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25.02.04 6:00pm

Part I

Pre-Raphaelites & a War Poet

Ewell Last Week's Radio Blog 18.02.04.

Ophelia On the Trot… a sister and the 'hood
A walk in Millais' footsteps along the Hogsmill River

Part I

"Boards on the window
Mail by the door
What would anybody leave so quickly for?
Where have you gone?"

JR Robertson. Ophelia. (C) 1975, 1976 Medicine Hat Music.

"And I like the people to bathe in me, especially women.
But I can drown the fools
Who bathe too close to the weir, contrary to the rules,
And they take a long time drowning"

Stevie Smith 1902-71 The River God

Pre-Raphaelites & A War Poet

Friday (20 Feb. 04) by train to Ewell, Surrey for a riverine walk in the footsteps of John Everett Millais 1829-1896 and William Holman Hunt 1827-1910, who had taken advantage of the then newly expanding railway system to up-easel to new "plein air" locations outside the metropolis. Locations where they might, in Ruskin's words, "go to Nature… rejecting nothing, selecting nothing and scorning nothing". And where they could cast their photographically realistic and botanically accurate gaze away from what I believe William Morris dubbed "the spreading of the hideous town".

A quiet revolution in landscape painting, inspired by the theories of John Ruskin, who himself was inspired by Turner, is the subject of a current exhibition at Tate Britain: Pre-Raphaelite Vision. Truth to Nature. 12 Feb-3 May 2004.

In 1851 Millais and Hunt took up residence in Ewell, and whilst Hunt went off to paint The Hireling Shepherd 1851-2, and The Light of the World 1851-3, Millais picked his spot on the bank of the Hogsmill River and proceeded to work for 11 hours a day over a five-month period from June to October 1851 painting the background to Ophelia 1851-2.

In Ewell I am also briefly in the wheel ruts of another artist whose work was rooted in the English landscape. The hugely influential poet, Edward Thomas 1878-1917, rode through Ewell on a cycle ride from Clapham to the Quantock Hills, Somerset at Easter 1913. En route, the author searched for signs of renewal and rebirth among the remains of winter and sought spiritual guidance from his literary forbears like Meredith, Cobbett, Jeffries, Austen and Coleridge. The journey is recounted in In Pursuit of Spring.


"Ewell was the first place on my road which bore a considerable resemblance to a country town." Wrote Thomas in 1913 adding that it would strike "escaping Londoners" as a place where "the sign of the "Green Man" was in keeping…" and indeed if you manage to escape road death on the way from Ewell East, the small town centre still doesn't feel like London exactly. It has a dusty, down at heel, villagy feel. I pass a pub called The Star and a newsagent with twin bay windows advertising the Surrey Comet, "your quality local". The window of Your Launderette is painted out with whitewash. Epsom Prints and Fine Arts is empty and advertised for sale. This strikes me as a not very auspicious start to an art walk. There is a stepladder and a bucket in the window. Of course it could be an installation. No: it's a stepladder and a bucket. Further on I pass an embroidery centre called Pisces, a suitably aquatic name (the name Ewell itself, Thomas suggests is, like Ewelme in Oxfordshire, related to the presence of water). They are advertising a weekly framing service. Given that Ophelia took nearly nine months to paint, I'm sure any modern Raphs worth the canvas wouldn't begrudge waiting a few days for a frame.

I cross Spring Street and go under a rather nice archway with a stone dog on top of it, the entrance to Bourne Hall Park. Bourne Hall is an arts and leisure centre built in the 1960s and home, among other things, to the Bourne Hall Museum. A mother and small child are feeding the ducks which are being pestered by a noisy mob of seagulls. I spy a London Loop sign and, passing the Wheatsheaf pub, cross a bridge over the river past a white mill house of Surrey weatherboard.

Part II next week…I'm tired and jaded. In my defence, Millais himself had to wrestle (as his diary attests) with not infrequent bouts of the blues and lack of inspiration. Not only did he have to put up with rain, cold and snow but the good people of Surrey were not always ready to fall in with his artistic vision: he was even threatened with prosecution for trespassing in a corn field.

Perhaps the owners of Epsom Prints felt the same indifference: Art? Yes…just not in our backyard.

© Richard Shepherd, 2004


18.02.04 1:00pm

I wish I were in London

Radioblog. 04mins 46seconds. [MP3] NB this is a large file (1.9mb) and you will need to let it play right through once with glitches (buffering) before you can listen to it properly or save it.

© Richard Shepherd, 2004

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