I wrote briefly about the wildlife and countryside artist, Gordon Beningfield (1936-1998) in May when I wrote about Butterflies, and mentioned his lovely book on this subject, the first of several books of his that I have bought since 1978. And so I thought another post about this man and his paintings might be of interest.
A shepherd, his flock, and his shepherd’s hut (being used for its original purpose and not, as is often the case today, as guest accommodation in someone’s garden or orchard.)
In Beningfield’s Countryside there are several paintings of carts, barns and gates and I think his painting of a five-bar gate (photo, top) is very similar to the one in my photograph which I took some years ago in Torbay’s Cockington Countryside Park. As I mentioned in previous posts, I have been reading Harry Mount’s book How England Made the English and he mentions five-bar gates. Each county not only has different styles of gate, but also they are made from different types of wood: “sweet chestnut gates are popular in Kent; oak gates are common in Sussex, where oaks were once so thick on the ground that the tree was called the ‘Sussex weed’. Most gates have five bars, but you can find six in Cornwall and Devon. Different counties use different combinations of vertical, horizontal and diagonal bars.”
[I read in Beningfield’s obituary, published in the Daily Telegraph in May 1998, that this book was translated into five languages and (at that time) sold more than 100,000 copies. ]
I would not describe Gordon Beningfield as a botanical artist; I think strict accuracy in his work wasn’t as important to him as quickly capturing the countryside as it was at the time of the painting and, not only that, capturing the atmosphere of the countryside, whether this was a farmer working in the fields or bringing his cows in for milking, or quietly watching a harvest mouse or tawny owl, which is the last painting in his book, Beningfield’s Woodlands.
As well as butterflies and the countryside, Beningfield also painted scenes in some of England’s villages. In Beningfield’s English Villages you will find scenes from Yorkshire down to Kent, an evocation of the diversity of the vernacular architecture that we love about our English villages.
Castle Combe, Wiltshire
Another in my Beningfield book collection is Beningfield’s English Farm
I just love the portrait of this rather benign-looking Gloucester bull and I think he’d make short work of that style if angry! “The Gloucester is the rarest of all English breeds of cattle, and has always been largely restricted to its native county and neighbouring parts of Somerset and Wiltshire. It is said that the richness of the milk and the small size of the fat globules it contained made Gloucester milk ideal for cheese-making. This was the milk that was made into the original Double Gloucester cheese.” says Beningfield.
The room in the cottage at Higher Brockhampton where Hardy did much of his early writing
In Hardy Country, Beningfield shows us the Dorset landscape that was so important to the novelist and poet, Thomas Hardy. However, he points out that he does not want to suggest that Dorset as a whole still looks as it did in Hardy’s day. “The county has suffered terribly from forestry and farming. Heathland, which was such an important element in the landscape of Dorset and consequently in Hardy’s novels, has largely been ploughed up or turned into lifeless forests of Christmas trees by the Forestry Commission.” He also says that “you have to search now for unspoiled downland with its soft turf cropped by generations of sheep and rabbits, a rich and stable environment with its own flowers and its own butterflies.” (He was speaking on these subjects 35 years ago; things might have changed since them.)
The Darkling Thursh not only has the lovely drawings and paintings by Beningfield, but poems by Thomas Hardy.
Above all, as well as being an exceptional artist, Gordon Beningfield was an environmentalist. In the early days of his painting career he appeared on several TV programmes including Look, Stranger and In the Country. He knew that the English countryside was an irreplaceable part of our national heritage. In this book he looks at “fragments of the traditional English landscape that have remained unspoilt. He finds elm trees still surviving in Cambridgeshire and a farm still operating with horse-drawn ploughs, but whether in the 32 years since this book was published this is still the case, I would not like to say.
A view of the broad open landscape of Wiltshire, with the village of Mere in the distance
and for my last picture, above, broken fencing on Halvergate Marshes (Norfolk). Beningfield says “It was late in the day, and the weather on the marshes was beginning to change.”
The countryside is forever changing. I just hope that we are now more environmentally aware than 40 years ago and that the places that this artist and conservationist depicted in his paintings and books are now less under threat than they were then.
Until next time.