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Making Waves : Artists in Southwold*
by Ian Collins

From Turner to Damien Hirst, via Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Stanley Spencer and Lucian Freud, hundreds of creative talents have been linked to Southwold.

Making Waves by Ian Collins

Ian Collins now sets the scene for his new book looking at East Anglia’s favourite resort through the eyes and lives of artists. If there is ever a vote on Britain’s First Resort, the little town of Southwold will surely set the big, bright, brash (sprawling, bawling) Blackpools and Brightons of this world a brilliant challenge.

Just mention the name and so many people smile over a particularly happy memory and a picture of unchanging seaside bliss.

In part at least that picture has been provided by wave after wave of artists who – in artworks from cartoon postcards to serious national treasures - have been drawn to record the appeal of a place without obvious crowd-pulling attractions.

But look closer and Southwold, so perfectly contained in a pint pot that is almost an island, has the finest medieval church in coastal England, a winking lighthouse, a busy high street, a bustling harbour, a hut-lined beach and a peerless pier as revived for the 21st century. And, of course, the pint-pot town seems to have been built around a brewery, with a round of attendant pubs to which horse-drawn drays deliver as regular as clip-clop work.

Street Scene by Mary Gundry
Street Scene by Mary Gundry

Southwold from the Common by Frank Emmanuel
Southwold from the Common by Frank Emanuel

Set against a backdrop of wild spaces, it’s altogether an ideal – cheery, merry - image. It shows us how England was – and should – be. Other pictures tell other stories, however. Down the centuries the composite portrait of Southwold is far more balanced in light and shade – the darkest hour falling in 1659 when a town devastated by fire became Britain’s first official disaster zone.

An unlucky 13 years later, local folk looked out to sea and saw only a wall of smoke where the Battle of Sole Bay raged. Bobbing about in the danger zone was the world’s first official war artist to accompany a fleet into action. Dutch master Willem van de Velde made lighting sketches of a gory engagement which were then rushed back to a namesake son in Amsterdam to be worked up into stirring oil paintings.

Those faithful records were also to inspire a sequence of Hampton Court tapestries, for the kindred artists were soon to switch sides and to be rewarded with royal allowances and a palatial studio at Greenwich.

As Southwold faced a constant sruggle with the sea, and recurring conflicts with other people, artists sometimes received a cool welcome. When Turner stopped to sketch the harbour and Gun Hill while walking along the coast from Dunwich to Lowestoft in the 1820s, his main hazard was harsh weather.

But when Charles Rennie Mackintosh lingered in and around Walberswick in 1915, to work on an album of floral watercolour drawings now regarded among his finest achievements, he met with human hostility.

Southwold by Ronald Rutherford
Southwold by Ronald Rutherford

Gun Hill by Thomas Churchyard
Gun Hill by Thomas Churchyard

In the hysteria of the First World War, the artist-architect was accused of being a spy, arrested and banished from eastern England. The refugee Freud family gathered here from the 1930s, being reminded of their former holiday hideaway on the Baltic. After seminal early experiences on the Suffolk coast, Lucian Freud is just about the only member of the clan not to love it. It seems that the grand old man of British painting has been deterred by the presence of hordes of artists….

While the whole of the harbour is claimed by Southwold, there have also been the closest of links (not to mention the deepest of rivalries) with the adjoining village of Walberswick. The two go hand in glove and occasionally in gauntlet. A twig-line railway linking Blythburgh, Walberswick and Southwold to the national network for 50 years from 1879 was wickedly mocked by a local cartoonist and Beano artist by the name of Reg Carter.

But it also brought in many noted painters.

In 1884 Philip Wilson Steer, fresh from France, steamed in. Along with a few kindred spirits, he proceeded virtually to invent English impressionism in scintillating images from the Suffolk coast over eight ensuing summers. At the same time pioneering photographer Peter Henry Emerson dumped his family in Southwold before sailing off to snap spectacular images of unspoiled Broadland – and then returning to capture equally impressive images in and around his adopted town.

In 1903 a honeymooning artist called Joseph Southall executed a tempera likeness of an old fisherman which glittered like an icon and now provides the cover of Making Waves. He came back over 35 successive summers to build up a definitive portrait of a sedate Edwardian watering hole changing into a modern resort.

Southwold, Stanley Spencer
Southwold by Stanley Spencer

Southwold by Serena Hall
Southwold by Serena Hall

Things change even in Southwold, though less so than elsewhere. Honeymooners Stanley and Hilda Spencer were here in 1925, having married in nearby Wangford. They both worked on paintings and, after the collapse of the marriage 11 years later, Stan returned to produce a dazzling image of Southwold beach.

In the decades since then hundreds of creative talents have depicted their own singular visions of a port-resort and the strands of sand and shingle on either side of the harbour – a miniature world that can teem in summer and seem totally deserted in winter.

The recent gallery includes Margaret Mellis, Damien Hirst, Mary and Tessa Newcomb, Carel Weight, Lionel Bulmer and Margaret Green, William Bowyer, Katherine Hamilton, Guy Taplin and James Dodds. Whether in or out of season, there’s always an artist at work in this most picturesque setting.

*Making Waves: Artists in Southwold, by Ian Collins, features 250 painters, sculptors and print-makers and 280 pictures. It costs £30 in the shops but is on offer to our readers at £27 including delivery. Send cheques made out to Black Dog Books at 104 Trinity Street, Norwich, Norfolk, NR2 2BQ.

The pictures are taken from the book and show the wonderful variety of paintings that are included.

"No one reading Ian Collins's Southwold through artists eyes will ever view it as they did previously. He is great on colour, a writer with his own palette, native when it comes to boats, careful with facts and the best apologist imagineable for East Anglia. The writing is fresh and eager - 'coastal one might call it - and is full of love for artists past and present" Ronald Blythe

"A terrific book which is recommended both to students of English landscape painting and anyone who has ever been to Southwold." D.J Taylor (Biographer of Geoorge Orwell)