The Chase that captured so much creativity
The Times, 9/6/2012
Cranborne Chase was established a thousand years ago by William the Conqueror as a hunting ground, 380 acres south of Salisbury that spill across Wiltshire, Dorset and Hampshire. A rolling Down of chalk grassland and ancient woodlands, it is one of the richest spots for burials dating from the Neolithic to Roman and even Saxon times where the archaeologist General Pitt-Rivers spent his last 20 years excavating.
The Chase was also an extraordinary source of inspiration for a wide group of 20th century artists, from Augustus John to Lucian Freud, for whom the area was an inspiration, and they are the subject of an exhibition at the small Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum. Between 1920 and 1990, more than 50 were enchanted by the place; some stayed for the rest of their lives, others used it to regenerate themselves and moved on; some painted the landscape, others found the ambience perfect in which to paint their portraits and abstracts.
The exhibition, Circles and Tangents: Art in the shadow of Cranborne Chase, is only the second art show in the history of the museum, which is otherwise mostly devoted to archaeology, after a very successful display last year of pictures by John Constable painted in the Salisbury area., the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum and the exhibition is part of a long term multi-million pound programme to raise the profile of the independent museum which is set in a partly 13th century building in the cathedral close.
The artist and art historian Vivienne Light has spent 12 years researching the exhibition and the artists, and all the art has been loaned mostly by the artists or their families. The story begins with Henry Lamb who in 1918 left his Hampstead studio to move to Stourpaine, on the Stour which runs through the Chase’s heart. In 1920 he invited the Spencer brothers, Stanley and Gilbert, still shocked and recovering from their First World War experiences in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Stanley began to paint again, settling nearby at Durweston to work on landscapes. He returned to Church Cookham a couple of years later, but Gilbert settled pemanently at Melbury. “How many times I tried to master Melbury Beacon it would be difficult to say… I regarded it as a challenge, nit a defeat, and certainly not a halt sign,” he wrote.
In 1927 Augustus John moved to live on the edge of the Chase near Fordingbridge in a studio built for him at Fryern by Christopher Nicholson, known as Kit, one of the two sons of John’s friend the painter Sir William Nicholson. The other son was Ben (another brother was killed in the First World War). Kit died young in a flying accident, but his wife, always known as EQ, lived and worked on the Chase, and as did Ben and his first wife Winifred, and Ben’s sister Nancy, who worked in textiles and prints and was the wife of the poet Robert Graves. Kit and EQ’s son, the painter Timothy Nicholson, still lives and works in her cottage at Boveridge, close to Cranborne village.
John Craxton had known the area from childhood, and in his late teens in the 1940s met EQ Nicholson and later became her lodger when she lived at Alderholt Mill, Rockbourne. With him at Goldsmiths had been Lucian Freud, and in their early 20s they both painted at Alderholt where Freud drew EQ’s donkey, Tommy.
The exhibition is introduced at the front of the museum by a large Elizabeth Frink of a Seated Man. Frink lived and worked at Woolland, a tiny village above Cranborne Chase with a view of five counties, for the last 17 years of her life. It became her studio and her showroom, with 16 acres in which to place her sculptures, of which Seated Man had been one.
Cecil Beaton lived at Aschombe in the heart of the Chase for 15 years, loving its “green calm” and the “abandoned and virginal” landscape. He’d become enchanted while visiting John and his family at Fryern Court, declaring breathlessly, “Here is the dwelling place of an artist”.
“This rather small area had so much to it – woodland untouched for centuries, the undulations of the Downs, the mysteries of the barrows and former civilisations – that it’s hardly any wonder that it was so beloved by artists,” said Vivienne Light, adding as a resident artist on Cranborne Chase, “and it still is.”
Circles and Tangents; Art in the shadow of Cranborne Chase, is at Salisbury & Wiltshire Museum until September 29.