attempted over the years, from mass concrete, to stone gabion walls, some more environmentally friendly than others.

View of the cliffs from below, showing the precarious state of affairs and the various methods, over the years, built to delay the inevitable

However, the most ingenious method to be tried to date, has to be the arches supporting the Victorian Hospital complex in West Hill Road (now sadly derelict). The Eversfield Hospital and Home for Consumption and Diseases for the Chest and Throat was opened in 1891 and once housed hundreds of Tuberculosis patients partaking of the fresh sea salt air, which was thought to be a cure for consumption.

There is an urban myth that these arches, which were actually not constructed until some time in the twentieth century, were used for the TB patients to partake of the fresh air for their lungs, but the truth was far more mundane but equally bizarre. The patients were in fact housed in portable shelters on wheels in front of the hospital, where they slept in all weathers, with the only concession to the climate being that they could be moved to avoid the worst of the wind and rain. The survival figures as a result of this treatment are, unfortunately, not available.

This area of St. Leonards, however, is more than just the landscape that shaped it, people have come and gone and left their mark on the area and made it what it is today.

As we move from West to East up West Hill Road, we encounter an unusual dwelling, ‘The Bath House’, now a privately owned Grade II listed building. It is this spot that, in 1848 that a Chalybeate spring2 was discovered and a certain German entrepreneur, Emil Grosslob, opened up a spa the following year. In the Victorian era, Spa treatments were all the rage, with the middle and upper classes, who flocked to these areas to take the healing waters. Grosslob had big plans for his small spring.

In Hope’s Pictorial Guide to Hastings and St. Leonards it was stated that “The Chalybeate Spring , recently discovered by Mr. Grosslob , is at No. 2 , West Hill , a short distance to the westward of the South Lodge .” and after describing the chemical analysis of the water, it went on to state that “The action on the system is mildly laxative and tonic , correcting also acidity of the stomach , and is likely to be a valuable adjunct to the usual means of cure for many of those invalids who here seek restoration to health.”

In 1849, there was an article in a journal, called ‘A Ramble through St.Leonards, where the writer stated that “Further on I saw the word Chalybeate in a neat little garden by the roadside. My curiosity led me in, and here I was introduced to Mr. Grosslob, a German gentleman, with whom I passed a very agreeable hour.

In time, Grosslob developed the site, first into a bigger complex building a Russian Bath and when that burnt down, replaced it with a Turkish bath in 1864, before inexplicable leaving St. Leonards in 1866.

However, one of its early and most distinguished visitors, was a Mary Ann Evans, better known by her pen name of George Eliot. Her novel ‘Middlemarch’ has been described as being one of the greatest novels in the English language and Virginia Wolf wrote that it was “one of the few English novels written for grown-up people”, so who am I to argue with that.

Eliot arrived in St. Leonards in 1853, where she had been staying in Tunbridge Wells, but with the construction of a new railway link to Hastings and St. Leonards, she was tempted down to the coast to enjoy the sea air. It was here, when she was staying in Park Cottage in West Hill Road, near the Assembly Rooms and Victoria Hotel that she met Grosslob. As well as partaking of the healing waters, it may well be that as an aspiring writer, she wanted to make Grosslob’s acquaintance, as he claimed friendship with those great German artists, Schiller and Goethe. (Reference- George Eliot’s English Travels by Kathleen McCormack)

As one moves further up West Hill Road, there is another surprise in store. Who would have guessed that our greatest living artist, David Hockney, once spent a year living in a small cottage at the top of West Hill, perched on the edge of the cliff? A story, strange but true.

When Hockney left art college and was called up to National Service, he registered as a conscientious objector and spent the first year in a Bradford hospital, and then in 1958 he was sent to Hastings to work as an orderly in St. Helens Hospital. There is not much artistic evidence from his year in St. Leonards, but I have come across a Linocut entitled ‘Cliff Cottage, West Hill, St Leonards on Sea‘, a brief legacy of his short stay on West Hill Road. There is not much written material about his stay here, but it would be fascinating to hear from Mr. Hockney himself about the time he spent here in St. Leonards, prior to launching himself to fame and fortune at the Royal College of Art.

David Hockney Linocut c1958 entitled ‘Cliff Cottage. West Hill. St.Leonards-on-Sea. Sussex’ sold at Bonhams Auctioneers in 2005

As we move towards the western end of West Hill, we come across an area with the unusual name of ‘Bo Peep’ and on the corner is the Bo Peep Hotel. But why this name? If you look at the pub sign, you start getting a clue as to its true meaning. On one side of the sign is the image that every school child knows, from the nursery rhyme, with the careless shepherdess looking for her lost sheep. However, on the other side is something far darker, alluding to smuggling and deadly fights with the customs and excise. If truth be told, in the early 19th century, the area of Bo-Peep and Bulverhythe a bit further West, was not for the faint hearted.

In this version of the children’s nursery rhyme, Bo-peep refers to the Customs men, the sheep are the smugglers and the tails of the sheep refer to the contraband, that the smugglers are trying to hide in various places.

One of the definitive books on smuggling appears to be ‘The Smugglers’ by Charles Harper written in 1909, but recently re-published as a free e-book by Project Gutenberg. Harper paints a grim but perhaps rather fanciful picture of life in the early 19th century in West St Leonards, as follows:-

“A determined and blood-stained struggle took place at Bo-Peep at midnight of January 3rd, 1828. Bo-Peep was the name of a desolate spot situated midway between Hastings and Bexhill. The place is the same as that westernmost extension of St. Leonards now known by the eminently respectable—not to say imposing—name of “West Marina”; but in those times it was a shore, not indeed lonely (better for its reputation had it been so) but marked by an evil-looking inn, to which were attached still more evil-looking “Pleasure Gardens.” If throats were not, in fact, commonly cut in those times at Bo-Beep, the inn and its deplorable “Pleasure Gardens” certainly looked no fit, or safe, resort for any innocent young man with a pocketful of money jingling as he walked.”

Harper then went on to tell the story of how a group of smugglers brought their goods ashore, but were accosted by a large group of ‘blockade-men’ a few miles inland and in the ensuing fight one custom’s man and one smuggler were killed. At the ensuing trial at the Old Bailey the smugglers, all who were under 30, received a death sentence, which was later commuted to transportation to Australia.

Another incident took place later in 1828, when a large group of smugglers came ashore in broad daylight with their goods, guarded by a 300 locally hired “rustic labourers”. This time, the customs men, prudently, did not intervene and the whole operation passed without incident.

The ‘evil looking inn’ that Harper refers to, is not the present day Bo Peep pub, but a pub of the same name, formerly called ‘The New England Bank’, but now sadly long gone, having made way for the ‘West Marina’ railway station, which is also alas no more.

This original ‘Bo Peep’ inn was also host to an unlikely visitor in 1817, considering its unsavoury reputation. When I first moved to the area, I had noticed a small side road next to the Bo Peep pub, called Keats Close, but it had never occurred to me that it was in reference to the famous Romantic poet, John Keats, doomed to die an early death 4 years later of Tuberculosis.

Keats was in the middle of writing his famous poem ‘Endymion’ and was looking for inspiration at the seashore, which he found in the form of the beautiful Isabella Jones of Hastings. Keats must have been enamoured with her as he wrote a number of poems to her over the next couple of years. The exact nature of their relationship is not clear, but Keats told his brothers that he had ‘warmed with her … and kissed her’. Make of that what you will.

No article about this area of West St. Leonards would be complete with a mention of the Marina Fountain, formerly the Fountain Inn. Within the last few years, this pub has been transformed into a thriving community hub by its new owners, with good food, drink and music for the growing population of West St. Leonards. For us relative newcomers, there is nothing better on a warm summer’s day than to sit in the garden of the Marina Fountain, with the enormous brick arches towering above us, protecting us from the crumbling cliffs.

