Suffolk pub sparks inspiration

Some of us get our best ideas in the pub – and for Geoffrey Munn, of TV's Antiques Roadshow, a flash of inspiration came while staring at a wall in The Nelson in Southwold.

Some of us get our best ideas in the pub – and for Geoffrey Munn, of TV's Antiques Roadshow, a flash of inspiration came while staring at a wall in The Nelson in Southwold.

He realised that a framed print hanging there, and reproduced here, was based on a Victorian painting of the ancient ferry across the Blyth linking Southwold and Walberswick.

"The more I looked, the better it got," he says. "I could see that the ferry was about to head towards Walberswick because of that distinctive church tower in the distance.

"Then it hit me that the picture was also an allegory of death – the blind ferryman is the mythical Charon, who is going to row the elderly woman across the poisonous River Styx to the underworld. It is quite brilliantly spooky."


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The Blyth ferry, now operated by Dani Church and before that in turn by her late father, great-uncle and great-grandfather, is believed to have been in existence for 800 years. It is a local institution awash in great and ghostly stories.

Mr Munn is best-known as the jewels expert on Antiques Roadshow. Managing director of London jeweller Wartski, he has also written a series of books on jewellery and curated the recent blockbuster Tiaras show at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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But Southwold and painting remain his first loves and he was delighted to get to grips with a piece of research linking the two. So he set about searching for more information on painter Frank E Cox and the whereabouts of his eerie picture.

At the same time, his good friend the writer Ian Collins was plotting a sequel to the book A Broad Canvas: Art in East Anglia Since 1880 and finding that the Southwold chapter was growing and growing.

It was in the pub, of course, that the two men put their plans together and came up with a joint book on painters in the Southwold area down the centuries.

Ian Collins says: "We now have an outline starting with pictures of the Battle of Sole Bay in 1672 and coming right up to date with Damien Hirst.

"We expected a mass of material, but what has amazed us is the calibre of the artists in every generation who have been drawn to Southwold, even if they ended up hating the place!

"Great names already in the frame include Turner, William Morris, Rossetti, Whistler, Walter Sickert, Philip Wilson Steer, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Stanley Spencer, Carel Weight, Mary Newcomb and Peter Blake.

"But equally impressive are some of the native East Anglians who, though lesser known nationally, have left detailed and dazzling records of their home area. My favourite is Henry Davy who produced hundreds of cracking watercolours, drawings and engravings in and around Southwold in the 1820s.

"Another was the fisherman-painter Ben Lewsey, who depicted a series of swashbuckling and primitive impressions of wrecks he had witnessed during 1880s storms – and one celebratory work of the time, when a vessel passed safely off Southwold carrying the Prime Minister of the day, William Gladstone."

On the national art map, Southwold has to date been rather overshadowed by Walberswick. Last year, Richard Scott wrote an excellent book charting the waves of painters who had been attracted to a shifting art colony in the Suffolk village.

But Messrs Munn and Collins are drawing their net more widely, and as well as focusing most fully on Southwold they are setting the town within its local context – taking in a chunk of territory from Covehithe and Benacre down to Dunwich and inland to Blythburgh, Reydon and Wangford.

"Southwold's rise as a port was very much based on the shifting coastline hereabouts in general, and the sinking of Dunwich in particular," says Mr Collins. "Its magnificent church rose and flourished as neighbouring religious sites crumbled.

"Also many artists have loved to compare the cheerily bustling port-resort with the spectral silence of Dunwich, once one of the main settlements of medieval England, which simply vanished into the sea.

"One of the people we're particularly interested in is the Victorian painter, draughtsman and printer Edwin Evans, who lived at Dunwich but also produced a lot of work showing Southwold scenes.

"He knew many leading French artists of his day, and his portrait by Henri Fantin-Latour now hangs in the National Gallery. Is it possible that any of his friends from France visited him in Suffolk and depicted the local flora, seascape and landscape?"

Mr Munn adds: "One of the great joys of this project is recognising pictures that have not been fully catalogued. Several Turner drawings come into this category – and one marvellous painting of Gun Hill by Edwardian visitor Walter Osborne was wrongly identified as County Dublin."

The authors aim to publish their book next year, but in the meantime would be very pleased to hear from anyone with information on interesting pictures of the Southwold area completed before 1950.

If you can help, please write to: Ian Collins, c/o Eastern Daily Press, Prospect House, Rouen Road, Norwich, Norfolk, NR1 1RE (email: ian.collins@archant.co.uk).

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