Stories from a Tulip Field

George Hitchcock – ‘La Culture des Tulipes (Tulip Culture)’, oil on canvas, circa 1889

What a beautiful week it has been. The tulips in my garden have been so joyful in the spring sunlight, they remind me of a painting and a particular sale.

There is a stillness and beauty to an English country house interior which has remained unchanged over many years. That stillness and beauty was reflected in George Hitchcock’s ‘La Culture des Tulipes’. I remember seeing the painting for the first time. It was bathed in sunlight, hanging in a dining room as it had for some seventy years. The picture was part of the collection Toovey’s sold in 1998 from the Rusper home of the famous De la Rue family who printed money and stamps for the British Empire.

The American, George Hitchcock (1850-1913) came to London in 1879 to study art. In 1882 he enrolled at the Académie Julian, Paris where he was influenced by the artists Gustave Boulanger and Jules Lefebvre. By 1884 Hitchcock had settled in Egmond aan Zee on Holland’s North Sea coast where he established an art colony. Described as the ‘Painter of Sunlight’ Hitchcock painted en plein air.

‘La Culture des Tulipes’ depicts a field of tulips bathed in light. A woman wearing a blue coat stands with her back to us. She holds a tulip filled basket in her left hand. The spring sunlight plays on the tulips and warms her face. The artist’s handling of light, colour and paint is delicate, textured and impressionistic.

There is always an air of expectation and excitement when something extraordinary is about to happen in an auction. All day the De la Rue collection had been setting records and finally we arrived at the George Hitchcock painting. An American buyer had sent his agent. I opened the bidding at £30,000 and before long it was £100,000 quickly rising to £250,000. The bidding, now between the American and a London Gallery on the telephone, was conducted with perfect manners and at speed. The bidding slowed in front of the hushed saleroom – “three hundred, three-twenty at £340,000, fair warning” and the American said “Gee will you take another five”. I paused, “£345,000”, the London Gallery offered its congratulations, withdrew from the fray and my gavel fell. The saleroom burst into applause as the American walked quickly to reception to pay before heading back to Heathrow to catch his return flight on Concorde; he was keen to be back in time to read his two young daughters a bed time story.

Although the canvas was holed and in a poor state it broke all records for the artist at the time.

I had remarked on the holes in the canvas when I first saw the painting in the company of the family. The nephew, John, explained how his Uncle had been practising archery on the lawn. People who love each other very much can sometimes be cross with each other too. On this particular morning he and his mother had argued so he had marched into the dining room and shot at her favourite painting with arrows. Very soon after the young man De la Rue was called up to the Great War and was killed. His mother was heartbroken and forbade that the painting ever be restored. For many years the painting was displayed in America with a photograph of the young De la Rue in his uniform.

Art and objects can afford us such a powerful sense of our place in the procession of human history. So often the greater the human story the greater the price. It always seems rather a hopeful thing that the art world values people more than things.

The news of the sale was reported in the New York Times.

Celebrating the Past as We Embrace the Future

A celebration of old and new expressed in English Country House taste

Our homes are important to us and English Country House taste reflects our nation. We have always embraced the ‘modern’ over the centuries whilst, of course, keeping one eye on the past. After all the English are a processional people – we celebrate the past as we confidently embrace the future. And English Country House taste is not provincial but international reflecting our nation’s global, outward facing, mercantile character.

This week I am returning to the 1970s home of two Sussex collectors where, in an eclectic interior, old meets new.

The contemporary oak cabinet is undemanding of our eye, rather it provides the basis for a composition of objects. Texture and colour are at the heart of English taste. Here a Provençal earthenware bowl filled with fruit is framed by a 1970s Scandinavian Arabia ceramic table lamp of geometric design, and a bronze bust by the anglicised Jewish Estonian artist Dora Gordine (1895-1991). Dora Gordine drew inspiration from the post-impressionist sculptor, Aristide Maillol. A contemporary of Jacob Epstein, Gordine inspired the famous British sculptor Anthony Caro. The bust dates from 1928 and depicts a woman called Clarette Feron.

The drama of Patrick Heron’s screenprint ‘Winchester Red I’ from 1968 displays the utter confidence of this important British modernist artist and art critic.

Patrick Heron (1920-1999) was inspired by Henri Matisse. He shared Matisse’s obsession with colour, rhythms, patterns and tone inspired by the natural world.

In 1956 Heron moved to St Ives in Cornwall joining a colony of modern British artists. The Cornish landscape and environment inspired his art throughout his life and career.

