Peppy Barlow: 'I thought I knew my family history - until I moved to Suffolk!'

Playwright and screenwriter, Peppy Barlow photographed in the water meadows in Sudbury.

Playwright and screenwriter, Peppy Barlow photographed in the water meadows in Sudbury - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Suffolk author and playwright Peppy Barlow has two great loves – family and local history. 

Peppy, who was born in India, grew up in Kent, worked in London, lived in Sussex, Dublin and Crete for much of her life, thought she had no link with Suffolk when she moved here 30 years ago but when her son started to research their family tree, she discovered that not only did she have ancestors who lived here but there was a whole branch of the family whose roots ran deep into the Suffolk soil around Woodbridge. 

“It’s no exaggeration to say that when I moved to Suffolk, first to Eye and then to Woodbridge, I was truly returning home – it was just at that time I didn’t know it. Maybe it was something in my DNA calling me.” 

It turns out that her great grandfather (x3), his son and a great uncle were all rectors of Burgh Church at various times during the 19th century. Another relative, a prestigious horse-breeder from Hasketon, is captured in a painting hanging in Christchurch Mansion. He is pictured exhibiting a prize stallion at the Suffolk Show held in Christchurch Park in 1869. 

“It’s really bizarre because I can honestly say that before I moved here I had no idea where Suffolk was. I had been living in Greece with the boys for a number of years. We decided to come home and I had a school friend who lived in Ipswich and I asked her if we could stay while I looked for somewhere to live and I just fell in love with the county – not knowing that we had so many links here. 

“I thought I knew my family history. My mother’s family were rather rooted in Kent, my father’s family came from up north and were dotted all around the Empire really, but if you go to Burgh Church there we are embedded in the walls and in the floor.” 

When Peppy first moved to Woodbridge, people asked whether she was one of the Barlow’s of Burgh and she had no idea what people were talking about but a chance discovery while flicking through some old family papers, unearthed by her son Adam, made a discovery that turned her world upside down. 

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“I was looking at one of these family records and came across a George Francis Barlow who had been vicar of Burgh from 1814 to 1850. He was then succeeded by his son Henry Masterman Barlow and subsequently by a nephew-in-law.  And there, among his 13 children, was my great, great grandfather John Mount Barlow who I recognised because he became vicar of a church in Ewhurst, Surrey.   

“Subsequently I have uncovered numerous homes that belonged to the family – the vicarage in Burgh – a beautiful 18th century house situated about two miles from the church, The White House in Shrubbery Lane, Hasketon, where Frederick Barlow, another of George’s children, bred horses and enjoyed a passing acquaintance with Edward Fitzgerald.  

“Another of the brothers – Edmund – owned the Red House in Hasketon, and one of Frederick’s children, married Maude, daughter of the vicar of Hasketon, so they must have lived in the elegant Queen Anne Vicarage.” 

As Peppy talks, her eyes sparkle and her, at times, almost breathless delivery reveals the joy of this belated discovery of an entire forgotten branch of her family. It’s the perfect marriage of her twin themes: family and social history.  

She loves to write about people and personalities. Larger-than-life characters frequently form the cornerstones of her work and more often than not these characters are drawn from either her own family or from local folklore. 

Since moving to Suffolk, Peppy has thrown herself into researching the rich history of her new home county. Shortly after settling in Eye, she was commissioned to write The Sutton Hoo Mob for Eastern Angles, a play about Edith Pretty, Basil Brown and the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon Burial Ship just outside Woodbridge. 

This was followed by a site-specific production at Felixstowe’s Landguard Fort aimed at cleaning up the reputation of one of its most notorious governors, Philip Thicknesse and she has also produced a series of mother and daughter plays (Mothering Sunday, Missing and Broken) based on ideas, themes and instances drawn from her own family life as well as a number of short films. 

Now, Peppy is delving back into local history with fellow playwright Sally Wilden exploring the life of a young Thomas Gainsborough and his relationship with an independent and head-strong young woman, Ann Ford, who was instrumental in allowing the aspiring portrait painter to make his name in fashionable society. 

And just to add to the air of serendipity which seems to be part of Peppy’s life, the self-possessed Ann Ford eventually became the third wife of Landguard’s Philip Thicknesse. 

“It’s an extraordinary story,” confirms Peppy. “You really couldn’t make it up. Ann was an extraordinarily talented and intelligent woman and she wanted to make her own way in the world. She was a brilliant singer and musician. She could play the glass harmonica extremely well – which was very difficult to master – and she scandalized polite society by playing the English Guitar and the Voila da Gamba, which was like a cello, and, like the cello, needed to be played between your legs – which just wasn’t done by ladies from good families. 

“In fact, although she was the apple of her father’s eye, her father had Ann arrested on several occasions to prevent her from performing in public. He believed, as most people did at the time, that the way for a woman to improve her lot in life was to marry well. This did not interest Ann – at least not at that time.” 

It was through her research into the life of Philip Thicknesse that Peppy discovered Ann Ford which then led her to Thomas Gainsborough. “Thicknesse has a pretty notorious reputation because his story has largely been written by his enemies, of which there were many, because he was quite an abrasive man – particularly in his treatment of the so-called ‘Great and the Good’. But, we thought he was rather fun and he was loved by his men because he wouldn’t allow them to be physically abused as a punishment and he inspired loyalty. 

