Discover the Famous Cupid Mosaic at Fishbourne Roman Villa

The beautiful Cupid mosaic at Fishbourne Roman Villa

West Sussex is blessed to have two of the most important Roman Villas in the country and this week I am travelling from Bignor to the Villa at Fishbourne.
The Villa is curated and maintained by The Sussex Archaeological Society. Founded in 1846 it is the oldest society of its type in the country.

The Society seeks to research, curate and promote Sussex history and heritage. It opens its historic houses, buildings and gardens with their accredited museums to the public. Its libraries and archive collections provide important tools for historical research.

Fishbourne is often referred to as a palace and is the largest Roman residential building in the country. It dates from around 75 AD, just some thirty years after the Romans came to Britain, and was remodelled and extended during the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD.

A Roman pavement was discovered at Fishbourne in 1805 during the building of a house but it was not until 1960 that Aubrey Barrett, an engineer working for the Portsmouth Water Company, discovered the foundations of a stone building located north of the main road while digging a trench for a water main.

The rediscovery of this ancient structure caught the attention of the Sussex Archaeological Society and the first series of excavations were begun in 1961 directed by the archaeologist Barry Cunliffe and his team of volunteers.

The hypocaust heating and impressive cover building at Fishbourne

The site was saved from development by the Sussex archaeologist, Ivan Margary, who purchased the land before entrusting it to the Sussex Archaeological Society with a substantial sum to pay for the construction of the impressive cover building you see today.

In the second century AD the palace was further redesigned. Amongst the changes the hypocaust (underfloor heating) was installed in to two small rooms, fed by warm air from stokeries.

In the principle room at the heart of the palace a new mosaic was laid. At its centre is a lively polychrome depiction of a winged Cupid sitting astride a dolphin. Cupid holds the reins in one hand and a trident in the other. The muscles in his torso, legs and arms are particularly well drawn. This subtlety is lacking in the black outline which unites this central motif with the surrounding semi-circular vignettes portraying marvellous sea-panthers and seahorses, each individually depicted. Guilloche bands unite the composition which is also decorated with polychrome fan motifs and contrasting black urns.

Each time I return to Fishbourne its scale and the quality of its mosaic floors excites me. And as you walk in the gardens you have a sense of your place in the procession of history, for a moment united with the Romans.
To find out more about the Sussex Archaeological Society, how to join, and to book your tickets for the Fishbourne Roman Palace visit www.sussexpast.co.uk.

The Finest Mosaics at the Foot of the Sussex Downs

The mosaic portrait of Venus at Bignor Roman Villa

It is always such a delight to revisit Bignor Roman Villa. It has a unique charm and is one my favourite places anywhere in the country. The finest Roman mosaics are to be found at Bignor at the foot of the Sussex Downs.

The Villa was discovered on the morning of Thursday 18th July 1811 when George Tupper hit what appeared to be a large stone whilst ploughing in Bury Field near the village of Bignor at the foot of the Sussex Downs. He cleared a small area and found the tessellated face of a young man. Further excavation revealed a scene depicting Jupiter (Zeus in the Greek) in the guise of an eagle abducting the shepherd boy, Ganymede.

George Tupper’s landlord, John Hawkins, invited the antiquarian Samuel Lysons to supervise and record the excavation.

Encouraged by Hawkins and Tupper, Lysons would prepare a guide book over subsequent years. The image of the Ganymede mosaic you see here is from his 1820 guide.

Ganymede and Jupiter in the guise of an eagle at Bignor illustrated by Samuel Lysons in his 1820 guide to the Roman Villa

The depiction of Ganymede is strikingly executed. The shading gives form to Ganymede’s cape and muscular body highlighting the exceptional skill of the mosaicist.

This remarkable find was reburied until the June of 1812 and guarded by one of Tupper’s sons. The thatched cover buildings were designed to protect the mosaics and are a distinctive feature at Bignor. Built in 1812 they are amongst the earliest examples of their type in the British Isles. Arguably the most important discovery of 1812 was the Venus mask. This beautifully conceived female head is surrounded by a nimbus in a circle flanked by what are thought to be peacocks, or long-tailed pheasants and leaf sprays.

Venus is popularly known as the Roman goddess of love. However, she is also associated with spring, gardens and fertility. These qualities made her popular with farmers, horticulturalists and landowners throughout the Roman Empire. It seems appropriate that Venus should feature so prominently at Bignor in this timeless rural setting.

