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Idyllic Blog

Salisbury UK - 28th October 2007: 9.00am

Paul Mansfield sent this snippet from the West Somerset Free Press, 15 Feb 1930:

Several artists have been associated with Nettlecombe and the surrounding district. Of those, one of the most dstinguished was J W North, the painter and illustrator. He seems to be kindly remembered by those who knew him. Sir Walter Trevelyan, the squire was among those acquianted with North and recalls interseting anecdotes in regard to him. The artist often painted in the neighbouring valleys, and occasionally it chanced that on his homeward way with his canvas he would fall in with a farmers waggon and some friendly labourers, whereupon he would be invited to place his work aboard to save him the labour of carrying the uncomfortable burden. By and by the waggoner or his fellows would venture a remark about the picture; later, when one of them had grown a little bolder, a criticism would be proferred and finally, as the artist appeared to show no resentment, advice would be freely given. An amusing reversal of position for the eminant Royal Academist certainly. From the descrition of an old man I knew in a village close by it seems that North must have been of remarkable appearance, with the characteristic features of a Patriarch or a Rabbi. He now lies buried in the new graveyard at Nettlecombe.

Salisbury UK - 28th August 2006: 10.30pm

There were skylarks on the Quantocks hills earlier this summer. Above Triscombe on the hogback ridge that stretches away to the Severn, a pair of thesae beautiful birds singing as they fluttered into the sky, descending with a haphazard glide.

I spent the night at the Blue Ball Inn - good food and a superb base from which to explore the hills and the 'North' country. It is an easy walk to Halsway where JWN, George Pinwell and Fred Walker stayed and worked. The West Somerset Railway still puffs its steamy way slowly from Bishop's Lydiard to Minehead and is largely unchanged from North's day.

Salisbury UK - 21st August 2006: 10.30pm

Just the other day, I was asked about the use of Chinese White in North's watercolours. The best source of information about North's watercolour technique comes from Herkomer's Slade lecture that I have posted on the site. But from memory...

Many of the English watercolour artists of the middle to late C19 used to mix their pigments with an opaque white - known as Chinese White, but more properly titanium oxide. This created a medium more akin to oils than watercolour and is nothing like the free handling washes associated with modern watercolour painting.

In his early years, North prepared his early canvases with a solid base of CW building up thinner grounds of pigments mixed with CW and then elaborated his designs onto this surface - with what was described as an enamelled effect. He also removed this underpainting in places, by scratching out or scraping away. In later years he moved away from this technique, preferring to use only pure watercolours without CW. However, he still used the thick undiluted pigments to work in the grounds, rubbing it into the surface of the paper - sometimes straight from the tube. Once the ground was worked in North would create an effect of shimmering colour that became his trademark in later years. Onto the solid bases, he would add washes and then enliven the surface with a unique technique - adding tiny drops of water to the surface and adding pure pigment to the droplets. This technique has been described as pointillist and is much more evident in the later works. It was not to the taste of all critics, his obituarist in the Times called it 'wooly.'

Because of his very physical handling, North needed a hard paper surface (hence the early CW bases) in the end he developed his own - OW Paper - and set up a Company to manufacture it using 100% linen rags instead of the usual mix of linen and cotton. The paper was not well suited to most watercolour techniques, but was used quite extensively for high quality prints and engravings.

Anyway I stray, CW was said to deaden the vibrant watercolour pigments, and this was often criticized in the large exhibition watercolours of the day - particularly by Ruskin who had a pop at Fred Walker for using it too heavily. Walker responded with a cartoon of himself working with a tube of CW larger than himself coiling the repugnant oxide onto his pallet with glee. Because of the opacity of CW, the white of the paper that is today used to add highlights and light effects was completely obscured by Victorian watercolourists. Highlights had to be worked in with CW or else scratched out.

North remains one of the unacknowledged masters of English landscape, his visionary handling, spiritual and poetic approach remains uniquely engaging to this day. You can view his work in many of the larger provincial galleries (although rarely on show). Preston, Birmingham, V&A, Tate, Manchester, Leeds, Bournemouth, Southampton, Bradford, etc.

Salisbury UK - 17th August 2006: 11.00pm

My birthday today, so not much time for blogging. I have for some time been collecting information about North's association with Richard Jefferies. I first became aware of RJ in 1987 when I started work at Salisbury District Council because there in the main committee room stands a bust of the great Wiltshire worthy. Of course at that time I knew nothing about him at all, and it was only a couple of years later that I discovered the connection with my grandfather. Cyril Wright of the RJ Soc illuminated the matter splendidly and gave me the address of the Hon Sec at the time Phyllis Trietel who was a great help.