Footnotes

1 James Burton started building the seaside town of St. Leonards in 1828, based on his experiences of developing parts of London including Regent’s Park and Bloomsbury, as a summer retreat for well to do Londoners. After his death in 1837, his son Decimus Burton, a renowned Architect who designed Kew Gardens Glass House and other famous London landmarks including the Gate at Hyde Park Corner. To find out more about the Burtons and the founding of St. Leonards on Sea go to The Burton’s St. Leonards Society website

2 Chalybeate (/kəˈlɪbieɪt/) waters, also known as ferruginous waters, are mineral spring waters containing salts of iron. Due to uniqueness of the soft sandstone landscape, Hastings and St. Leonards is full of many other Chalybeate springs, from St. Helen’s Park to Alexandria Park and beyond.

Pre-Raphaelites at the Seaside

When it comes to Art, I love all things modern and delight in the abstract. It is, therefore, somewhat of a mystery to me why I have a weakness for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. However, I have always loved the romanticism, the intense colours, the idealised beauty and the general rebelliousness of the whole movement, which struck a chord in me and has lasted to this day.

It, therefore, piqued my interest, when we moved down to Hastings, to hear about the Pre-Raphaelite connection to the Hastings area. With some minimal research, I soon discovered that many of the great names of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood had associations with the area including Dante Gabriel Rossetti, his wife and muse Elizabeth (Lizzie) Siddal, his sister Christina Rossetti, along with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais. In addition, Edward Lear, that wonderful eccentric writer and painter was also a peripheral member of the Group and spent many happy summers in Hastings.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti founded the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood together with William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais in 1848 when he was only 20. Their influence was the art of the Middle Ages and the early Renaissance, prior to what they regarded as the corrupting influence of the later Renaissance, following Raphael, hence the name Pre-Raphaelites. They wanted to revive the intense colour and sensualism of that period, but updated for the 19th century.

Like many artists before and after, the Pre-Raphaelites were drawn to the light on the South Coast. It is not widely known, but in the early 19th century, one of our greatest ever artists J.M.W. Turner visited Hastings, again and again, between about 1810 and 1825, and produced a vast number of sketches and many fine paintings. And so it has continued until the present day, artists are drawn to our shores like moths to a flame.Turner’s wonderful painting ‘Fish Market at Hastings Beach’ can be seen below, with one of his characteristic moody skies.

Fish Market at Hastings Beach by J.M.W. Turner c1810 (Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri)©

A further atmospheric watercolour painting of the fish market on Hastings sands, much closer to home, can be found in the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery. For the eagle eyed, it can be seen that there are two exotically dressed figures in the foreground .These were Greek Refugees, escaping the Greek War of Independence (1821-1832), which has a certain resonance with the world we live in today.

Hastings: Fish Market on the Sands, Early Morning – J.M.W.Turner 1824 (Hastings Museum and Art Gallery)©

But this is predominately a story of the Pre-Raphaelites in Hastings and it starts with the tale of a doomed love. Elizabeth Siddal, better known as Lizzie, was born in humble circumstances, and was already an accomplished poet and artist in 1849 when she was introduced to the Pre-Raphaelites, by a customer, when she showed him some of her art. Rossetti was smitten from the start and she started modelling for Millais and Rossetti, but it was clear the women in the group were not treated on an equal footing with the men, even though many were themselves accomplished artists. For all their so-called radicalism, the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (the clue is in the name), treated women as their muses, models and often, quite frankly, as chattels.

In 1851 and 52, Lizzie was the model for Ophelia in the famous painting by Millais, where she was made to lie in a bath for hours on end; eventually the inevitable happened, she caught pneumonia and nearly died.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais (1851-1852), Tate Britain©, modelled by Lizzie Siddal which nearly cost her life.

Lizzie was always frail and she went to Hastings to recuperate, where she stayed on and off for the next decade. In 1854 she was staying at No. 5 High Street, where Rossetti visited her, a blue plaque being put up in their honour. From this time onwards Rossetti became infatuated with Lizzie, making thousands of drawings and paintings of her during their time together and also preventing her from modelling for the other Pre-Raphaelite artists.

But although Rossetti dominated her life, and they were engaged, he was reluctant to commit to marriage. By 1860 Lizzie, who by that time, was in very poor health and addicted to laudanum, had had enough and broke off her relationship with Rossetti. He rushed down to Hastings to make amends, staying at the Cutter pub along East Parade and once she had regained some of her strength they were married in St. Clements Church in the Old town on the 23rd May 1860. There were no family or friends present, just a couple of witnesses.

After a Honeymoon in Paris, Lizzie was soon pregnant, but sadly she was already in decline and gave birth to a stillborn child. In her grief and depression, her laudanum use increased and in February 1862, Rossetti came home to find her unconscious, having taken an overdose of laudanum. It is said that there was a suicide note, which Rossetti destroyed so that she could have a Christian burial and today she rests in Highgate Cemetery, London.

Rossetti mythologised Lizzie after her death and painted, from memory, Lizzie as Beate Beatrix from the Dante story of unrequited love, producing a haunting and beautiful portrait of Lizzie transformed into an angelic being. It is to Rossetti’s shame, that he treated Lizzie better in death than he did in life.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti: Lizzie Siddal as Beata Beatrix, ca 1864-70, Tate Britain©

Lizzie died tragically young, at 32 and despite being an accomplished self taught poet and artist, whose work was lauded by the likes of the famous Victorian art critic, Ruskin, her talent was always overshadowed by the male Pre-Raphaelites. The painting below shows her true potential, and what she might have achieved, if she hadn’t died prematurely.

Lady Clare by Elizabeth Siddal 1857 (Private Collection)©

Whilst writing about Dante Gabriel Rossetti in Hastings, we should not forget his sister, Christina, as she was also a frequent visitor to Hastings and regularly worshipped at St. Clement’s church. Christina was a devout Christian and it has been suggested that she suffered from religious mania. Although, she disapproved of her dissolute brother, they stayed close to each other throughout their lives.

Although her star faded in the early 20th century, with the rise of modernism, Christina was one of the most lauded female poets in Victorian England, second only to Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In recent years, she has been studied again for the Freudian imagery in her poems, including themes of sexual repression and unconscious longings.

Today, she is probably best remembered for writing the words to one of our best loved Christmas carols, ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’, which will no doubt guarantee her fame for posterity.

Portrait of Christina Rossetti in 1886 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti ©

Both the other two original founders of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, William Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, also had strong ties to area and painted many coastal scenes in Hastings, Winchelsea and Rye. Holman Hunt’s paintings were full of symbolism and were often painted in vivid colours.

One of Holman Hunt’s most famous pictures was painted at at Lover’s Seat at Fairlight Glen near Hastings, in 1852, a spot very familiar to people who live in the area, with an original title of ‘Our English Coasts’. The treatment of the light was considered revolutionary and the painting has a luminous, almost spiritual quality. At a later date, Holman Hunt changed the name of the painting to ‘Strayed Sheep’ thus emphasising the symbolic meaning of the picture. To me it has an ecstatic feeling to it and is one of my favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings, which I never tire of.

Strayed Sheep (Our English Coasts) by William Holman Hunt 1852 – Tate Britain©

During his time at Fairlight, Holman Hunt produced another masterpiece ‘Sunlight on the Sea – Fairlight Down’ which is the header image, that can be seen at the start of this article.

1852 was also the year that a certain Edward Lear spent the summer with Holman Hunt being taught technique and working in oils by the younger Hunt. Lear was a polymath, at times a musician, self taught artist, intrepid traveller and travel writer and, not least, world famous for his nonsense prose and poetry.

Ever since I was a small boy, I loved the daft poetry of Lear and in particular I was entranced by ‘The Owl and the Pussycat’, once requesting this on a BBC children’s programme, sung by Burl Ives. I never knew what a runcible spoon was, but I definitely wanted one. I still do.

