Gainsborough’s View in 2012.
Many people contribute to the work of Stour Valley Underground in its efforts to rid us all of the threat of more electricity pylons, and yet they are not all horribly technical issues that are brought to us. In this article I want to tell you of one rather wonderful contribution.
We in this area are blessed with a local historian, Barry Wall, who has through his efforts added enormously to public knowledge of our local history. Amongst his initiatives he has worked to identify the locations that inspired some of our most important landscape paintings.
Here in the Stour Valley he has identified a number of locations that inspired Thomas Gainsborough in the 18th century. A little before Christmas he visited me with news of what is perhaps the most nearly intact view that Gainsborough painted.
The rather wordily named oil painting “Wooded Landscape with Herdsman Seated” hangs in Sudbury’s Gainsborough’s House Museum. It is a view of a gently hilly landscape with the distinctive spire of Henny Church on the horizon and the ancient Thornycroft Farmhouse set below it. The astonishing thing is that you can walk to this view today, on public footpaths. Until Barry identified it, few people realised that this valuable cultural heritage asset was there.
As can be seen from this reproduction of Gainsborough’s 1748 work, there is a young oak, left of centre and water at the bottom of the view.
Today, the view is much flattened by centuries of ploughing and agriculture. The young oak of Gainsborough’s time is now old, mature, somewhat broken and yet still thrives. What was a water course is now merely a line of reeds in a field.
What is truly wonderful is the fact that you can visit the Museum in Sudbury and then drive just a few miles out of town to Henny, stroll along public footpaths and experience for yourself this inspirational scenery.
Wooded Landscape with Herdsman Seated painted by Thomas Gainsborough in 1748, now hanging in Gainsborough’s House Museum in Sudbury.
Opposite the gate into Henny Churchyard is a public footpath that leads down past Thornycroft farm, across a couple of styles and on to a point where the footpath splits. Straight ahead would take you toward Middleton. However, by turning left onto the other path and walking along the footpath that runs along the field boundary, you see Gainsborough’s view to your left. As you walk, the relationship of the church and farmhouse change until the house is seen below the church. At this point you know you are at Gainsborough’s vantage point and the oak sits in the same relationship to the buildings as it did when Gainsborough was there 264 years ago. What greater way can there be to bring this piece of our cultural history to life.
But this view is under threat. And I do not need to use Photoshop to show you why. It is possible to gauge that threat by simply strolling up the hill behind this viewpoint.
National Grid have identified a preferred route corridor for another line of huge pylons, and that route extends either side of the existing pylons. This means that the proposed new pylons could be on higher ground, nearer the church. Where are the pylons now? Well you can see one on the horizon in the Gainsborough’s View photograph, 1/4 of the way in from the left, but they are there, hidden by trees and the church. But walk up the hill and you see just what is there: a run of pylons right across the view and also disappearing into the distance, as you can see from the “view to a threat” photograph. A second line of pylons could loom larger and totally dominate Gainsborough’s view from his original vantage point.
To defend our countryside from the threat of pylons we have in part to show its true value. This is no easy task. After all, we never actually had to pay for it. And yet this natural beauty belongs to us all and is of immense importance, including to our inner sense of wellbeing and indeed, our economy. Such heritage assets can deliver economic and employment benefits and we already build local economic activity on cultural assets such as this. Stroll into the Henny Swan pub restaurant and an entire wall is covered by a mural reproduction of Wooded Landscape with Herdsman Seated. Thus it is that our landscape, cultural heritage and economy are all linked by this view.
National Grid’s environmental consultants, TEP, are currently conducting surveys of the wildlife, cultural heritage and landscape views all along their consultation area. We all owe Barry Wall an enormous debt of gratitude for bringing this unknown natural masterpiece to our attention. Without his invaluable work this wonderful asset might never have been added into National Grid’s surveys and, as a result, could have been earmarked for more pylon blighting. Barry brought his discovery to Stour Valley Underground and we have set it before the nation by having it hilighted in the national, regional and local press. National Grid must surely know: this view is not the place for more of their paraphernalia.
I heartily recommend that you walk the footpath and take in this view for yourself. Just as you turn the corner to walk along the field boundary, you will pass a stone seat that is dedicated to a local lady’s memory. It is further inscribed with the words “her little piece of heaven”. Walk there and it will be yours also.
Chair of Stour Valley Underground