Anyway, I discovered that the bust was donated to the council in 1925 by Alderman Sutton a Salisbury confectioner. The bust had been offered to the council by the Society of Authors - co-founded by by RJ's biographer Walter Besant. It was Besant who first owned the bust and it was he who had donated it to the Society. The council refused the offer to buy the bust, but the dashing Alderman stepped in promplty donated it to the council. It has rested peacefully in a niche high above the local politicians - cringing occasionally at the florid adjectives below.

Besant visited North to view RJ's papers shortly after the Author's death, but it was a Salisbury man Churchill Osbourne who first suggested the idea of the Bust in Salisbury Cathedral and after consulting RJ's widow Jesse, North encouraged the idea. As Victorians did, they formed a committee to raise funds for the bust, enlisting Arthur Kinglake of Taunton to assist. The bust in the council house is a copy of that in the Cathedral. Another copy - one with RJ atop a copy of his mildly sacriligious autobiography - The Story of My Heart is in the NPG.

Blessed be the time, I must go.

Salisbury UK - 5th August 2006: 11.00pm

When I was looking through Pippa North's papers I found a load of 35mm movie films - about 30 reels, I would guess. These films must cover the period 1929 - 1960 and probably includes a lot of footage of life in Hong Kong before the war. I'm no expert in these matters but I imagine these would be of considerable historical interest. I will try and get this record digitised for posterity.

Salisbury UK - 5th August 2006: 6.00pm

Sadly, John North's grand daughter, Phillipa died earlier this year at the age of 76. I had correponded with Pippa over 10 years and she was always helpful and supportive of my research. Pippa was the daughter of Roland North and Leo Greening. Her elder brother Peter North died last year.

Roland North was born at Beggearnhuish House in 1886, just 3 years before his mother Selina died. After Oxford, Roland joined the Civil Service as a Cadet 2nd Class. Posted to Hong Kong, North worked his way up to the senior position of Secretary of Chinese Affairs. Roland took a leading role in the evacuation of Hong Kong prior to the outbreak of hostilities with Japan. He was interned during the war, returning to Port Madoc to join Leo and Pippa on his release. Despite offering to return to Honk Kong, at 55 Roland was considered too old to resume his previous duties and following a brief spell at the Empire Office he retired in 1947 and moved to New Zealand.

Following Roalnd's death in 1961 Leo and Pippa returned to the UK and lived in Somerset. Following Pippa's death in January this year I had access to some of the family papers and was able to photograph some of the material - some of which now appears on this site.

Alas annother link to the Artist is lost.

Salisbury UK - 3rd August 2006: 9.00pm

Started this Blog, now I am wondering why! Mmm, anything to say?

Well, two North relatives contacted me last week and want to get in touch. It's really exciting when things like this happen - more doors open. Funny old business mind, families.

As it goes, I'm North's great grandson by his mistress, muse and model Maria Milton. He kept her in St Pancras, a small cottage not far from Cleeve Abbey in Rodewater, Somerset. She had 5 children but died in her 30s of TB. The children were scattered - Beatrix and Frances went to an Orphanage in Broadclyst, Devon. Two of the boys - Gilbert and Ronald (my grand father) were sent to an naval training orphanage on the Thames called Warspite. Lionel stayed in Somerset and worked first at Dunster Mill then as a delivery man for a local bakery, delivering bread and provisions all over Exmoor. He lived most of his life in Alcombe near Minehead. Beatrix married and settled in Portsmouth - where I stayed with her in 1976. Frances went abroad and worked as a Nurse, she married and had a daughter - Liz, who came over to visit a few years ago and met all the Milton's I could muster! Gilbert died in the War - you can find out more about that on other pages - and Ron served in the Merchant Navy before going into service between the wars. He married a teacher Margorie Sharpe and they settled in Somerset, where Ron worked at Horlicks Dairy in Ilminster. A reserved occupation, Ron missed the war but flew the flag in the Home Guard (good excuse for a beer it sounded like to me). There is a jolly photo of Ron in his Home Guard get up on display at Perry's Cider Mills and Heritage Centre near Ilminster.

They have all gone now, Lionel was the last to leave in 2002 - the last of North's children (well the last that I know of). Anyway that's my lot on the Milton side, on the Speed side, well ...

Salisbury UK - 2nd August 2006: 9.00pm

I managed to buy a copy of the Life and Letters of Frederick Walker from eBay last month for less than 30 - a bargain. It's in good nick and better than the photocopied pages I have been using for reference. The other book I am reading is Barabara Hirsch's Life of Barabara Bodichon. I bought it for the North and Walker references - it confirms that the two painters visted Barabara and her guest Gertrude Jekell in Algiers - but its proved much more illuminating providing a colourful glimpse of aesthetic late Victorian society. Worth a look I should say. I should try to gather a comprehensive bibliography - might be useful. I'm always dipping into Jefferies - still can't say I am his biggest fan, he can brilliant, he can be terrible. The brilliant is briliantly brilliant mind you. I've bought some good copies of RJ on eBay for under 5 - if you are after anything give me an email.

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