As time passes, Edward Lear’s art is being recognised for it’s greatness, especially his landscapes of foreign lands on his extensive travels, many of which have the same techniques and intensity of light that Holman Hunt had taught him a few years earlier. The influence of Holman Hunt can be seen can very clearly in this painting in the Middle East of 1858.

Masada on the Dead Sea by Edward Lear 1958©

Another painting with a similar quality to the Fairlight paintings of Holman Hunt, is ‘The Blind Girl at Pett Level’ by John Everett Millais from 1854. Pett Level is a short distance east of Fairlight and the story goes that Millais spied two young girls in Winchelsea, one of them blind, who were singing and begging in front of the church. When he saw them again the next day, walking across Pett Level, he realised he had to paint them and the result was this glorious picture, which manages to avoid sentimentality and conveys a deep sense of compassion for its subjects. The town of Winchelsea can just be seen in the background.

The Blind Girl at Pett Level by John Everett Millais 1854 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery)©

I am privileged to own a modest piece of Pre-Raphaelite art, whilst not being as grand as the famous works in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s famous Pre-Raphaelite collection, means a great deal to me. It is a print of Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s ‘Sancta Lilias’ , the original of which resides in Tate Britain.

Many years ago, when I was a boy, my Father came home, in a state of excitement, with a picture which he had rescued from a junk shop. He soon discovered that it was not an original drawing as he had first thought, but what he had found was an early print of ‘Sancta Lilias’, probably produced not long after the original was painted in 1874.

My treasured print of ‘Sancta Lilias’ inherited from my Father
Original of ‘Sancta Lilias’ Dante Gabriel Rossetti (Tate Britain) 1878 ©

This picture is based on one of Rossetti’s own poems ‘The Blessed Damozel’ about the longing felt by a dead woman for her lover, who is still alive. There is no question that the poem and the picture from 1878 , with May Morris (William Morris’ wife) as the model, refers back to Lizzie Siddal, still in Rossetti’s thoughts after so many years.

My Dad died many years ago and I have since had the print framed, where it hangs in our house, a treasured link to my Dad, the art lover. Perhaps it is this one image, which has been with me for most of my life, that is the source of my fascination with Dante Gabriel Rossetti and the Pre-Raphaelite movement.

Secret Hastings – A Tale of Two Churches (Part 2)

A couple of months ago I wrote an article about one of the gems of Secret Hastings, the Church in the Wood in Hollington and now it is the turn of that other special church in a hidden place, Old St. Helen’s church in Ore. The only thing that the two churches have in common is that they both claim to be the oldest churches in Hastings but other than that they have very little in common. The Church in the Wood is a rebuilt church from the 19th century with an enormous churchyard and still holding regular services and set in woodland.

Old St. Helen’s church, on the other hand, is a picturesque ruin, abandoned in the 19th century, with a small and unkempt churchyard and surrounded by an upmarket housing estate. However, once you enter the church area you suddenly feel a sense of remoteness and solitude, surrounded by trees and other foliage and are totally unaware of the surrounding houses, as you are transported back through the centuries.

There’s can be little doubt that this is the oldest church in Hastings; other than Hasting’s Castle, this is the only structure in the town that can be demonstrated to have been constructed from the 11th century onwards, with the nave built in typical 11th century style and the tower being added in the 12th century.

There is a nearby well on private land, which unfortunately is now inaccessible, strongly suggesting that there had been a Saxon church on or near the site, due to the Saxon healing cult linking St. Helen and the presence of a holy well. However, on the site itself, no evidence of this was found during the archeological excavations of 2012.

On the side of the church there is an inset stone with a cryptic message, stating that “In the reign of King Edward A.D. 1293 this church was rated at 8 marks”. On further investigation, it appeared that, in 1291, Pope Nicholas IV instigated a tax on all Ecclesiastical Properties in England and Wales, based on the estimated value of the church, in order to raise money for the Crusades, with Edward I being allowed to keep one tenth of the annual profits. The 1291-92 records show that St. Helen’s Church was valued at £5. 6s. 8d. the equivalent of 8 marks, which appeared to be the currency used for recording this valuation.

It seems amazing that Rome was able to exert so much power over the lives of people living over 1000 miles away and this practice was continued until the Reformation, when Henry VIII, with the help of Thomas Cromwell, ‘Took Back Control’, to use that well hackneyed phrase.

The church was in use until 1870, when it was partly dismantled and some of the stonework was used to construct the new St. Helen’s Church, in order to accommodate the growing population of Ore. For the next century , the old church was then left to slowly fade away, a roofless ruin, becoming more and more dilapidated until, in 1991, the church was acquired by the Sussex Heritage Trust. In the following year its importance was finally recognised by English Heritage and it was given Grade II listed status and designated an Ancient Monument.

This gave the impetus to the Sussex Heritage Trust to embark on a programme of conservation and, between 2011-2013, after obtaining a Lottery Heritage Fund grant, the fabric of the church was stabilised and consolidated and the tower was repaired, with an internal staircase being constructed for the public. In addition, an archeological investigation was carried out, plus a detailed survey of the churchyard and memorials and an ecological study of the churchyard and surrounding area. Further information on the works carried out can be found on the Old St. Helen’s Church website.

During the conservation, the earliest burial that was revealed was in the nave, possibly that of William de Ore and family of the early 14th century, who was Lord of the Manor at the time. The flat memorial stone was damaged and now resides in Hastings Museum.

One of the most substantial tombs in the churchyard is that of a certain Musgrave Brisco, who died in 1854, the tomb being elaborately carved with various decorations including foliate heads as can be seen in the photographs below.

Brisco had been an undistinguished Conservative Member of Parliament for 10 years and in that time he made not one speech and had only contributed to just one debate in 1851, on the General Board of Health Bill, when he called for the insertion of the word “Hastings”. It doesn’t appear as though he spent much time working on behalf of the people of Hastings.

The Briscos were a wealthy Hastings family, Musgrave owning Cogshurst House (now demolished) and his brother Wastel who owned large tracts of Bohemia including Bohemia House (also now sadly demolished) and the Summerfields Estate. However, the source of their wealth had a dark history and together with thousands of wealthy families in Georgian and Victorian Britain, the Brisco’s money had been made in the slave trade. When the slave trade was abolished in the 19th century, the slave owners were compensated with enormous sums by the British Government, which enabled these families to retain their great wealth.

As for the freed slaves, they received not a penny for the abuse they had received. This shameful and forgotten era in the history of 19th Britain has been brilliantly documented by the historian David Olusoga in articles and in his BBC television series David Olusoga on slavery in Britain

For anyone wanting to read more about this unsavoury family and their many court cases for assault and worse, there is a wealth of information about the Briscos, Bohemia and Summerfields on the Bohemia/Brisco website. There is also a history of the Briscos in a newly published book from local historian Steve Peak on the America Ground Hastings, which is highly recommended.

However, by far the most famous person who was buried at St. Helen’s was General James Murray, who fought under General Wolfe in the battle for Quebec against the French in 1759. After the British had gained victory, Murray was made the first colonial administrator and governor of the Province of Quebec and was remembered for his even handedness in dealing with the defeated French-Canadian population and allowing their traditional rights and customs to continue.

Also, to his credit, he signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Huron Nation, near Quebec City, which is still in legally valid to this day. Unfortunately, Murray like most people of that period, had a blind spot in regards to slavery; he pushed for slavery to be continued in Quebec province as it had been under the French. He later became Governor of Minorca before retiring to Beauport House (now Bannatynes Health Spa), which he had inherited from his first wife’s family. His family tomb is buried in the chancel of the church, but following the repair of the church his monument stone has been moved into the new St. Helen’s Church for safekeeping.

