Celebrating the ordinary
PUBLISHED: 12:10 14 July 2015 | UPDATED: 12:10 14 July 2015
A group of artists want to put Edwardian artist Harry Becker firmly on Suffolk’s art map. Lucy Etherington meets them beneath the Wenhaston Doom
EAST ANGLIAN ARTISTS INSPIRED BY HARRY BECKER
FRIDAY JULY 31 - Monday AUGUST 3
10am to 5pm (Monday 4pm)
ST PETERS CHURCH, WENHASTON, IP19 9BJ
firstname.lastname@example.org, Free Entry
When the artist Harry Becker relocated from London to Wenhaston in 1913, Suffolk was a completely different place. There were no cafes or artisan bread shops. No rich second homers looking to fill their weekend cottages with local art.
But Becker, whose fame had been growing in London, was driven by an artistic passion so powerful, it probably led to his financial undoing. He would spend days painting and drawing in the fields, producing loose and almost impressionistic figurative works. These are now highly collected and admired. Becker himself, however, died in poverty in 1928.
Nowadays, there are so many artists who have relocated to East Anglia, it’s hard to throw a paint brush without hitting one. Three years ago, a number of them decided to pay tribute to Becker and held an exhibition in St Peters Church, Wenhaston.
“I’ve been blown away by how many artists want to exhibit,” says watercolourist Ruth McCabe who organised the first exhibition back in 2013 – the centenary of Becker’s arrival in the East of England. “I mean, this is a church in a little Suffolk village miles from anywhere, and it’s not exactly a money spinner. It’s testimony to Becker that he can generate this interest.”
The exhibition has drawn some impressive local talent, all working in a wide variety of media and already well collected.
“I think the reason it attracts so much warm attention is because we are celebrating someone else’s work,” Ruth says. “It’s not self-centred. It’s in honour of a great local artist who died in poverty.”
St Peters is known for its imposing 16th Century wall hanging, The Doom, in which worried looking naked people await the Day of Judgement. This year’s exhibition in honour of Becker, the third, will include a candlelit talk of the impressive piece, followed by a twilight bat tour and talk.
There will also be a display of heritage farm tools that were around in the turn of the 19th century, a large centrepiece about the artist himself, including some of his work, plus a walk through some of the landscapes Becker painted.
The exhibiting artists have formed the Inspired By Becker Art Society (IBB for short) and hope to host more regular events and workshops in his name. This past year they have been getting together to sketch in the fields the way Becker did.
“For me as a graphic designer it’s inspiring to get outdoors and work like this in our digital age,” says Sandy Horsley, who lives in the village and often hosts the IBB meetings.
“He got down on the ground and captured the action with these raw, minimal marks,” says textile artist Jillifar Amor. “When I tried it I realised how difficult that was.”
The weather hasn’t exactly favoured their excursions, and a trip to the local garage to try and capture the movement of modern day workers, the way Becker appeared to do so effortlessly, was interrupted when the mechanics they were drawing disappeared to do an MOT. All the more reason, they say, to admire Becker’s dedication to his craft.
“We’re all spoiled these days by the availability of materials,” says Wil Harvey, the IBB official chair and an oil painter who paints very much in the loose style of Becker. “But Becker had to struggle. Sometimes he painted on cardboard because he couldn’t afford canvas.”
“One of the things that inspires me is the power in his line,” says Arabella Marshall, a glass artist. “He can convey the strain in someone’s back in just one stroke. People worked differently in those days and the fact that he can capture the effects of repetitive work on their bodies is extraordinary.”
Arabella, whose work is colourful and layered, says the drawing excursions have inspired her to produce something different. As we sit in the church beneath the Doom, she is staring at one of the glass windows, an idea clearly forming.
Ruth agrees. “When I look at his work, I can feel how hard they are working and how hot it is. He has the grace of the ordinary. It’s a balance to our celebrity culture where everything has to be fast and extraordinary.
“Perhaps this is why Becker was drawn to Suffolk – why we all are. I’ve just been to Yorkshire where the landscape is so dramatic. Suffolk is a quiet, ordinary space that he made so powerful.”
Becker’s family rented at least two of the local houses –Sunnyside and the Old Vicarage, and as his financial situation worsened, a remote farm cottage three miles away. The IBB group live in Wenhaston or nearby and relish the fact that everywhere you go you can see a Becker landscape, something they want to inspire in others.
“What we would love is for the people of Whenhaston to feel that Becker is a part of their heritage, the way that Constable belongs to Dedham Vale,” says Ruth. “That’s the main driving force of the exhibition: to put Becker on the map.”