The extensive hypocaust underfloor heating system in the Venus Room is partly visible today and illustrates how this room would have been warm and comfortable in the winter months.
Samuel Lysons hinted at the possibility of the Ganymede Room being a banqueting room and today academics still regard it as an unheated summer dining room.

Visitors flocked to the site from 1813 including the great patron of the arts, the Prince Regent, later George IV, who was still creating the Royal Pavilion at Brighton. Today Bignor Roman Villa continues to welcome visitors.
When you arrive you cannot fail to be captured by the picturesque setting and charm of the place, and share in the sense of excitement which George Tupper must have felt on the day he discovered the Villa’s remarkable mosaic floors for the first time.

Bignor Roman Villa is open every day until 31st October 2021 and families can also enjoy the Sunflower Maze. To find out more visit www.bignorromanvilla.co.uk.

A Stunning Prairie Garden in the Heart of Sussex

The Sussex Prairie Garden
The Sussex Prairie Garden

There is a joy in catching up with those we have missed as things continue to open up. I am delighted to find Pauline McBride in good spirits as she welcomes us to the beautiful, expansive gardens which she and her husband Paul have designed and created at Morlands Farm, Henfield It is a stunning prairie garden in the heart of Sussex.

I never cease to be delighted by the way that the garden invites you into itself. Wherever you are your eye is met by stunningly conceived views with layered perspective created by the big spiral design. Pathways lead you from the mown grass promenades through the borders. The Deschampsia cespitosa ‘Goldtau’ grasses with their gossamer like flower plumes have matured into a warm golden colour which contrast with the Echinaecea and the strong vertical of the Verbena Bonariensis. As you brush against the plants, the fragrance, touch and colours are a sensory experience. You have a real sense of inhabiting. As the garden enfolds you it takes on a life of its own.

Your eye is captured not only by the scale but also by the beautifully conceived vignettes – compositions formed of plants – which reveal themselves as you process around the garden.

The naturalistic planting belies the underpinning of the generous discipline of their design. Pauline and Paul’s lifetimes work as international designers is distilled into the poetry and rhythm of the planting.

Indian hand-crafted clothes and objects for sale in the Indian market bazaar at Sussex Prairie Garden.

As I walk through the gardens I come across a series of marquees being filled with exotic clothes in cottons and vintage sari silk, semi-precious designer jewellery, scarves, home furnishings and gifts – all ethically traded from India and for sale. This bazaar is at the heart of a month long festival supported by dance, food and talks. It runs until Saturday 4th September
Paul and Pauline first opened the Sussex Prairie Garden to the public back in 2009 and ever since they have worked to provide a platform to bridge garden enthusiasts to leading specialists

Preparations are underway for the Unusual Plant and Garden Fair. Pauline explains “We invite a great selection of specialist nurseries with their wonderful plants – it’s rare to find so many specialist plants men and women in one place, it’s a real day out!” This plant fair will be held on Sunday 5th September 2021, 10am to 5pm.

The Sussex Prairie Garden is the perfect place to meet and catch up with friends. This beautiful garden is open most days and you can take your dog. To find out more about Sussex Prairie Garden, Morlands Farm, Wheatsheaf Road, Henfield, West Sussex, BN5 9AT, opening times, these and other events visit www.sussexprairies.co.uk.

A Postcard from Brighton

Banqueting Room mantel clock by Vuillamy, Royal Collection Trust © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020.

This week I am on staycation here in Sussex and I am once again returning to The Royal Pavilion, Brighton to experience ‘A Prince’s Treasure’, this year’s must see exhibition. I cannot impress upon you quite how marvellous this exhibition is.

I meet David Beevers, Keeper of the Royal Pavilion, who has overseen this remarkable collaboration between the Royal Collection Trust and the Royal Pavilion.

I comment on how hard it must have been for David and his team to have had to close and reopen this magnificent exhibition on a number of occasions due to the challenges of Covid-19. He replies by saying how blessed they have been that most of the loans were received before the pandemic broke.

The exhibition showcases a spectacular loan of some 120 decorative works of art from Her Majesty The Queen; pieces that were originally commissioned by the Prince Regent for the Royal Pavilion. It provides a once in a lifetime opportunity for visitors to see these objects of unparalleled magnificence in their original setting. The Pavilion’s exotic, regal interiors come alive in the company of the pieces commissioned for them and further our understanding of the future George IV’s influence and tastes.

