BOOK REVIEWS: Stunning Art Inspired by Unique Light; Southwold, an Earthly Paradise by Geoffrey Munn, Antique Collectors' Club, Pounds 29.50

Article excerpt

Byline: Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

Geoffrey Munn takes part of his title from William Morris and notes that Morris's great work, the epic poem The Earthly Paradise was inspired by Southwold itself, a magical town on the North Sea coast and with a long history.

Much more than a holiday resort with its beach huts, strollers and pier straggling the waves, Southwold has long attracted painters, writers and literati.

But if the sea, with its changing moods of wind and tides, is Southwold's only constant, then we can note in this superb illustrated book from a fine writer, that fire, famine, witchcraft trials and death either by sea or by the rough justice of the land have equally taken their toll of the town's inhabitants.

There are also amazements within the prodigious research which has gone towards the making of this book. For example, Mr Munn (whose face you see regularly on The Antiques Roadshow) has discovered that Shakespeare was probably in Southwold in 1608 and again in 1610 when he was touring out from London into the regions as an actor with the King's Men.

Times would have been rough for an acting troupe in the 17th century, and Shakespeare and co who played in Dunwich, would have discovered a poverty stricken town, whose inhabitants were forced to grub for wild peas growing on the cliff tops in order to supplement a meagre diet.

An audience on its uppers is not an easy one to please but the actors appear to have been limited as performers and so this may have been the beginning of the "B Tour". We can note that 11 years earlier (in December 1597) a certain Mr Allen, a Dunwich scrivener, had paid their predecessors "six shillings and was yet much discontented".

In later years, Daniel Defoe, of Robinson Crusoe fame, lodged opposite the church in Southwold and found the town in 1724, to have a certain tranquillity. "I found no business - the people here were employ'd in but the fishing for herrings and sprats which they Cure by help of Smoak."

But it was the artists and painters who flocked to Southwold in the centuries that followed who made a tremendous mark on the town. Among them was the Birmingham artist, Joseph Southall, who frequently worked in tempera on silk. Southall produced idealised studies of the local fisher folk, which remain today as vivid and colourful as they were when he painted them.

In a letter from Southwold he wrote, "We are all artists at the seaside," and it was sent to his friend the Birmingham artist and jeweller Arthur Gaskin.

Southall may have come to Southwold and its neighbouring beauty spot Walberswick via a recommendation from William Morris himself, who had found logic and wonder in Southwold's cliffs and beaches in previous years. …