Portrait of General Murray in the National Portrait Gallery

As for the remainder of the churchyard, there are 80 memorial stones, although according to the Parish Register there are 1926 people buried in the churchyard, the vast majority of people at that time having been unable to afford their own memorial stone. Most of the memorials are either very difficult to read or completely illegible, as time and weather has worn away the soft sandstone, leaving countless anonymous souls lying in their eternal rest. Lichen has grown over many of the stones, creating beautiful patterns, nature’s memorial to the departed. The churchyard, as a result, has its own unique unkempt beauty.

Wild Flower Meadow in the Graveyard
The Beauty of Lichen on a Memorial Stone

The church can be a magical place. I was alone when I made my most recent visit to St Helen’s Church to take some photographs in the middle of September. It was late afternoon and as the sun went down, I sat in the churchyard completely alone and there was silence all around, except for the singing of birds. I felt completely at peace and alone in the world and, just for a moment, I was able to forget the pandemic, the climate crisis and all the other horrors of this world. It was a brief glimpse of heaven in Hastings.

A Visit to the Temple of Art

A few weeks ago we left our safe haven at the seaside in St Leonards-on-sea for one of our increasingly rare forays up to London. We had an urge to view some of our favourite artists and paintings in the National Gallery; it had been many years since we visited there and we were anxious to use our time to the best advantage for the few hours that we would be visiting. But how? The National is a forbidding place and a person can be totally overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of art and all enjoyment can be lost.

So we decided on a more structured approach and to concentrate on a number of iconic pictures, in the region of about 25 to 30 in chronological order, ignoring other paintings as we moved round the galleries. A tall order, but were we successful? Well up to a point; we saw about 20 on the list, but added some more on the way. Believe it or not, we were distracted by some of the other great art in the galleries.

This is the story about a few of the highlights and, inevitably, the disappointments of our day, where we attempted to cover 600 years of Western Art history in a few hours. I will concentrate on describing some of our favourite paintings up to the end of the 17th century from the visit. The later centuries will be the subject of a subsequent article.

We started in the medieval era, surrounded by hundreds of altar pieces and other religious icons, but we had only one picture on our radar and that was the famous ‘Wilton Diptych’, from the end of the 14th century, and we were not disappointed by this exquisite work of art, which looks as fresh today, as it did when it was made over 600 years ago. This brightness was obtained by the use of tempera, where egg yolk is mixed with pigment, and gold leaf, giving a brilliant and long lasting permanent finish. The right hand panel is suffused in ultramarine on the angel’s dresses, the pigment made by crushing the semi precious stone, lapis lazuli, an incredibly expensive technique, but resulting in the most ravishing blue you’ll ever see.

The two panels show King Richard II kneeling in supplication, surrounded by three saints, before the Virgin and Baby Jesus. The detailing is magnificent from the intricate robes through to the detailing of the faces and jewellery, a true medieval masterpiece.

Wilton Diptych c1395 artist unknown

Next on our list was the enigmatic ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ or ‘Arnolfini Wedding’ by Jan Van Eyck from 1434, probably one of the most famous pictures in the world and rightly so. Who are these two rather formal figures? If it’s a wedding, why does the bride look pregnant? Whose is the reflection shown in the mirror? Finally, and, perhaps, more frighteningly, why does the man bear an uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Putin?

The picture depicts the house of a wealthy merchant and his wife, and although the Arnolfini Wedding is an alternative title of the painting, most experts believe that the couple would have been married for a number of years. As to the lady’s condition, it was the fashion at the time to look fecund, even if you weren’t expecting a child, so the ladies pulled up their dresses and looked coy. It is believed that the reflection in the mirror could well be of the artist Van Eyck, as artists of this period often liked to sneak themselves into the picture.

The technique is superb and the photograph does not do the painting justice; to see it in real life, close up, shows the wonderful mastery of Van Eyck in creating an image that almost has a physical presence in the room. Gaze and marvel at the detailing in the every aspect of the painting.

Unfortunately, the Putin resemblance, once seen can never be unseen, and I will never be able to view this painting in the same light again.

The Arnolfini Wedding – Jan Van Eyck 1434

Following on from the Van Eyck, we took in the ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Piero Della Francensca from the 1450s and then onto an old favourite of mine ‘Venus and Mars’ by Botticelli from the early Renaissance, which portrays an idealised version of human beauty and was a big influence on the 19th century Pre-Raphaelites, who also happen to be one of my guilty pleasures.

Venus and Mars – Sandro Botticelli c1485

However there was no time to waste, because next on the agenda was our date with the greatest genius of the Renaissance and arguably of all time, Leonardo da Vinci. As I entered the Da Vinci gallery, I felt a frisson and goosebumps on the arm. But why? it made no sense. Was I suffering from Stendal’s Syndrome? Apparently, according to Wikipedia, “Stendal or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic condition involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations, allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects, artworks, or phenomena of great beauty and antiquity.”

My symptoms, luckily, did not seem so extreme, but something was definitely was happening. It’s cause was an unfinished sketch in charcoal and chalk, displayed in low lighting, because of its age and poor condition. It shows the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus together with the figures of John the Baptist and St. Anne, who has a finger pointing up to heaven. Somehow, this modest picture, with the figures balanced in perfect harmony, evoked some sort of psychological reaction, for which there is no rational explanation. Leonardo the magician.

Virgin and Child with St. Anne (Burlington House Cartoon) – Leonardo Da Vinci 1499-1500

From the sublime beauty of the da Vinci, we braced ourselves for the one of the most horrific paintings in the National, by Caravaggio, the Quentin Tarantino of the Renaissance. Caravaggio was a master of the technique of Chiaroscuro, the using the contrast between dark and light, to create dramatic effect.

Painted near the time of his untimely death at the age of 38, possibly following a brawl that resulted in sepsis, he had been on the run following his sentencing to death for murder in another fight. Here was clearly a man with a few anger issues.

This painting captures perfectly the uniqueness of Caravaggio, where he frequently used the people, from the streets of Naples and elsewhere, as models for his paintings. The executioner, holding John’s head, looks like a ruffian from a street gang, whilst Salome looks away from the head, possibly in disgust or maybe regret, at what she has requested . As the saying goes “Be careful what you wish for.”

Salome Receives the head of John the Baptist – Caravaggio c1610

Another painting, another betrayal. This time, its Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens. Having exhausted Samson with her vigorous lovemaking, Delilah orders a servant to cut off Samson’s hair, thus destroying his strength. In the painting, she looks on tenderly at her lover, as she contemplates her treachery with perhaps a hint of regret, while an old crone lights up the scene holding a candle. But its all too late, as the Philistines are already in the doorway, waiting for the hair to be shorn, so that he can be captured into enslavement and have his eyes gouged out. For all those who know their Bible stories, Samson gets his revenge, as later when his hair has grown again, he pulls down the temple on top of himself and all the Philistines.

This is a wonderful example of how the great masters could tell a complex story with a few images and perfect composition.

Samson and Delilah – Peter Paul Rubens c1610

I realised with regret, as we wandered round, that there had been no woman artists on our list, so this needed to be remedied. Luckily, we spied this wonderful painting next to the Caravaggio, by Artemisia Gentileschi ‘ Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’, which was purchased by the National Gallery in 2018 and has been extensively restored.

There’s more to this self portrait than appears at first sight, Saint Catherine was a Christian Martyr who died after being tortured on a wheel with iron spikes and on the left of the painting you can see St. Catherine chained to the wheel. Artemisia was raped by her art tutor at the age of 17 and she had the bravery to take him to court. What did she get for her bravery? The court tortured her to check whether she was telling the truth, but she would not be cowed and her fortitude won through, resulting in her attacker being jailed.

We now view this painting in a totally different light, Artemisia stares out through the centuries, a defiant and strong woman, who refused to be held back by the male dominated society that she lived in and who went on to become a great artist on a par with the likes of Caravaggio.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria – Artemisia Gentileschi c 1615-1617

The next painting on our list was ‘The Rokeby Venus’ by Velasquez, which we found rather disappointing. It felt too voyeuristic and in bad taste, especially straight after the magnificent Artemisia portrait. Viewing a painting is a very personal affair and we have no control over our reactions and the subjective feelings that are aroused. Perhaps, we were already thinking about our next assignation with that master of miniature stories, Vermeer.

