Thursday, 25 June 2009

Thelwell watercolour, 1960

The caption on this illustration when it appeared in Punch in 1960 was 'The Age-Old Custom of Beating the Balm Cake at Abbots Dawdling'. It is a classic comment on the peddling of rural myth and bogus tradition. Surprising perhaps that half a century ago this was already a matter for wry amusement. When the original watercolour came up for sale in a recent exhibition in London of Thelwell's work, it seemed only right to make a rural museum its new home.

Norman Thelwell (1923-2004) is best known for his eponymous pony cartoon books, beginning in 1957 with Angels on Horseback, that have been major sellers worldwide. But for more than 25 years he provided a regular stream of cartoons on rural subjects, often topical, for Punch and the national press as well as other published compilations such as The Effluent Society (1971) and Some Damn Fool's Signed the Rubens Again (1982) - following the ups and downs of country house owners opening their doors to the visiting public.

Thelwell was born in Tranmere but his love of the country was ignited by childhood holidays on a farm in North Wales. After War service, during which the military made some use of his natural artistic abilities, Thelwell studied art at Liverpool. This was followed by a short spell in teaching before a new career in freelance cartoon humour began to take off in the early 1950s and enabled him to live the rest of his life in the country, mostly Hampshire. Underlying the light-hearted aspect of his work, was often his own commentary on the changes going on around him.

In his autobiography (Wrestling with a Pencil, 1986) he wrote 'Although my object as a cartoonist was mainly to earn my living by amusing readers, it was also quite possible to express my own feelings on subjects, situations and events about which I felt strongly. Politics I have always found very boring and there was no way in which I could have become a political cartoonist. My interest lies in the minutiae of the human dilemma, the day to day problems of life and the way we are all swept along by events or developments which we feel helpless to influence. I seem to have touched at one time or another on almost every subject under the sun from combine harvesters to computers, rockets to ramblers, paraffin to pigs. But the predominant thread which has always run through my work is my love of and fascination with the countryside: the flesh and bones of these islands'.

Friday, 19 June 2009

John Makepeace chair, 1981

This is one of a set of dining chairs from the workshops of John Makepeace (1939-), a furniture designer and educator of international standing who has described his own career as an adventure in wood. For 25 years from 1976, Makepeace lived and worked at Parnham House, a 15th century Grade 1 listed country house on the edge of Beaminster in Dorset. Here he combined his own business with running the School for Craftsmen in Wood, thereby passing on his ideas and philosophy to a new generation of makers, and the Parnham Trust which had wider aims of tying modern craftsmanship into the revitalisation of indigenous woodland.

In 1983, with the sustainability of English woodland becoming an issue of increasing concern, the Trust purchased the 350 acre Hooke Park Wood a few miles away to become a centre for research and teaching. This led on in 1989 to the Hooke Park School for Advanced Manufacturing in Wood with the purpose of generating a network of manufacturing businesses utilising sustainable indigenous timber, particularly thinnings, in the production of quality products and buildings. Courses took a holistic approach all the way from forest management through design and manufacture to marketing and business. The project attracted considerable support and funding in the early years but then ran into difficulties in the 1990s relating to its own sustainability and management. The site has since been transferred to the Architectural Association which is developing a long term strategy for its research and academic activity.

John Makepeace now lives in Beaminster itself and continues to practice fine furniture craftsmanship in wood (

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Straw Dogs, 1971

Coming only a year after The Go-Between, this is a very different film that paints a very different picture of the countryside. A mild-mannered American mathematician retreats from the urban jungle and seeks solace with his English wife in a quiet Cornish farmhouse. But he finds an even greater primordial menace within this sleepy village which ultimately brings out terrifying violence in himself. Dustin Hoffman and Susan George star along with a full line-up of sinister yokels. Directed by Sam Peckinpah and shot in the St Buryan area of Cornwall, it has been described as a West Country horror western. It attracted notoriety both at the time and since for its scenes of sexual and physical violence. Few films can have featured a man trap - that staple of the rural museum collection - quite so dramatically.

The Go-Between, 1970

Harold Pinter wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation of L.P.Hartley's 1953 novel The Go-Between with the classic opening line: 'The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there'. The film was directed by Joseph Losey and starred Julie Christie and Alan Bates amongst others. It won the Grand Prix at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival and in 1999 was included in the British Film Institute's list of 100 best British films.

The poster artist was Arnaldo Putzu, one of a number of young Italians brought over by Eric Pulford and the Downton film publicity agency from the later 1950s. Get Carter was another of Putzu's well known film posters.

In addition to the poster, we also have a set of front of house cards - photographic stills from the film that would be displayed behind glass at the cinema entrance or in the foyer to attract custom.

Set in a hot languid summer of the early 1900s, the beguiling scenery and mannered behaviour masks a harsher reality of emotional turmoil beneath. The countryside is used here both as a metaphor for lost youth and innocence and as the physical embodiment of a stifling class system. It was shot in and around the empty and semi-derelict seventeenth century Melton Constable Hall in North Norfolk, former home of Lord Hastings and an appropriate setting for this story of the grandeur of a past age.

Friday, 5 June 2009

The Railway Children, 1970

This is an original poster for the film version of Edith Nesbit's 1906 novel of the same name which premiered at Christmas 1970 and has been a holiday favourite ever since. The story is of a middle class family fallen on hard times - when the father is wrongly imprisoned - and obliged to leave the comfort of their suburban villa for life in the country where the nearby railway becomes the focus of the children's world. The countryside and its people, however humble, are projected as a metaphor for purity of mind and generosity of spirit that more than make up for the loss of the material benefits of the town.

Lionel Jefferies wrote the screenplay and directed. Jenny Agutter starred as Bobby, Dinah Sheridan as the mother and Bernard Cribbins as Perks the station master. The film was shot on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, a preserved steam line. It followed a BBC TV serial of 1968, shot on the same railway and also starring Jenny Agutter but the film version overshadows everything else including the book itself.

It is a deliberately nostalgic film set in the Edwardian era and with the Bronte country of the West Riding of Yorkshire also taking a starring role.