Magazine article The Spectator

Figures in a Landscape

Magazine article The Spectator

Figures in a Landscape

Article excerpt

As They Really Were by Keith Middlemas Frances Lincoln, £25, pp. 176, ISBN 978 0711232907

As you cross the Trent, you are very much aware that you have moved from the south to the north country. The next great divide is the Tyne, with the dramatic straggle of Newcastle stretching east and west. Beyond lies mile upon mile of Northumberland, all the way to the Scottish border, arable land for grazing (punctuated with coal mines) by the coast, giving way to heathery moors and countless sheep. The centre of this often wild and always beautiful land is Alnwick, with roads stretching out, to north and south the Great North Road, east to the fishing port of Alnmouth, westward to the Roman Wall and the Cheviots.

Alnwick Castle was the centre of the defence against invaders from the north, seat of the Percy family, Earls and Dukes of Northumberland. There, about 1831, a local artist, Percy Forster, set himself the unusual task of depicting the inhabitants of the town and country round, exactly as they were, on the eve of the Reform Bill.There are 117 pictures in all, mostly full-length profiles in pen and ink, preserved in a large book that has descended to Professor Middlemas from his grandfather, a solicitor at Alnwick.

Put together, they form a speaking portrait, not merely of the people but the society of this northernmost English town, just before it changed into the Victorian era.

In 2009 the British Museum put on 'Intimate Portraits', an exhibition of drawings from Ramsay to Lawrence, the century before Forster set to work. They were all of individuals; so are Forster's, but they are also types, like Gillray or Dighton's similar profiles. Besides particular people, 'Billy Carr, long postmaster at Alnwick', here are farmer, sexton, merchant, farrier, miller, the Duke's woodsman, huntsman and shepherd (wrapped in plaid), the earth-stopper and the poacher, and George Barkas the schoolmaster - 'I was taught at his school, ' wrote Forster, 'and never knew a better man.' In one way they are uniform; they wear frock-coat or cutaway, most the tall hat that had superseded the cocked hat and not yet grown to the Victorian tophat. But from these frames emerge very individual faces, characteristically Northumbrian features, still recognisable today. …

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