The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus) – Diego Velázquez 1647-1651

There are only two Vermeers in the National and one was on loan when we visited, so we ended up seeing ‘Young Woman seated at a Virginal’. Like all Vermeer pictures, you feel as though you are intruding on something intensely personal, a secret that one can only guess at. The girl, as she plays her instrument, looks out at us with a frank gaze, as though to say, why don’t you join me. There is a Viola propped up against the Virginal, waiting to be played; is she expecting a friend or a lover? With Vermeer there is always ambiguity, but there are hints here; in the background is a copy of a famous painting of the time, set in a bordello. The implication is therefore clear, but as a viewer, we are also a participant in the scene and the story is ours to finish.

Lady Seated at a Virginal – Johannes Vermeer c1670

You cannot visit the National Gallery without seeing the greatest Dutch artist of the 17th century, Rembrandt. With over 23 wonderful paintings to choose from, it was difficult to pick just one, but in the end we went for one of his self portraits at the age of 63. It is a selfie like no other, an unflinching glimpse into the artists own soul, warts and all, a tired old man painted not long before his death. It was an uncomfortable painting to view for too long, we were tired and felt intimidated by his accusatory stare.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 – Rembrandt 1669

So we left Rembrandt and moved on to the next few centuries to finish our visit, but my impressions on the 18th and 19th centuries are for another day. Suffice to say, we were tired and slightly overwhelmed, despite limiting ourselves to a chosen number of masterpieces.

We returned home to the seaside, rather weary but happy, having reacquainted ourselves with some of the greatest art that the world has known.

Ode to the Seagull

I have thought long and hard about writing this article, because there is nothing more likely to cause deep divisions in my home town of Hastings and St. Leonards-on-sea than the poor seagull, Brexit notwithstanding. However, I feel it’s time to make a stand for a much maligned member of our seaside community and make a case for this survivor, who experts believe has lived on this earth for over 30 million years.

I am also writing this to prove a point, as over a drink one evening a friend of mine suggested, half jokingly, that I would be hard pressed to write an article about the seagull. This then is my response, which is dedicated to my friend; I look forward to an apology and perhaps a beer the next time we meet.

Of course we all tend to use the word ‘seagull’, which is a misnomer, as we are normally referring to the Herring Gull when we talk of seagulls as they are the most populous in our seaside towns, but there are numerous other gull species worldwide, in fact about 50 at the last count, many smaller and many perhaps more beautiful than our herring gull. However, it is our common or garden Herring Gull that is our subject in this article, as this is the bird that we all know and love or hate (or both), according to our proclivities.

Throughout history, seagulls because of their close proximity to both land and sea have cast a spell over humans, who often invested them with supernatural powers. In numerous cultures they have been a symbol for man’s yearning for another existence. To Native Americans, they represented a carefree attitude, versatility, and freedom and to the ancient Welsh they were seen as an omen of bad weather and a predictor of storms.

Adult in full flight riding the currents (photograph – John Bostock ©)

Again in literature, over the centuries, they have been used by many writers as serving a symbolic purpose. One of the greatest of medieval Welsh poets, Dafydd ap Gwilym wrote a love poem “The Seagull” in the early 14th century, where he praises a seagull and asks it to find the girl that he loves and to tell her that he cannot live without her. He contrasts the white purity of the gull with the purity of his beloved and compares the freedom of the gull with his beloved, trapped behind the castle’s walls.

"A fine gull on the tideflow,
All white with moon or snow,
Your beauty’s immaculate,
Shard like the sun, brine’s gauntlet.
Buoyant you’re on the deep flood,
A proud swift bird of fishfood.
You’d ride at anchor with me,
Hand in hand there, sea lily.
Like a letter, a bright earnest,
A nun you’re on the tide’s crest.
Right fame and far my dear has –
Oh, fly around tower and fortress,
Look if you can’t see, seagull,
One bright as Eigr on that wall.
Say all my words together.
Let her choose me. Go to her.
If she’s alone – though profit
With so rare a girl needs wit –
Greet her then: her servant, say,
Must, without her, die straightway.
She guards my life so wholly –
Ah friends, none prettier than she
Taliesin or the flattering lip
Or Merlin loved in courtship:
Cypris courted ‘neath copper,
Loveliness too perfect-fair.
"

The Russian dramatist Chekhov’s celebrated play “The Seagull” is also full of symbolism, which changes as the play develops. At first, it represents freedom and security to Nina, one of the main characters, when she remembers her childhood. Later in the play, a darker symbolism appears, when one of Nina’s suitors shoots a seagull and lays it at her feet, it then comes to signify her loss of innocence and destruction.

Despite the naysayers, one thing that is inescapable is the intelligence of gulls, who unlike many other birds are capable of advanced learned behaviour, as we all know to our cost when we lose our food to them. Many people will have seen gulls stamping the ground with their feet, which they have learned to do to imitate rainfall, in order to trick earthworms into coming to the surface and providing then with a tasty morsel.

I’ve also watched many times, with fascination, the tenacity of gulls breaking open mussel shells on the beach, by dropping them from a great height onto the pebbles below. They will continue time and time again until they succeed; I once saw ten attempts by one bird, until eventually he cracked the shell and gained access to the gourmet delight inside

If only they had stayed away from our own food, we might have looked more favourably on our seaside neighbour. However, we only have ourselves to blame, as prior to the 20th century it was almost unknown for seagulls to move into the towns to live. Their traditional nesting places were sea-cliffs, sand dunes, islands on the coast and inland and other inaccessible locations.

The first record of seagulls nesting on a building was in 1909 in Cornwall, but it wasn’t until the 1956 Clean Air Act, when rubbish was put into landfill, instead of being burned, that seagulls moved inland in a big way and the population exploded. This together with industrialised fishing methods, which depleted fish stocks, resulted in seagulls being forced to live in closer proximity to us. An excellent recent article on this phenomenon can be found on the BBC website Why seagulls are making their homes in our cities. This is a problem of our own making.

And so we have to accept and deal with with the consequences of our actions. The seagull has a tendency of fixing us with his yellow, rather alien eye, while we are eating in the hope of a morsel. It is all rather unnerving, however I have found that the only way that deters this behaviour is to stare right back, and within no time at all the gull backs off. There’s nothing a gull hates more than being stared at.

Close up of a seagull’s eye

One thing that drives many people insane are the noises that seagulls make and I must admit when woken up by a chorus of dozens of seagulls in full song at 4 o’clock on a Summer’s morning, it can be somewhat trying. However, once you learn what they are trying to say, for me, the fascination outweighs the irritation. Every crying, mewing and screeching serves a specific purpose.

There is the long call, the most common sound that everyone recognises, which seems to say “this is my patch and I’m here to stay”, then there is the mewing sound much mistaken for a cat, which is parent calling to it’s chick and where the old English name of ‘Mews’ for a seagull is derived. Other calls are the choke, yelp and the copulation call, the latter of which is, as you would imagine, rather distinctive. Finally there is the whining and whimpering sound that the babies constantly make as they call out to their parents for food and attention. All of these sounds and more can be heard in an article written in 2019 for the Seattle Times What’s that Gull saying?

Seagulls live very long lives, compared to many birds, in the region of 20 years, which also gives them a long time to perfect their learned behaviour skills. Gulls are monogamous and a pair of gulls will usually stay together during their lifetime, returning to the same nesting place every year. They also share the parenting activities on an almost equal basis, a practice many humans could learn from. There is a pair that has returned to the same chimney in the house opposite to me, ever since we moved here 8 years ago and this year, for the first time, I was able to monitor their progress on a daily basis though my binoculars, from hatching to fledging, a fascinating and rewarding experience.

