My great grandma bought this watercolor by a minor artist of an Isle of Wight scene a century ago. It has hung in our family homes ever since.
A housemaid carrying a basket is walking up a winding lane scoured by cart tracks. The English Channel peeps above trees and shrubbery turning gold in autumn. Although I know most corners of the Island where I was born, I couldn’t identify the scene and began to doubt it existed except in the artist’s head.
But walking up Bonchurch Shute with my cousin, she turned back and exclaimed, “This is it!”
Her artist’s eye matched the scene to the remembered painting—the angle of the bend and old walls on either side, although the sea is now obscured by vegetative growth. The revelation stirred questions. Who was she? Did she work as a servant for local gentry? Was she known to my family?
If the maid came back to life, I doubt she would notice much change in the scene. Grand Victorian villas still grace a road previously the residences or lodgings of great literary figures. Charles Dickens wrote part of David Copperfield in Winterbourne House, the poet Algernon Swinburne lived in East Dene, and Tennyson visited from his Farringford home. John Keats and Lewis Carroll had local associations too.
I’m sure they all visited the ancient church nearby, supposed to be founded by St. Boniface in the 700s. Outside the church, a noticeboard announces to the occasional tourist who ventures down the road that it was rebuilt in 1070 and still serves the community. Yes, Rebuilt!
Standing alone in the churchyard, I only heard a gurgling stream and the murmur of the tide working pebbles on the shore beyond a screen of trees. It’s a place to feel cast back in time in a setting that has hardly changed in a millennium. Even the stone church looks resolute against decay, although the Norman frescoes inside have faded, as happens to every human artefact.
Forty generations have passed through the porch, from anonymous medieval peasants to a Stuart king to local gentry and their servants up to the present day. There is satisfaction in knowing where you belong, or at least in sharing a scene known to generations of family and friends.
In another century, I expect the old church will look much the same because places of great antiquity or rarity deserve strenuous preservation. If my descendants visit they might find the setting helps to imagine us.
But elsewhere the world rushes ever faster, transforming landscapes and rebuilding ‘better.’ The acceleration seems unstoppable. Although sometimes grumbling about development, we are reluctant to oppose progress, knowing how it has benefited prosperity, health, and security. But there is always loss in gain.
If in a hundred years family members turn the scrapbook of photos we took at the Shute last month I guess the location will be harder to pinpoint than when we identified where a maid posed for an artist in 1920. I guess the old houses and expansive gardens will be gone, the seashore crept closer, vegetation altered by a warmer climate, and traffic we can’t yet imagine. There won’t be the same moment of revelation for a great, great grandchild to exclaim, “I know where they took that photo! Let’s see where our ancestors stood and what they saw.”
The loss of that kind of connection seems trivial, but an example of a broad and common experience. A poverty of belonging. We become strangers, even in our own land.
You bring back memories, Roger. I attended St Wilfred’s Primary School in Ventnor in the late 40s, just down the road from Bonchurch. The nuns would take us for walks and Bonchurch Duck Pond was a favourite spot. And then there was the Devil’s Chimney – quite a climb – which I’m sure I did in my youth but such an effort would be unthinkable now. I’m not sure I ever ventured
down the Shute but the name certainly rings a bell!
Thanks John. Good to hear from you. I had a wonderful visit with my brother Keith staying in Bonchurch and meeting Jo and Jim. The duckpond is the same.
I love this post, Roger. You write so well. I hadn’t really thought before about places in paintings still being around somewhere, which sounds ridiculous. Now I’m thinking of places in paintings my parents had on their walls, painted by strangers to us, but still they are paintings of real places (most likely) and people or boats that once were real. The surface of the world changes (plants, trees, people, pavement, buildings), but the actual places are still there underneath and have histories.