Finest Roman Mosaics at Bignor

The Bignor Roman Villa is, for me, one of the most special places in all of England. The remains of this important Villa nestle in the beautiful Bignor valley in view of the Sussex Downs. Bignor Villa would have been a short distance from the important Stane Street which linked London with Chichester in the first century AD.

The remarkable Roman mosaic floors can still be seen and are open to the public. They are amongst the finest in the country.

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.

The excavations were supervised and recorded by the antiquarian Samuel Lysons.

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.

Away from the main complex the depiction of Medusa in the Bath House delights too.

When you arrive you cannot fail to be captured by the picturesque setting 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 throughout August. There is lots for families to do including the Bignor Sunflower Maze! To find out more and plan your visit go to

The Ancient Cissbury Ring

Cissbury Ring in West Sussex

After our sojourn in the Channel Islands last week I’ve been reflecting on the extraordinary wealth of Neolithic sites in Sussex. Cissbury Ring is the largest hillfort in Sussex and its history stretches back over 5000 years. It sits high up on a chalk promontory just to the north of the coastal town of Worthing and is enclosed by a ditch and ramparts which enfold some 65 acres.

On a good day the view stretches to the Isle of Wight in the west and the chalk cliffs beyond Brighton in the east.

Centuries of uninterrupted grazing over this land has allowed rare fauna, flora, butterflies, insects and birds to flourish; species like Pride of Sussex, a rare round-headed Rampion. The site today is home to herds of wild horses too. And in autumn migratory birds pause at Cissbury – one of the first coastal landing points.

Two Sussex-found early Neolithic flint axes, one detailed in black ink ‘Cissbury, Vineyard Hill 17/1/70’, the other ‘Cissbury South 1967’

Long before the construction of the hill fort Cissbury Hill was mined for flint during the Neolithic period. Radiocarbon dating of materials from all of Britain’s flint mines show that our county’s were the earliest in the country.

It is thought that these mines were dug using deer antlers as picks and ox shoulder blades as shovels. The hollows within the Ring show where the pits and shafts would have been and archaeological excavations have revealed struck flint flakes from the making of axe heads like the two illustrated which were discovered at Cissbury in 1967 and 1970. These early Neolithic flint axes recently sold at a Tooveys specialist antiquities auction.

Cissbury Ring appears to have been a ritual burial ground in the Bronze Age. The hillfort dates from the Iron Age and was built around 400 BC. It is thought that the fortifications would have defended the settlement for some 300 years. There are also signs of agriculture within the enclosure dating from around 100 BC.

Millenia later its defensive position was also employed during the Second World War with a number of gun emplacements

The Victorians pioneered archaeological investigation. George Irvine carried out the first dig in 1857 and was followed in 1867 and 1868 by Colonel Augustus Lane Fox – better known as Pitt Rivers, whose famous museum is at Oxford -together with the Reverend Canon William Greenwell. The 30 or so pits they excavated revealed flint axes, tools, bones, teeth, charcoal, shells, and fragments of Neolithic pottery.

Toovey’s antiquities specialist, Mark Stonard, is always delighted to discuss your special finds.

Jerusalem – A Sussex Hymn

‘Blake’s Cottage at Felpham’ © Toovey’s 2021

The central threads of William Blake’s art and writing are beautifully woven together with the formative time that this revolutionary artist spent in Sussex.

William Blake spent most of his life in London. However, for a number of years he lived in Sussex. In 1800 he moved to a cottage in Felpham, West Sussex, to illustrate work by the poet William Hayley. During this period William Blake wrote the poem titled ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’. It formed part of the preface to his epic work ‘Milton a Poet’ which he worked on until 1808. The poem builds on that wonderful passage from the Bible in chapter 21 of the Book of Revelation where Creation is perfected and renewed as heaven and earth are united.

Blake wrote to Thomas Butts shortly after his arrival in Sussex: ‘the sweet air and the voices of the winds, trees and birds and the odours of our happy ground makes [Felpham] a dwelling for immortals.’ Blake’s language articulates an earthly paradise contrasting with his lifelong experience of the environs of London.

‘Milton a Poet’ has an image titled ‘Blake’s Cottage at Felpham’. The lithographed facsimile illustration you see here is from The Works of William Blake, Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical which was published by Bernard Quaritch in London in 1893. It depicts Blake visited by the figure of ‘Inspiration’ in the garden of his cottage. The narrative forms part of a very personal mythology of his own creation. Felpham continued to inform the pastoral qualities of his Arcadian figures depicted under a ‘tranquil moon’ and ‘setting sun’ in his later work.

The Works of William Blake, Poetic, Symbolic, and Critical provided an important interpretation of Blake’s esoteric system and was edited by Edwin John Ellis and William Butler Yeats. This example realised £950 at Toovey’s.

The importance of Blake’s work was not wholly understood during his own life-time though it inspired a new, younger generation of visionary artists which included Samuel Palmer, George Richmond and Edward Calvert, who called themselves ‘the Ancients’.

A little over 100 years later in response to the huge casualties of the Battle of the Somme and declining morale Robert Bridges, the Poet Laureate, edited a patriotic anthology of poems titled ‘The Spirit of Man’. Amongst these was the then little known poem by William Blake titled ‘And Did Those Feet in Ancient Time’ better known to us today as ‘Jerusalem’.

