March 11th, 2012 was one of those unusually ‘perfect’ days. As we looked from our window, we were overwhelmed by the gorgeous blue sky and the sun rising from the East. It seemed to be hovering over our destination – the Suffolk coast.
Stephen, my son, and I were making the journey to Walberswick, an unusual small village shrouded by a mysterious aura. Like many Suffolk villages, Walberswick appears to have just turned up in the 21st century. It pervades the calmness of an earlier time. Those who have visited the area will understand.
After a 90 minute drive, we parked up outside Walberswick Village Hall.
A view of Walberswick Village, Suffolk
The viewing of the Walberswick Scroll, a 123ft (37.5 meter) watercolour study of every house in the village painted in 1931/32 by John Doman Turner (former member of the Camden Town Group), had been arranged a couple of weeks or so earlier.
We had contacted the website administrator at the Walberswick Village – Official Website, who kindly put us in touch with Richard Scott – artist, writer, and of course scroll operator and commentator. The scroll is only shown a few times a year, and on this particular day the scroll was unveiled three times between 9.30 and 12.30. We were lucky to have a viewing.
The ‘Walberswick Scroll’ being unveiled at the Village Hall
The mechanics behind the ‘Walberswick Scroll’. The scroll sits inside a mahogany case which had once been a pub football game.
James W Robertson looking at the ‘Walberswick Scroll’
Richard had the scroll ready for those who had turned up to view, probably about ten of us. As we got to one side of the device Richard worked his magic with the rollers.
The scroll on rollers is ideal, somewhat quirky and old fashioned which really seem to fit with the character of the times it was all painted. It has a table type top which the paper rests on as it is rolled around for view, and switches from one roller to the other. It would be impossible to exhibit it any other way and could not be unfurled as the paper is delicate and so it would be a difficult task.
Richard Scott telling us stories of John Doman Turner
John Doman Turner’s artwork bringing communities of people together, trying to spot areas in the village that they recognise
The showing went well with Richard who was only too pleased to answer a number of questions we put forward, along with others who viewed. Never was a visit to a village hall so enjoyable and if you enjoy art you must go along on one of those rare days.
A section of the ‘Walberswick Scroll’
The scroll is a unique master piece where John Doman Turner took days drawing each shed, cottage, building, garden and more in the village. The artist showed real attention to detail, even a notice board by the ferry shows the prices for passengers. It is so amusing it certainly brings a smile, unlike many a painted record. Brilliant in the extreme is almost a title for it and what really amounts to a National Treaure is humbly hidden away.
Attention to detail, John Doman Turner even includes the small print.
The Walberswick scroll rivals any piece of art for what it has encapsulated, it is as interesting as any other piece of art, and simply rolls on where other art works finish at the frame edge.
I have seen many exhibitions but this is a new way in looking and appreciating and is as pleasing to your senses as you are likely to see anywhere, and that includes national museums. No it is not on the same level as a Rembrandt for the perfectness, but Turner did not spend weeks on one section, and as it is a water colour you only get the one chance, for right or wrong, unlike oils which can be worked over time and time again until perfection has been reached. It can not be spoken of too highly. A gem of clarity on how things were, and with all of his work apart from the scrolls that is a part of his unique talent, and yet unlike the work of Laurence Stephen Lowry which I believe it competes with in many respects, being buildings and local people his work is difficult to come across. The main reason is that Lowry had much of his publicity working for him by his dealers who had him signing prints on Saturday mornings at a fiver a time. So Lowry has a slight head start and it was the prints which helped get him noticed. I wonder if the same can be done for Turner? Things will change I am certain and it is reasonable to contemplate that Turner got his ideas from the Bayeux Tapestry as he was an obvious history boffin which is clearly seen in the drawn and written records in many of his works and sketchbooks that I have seen.
Example of work by British artist Laurence Stephen Lowry
Example from the Bayeux Tapestry, which may have influenced Turner’s work on the ‘Walberswick Scroll’
Turner seemed to not be wishing for great acclaim in an expensive gallery, but more as a type of homage to the village of Walberswick and some of its residents at the time. What a wonderful present he left for them and those who are lucky enough to see the pleasure he must have got from seeing this work through to the end. A lesser artist would have given up a short way into it, but he was certainly not a man of straw, and once he started there must have been no holding him back.
If you take the vagaries of the weather into account, it must have been some effort in continuing at times, so if there are patches of weakness here and there, then that can be well understood and forgiven. At the end of all that work the scroll could not have been held up and glanced at in order to view. So that was an unusual situation for anyone who put such a lot of work into a painting to contend with at that time I don’t suppose he knew how it was to be shown, but naturally he would have known all those problems long before he finished.
We show a few sections of the scroll of Walberswick, but I assure you there is nothing like the real thing, and a picture paints a thousand words, so all I can do is strongly urge you to take yourselves along, but remember to check first for dates on the Walberswick Village – Official Website before you go.
Trinity Fair Scroll
Soon we were ready to leave and after saying our goodbyes to Richard and the other visitors to the village hall, we were off once again, heading for the Swan Hotel, Southwold where we could view the scroll of the annual Trinity Fair.
When we arrived at our destination we bought a drink each taking in the local scene at the same time. Close by were people sitting down for a meal. When we had finished I asked a young waitress if it would be ok if we could see the scroll. She was very welcoming and asked us to follow her across the dining area and to a long room at the back used for receptions. The room was very bright and around three long walls attached the scroll of Trinity Fair.
The ‘Trinity Fair’ by John Doman Turner
James W Robertson looking at the ‘Trinity Fair’ scroll at the Swan Hotel
John Doman Turner made a panoramic record of the Trinity Fair in 1933. It took him two years and involved following the showmen to nearby towns and villages as well as sketching on the spot in Southwold.
The paintings were strikingly bright & unfaded. They were created so long ago that I suspect they had been rolled up and stored away from natural light. Furthermore, due to the scroll’s fragile nature, it had been mounted on a tougher material and framed with non reflective glass.
Each showman who worked on the amusements and rides had signed his or her name under the paintings.
It is obvious that Doman painted this for pleasure and not to make a living.
A section of the ‘Trinity Fair’ scroll
In one section of the scroll it is signed by him and what surprised me is that it is also signed by his wife Frances Elizabeth Turner. I seem to recall the local Mayors name so it was the unveiling of it, and the wife must have come down especially. It would I always imagined due to little gems I have heard that he had a lady friend down there, the name Jane often came up, and it turned to be the name of the top section of a caravan he lived in on the beach at Walberswick. The caravan was destroyed in the 1953 floods which swept Holland and the East Coast.
The signatures of John Doman Turner and his wife Francis Elizabeth Turner featured on the ‘Trinity Fair’ scroll
The finding of all the works and scrolls we now know about has come as a large surprise to myself simply because it was written by Wendy Baron that only two works were known about only a few years ago. More drawings and water colours can be seen in the Gallery.
On our way back and heading for home Stephen and myself both agreed that it was a great day out, and for all art lovers out there we highly recommend it. Superb is not a strong enough word, and made all the better in the company of my youngest son. We might even do it once again soon as it was so enjoyable.
If you know more about the artist John Doman Turner, please do share your story with us. Our email is firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by James W Robertson. Photography by Stephen J Robertson. Special thanks to Richard Scott, Katherine Ungless and The Swan Hotel for making this happen.