The Hawstead Panels, Ipswich

[Location – House]

To begin with Ipswich belies its reputation.  True that the sight from the train station is not tremendously uplifting, and I accept not everyone will be as buzzed as I was when confronted with the Willis Building.  The woman at the tourist information was friendly and helpful but didn’t really know anything about the town.  No mention of St Mary Elms or the Ancient House.  Christchurch was mentioned in passing, if you like that kind of thing.

The park is lovely but as lovely as any urban park and nothing on a par with Halifax or Gateshead.  The house is smart, interesting, much of beauty, it gets three out of five from Simon Jenkins, and probably draws most people for its standard Gainsborough and Constable war horses, though there’s other gems on the corridor walls that are a treat.  It doesn’t prepare the unaware for the other worldliness of the painted closet.

The first surprise is the darkness.  Much of Christchurch is light and airy, large spaces to suit a modern family house of the period, or the spaces expected in a provincial museum of a certain quality.  Then you find yourself in a dark wood-panelled room just a few feet square with a small doorway and window.  Then you see the walls are painted with images, floor to ceiling, like a series of plates in a cartoon, with figures and scenes.


Then you look at the scenes.

Some seem natural enough.  There’s a selection of plants, there’s a couple of rams fighting, an astrologer with a quadrant.  You do a double-take; there’s a horse poking his head through a picture of a horse, a Roc flying away with an elephant in its claws.  There’s something else going on and there an urge to decode.

To most of us the content of these scenes is lost in the midst of time, a world of symbols and significance.  The panels themselves arrived in Ipswich on a journey from a house at Hawstead Place near Bury St Edmunds, where the Puritan Lady Drury was part of a new movement away from the Catholic devotional image.  It seems likely that many of these scenes are depictions of ideas in the religious commentaries of the time, but even knowing that they can still appear opaque, cryptic.


Yet they entice and captivate.  The qualities of the paintings are what might be called primitive or cartoon-like, evocative of the period.  They are not crude and where it’s difficult to know what the image is that has more to do with the surreal nature than the style.  The crab being squashed by a disc is, apparently, carrying the world.  The monkey is throwing money out of the house.  It could well be worth returning after studying the guide.  The mermaid, however, will always appear creepy, more like the contrivance in Buxton museum than Ariel.




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