Sally Wilden and Peppy Barlow, who have written a play together called 'Gainsborough and The Modern

Sally Wilden and Peppy Barlow, who have written a play together called 'Gainsborough and The Modern Woman' - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

“He was also quite a progressive thinker – particularly when it came to the role of women in society. He said that ‘he saw no reason why a woman could not earn her living by her talents, like a man, because what was there for her apart from prostitution and marriage? And could you always tell the difference?’ 

“You can see why he would rub conventional ‘respectable’ people up the wrong way. I think he loved women. I don’t think he was ever particularly faithful, but he genuinely loved the company of women and he valued what they had to say.” 

Philip Thicknesse got to know Ann through his second wife Elizabeth. Ann was a great friend of hers and came to stay at Landguard while he was governor. When Elizabeth died in childbirth in 1762, Ann stayed at the Governors residence at the fort to look after Thicknesse’s children before marrying the eccentric soldier on September 27, just months after the death of her friend. 

Two years earlier had boosted her scandalous reputation by posing for a rather free-spirited portrait by upcoming Suffolk artist Thomas Gainsborough, who was at that time working in Ipswich but also travelling to Bath, a fashionable watering hole for the rich and famous, in search of wealthy patrons. 

Peppy says that it is unclear where the portrait was painted or who introduced Ann to Gainsborough. Thicknesse was a long-standing friend of the Suffolk artist and had commissioned some landscapes of Landguard from him in 1753 but Ann was also a regular visitor to Bath and performed regularly at social gatherings and could have easily bumped into Gainsborough there. 

“In any event the portrait sealed the reputations of both subject and artist,” Peppy says with an infectious smile. “This was a painting that said this is an intelligent, independent, single-woman who is engaging the world on her terms. It is clear that she is a professional musician because she is painted holding an English Guitar and is surrounded by sheets of music. 

“Gainsborough paints her in a bold, forthright style that complements her character. He paints her as if she were a man. The pose, the setting is very business-like. Most portraits of female subjects are very demure and domestic. The sitter is usually posed in a drawing room with perhaps a lap dog or a young child with them and they are looking at the viewer. 

“A man, however, is usually portrayed with the tools of his profession or badges of office and so Ann was too. This was a painting which really reflected the spirit and character of the sitter as well as providing a visual likeness and this is what launched Gainsborough as a fashionable artist. 

Playwright and screenwriter, Peppy Barlow photographed in the water meadows in Sudbury.

Sudbury Water Meadows, one of Gainsborough's inspirations - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Ann Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse) 

Thomas Gainsborough portrait of Ann Ford (later Mrs. Philip Thicknesse) - Credit: Cincinnatti Art Museum

“The painting was a sensation because people knew her – they could relate the picture to the woman they saw perform for them. One of Gainsborough’s friends said if you heard her singing for half an hour you would be helplessly in love with her. She also spoke five languages and had been trained in the dramatic delivery by none other than Sheridan’s father.  

“Ann Ford was indeed an exceptional young woman. Her father had educated her beyond all expectations but when he presented her with various respectable young suitors it was clear that she didn’t fancy any of them and vowed to earn her own living by her talents and became a notorious figure in Bath Society.   

“After befriending Elizabeth Thicknesse she organised two further subscription concerts which netted her no less than £1,500 (about £299,000 today) and became to all intents and purposes an independent woman.” 

Gainsborough himself records that he enjoyed his encounter with this lively young singer and musician (which wasn’t always the case with his sitters) and lavished time and attention on the portrait. He never sold the finished picture but kept it for the rest of his life as an exhibition piece in his showroom. It was his first life sized portrait. 

“What interests us is how their relationship developed during the sittings and the ways in which Gainsborough’s painting techniques had to rise to meet the challenge of capturing Ann’s independent spirit.”  Today, the portrait belongs to the Cincinnati Art Museum and they have given Peppy permission to use the image in connection with her play; Gainsborough and the Modern Woman. 

Peppy Barlow and Sally Wilden, who have written a play together called 'Gainsborough and The Modern

Peppy Barlow and Sally Wilden, who have written a play together called 'Gainsborough and The Modern Woman' - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

She said that the story has all kinds of local connections – notably with Gainsborough’s birthplace in Sudbury where his family worked in cloth.  “For this production two of Sudbury’s present day silk weavers, Stephen Walters and Humphries Weaving, are having the silk for Ann’s dress specially woven to match the design in the portrait – an extraordinary act of generosity which will result in a dress that can be used for exhibition purposes in the future.” 

Gainsborough and the Modern Woman, by Peppy Barlow and Sally Wilden, directed by Julian Harries,  opens at the Quay Theatre, Sudbury on May 13 and is on tour until May 28, visiting Christchurch Mansion, Harkstead Village Hall, The Cut, Halesworth, Pimlott Foundation, Gt Horksley, Constable Hall, East Bergholt, Two Sisters Arts Centre, Trimley St Mary, The Corn Hall, Diss, The Seagull Theatre, Lowestoft, Woodbridge Library. For booking information go to the Woven Theatre website