In 1916 Bridges invited Hubert Parry, who was living at Rustington, to set William Blake’s poem ‘Jerusalem’ to music and the hymn became a national anthem. Jerusalem’s success inculcated redemption, renewal and hope into our national psyche.

So Jerusalem is a hymn inspired and born out of the beautiful county of Sussex and perhaps the new Jerusalem, ‘England’s mountains green’ and ‘pleasant pastures seen’ are to be found in the folds of the ancient Sussex Downs and the Sussex Weald.

“This was their finest hour”

Eric Ravilious, ‘Runway Perspective’, watercolour © IWM 2020.

This weekend marks the 80th anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain.
There are moments in our long island history which have the stuff of legends about them. These points in our history speak of the resilience, selflessness, inventiveness and fortitude in our national character, an ability to triumph in the face of disaster. The Battle of Britain is amongst them.

In the House of Commons shortly after France had surrendered Winston Churchill set out what was at stake “I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

As the fields were tilled by horse and plough and the harvest brought in a battle for the very survival of the British nation and way of life was fought in the skies over Sussex and southern England. Endless sorties were flown from airfields like Tangmere, Westhampnett on the Goodwood Estate, West Witterings, and Coolham near Horsham.

The Imperial War Museum (IWM) is one of Britain’s most important custodians of our nation’s story. Amongst their collections is an evocative watercolour by Eric Ravilious titled ‘Runway Perspective’. The composition has an explosive geometry. The lines on the runway centre on a distant church on the slightly tilted horizon, and seem to rush towards us lending speed and energy to the two banking Spitfires, emphasized by the sweeping cumulonimbus clouds. As the nearest aircraft climbs overhead it is as though we can hear the evocative Rolls Royce Merlin engine roaring in our ears.

Eric Ravilious’ childhood was spent in Eastbourne and he returned to Sussex in 1934 staying at Furlongs with Peggy Angus who had rented a shepherd’s cottage in sight of Firle. Here he painted landscapes and local scenes. His work is rooted in the landscape and life of pre-war and wartime England. Sussex and the South Downs are strong influences.

At the outbreak of war Ravilious joined the Observer Corps, becoming a war artist in 1940. He often flew with the RAF and died with the airmen he so admired on an air sea reconnaissance mission which failed to return.
Against extraordinary odds the courage and bravery of our young fighter pilots in their Supermarine Spitfires and Hawker Hurricanes combined with the defence system developed by Air Marshall Sir Hugh Dowding to halt the Nazi advance.

The IWM in London, Duxford and across the country is one of Britain’s most important custodians of our nation’s story. Throughout the summer they are holding a series of events at Duxford to commemorate the Battle of Britain. To find out more about these events and how you can support the IWM’s work in these challenging times visit

Art and Lanscape Shaped by Farming

Frank Wootton’s oil on canvas ‘Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex, MkII’

The South Downs have for centuries been shaped by farming. Today the ancient chalk grasslands are once again returning to the steep downland slopes. In the valleys and open fields mixed farming ensures that the fertility of the soil is improved and maintained by the under planting of cereal crops with rich clovers and grass grazed by sheep and cattle. Some of the most balanced and sustainable farming practice in the country is to be found between the South Downs and Horsham.

The oil painting titled ‘Chanctonbury Ring, Sussex’ by the Sussex artist Frank Wooton. OBE (1911-1998) depicts a rural idyll with farmstead and grazing cattle beneath the Sussex Downs. It remains one of my favourite paintings to be sold at Toovey’s in recent years and realised £2400. The tone and palette lend this familiar scene a wonderful luminance. It is this quality of landscape which speaks into the very identity of our nation.

Frank Wootton studied at The Eastbourne College of Art under Eric Ravilious and Arthur Reeves-Fowkes. Whilst his landscapes and equestrian scenes are celebrated Wootton is perhaps most famous for his aeronautical paintings. Wootton would serve as a war artist to the RAF and even before this appointment he was painting the Battle of Britain at Biggin Hill.

In the late 19th and 20th centuries many of Britain’s leading artists were inspired to leave London, our towns and cities for the country. For some it was to escape the effects of the industrial revolution and for others the wars.

And here’s the thing, that sense of the rural idyll remains alive in popular culture and the public’s imagination. In contrast those living in our increasingly urbanised society have become more and more removed from the reality of country life and farming which is why the work of the West Grinstead & District Ploughing Match & Agricultural Society has never been more important. It brings the farming community together, promoting best practice and educating the public. The overwhelming majority of the farmers here in Sussex work constantly to achieve a balance between maintaining the fertility of the land, producing food in a sustainable way for the nation with close attention to the preservation of nature.

Our farmer’s continue to steward the landscapes which have inspired artists and musicians over the centuries and never more so than in Sussex in the 20th century. In our hearts and minds the countryside with its generous communities connected with the seasons and the abundance of the land have provided hope against the back drop and grind of urbanisation and industrialization.
I think this is why landscape paintings continue to speak to us so strongly and remain in such demand.

Toovey’s Director and specialist, Nicholas Toovey, is preparing his next curated auction of fine art which will be held on 4th December 2019 and entries are still being invited. Nicholas is always delighted to share his passion for paintings with others and offer advice. He can be contacted on 01903 891955.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.