An Easter visit to Dorset for me, my wife Dianne and some friends, John and Hazel, included some planned activities of walking and a creative response to the visual richness of the coast line. The creative bit was for three of us. John, Hazel’s husband, is a semi-retired accountant and it was his luck to endure three artists wittering on about texture, form and colour. Lovely darling.
We were staying at an old coast guard cottage perched on the top of the cliffs at St. Aldhelms Head. The only neighbours being a single roomed chapel of the 13th. C. and a coast guard lookout manned by volunteers.
All middle class O.A.P holidays have to include a visit to the National Trust, the lack of which makes these foreign trips so unfulfilling. So Corfe was descended upon but on our first visit we betrayed the N.T. and allowed our working class roots to resurface so that lunch (sorry dinner) was at the pub instead of something quasi Italian at the N.T. tearoom. Having opened the pub menu at the bar (excellent local bitter) we discovered an OAP deal that was requested. It is always somewhat disappointing not to be challenged about one’s qualification. However, although Dianne is much younger than I am, the landlady took pity on her and so she was left out of the unearned senior citizens moment!
The following day, having nearly broken my foot on the beach at Kimmeridge Bay we once again descended (I hobbled) upon Corfe, but this time, to repair to our professional standing, to the N.T. tearoom. Just as we were leaving John and I were tossing for who should pay, Dianne noticed a display that featured information about things local and there was a reference to Francis Newbery (FN). We discovered that after retiring from being Principle of the Glasgow School of Art in 1918, owing to ill health, he returned to Dorset and settled at Corfe Castle. The N T. informed us that he was buried in Corfe and that he had designed the market square sign and carvings to the church carried out by a local stone mason. The N.T. display also informed us that there were paintings by Newbery in the museum in Bridport. If we had devoted our patronage exclusively to the pub we would never have found this out. Thank God for social mobility!
Thursday saw us on the history trail but upon arriving in Bridport the stomach took over, culture was defeated and food was sought. Holidays seem to centre around refreshment. The museum had one of Newbery’s paintings and also a very friendly and helpful curator. He told us that the Old Town Hall contained a good collection of FN’s. work but that the building was usually locked. The curator telephoned the new council offices and we were invited to walk there where we would find someone to help us. Dianne organised things whilst the three of us admired a very big embroidered panel completed by about ninety local people to celebrate the millennium. Dianne reappeared with the leader of the Town Council in tow, a Mr. Wilde, who appeared very pleased that foreigners should know, and show such interest in, things to do with Bridport. He unlocked the Old Town hall and in we all went. We were led into a very handsome upper floor council chamber.
The south end of the chamber is a fine timber panelled wall that contains a mural in several panels designed and carried out by FN. during 1924-5. Locally he is referred to as ‘Fra Newbery’. The centre panel shows a female figure ‘The Spirit of Bridport’. The other panels illustrate important local skills that contributed to Bridport’s economy; weaving, spinning, yarn bleaching and net braiding. Around the other walls are hung paintings that describe shipbuilding; Charles II after the battle of Worcester: the entry into Bridport of Joan of Navarre and the country side environs of Corfe Castle.
We much enjoyed our discovery about Fra Newbery, all the more because our path was not laid out in a guide-book. Finding this body of work helped our understanding of FN. both as a man and as an artist. Prior to this discovery we had seen only one painting by him in Venice and, so far, nothing in Glasgow. Life in Corfe must have suited him. As said above, having retired from Glasgow in 1918 because of ill health, he was productive for another twenty-eight years.
First published in June 2006 In The Friends of 78 Derngate Newsletter Issue 41.
Author: Anthony MacRae
Transcribed 2018: Barbara Floyer