Gilbert White and the Artists at the 2022 Steyning Festival

Author and Pallant House Gallery Director, Simon Martin

As I meet with author and Pallant House Gallery Director, Simon Martin, preparations are well underway for the 2022 Steyning Festival which opens on May 27th. Simon is amongst the headline speakers and will be talking about his recently published book Drawn to Nature: Gilbert White and the Artists.

Since its publication in 1789, Gilbert White’s Natural History and Antiquities of Selborne has inspired generations of artists, writers and naturalists.

Simon Martin says “Gilbert White’s quiet observations, which individually can be quite poetic, taken together have a resonance which have inspired other writers and artists.”

The importance of White’s observations is echoed in Sir David Attenborough’s introduction to this processional book where he writes ‘It would be difficult to find a less eventful life, in a worldly sense. But his days, for him, were packed with incident. Nothing was too small or humble to escape his investigations.’

Drawn to Nature, Gilbert White and the Artists

Gilbert White would live at Selbourne for most of his life and his work is a reminder that we can journey far by remaining in the same place.

Simon continues “As a man of the cloth one of the things that comes across is White’s reverence for nature and the natural world.”

In the poem an invitation to Selbourne, Gilbert White wrote:
‘See, Selbourne spreads her boldest beauties round
The varied valley, and the mountain ground,
Wildly majestic!’

Simon explains that he went to Selbourne some three years ago “Gilbert White’s house has such a wonderful atmosphere, particularly with the garden and the walk up to the hanger. But my route into Gilbert White was through the Modern British artists, people like Eric Ravilious, Clare Leighton and others. I’d seen prints and illustrations by these artists whilst working on them for individual exhibitions and projects. I realised so many artists have been influenced by, and illustrated White’s work. Sitting quietly behind some of our greatest cultural achievements is the observation of nature.” This lavishly illustrated book presents a series of essays, images and commentaries inspired by White’s writing including the contemporary cover illustration and end papers designed by Mark Hearld.

Simon describes how in of White’s writings his observations “occupy a place in the narrative structure … [with] a rare combination of scientific precision, poetic narrative and conversational anecdote.”

These words might also describe Simon Martin’s own approach to this beautiful, insightful and delightful book which is available from Pallant House Gallery and the Steyning Bookshop.

To find out more about what’s on at the 2022 Steyning Festival and to book tickets visit www.steyningfestival.co.uk.

Rare Egyptian Stela Grave Marker Discovered in Sussex

Detail of an Egyptian grave marker for the judge Nebnenjeti, circa 1850 BC

This week I am in the company of Toovey’s Antiquities specialist, Mark Stonard, who has just discovered a rare Egyptian stela from the Middle Kingdom which dates from circa 1850 BC.

He explains that a stela is a slab used in the ancient world primarily as a grave marker but also for dedication, commemoration, and demarcation.

The Middle Kingdom saw a flourishing of the arts and Egyptian power under the Pharaohs. It lasted from 1975 BC to 1640 BC. The Middle Kingdom was the second peak period of the Ancient Egyptian civilization (the other two being the Old Kingdom and the New Kingdom). During this time all of Egypt was united under a single government and Pharaoh.

The owner, a private Sussex gentleman, discovered the grave marker amongst his late Father’s possessions. Mark says “The family had always known of it and brought it to Toovey’s to be authenticated together with other antiquities including flint axes which had been acquired by the gentleman’s grandfather.”
He continues “It is unusual to have this quality of pigmentation and colouring remaining. It is of a more standard type of grave marker, so someone from middle society, the higher classes would have had black marble or black basalt grave markers while this is a sandstone example, easier to carve and easier to produce. But, it’s still an astonishing survivor.”

An Egyptian grave marker for the judge Nebnenjeti, circa 1850 BC

The script is a standard formulaic offering from the King to the funerary deity Ptah-Seker-Osiris of bread, beer, meat, fowl, clothing, alabaster and “every good and pure thing on which a god lives”. This is followed by the name of the deceased, Nebnetjeru, whose title shows that he was a judge. It also tells how his name is kept alive by his beloved son who recites the offering.
Beneath this inscription we see a table laid with other offerings including a lotus flower. He and his wife are shown on one side with his son and a daughter on the other.

I comment that it is remarkable that you can even pick out their eyes with that crisp white. Mark agrees “Amazing really, they’re beautifully drawn. There is something very contemporary in the depiction of the figures. It is quite possible that this was fashioned into a wall or a shrine inside a tomb. This is an exciting thing and almost 4000 years old.”

I ask Mark what the pre-sale estimate is for this remarkable object and he responds “£15,000 to £20,000.” The Egyptian grave marker will be auctioned on 7th July and entries are still being invited for this specialist auction of antiquities.

A Gardener’s Delight at Arundel

Arundel Castle

It is a perfect English spring morning, bright and crisp, as supporters of the Sussex Heritage Trust gather in the Collector Earl’s garden at Arundel Castle.
We are greeted by Castle Manager, Andrew Lewis, and Arundel Castle gardeners Rose Philpot and Izzy McKinley.

Arundel Castle gardener, Rose Philpot, The Collector Earl’s Garden

We set out in the company of Rose Philpot and are met by lines of apple trees covered in soft pink blossom amongst a carpet of blue camassia and tulips. The naturalistic planting frames the views of the castle. Rose explains “We lift the tulips in the borders and the pots but leave them in the grass areas. We’ve planted tens of thousands of bulbs and tulips!” The spectacle is breathtaking. It is apparent that this talented young gardener is also a gifted plants woman as she effortlessly guides us through the planting. She constantly refers to Head Gardner, Martin Duncan, and her respect for him quickly becomes apparent.

We pass a stumpery and box cloud hedge which leads us gently downhill to the award winning Stew Ponds. About four years ago Martin Duncan redesigned the historic stew ponds at Arundel Castle. Using the original framework of ponds, in which the Castle and Friars would have kept fish for eating in stews, it has been given new life with a naturalistic quality. The emphasis is on wildlife attracting insects, butterflies, bees and wildfowl. The Duke of Norfolk and Arundel Castle were delighted to receive the Sussex Heritage Trust Award for Gardens and Landscape in 2020. As we arrive at the stew ponds Rose points out the award which is proudly on display.

The award winning Stew Ponds at Arundel Castle

Rose explains how the boathouse you see in the distance was designed by Martin. The timbers were sourced sustainability, mostly from the Estate’s woodland. In the gentle breeze the dance of light on the ripples of the pond is reflected in the naturalistic planting as a Swan glides across the water.

Returning to the Collector Earl’s gardens we come across the water feature which is exotic and unexpected. Rose points out a series of pots overflowing with tulips as she recites the varieties – “Tulipa Angelique, Mount Tacoma and Blue Diamond”.

Rose’s story is hope-filled. She discovered her passion for gardening on work experience in the castle gardens. She volunteered and worked in the gardens whilst she trained at Plumpton and was eventually offered a full-time job. Her career is progressing at Arundel and she has been given responsibility for looking after the stumpery, herbaceous, Round House and cut flower gardens which she speaks about with a real sense of ownership and a gardener’s delight.
The Sussex Heritage Trust’s work is important in promoting best practice in our county’s built environment and landscape whilst encouraging and supporting talented young people into careers in conservation, building and horticulture. To find out more about the work of the Sussex Heritage Trust and Arundel Castle’s extraordinary gardens visit sussexheritagetrust.org.uk and arundelcastle.org.