‘Winchester Red I’, although abstract, is trying to find a visual equivalence for the shapes and forms we experience in nature. The reds change radically in their relationship to one another affected by the shifting light in this room. Like the sun breaking through scudding clouds it expresses the rhythm of light and shade in the landscape. Heron’s vocabulary of colour is very much his own. He challenges our imaginations to experience something beyond our immediate perception and to renew our understanding the world.

Similarly the shared experience of Covid-19 and being at home is challenging all of us to reassess our engagement with the world and our communities – to rediscover what is truly important and enough. Amongst those I speak to virtually and encounter whilst exercising and observing social distancing there is growing desire for change born out of the shared experience of Covid-19. The conversation is hope filled and speaks with a common voice. It talks of family and community, of fairness and opportunity, of care for others, a celebration of the example, courage and compassion expressed by all those working in our NHS, and a recognition of the importance of those working on our local newspapers, our farms, in our supermarkets, in manufacturing, the bin men, delivery drivers and post office workers. There is a real and determined sense of a need for rebalancing and renewal in our nation with strong servant leadership to enable us to work together for the common good.

The world will not be the same after the experience of Covid-19. We are a processional nation so I hope and pray that with one eye firmly on the past we will celebrate and renew all that is good in our nation whilst we confidently embrace the future.

The Joy of English Country House Taste

A gathering, eclectic Sussex dining room in the English Country House taste

If I’m honest I much prefer a rich, textural English Country House interior over the austerity of minimalism. English Country House Taste is layered and eclectic always reflecting the taste and interests of a family and often the patchwork quilt of a family’s stories and interests over generations. It is unpretentious, layered and evolving.

My Grandparents had lived through the Second World War. Their home was generous but not grand, its interiors rich, eclectic and beautifully conceived. Although quite open in design it was made up of a series of spaces to gather and enjoy the company of friends and family.

Two sofas enfolded the fireplace with flanking armchairs and a Regency single-pedestal Pembroke table – the draw always smelt of pipe tobacco and 2B pencils. Chinese porcelain vases served as table lamps with crisp pleated shades, the walls filled with paintings and a bookcase because outward facing lively minds mattered. In the dining room a George V oak gateleg dining table reflected the light from the garden on its richly bees-waxed top surrounded by Georgian chairs. And to the side a chrome and red lacquer drinks trolley held a decanter of Madeira with an assortment of favourite glasses. These two areas were defined by a mahogany bureau which sat confidently against a wall between them.

The dining room you see here evokes these memories. It is at the heart of a 1970s Sussex home. The Waterford glasses sparkle in the sun light, reflected in the George III Sheffield plate candlesticks by Matthew Boulton which have just the right amount of wear to reveal the soft copper under the silver. The crisp white damask table cloths are modern and non-iron laid upon a Georgian oak gateleg table with later repairs and complimented by the Heals Arts and Crafts trellis back chairs. A rare Victorian scumbled pine housekeeper’s cupboard from Jersey has joyous glass handles. It is filled with an eclectic array of collectors’ objects which speak of lively minds and the toning of two connoisseurs’ eyes. You can just glimpse a confident Victorian mahogany whatnot in the background which has been re-purposed to disguise a laptop and printer. All is set off by a red Kilim rug with geometric patterns in forget-me-not blue.

The comfortable and timeless taste of the English country house is once again on the rise. It briefly, in the measure of hundreds of years, fell victim to the likes of IKEA. Furniture joined the ranks of the disposable commodity; something which still sits uncomfortably with my sense of the need for good stewardship of the world and its resources. Proper furniture became ‘brown’. The austerity of minimalism had arrived.

But once again I regularly hear people remark “Oh my Granny had one of those!” Often the things we most love will have come from, or have associations with, our grandparents or an older generation. After all grandparents are home grown heroes!

In response to their experience of war and separation my Grandparent’s generation made gathering, welcoming homes in the English Country House taste and I feel confident that we, in our turn, will do the same after the experience of Covid-19.

I am going to lay our dining table with our best glasses, cutlery and candlesticks in the English Country House tradition this weekend and ask my family and friends to join us online for a virtual supper party – let me know how yours goes!

Easter, A Time for Renewal and Hope

Chichester Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace

Christians across the country will celebrate Easter this Sunday – it marks a time of hope, renewal and rebirth in the face of suffering and human tragedy.

With our church buildings temporarily closed to counter COVID-19 I thought I would take you inside Chichester Cathedral as Easter approaches. Pilgrimage spaces can decipher or inform our perceptions of the world gifting us with an experience of the numinous.

Sir Basil Spence, who designed and oversaw the building of Coventry Cathedral after the Second World War and the campus buildings at Sussex University, described the South aisle at Chichester Cathedral as one of the most beautiful in Europe. At the east end is the St Mary Magdalene Chapel with Graham Sutherland’s vibrant oil on canvas ‘Noli me tangere’ (touch me not).