Nest on roof chimney with a couple of recently hatched chicks (if you look hard enough) (Photograph – John Bostock©)
Soaring Gull, wonderfully aerodynamic, but also looking rather menacingly prehistoric (Photograph – John Bostock ©)

What would the seaside be without the the crashing of the waves and the screaming of the gulls overhead? John Masefield put it perfectly in his 1902 poem “Sea Fever”, in which captures the sheer exhilaration and joyousness of being on the seashore.

"I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over."

These creatures have inhabited this earth since the time of dinosaurs, millions of years before the first humans appeared in Africa, and they may well long outlive us, if we manage not to destroy this planet of ours first. It’s time we made our peace with these wonderful creatures, for after all, in many ways, we are not so very different from them.

Secret Hastings – A Tale of Two Churches (Part 1)

Since arriving in Hastings and St Leonards, I have discovered that beneath the facade of a typical coastal town, once rather rundown as a result of the package holiday exodus in the latter part of the twentieth century, but now experiencing a renaissance, lie pockets of wonder often enclosed behind housing estates and other trappings of modern life. Examples that come to mind are Old Roar Gill, Filsham Reed Beds, Summerfields Wood behind Bohemia Road and St. Helens Woods amongst many others.

Two other wonderful examples of note are the two oldest churches of Hastings, ‘The Church in the Wood’ in Hollington and ‘Old St. Helens Church’ in Ore, both Grade II listed buildings, in idyllic settings and with atmospheric and romantic churchyards. I feel I need to honour both churches, which are very different, yet both seeming to inhabit that mysterious ‘sense of place’. Part 1 features ‘The Church in the Wood’

As you near Church in the Wood, the signs are not particularly promising, first you pass a large Tesco Hypermarket on the main road before turning off a small side road, past a local school before eventually reaching the church. However, on arrival you will not be disappointed. A small fairytale church on the edge of a wooded area, hence the name, with a vast churchyard that seems to go on forever.

Although ‘Church in the Wood’ is one of the oldest churches in Hastings, this is not instantly apparent from the facade, which is mainly a Victorian construction in traditional Sussex vernacular style. There is very little of the original fabric of the church remaining and what is left is, unfortunately, covered up.

By the 1830s the old church had fallen into a state of decay and was closed for many years, eventually being fully restored in 1866, in its present form, by a certain Matilda Dampner in memory of her parents.

However on entering the church, the internal architecture is pure English Gothic Revival, with the clear influence of Augustus Pugin 1 ( the Architect who designed the interior of the Palace of Westminster), with beautiful tiled floors and a stunning pulpit of inlaid Italian marble. The stunning stained glass window, showing Faith [woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment], Hope [Jesus’ resurrection victory over death and sin] and Love [the good Samaritan helping the man in need] was made by celebrated Belgium stained glass painter Jean-Baptiste Capronnier and which acts as a focal point when first entering the church.

Photograph of church in the early 20th century

Over the years the church has had many names, in its early days it was St. Rumbold’s and then in its later guise, it was known as St. Leonard’s Church. When James Burton founded the new seaside resort of St. Leonards on Sea, with a church to match, in the early 19th century, the church slowly changed its name to ‘Church in the Wood’, although it is also called ‘Hollington Church’ by some. I know which name I prefer, the romantic in me could only ever call it the ‘Church in the Wood’.

However, despite the beauty of the church, the jewel in the crown is the magnificent churchyard. I’ve always had a love of churchyards, places of quiet and contemplation, where you can escape the cares of day to day life. They are also places where you are forced to contemplate your own mortality, sometimes a necessary antidote to our often hectic and messy lives.

This particular one is a wonderful example, slightly overgrown, but full of atmosphere with old trees and a wide variety of gravestones, ancient and modern, many humble, some imposing and a few others, quite frankly, strange and eccentric. There are a number of impressive angels and many crosses of various shapes and sizes.

The churchyard is of, course, surrounded by the wood, giving it that additional feeling of solitude and peace. We visited once in Spring, when the surrounding woodland was covered in carpets of bluebells, adding another layer of magic to this unique place.

The oldest surviving tomb in the churchyard is that of John Turner, a yeoman farmer in Hollington, who died in 1703. It is apparently adjacent to the entrance, but I have been unable to find any trace of it.

However, there are dozens of other impressive graves, each no doubt with a fascinating tale to tell of the occupants resting below. As I wandered round the churchyard, I have discovered something about a few of the more striking memorials, which I will relate.

In a secluded section of the churchyard, surrounded by trees, is a magnificent large carved angel, with its outstretched wings protecting Maria Ripley Brazill, who died in 1924, aged 67. The monument was erected by her husband William and their family; William who died in 1934 was later laid to rest in the same plot.

What intrigued me was the name Brazill, which I had never come across before. However, on further investigation, it appears that the Brazills as well as the Ripley’s were well known Romany families, with large extended families in Hastings and throughout Kent and Sussex. There is a tantalising story here, perhaps there are descendants of Maria and William still living in the surrounding area.

An Angel watching over Maria Brazill

In another part of the churchyard is a large rough hewn piece of granite, with an inscription “In loving memory of Alfred Borgeaud B.A. who died September ….1926, aged 24 years”. Who was Alfred Borgeaud and how did such a young man meet his end in this way?

The story turns out to be almost stranger than fiction. It was a new age and Alfred Borgeaud an idealistic young student at London University, born and raised in St. Leonards, was brimming with ideas about how he wanted to change the world. A devotee of D.H. Lawrence and all things modern, in science, literature and art, he had a bright future ahead of him. It was at University in 1922 that he met the Wells Coates, a Canadian, who would later become one of the great Modernist Architects and Designers of the 20th Century.2

Alfred and Wells Coates became devoted friends and they set out together on their mission to create a new and better society. In 1926, Wells Coates was desolate after an unhappy love affair and he suggested to Alfred that they take off and travel across Canada together on a journey of discovery, a fateful decision.

In April 1926 they set off on their journey of a lifetime and in September 1926, en route for Vancouver through the Canadian Rockies, the two men “hopped”3 a freight train and somehow Alfred fell to his death, a tragic and pointless end to such a promising life. Wells Coates was devastated by the accident and he managed to return his friend’s body to his family in St. Leonards, where he now lies under a piece of granite in this secluded churchyard, a salutary lesson to us all on the precariousness of life.

Alfred Borgeaud tragically killed in the Rocky Mountains after falling from a passenger train

A memorial with a carved anchor must surely signify a Navy man and, sure enough, it turns out that this unusual grave is the final resting place of Rear Admiral Marcus Lowther, who died at the aged of 88 in 1906 and enjoyed a full and long life, unlike poor Alfred Borgeaud.

Rear Admiral Marcus Lowther was born in St Leonards-on-sea in 1820 and, between the years of 1842 and 1853, he served on board HMS Portland, travelling to the Far East and the Pacific Islands. He visited the Pitcairn Islands, where some of the mutineers of the Bounty had sought refuge 60 years earlier and the Easter Islands, some of the remotest areas on earth.

And all the time he was sketching and painting the landscapes, houses and the indigenous people, recording a world that has now totally vanished. His sketches are full of sympathy and affection for the people that he met.

Rear Admiral Marcus Lowther with an anchor on his grave, dreaming of South Sea Islands

But all of this was mainly unknown, when Marcus Lowther was laid to rest in 1906, having died in relative obscurity in Essenden Road in St. Leonards. However, in 2020, an album containing 166 of his watercolours and drawings appeared on the market, owned by the son of a west country book seller, who had bought them in the 1950s. They went up for Auction in London, with an estimate of £10,000-£15,000, but eventually the hammer went down at a massive £52,000 Forum Auctions, 9th June 2020

Over 100 years after his death, Rear Admiral Marcus Lowther has finally gained the recognition he deserves, for recording for posterity a world that has now disappeared for ever. Who knows how many other sketches of his might be out there, hidden in some dusty attic .

