‘Elves and witches would fit in perfectly’: the paintings that capture the primeval paradise of Sussex | Art


OWhen my wife Jan and I arrived in Sussex in 1980, we started hiking the South Downs on moonlit nights. The white chalk paths reflected the light and made walking easier, despite the steep drops and our wary horses of the night. Once on the ridge, you could see the lights of ships going up the English Channel on one side and the twinkling villages below on the other. It is a magical space and provided a wonderful introduction to Britain, where we had traveled from South Africa. As we walked home along the dark alleys the curtains were drawn back – not surprisingly, as the last passengers of the night were smugglers carrying French brandy from the coast to London via these deep lanes and hidden.

Sussex Landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water, a new exhibition of paintings at Pallant House in Chichester, encapsulates everything I love about Sussex, a landscape I have traveled on horseback for over four decades. Chalk Paths, by Eric Ravilious, captures the almost dreary quality of the South Downs in winter, which for centuries was part of the pilgrim route to Canterbury. The feeling of space and seclusion in the heavily contoured landscape of Ravilious contrasts with the heavily populated villages and towns of the area. It reminds me of how this place was home to mankind for millennia, with the growing population eventually pushing back the wild boar and deer haunted forest of Anderida, leaving the rolling farmland we see in this photo.

There is also an echo of the artist’s war paintings: the scarcity of trees, the barbed wire. Ravilious, who grew up in Eastbourne, is perhaps best known for his war work. In the years leading up to his death in a plane crash in 1942, he created spectacular watercolours, lithographs and drawings of the machinery of war. Perhaps Sussex was on his mind as he did it: the scenery he loved, after all, was part of what those awful machines were fighting for.

An echo of war… the barbed wire and the sparseness of the trees in Chalk Paths are reminiscent of Eric Ravilious’ other work. Photo: Bridgeman Images

This same landscape led me to discover the writers with whom I shared Sussex: Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, EF Benson, Virginia Woolf, WB Yeats, Ezra Pound, Hilaire Belloc, AA Milne, William Cobbett and the Bloomsbury Group . Today, Bloomsbury’s former country house, Charleston Farmhouse, hosts an annual literary festival attracting authors from around the world, who speak amid the smells of hay and silage from the farm.

One need only read these writers to see the effect of Sussex landscapes on them. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, the dark misty moors portrayed by Arthur Conan Doyle are pure Ashdown Forest in winter. WB Yeats wrote that during the First World War the longer he and Ezra Pound stayed at Stone Cottage on the edge of the forest, the harder it was for them to return to the hubbub of London. Despite its title, Yeats’ famous poem, The Lake Isle of Innisfree, could easily be about this green haven.

“The focus of this exhibition,” says Simon Martin, director of Pallant House, “is what makes Sussex different from elsewhere, those overriding elements: the chalk that forms the South Downs and the iconic coastline and cliffs, the rivers and waterways running towards the coast and weald woods.

It is remarkable how many artists and writers have sought and found refuge in what Martin describes – escaping the horrors of the First World War, the Nazism of the Second and, in my case, South Africa from the apartheid era. Many expats have found an echo of their homeland here, from Russian taxi drivers to Lithuanian and German emigrants, not to mention the many who have moved from London to the countryside. As I ride Sussex now, my horse and I traverse two landscapes: the physical and an enriching one lovingly captured in paint.

'An Essay on Solitude'… John Constable Seascape Study: Brighton Beach.
‘An Essay on Solitude’… John Constable Seascape Study: Brighton Beach. Photography: Royal Academy

Over the years I have heard of magic in the area: ley lines on the forest, white magic, witchcraft and the fact that this area seems like a paradise for alternative lifestyles and religions. Within a 10 mile radius of my home there are communities of Rosicrucians, Mormons, Catholic monasteries and retreats, Opus Dei and Druids. I don’t pay much attention to any of this, but it’s hard to spend time in the depths of Ashdown Forest and not connect with something primordial and spiritual.

Sussex is one of the most forested counties in England and has its own vernacular architecture. The local oak, flint and tile construction that nestles in this landscape of cattle, sheep and grain farming is breathtakingly captured by Ivon Hitchens in Curved Barn, another stunning painting in this exhibition. It’s almost as if the barn itself is tangled in the wood, in a setting where elves and witches would fit right in. my childhood – has become part of my adult culture, part of what makes me feel so at home here.

Simon Roberts’ romantic image of a couple picnicking on the South Downs, almost bent back into the enveloping landscape, is titled We English 13, Devil’s Dyke, but it couldn’t seem less diabolical – although the cyclists of the annual race from London to Brighton might disagree, as the climb is a killer, just 10 miles from a pint after finishing. The painting reminds me of the rides I’ve had here chased by red Sussex calves determined to grab my horse – and the trick to getting through the gate before them.

Sussex is very much like a beach, a place wedged between sea and land. The majority lies between two giant 900ft land waves, the South Downs behind Eastbourne, Brighton and Chichester, and the North Downs, sheltering the county from the creeping presence of London. The problem with the Downs is that the ridges offer no place to hide from the weather in winter. Walkers and riders are exposed and so Jan and I settled in Ashdown Forest, where deep valleys and dense forests provide shelter from wind and rain.

'The feel of a fishing rod, the pull of the tide'... Beach and Star Fish, Seven Sisters Cliff, Eastbourne by John Piper.
‘The feel of a fishing rod, the pull of the tide’… Beach and Star Fish, Seven Sisters Cliff, Eastbourne by John Piper. Photography: Jerwood Collection

The coast occupies an important place in the exhibition. I’ve occasionally cast a line from Newhaven’s east pier for mackerel in spring and summer, returning home mostly empty handed and scorched by the wind. John Piper’s Beach and Star Fish, Seven Sisters Cliff, Eastbourne, reminds me of the feel of a fishing rod in my hand and the pull of the tide, its abstract chalk cliffs creating an almost otherworldly sense of something outrun. No less atmospheric is Constable’s Brighton Beach, an essay in solitude before a raging sea, an experience those of us who have traveled these regions on foot or on horseback know well.

There is a clearing in Ashdown Forest, which I consider my ‘church’. As Callum and I enter this intimate tree-columned space, I think few churches would actually welcome a horseman blocking the nave to the baptismal font. There’s just the slightest breath of wind above us in the branching rafters and above that single sky. The forest stands mute once more, holding a rider and his horse by a power that neither understands, but which draws them again and again to this magical place.

Before I understood the terms ‘forest bathing’ or ‘natural remedy’, or the sanctity of the landscape attributed to it by early man, I felt something of this while walking through the moors and beech woods I have found in Sussex. Rising in a slow gallop, Callum carries me effortlessly on the uphill paths. The beech trees gleam wet with morning mist and nighttime rain, the diffused light now making each tree its own drama, each a distinct figure in this landscape. I breathe deeply, enjoying this forest offering, this beautiful and satisfying place.

Sussex landscape: Chalk, Wood and Water is at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, until April 23. Julian Roup is a Sussex-based authorfive pounds: A fisherman in the saddle; Boerjood; Life in times of plague; Into the Secret Heart of Ashdown Forest: A Rider’s Field Diary; and First Catch Your Calamari: Travels with an Appetite.


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