The Very Revd Walter Hussey, famous as both a patron of the arts and as Dean of Chichester Cathedral, had commissioned Sutherland to paint a Crucifixion at St Matthew’s, Northampton in the 1940s and had hoped the artist would do something at Chichester.

Graham Sutherland’s ‘Noli me tangere’, painted in 1961, in the St Mary Magdalene Chapel, Chichester Cathedral

A Roman Catholic, Sutherland’s art was inspired by his faith.

As we enter the south aisle from the west end Sutherland’s ‘Noli me tangere’ initially strikes you with the quality of a distant medieval, enamelled jewel. As we process towards this work we are drawn into the intimate narrative described in chapter 20 of St John’s Gospel. Arriving at the chapel we become aware that the painting depicts the moment on that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene becomes aware that she is in the presence of her risen Lord who has just spoken her name. As she reaches out to touch him his gesture stops her. The painting holds in tension Mary’s joy and the pending separation of a different kind.

The angular composition of the figures, plants and staircase allude to the suffering and cruelty described in the Passion narratives which lead up to and include Jesus’ crucifixion. At the centre of the painting Jesus Christ is dressed in white symbolising his holiness and purity. Christ’s finger points towards God the Father symbolising His presence. Mary may not touch Jesus. The artist invites us into this liminal moment in the story so that we, like Mary, might acknowledge Jesus, our creator, teacher and friend, as advocate and redeemer of the whole world.

Sutherland displays sensitivity and humility in the intimate scale of the painting which encourages us to rest in this sacred space.

The Passion narratives and Easter story provide a hope filled framework for a generous self-giving discipline inviting us to respond to God’s love with love for him, for ourselves and for others. Where we respond with acts of care, compassion and respect for those close to us and those we meet along the way we renew and give new life to our communities and our nation as we work for the common good.

With our church buildings temporarily closed I will be joining the online 10.30am Easter Sunday Eucharist led by the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd Dr Martin Warner. From his private chapel those familiar Easter words will be proclaimed ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ To find out more and to join the online services from the Cathedral visit

I hope that you and those you love remain safe this Easter and in the weeks to come.


Punctuation Marks in our Busy Lives

Fred Hall – ‘Morning on the Downs’, oil on board, signed recto, titled verso, 32cm x 39.5cm

Like so many of us I am in the first few days of adapting to working from home separated from the people and busy cycle of my working life.

Toovey’s auction rooms are temporarily closed in line with government policy and the team safely furloughed. I have been overwhelmed by the number of hope filled notes and emails received from clients and friends, each expressing a spirit of generosity and good wishes. And I am embracing digital technology and images to enable virtual visits and valuations – at least for now.

As I adjust, temporarily, to this new rhythm of life I am aware of the blessings of family, self-discipline and time.

The rhythm of walking in the landscape stills me but I am aware that I need to be mindful of how I do this exercise if I am to honour those working in the NHS and do my bit to beat Coronavirus COVID-19.

In more normal times I love to walk on the Downs at the back of Storrington. This thought reminds me of a beautiful landscape by Fred Hall (1860-1948) titled ‘Morning on the Downs’ which we sold at Toovey’s for £1600. The painting captures a cool, spring light as the sheep graze on ancient chalk grassland filled with wild flowers. In the distance we glimpse the sea. It’s a scene we still recognize today.

Born at Stillington in Yorkshire, Fred Hall was a Newlyn artist whose realist paintings were later characterised by the lighter touch and impressionist treatment of his landscapes which you see here. Fred Hall left Newlyn in 1897 and married Agnes Dod. A year later they moved to Dorking in Surrey and the artist took a studio in West Kensington.

In an age of social media there is sometimes a temptation to look at, or worry about, what has passed whilst our eye is firmly set on the next thing. But it seems to me that the most beautiful things in life are often to be found in the here and now. The 17th century Jesuit Priest Jean Pierre de Caussade (1675-1751) described it as the Sacrament of the Present Moment. If we dare to shut out the white noise of our lives and seek to be truly present, to still ourselves and be attentive, these blessings reveal themselves.

Whilst I am missing that walk on the Downs we are so lucky that the streets and lanes of our towns, villages and the adjoining countryside in West Sussex are filled with blossom and spring flowers to lift our spirits.

For me the rhythm of prayer, walking and music brings me stillness and silence and allows me to be truly present. Whilst there will be challenges for us all I hope that, like me, you will be able to find punctuation marks in your lives to reflect on the blessings in each day.