It was inevitable that the unusual location of the church, with its romantic and peaceful churchyard, would attract many visitors from across the British Isles. One of the most famous was the Poet and essayist Charles Lamb4 who wrote in 1823 of his visit to Hastings that:-

The best thing I hit upon was a small country Church (by whom or when built unknown), standing bare and single in the midst of a grove, with no house or appearance of habitation within a quarter of a mile, only passages diverging from it through beautiful woods, to so many farm houses. There it stands, like the first idea of a Church, before parishioners were thought of, nothing but birds for its congregation…

Charles Lamb’s most famous book was ‘Essays of Elia’, which I recall my Father reading when I was young. Nowadays it is almost unknown, but many people feel that these small gems of observation about everyday life are ripe for rediscovery Guardian Review April 2011 It’s time for me to dust off the old copy of my dad’s book and discover Charles Lamb for myself.

Charles Lamb’s most famous poem “The Old Familiar Faces” is rather better known and is one of the saddest poems in the English language, full of longing and nostalgia for a past that can never be relived. No wonder he found solace in deserted churchyards. This is the last verse of the poem:

"How some they have died, and some they have left me, 
And some are taken from me; all are departed;
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces."

To read the poem in full, see the attached link The Old Familiar Faces

Today, the church is still going strong with a service held every Sunday morning (in non-Covid times) and the churchyard is the last remaining private burial ground in the Borough of Hastings. When we visited the church we were kindly shown around by the Verger, who obviously took great pride in maintaining the interior of the church, so that visitors and congregation alike can continue to enjoy this unique building and churchyard for many years to come.

Footnotes

1 Augustus Pugin – One of the most remarkable Designers and Architects of the 19th century, working in the Gothic Revival style, who died far too young at the age of 40. To admire his work, forget about the Palace of Westminster, but visit instead his own small church in his home town of Ramsgate, where he designed absolutely everything, both interior and exterior, from the humblest door handle to the altar piece Shrine of St Augustine & The National Pugin Centre

2 Wells Coates – Iconic modernist Architect and Designer, greatly influenced by Le Corbusier, and who was best known for the Isokon Building in North London. He was also a prolific designer, most famous for his EKCO radio in Bakelite.

3 Freighthopping or trainhopping is the act of surreptitiously boarding and riding a freight railroad car. In the United States, this became a common means of transportation during the early 20th century, especially among migrant workers who became known as “hobos.” Many writers and musicians, amongst others Ernest Hemingway and Woody Guthrie, hopped their way across the continent in their search for the real America.

4 Charles Lamb – a close friend of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he spent his whole career as a clerk for the East India Company. He devoted his life to caring for his sister Mary, who had murdered their Mother when Charles was 21, during a psychotic episode. In order to save her from being permanently confined to an asylum, he agreed to care for her at home, at great personal sacrifice. His rather tragic life was spent fighting depression, which he attempted to alleviate with bouts of heavy drinking.

The Priest Who Loved Fossils

How Hastings inspired Teilhard de Chardin in his Spiritual Quest

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is not so well known today, but go back to 1968, and ‘The Summer of Love’, and his name was everywhere, the go-to theologian and philosopher of the counter-culture. There was a list of essential books that all aspiring ‘weekend hippies’ were meant to read at the time; Herman Hesse “The Glass Bead Game”; Carl Jung, “Memories, Dreams, Reflections“; Alan Watts “The Way of Zen“; Aldous Huxley “Doors of Perception” and Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Phenomenon of Man”. There were, of course, many others, but these were the ones that stick in my mind. I think that I read most of them, but I remember that the Phenomenon of Man was too esoteric for my simple mind and I never got beyond the first few pages.

Of course, he was always the unlikeliest of new age rebels and his star eventually faded. Nowadays, fewer people are acquainted with him and for many years the scientific community dismissed him as a charlatan. He reappeared on my radar more recently, when I discovered, after I moved down to East Sussex, that his formative years as a priest and a palaeontologist were spent in Hastings between 1908 and 1912 at a Jesuit Seminary in the north of the town. It was during this period, as he searched for fossils at ‘Pett Level’ and ‘Fairlight Cove’, that Teilhard de Chardin developed the theories and beliefs that would last a lifetime.

Teilhard de Chardin in his later years

What was also just as fascinating to discover was his close friendship with a certain Charles Dawson, he of the notorious ‘Piltdown Man’ fraud and long term resident of Hastings. Here was a story too good to miss and I was hooked.

It is a strange thought, a French Jesuit Roman Catholic Seminary in non-conformist East Sussex. However, it came about as a result of ongoing hostility from the French Government towards the Jesuit order, from the 1880s onwards. Unlike France, late Victorian and Edwardian Britain had a fairly tolerant attitude towards Roman Catholicism and, as a result, from 1883 until 1926, the Jesuit order established a presence in Hastings.

After occupying various properties in the area, in 1905 they purchased Ore Place, an old Manor House in 14 acres of land, which they proceeded to add to over the years. It was here at Ore Place that Teilhard arrived in 1908, a 27 old novitiate, to complete his preparations for the priesthood and where he spent his next 4 years, finally being ordained a priest in 1911.

Ore Place in early 20th century (Photo from the Geoff Wolfe collection – Copyright 1066online)
Postcard of Ore Place after 1926, when it was sold by the Jesuit Order to the Society for African Missions

Sadly, Ore Place was demolished in 1986, to make way for a housing estate. The only evidence of this once grand place are some of the original medieval ruins, slowly disappearing under foliage, nearby to the Old St. Helens Church, another of Hasting’s secret jewels. 2

The remaining ruins of the once grand Manor House as at June 2021

While training in Hastings, Teilhard pursued his life-long love of fossil hunting and at Fairlight Cove and Pett Level he found the perfect place for his obsession. Pett Level, seen below, is an area of very unstable cliffs and treacherous quicksand. However it is also a fascinating area, a site of great geological interest including numerous fossils, dinosaur footprints and an 8,000 year old sunken forest visible at low tide. 3

Theilhard loved this period of his life and looked back at his time in Hastings with great fondness. And the more he searched the area for his fossils, the more he became convinced of the truth of evolution, which he later stated “haunted my mind like a tune” . It was also during this period that he studied the French philosopher, Henri Bergson, whose ideas had a profound influence on Teilhard’s later evolutionary theories.

He had soon amassed a large collection of fossils, including ferns, fish and dinosaurs, many of which were later donated to both the’ Hastings Museum and Art gallery’ 4 and the’Natural History Museum’, where a number of his discoveries are named after him. Below are a selection of fossils from the Teilhard collection at the Hastings Museum including plant fossils and reptile scales, teeth and bones (Photographs courtesy of Hastings Museum and Art Gallery, Museum reference numbers and descriptions are included beneath each photograph)

During his time in at Ore Place, Teilhard became acquainted with Charles Dawson, an amateur archeologist and palaeontologist, who lived in Hastings and was something of a celebrity in the rarefied world of fossil collecting, having made myriad finds and discoveries. As a young fossil hunter, the older Dawson with his considerable experience and reputation would, no doubt, have made a strong impression on Teilhard.

Teilhard and Dawson spent many hours searching for fossils under the cliffs and in 1912 Charles Dawson started excavating in Piltdown Gravel Pit in East Sussex and had discovered, so he claimed, some pieces of a human like skull. During this period, Teilhard was present at a further digs when Dawson produced further pieces of the skull, which was to cause problems for Theilhard at a later date.

Dawson claimed in 1912 that he had discovered the missing link between apes and humans and together with Arthur Smith Woodward, the Keeper of Geology at the Natural History Museum, over several months and further digs reconstructed the skull and came up with the hypothesis that they belonged to a human ancestor from half a million years ago. Right from the start this claim was treated with great scepticism, but it was not until 1953 that enough conclusive evidence was amassed to prove once and for all that the ‘Piltdown Man’ was an elaborate forgery. By that time, Dawson was long gone, having died at a young age in 1916 of septicaemia.

