I think we may as well call this month Journal January or something, as Unmitigated England is so uninviting at present. Let's hope February sees more forays out into an increasingly blue yonder. A couple of days ago I ended up with a copy of the above. I'd had a copy once, but was attracted anew to the illustrations by Rowland and Edith Hilder. Rowland (seen last week in the Suffolk Brooke Bond painting) did the backgrounds of English landscape and thundery summer skies, whilst his wife Edith got the trickier job of doing the actual flowers, artfully arranged in the foreground. Feet up in front of the woodburner on Tuesday I started browsing, and on page 18 read about the extremely poisonous Hemlock Water Dropwort. I knew about its relation the Giant Hogweed, having nervously negotiated their towering stalks on numerous occasions, but this was a first.
Ripple dissolve to last night, feet up passim, thoroughly enjoying Midsomer Murders (always on top form when you see that the director is Rennie Rye) and the twin delights of seeing both the lovely gamine Hayley Mills and the village of Hambleden near Henley-on-Thames. But would you believe it? Number Two in the body count was done away with in the kitchen of a posh restaurant by, yes, the roots of Hemlock Water Dropwort, niftily substituted for celery. Ladybird Books and Midsomer Murders, who would've thought they could end up here in a deathly embrace.
It's November 1947, and Henry Seabright sees his addition to a series called Old English Customs appear in the latest Sphere magazine. But this is no editorial; a tiny line of type under a description of Mumming Plays says 'One of a series of pictures specially painted for the Dunlop Rubber Company', next to an emblem of the Union Flag and a rubber tyre scrolled with 'As British As The Flag'. And that's it, most of the type area is this scrumptious picture of St.George challenging Slasher, whilst village folk look on outside (and inside) the pub where a recent thaw sees snow sliding from the roof. There's just so much going on here, prompting so many questions. Why is that bloke that looks like Rudyard Kipling in a black bowler hat doing running away by that green car in the background?. Well done Dunlop, whose name I've only just seen on the spare tyre of that gorgeous touring car in the foreground, and well done Henry Seabright for choosing this difficult bird's eye viewpoint.
Now. I don't remember my parents reading The Sphere magazine (or indeed similar) in the 50s, but these full page advertisements for Brooke Bond Tea somehow ring bells. They're from a series in 1955 called "Round and about with the 'little Red Vans'", and probably took their cue from contemporary Post Office posters that positioned Royal Mail vans in market squares and village streets countrywide. Mind you 'little Red Vans' is slightly coy, considering these vans are the quite beefy and utterly unique Trojans. But I'm fascinated by the illustrations, not just because they are so redolent of my childhood, but because advertisers and their agencies produced such stunning work at this time, Think Shell, Whitbread, Johnnie Walker. True commercial art, the Suffolk scene at the top is by Rowland Hilder, the Broad Quay in Bristol by Morden. Time for a cuppa.
Apologies for my delay in getting the New Year started, but finding my way through the muddy byways of Unmitigated England has been particularly difficult since Christmas. But be of good cheer, because Saturday found me almost on my knees in front of this extraordinary monument. Warkton in Northamptonshire is part of the estate of Boughton House, which explains the delightfully unspoilt nature of the village, although it is but a marble's throw from the urban sprawl of Kettering. Both churchwarden and verger were so kind in letting me in, and I'm eternally grateful to their guided tour given just for us. Not just because the monuments in this light and airy mausoleum had hitherto been plates in the Shell Guide to Northamptonshire and corresponding Pevsner, but also because they will now be closed from view for essential repairs lasting the rest of this year.
Facing each other are four set piece monuments commemorating the Dukes and Duchesses from the big house, two by that masterful sculptor Roubiliac (remember him at Southwick?), one by Thomas Campbell and this, a real showstopper, by Dutchman P.M.van Gelder. Robert Adam may or may not have designed the background apse, but no matter, this is sculpture to make you gasp, as we did. A full-on 1775 drama gathered around the essential urn with its beautifully incised verse to Mary Duchess of Montagu. This was a very special moment, the sun coming out and the sight out through the clear glass of the big churchyard trees moving in the wind.
I am a designer, writer and photographer who spends all his time looking at England, particularly buildings and the countryside. But I have a leaning towards the slightly odd and neglected, the unsung elements that make England such an interesting place to live in. I am the author and photographer of over 25 books, in particular Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2006), More from Unmitigated England (Adelphi 2007), Cross Country (Wiley 2011), The Cigarette Papers (Frances Lincoln 2012), Preposterous Erections (Frances Lincoln 2012) and English Allsorts (Adelphi 2015)