David is excited to show me the array of loans some of which have recently arrived.

The Chinese porcelain pagodas, circa 1803, with English additions, at the Royal Pavilion Brighton © HM Queen Elizabeth II, 2019.
The Chinese porcelain pagodas, circa 1803, with English additions, at the Royal Pavilion Brighton © HM Queen Elizabeth II, 2019.

The Music Room’s magnificent decoration works in concert with the objects which have fleetingly returned to their original setting.
Your senses are overwhelmed by the spectacle of the line of enormous porcelain pagodas which make sense of and give voice to the scale of this room.
These imposing porcelain objects were acquired in 1803/1804 from China and the dealer Robert Fogg. Fogg supplied the English Spode porcelain bases as well as the gilded bronze bells, dolphins and dogs, and the dragon finials which were subcontracted to B.L. Vulliamy.

I ask David which object most sums up the Royal Pavilion and the exhibition and he takes me to the Banqueting Room. We stand in front of a magnificent mantel clock. He says “The clock’s supercharged chinoiserie reflects the Pavilion style at its confident best. It is as though the painted panels [in the room] have taken three dimensional form.” He describes how the clock was designed by Robert Jones and made by Vuillamy. The Chinese figures echo those painted on the walls. The gilt-bronze foliage was gilded by Fricker and Henderson and seems to allude to an eagle in flight.

David Beevers explains that George IV was the greatest British Royal collector and builder. For some 40 years David’s career at the Royal Pavilion has marked a number of remarkable achievements including the restoration of The Saloon so I am humbled when he concludes “Having these loans here is a highlight of my career.”

Whether you are visiting or on staycation in Sussex like me ‘A Prince’s Treasure’ must be on your list of holiday treats. To find out more and to book your tickets visit www.brightonmuseums.org.uk/royalpavilion.

Contemporary Objects add to the Rich Tapestry of Parham House

Kate Malone’s crystalline-glazed stoneware Waddesdon Sprigged Big Mother Pumpkin, 2016, at Parham.

Parham House is one of the most beautiful stately homes in England. This fine Elizabethan house was saved and carefully restored by the Hon. Clive Pearson and his wife Alicia during the 1920s and ʼ30s. The collections give voice to their passion for the house and collecting.

The Great Hall at Parham is a remarkable space at the heart of the house. It bridges the ancient and contemporary with its lightly limed pale oak panelling.

The immensely long curtains hang like becalmed sails. As they hinge back against the window recesses the space is filled with light which playfully draws our eye to the familiar array of fine portraits and furniture and then to a series of visitors, objects arranged in a series of vignettes – compositions of the very finest contemporary decorative art. Colin Reid’s kiln cast, polished optical glass Colour Saturation; Open Eye works in concert with the texture and hue of the panelling and the blues in the flanking tapestries with a lyrical quality.

Colin Reid’s kiln cast polished optical glass Colour Saturation; Open Eye, 2021, at Parham

These objects represent a collaboration between the international art dealer and gallery owner Adrian Sassoon and Parham House. It was initially born out of a desire to create a virtual exhibition to share new works during lockdown which resulted in a series of beautifully conceived short films by Freddie Leyden. But with the house just reopened many of these objects have returned to delight connoisseurs and visitors to Parham.

English Country House Taste is textural 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. These contemporary objects are fleetingly adding to the rich tapestry of the house and its collections.

In the third of the films the celebrated ceramicist Kate Malone is clearly moved to see her work away from the studio and in the context of Parham. She reflects on the embroideries and Parham’s collections and how they speak to her “…there’s so many loving hours in everything that’s here. The makers of these things, it’s as if they’re speaking through their craft – it’s very emotional actually.”
Kate explains “My objective is touching you in the heart not in the mind. When I’m making my work nothing else matters you lose track of time, you just want that feeling where you’re at one with the material.”

Her magnificent crystalline-glazed stoneware Sprigged Big Mother Pumpkin seems to be in conversation with Oliver Messel’s painted ceiling, the tapestries and objects in the long gallery. It allows the visitor to see this remarkable interior anew.

Parham is an optimistic place which provides a window onto our past and our future, an historical narrative from the first to the second great Elizabethan Age. It speaks to us of our own place in the extraordinary procession of human history. Whether you are visiting for the first time or returning Parham never fails to captivate and delight. To find out more about the house and exhibition and to book your tickets visit www.parhaminsussex.co.uk, and www.adriansassoon.com.