Piltdown skull being examined, with Charles Dawson , 3rd to the left and Smith Woodward seated in white coat. Painted by John Cooke 1915.

For many years after 1953, as well as the main suspect Dawson, accusations were also levelled at Teilhard, Smith Woodward and various other peripheral figures, including, surprisingly, Arthur Conan Doyle, as being either the perpetrators of the fraud or part of a conspiracy.

Finally, however, a detailed study in 2016, using the latest scientific techniques, 5 came to the conclusion, that the fraud was carried out by one person alone, and that person was Dawson. Furthermore, it has now been proved conclusively that Dawson had been a serial offender, forging countless artefacts during his lifetime.

It appears that Teilhard was a totally innocent bystander in the most notorious scientific hoax of the 20th century. Knowing Teilhard’s later career, it seems inconceivable that he would have party to something so fraudulent.

Teilhard was ordained in the chapel in Ore Place in 1911 and the very next morning he held his first mass in the impressive Gothic St. Mary Star of the Sea Church in Hastings old town. He left the seminary in 1912 and spent the next 2 years working in the palaeontology department of the French National Museum of Natural History, but during that time he made a number of visits back to Hastings, to take part in archaeological digs and to spend time at Ore place.

Then came the First World War, which changed everything, when Teilhard was drafted into the army as a stretcher-bearer. Following the war, Teilhard spent the rest of his life travelling the world, including spending over 20 years in China, participating in numerous geological expeditions, including the discovery of ‘Peking man’, one of the greatest archeological finds the 20th century, and, unlike ‘Piltdown Man’, totally genuine.

This was also when through his lectures and writing, that Teilhard came into conflict with the rigid conservative doctrines of the Catholic Church, which eventually forbade Teilhard from teaching altogether. During the 1930s, Teilhard wrote the two works that were to be his greatest achievement, ‘The Divine Milieu’ and the ‘Phenomenon of Man’, but so great was the hostility of the Catholic establishment to his ideas on evolution, that these books were not published until after his death in 1955..

‘Phenomenon of Man’ had an introduction by the distinguished biologist Julian Huxley, a great friend of Teilhard and although an agnostic himself, promoted many of Teilhard’s ideas, despite disagreeing with him on some of the more religious aspects of his work. The book was a publishing sensation and achieved great success, paving the way for its great popularity amongst the counter-culture in the 1960s, but was also roundly condemned by the Catholic Church, who maintained that position for many years, until a more liberal approach was adopted more recently.

Having talked about Teilhard’s life and influences it is now necessary to try and explain in a few sentences the crux of Teilhard’s theories and world view, a formidable task, but with my limited understanding, I will attempt the impossible. Teilhard believed that evolution began in the origins of the universe and that as life evolved from one-cell organisms into animals and then to homo-sapiens, who were able to acquire intelligence, a new layer of the biosphere (the global ecosystem composed of living organisms and the non-living factors from which they derive energy and nutrients) has been created called the ‘Noosphere’, which is a cognitive layer of consciousness or mind surrounding the earth, which will evolve over time, through the aid of science, and move towards something called ‘The Omega Point’, a supposed future when everything in the universe spirals toward a final point of unification and infinity.

Even with that simplistic explanation, it can be seen that it might not have been too popular with the Catholic establishment, discarding, in one go, the concept of original sin and heaven and hell. It can also be seen that it would be a concept, that would appeal to the alternative philosophies that were emerging in the 1960s,

However, it was not long before a backlash came from the scientific community, in particular Peter Medawar, the immunologist and Nobel laureate, who condemned Teilhard as a charlatan and stated that most of his work was nonsense. Others followed suit and it seemed as though his scientific credibility had been permanently damaged.

His greatest influence at that time appeared to be in the Arts and, unsurprisingly, many science fiction writers used his concept in their stories of the world in the far distant future. But his ideas also had an impact on more mainstream writers such as Don DeLillo whose novel ‘Point Omega’ takes a number of ideas, as well as the book title from Teilhard.

An artist who was obsessed with Teilhard and the Omega Point theory was that eccentric surrealist artist Salvador Dali. His 1959 painting The Ecumenical Council is said to represent the “interconnectedness” of the Omega Point, and shows various images blending into each other. to illustrate this.

The Ecumenical Council by Salvador Dali, Dali Museum, Florida

But after many years, something strange is beginning to take place. After being ridiculed for years by the scientific community, Teilhard’s star appears to be on the rise again. Take his theory of a vast ring of consciousness surrounding the world ‘The Noosphere’; does that remind you of something in today’s world, it is of course the World Wide Web and the Internet. Perhaps Teilhard was more prescient than had been previously thought.

And in the field of Astrophysics, which is beginning to uncover a universe resembling ‘Alice in Wonderland’, some of his concepts are beginning to gain ground. A mathematical physicist called Frank Tipler has developed a theory based on Teilhard, where he attempts to reach the same Omega Point of Infinity, using the laws of physics, and envisaging a future in which Artificial Intelligence will have the sum of all human knowledge, in other words will become, in effect, ‘God’.

This is all heady stuff and way beyond most people’s comfort zone, so perhaps we need to come back down to earth and in particular to Hastings. In 2008, Hastings remembered the arrival of its illustrious visitor to the town a hundred years previously, with a blue plaque ceremony at the site of Ore Place, followed by a commemoration at St. Mary Star of the Sea, where Teilhard had held his first mass as a priest.

It has been said that Teilhard was “perhaps the man most responsible for the spiritualization of evolution in a global and cosmic context” and this is perhaps his lasting legacy. It seems that the twenty first century has finally caught up with the extraordinary Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

Perhaps we should leave the last word to the man himself. Just before he died, Teilhard wrote movingly of his time in Hastings that:

I found extraordinary solidity and intensity then in the English countryside, particularly at sunset when the Sussex woods were charged with all that “fossil” life which I was hunting for, from cliff to quarry, in the Wealden clay. There were moments, indeed, when it seemed to me that a sort of universal being was about to take shape suddenly in Nature before my very eyes.

Footnotes

1 Header Photograph – This is a fossil containing a unique plant frond ‘teilhardia valdensis, discovered by Teilhard and named after him, found at Fairlight and gifted to Hastings Museum (Photograph courtesy of Hastings Museum and Art Gallery)

2 Old St Helen’s Church – This Grade II listed Ancient Monument is purported to be the oldest building in Hastings and is one of Hasting’s best kept secrets, dating back to the 11th century and possibly before. This now derelict structure and small churchyard is wonderfully secluded within the Ore place housing estate and will be the subject of a future article on this web-site.

3 Pett Level – Pett Level, a Site of Special Scientific Interest, is a strange and somewhat eerie place, where countless fossils and bones of long extinct mammals and fish lie. It is therefore, no surprise, that artists have been attracted to the beach, theatre director Jonathan Miller filmed the beach scenes for his 1966 TV film of Alice in Wonderland here, with John Gielgud playing the Mock Turtle. However, the most famous use of Pett Level was as a backdrop to David Bowie’s iconic video of ‘Ashes to Ashes’, I have watched this video many times and had never realised the location, however it is intriguing to know whether Bowie, the polymath, was aware of Teilhard de Chardin and his connection to the beach. I suspect Teilhard would have been just the sort of person that would have piqued Bowie’s interest.

4 The Hastings Museum and Art Gallery – This excellent museum is another hidden gem of Hastings and is an exemplar on how a local museum should operate. I would urge anyone visiting Hastings to set aside some time to view their fascinating collections and exhibits.

5 For further information on the conclusions reached by Scientists in 2016 on the Piltdown fraud, a very good article can be found in ‘Science Magazine’ dated Aug 9th 2016