A Walk in the Woods at The Higgins, Bedford


Walk in the woods

At the end of last year I read a book review in Country Life Magazine of the book Silent Witnesses: trees in British art, 1760-1870; by Christina Payne. In a note at the end the reviewer mentioned an exhibition which was being hosted by The Higgins in Bedford. The exhibition finishes tomorrow [25 February 2018] but I was able to get to see it on Tuesday as Bedford is about a 50 minute drive down the A1 from Alwalton.

I was very surprised to note that every single picture emanated from The Higgins’ own collection. Here is how this came about :

The Cecil Higgins Museum, as it was formerly known, opened its doors to the public on 25th July 1949, housed in the former Higgins family home. The Museum was founded by the philanthropic brewer, Cecil Higgins (1856-1941) to house his collection of ceramics, glass and objets d’art for the benefit, interest and education of the inhabitants of, and visitors to, Bedford. Cecil Higgins left a complex will to protect his collection which stipulated how the museum was to be organised. He also left a trust fund, to be used for museum purposes, but principally for acquiring works of art (which included Decorative and Applied). The Trustees of the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery still administer the trust, safeguarding the Cecil Higgins collection, enabling new acquisitions and vital conservation work.

Over the years collecting policies shifted focus, moving from decorative arts to watercolours, furniture and prints. The period between 1952 and 1964, under the curatorship of Margaret Greenshields, were the most productive in terms of collecting watercolours. Over 500 were acquired in twelve years. In 1971, following the appointment of Helina Graham as curator, the collecting policy switched back to the decorative arts, with the purchase of over 200 pieces from the Handley-Read Collection including the William Burges furniture.

From 1988, the focus returned to collecting prints, this time concentrating on the 20th century. The print collection now numbers over 400 pieces, including works by some of the finest British artists as well as internationally renowned figures such as Picasso, Lichtenstein and Dürer. The collection charts styles as well as print processes, from Whistler’s delicate etchings to Edward Bawden’s magnificent linocuts. The last major addition to the print collection was a generous donation in 2004 from the Scottish artist Alan Davie (1920 – present) of over 70 prints, as well as five works in gouache.

In 2005, the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery merged with Bedford Museum, but retained its separate buildings and identity until it closed for redevelopment in 2007.

The whole exhibition was first class and included well known and lesser known artists working in various media.

This autumn, The Higgins Bedford pays homage to the tree with a new exhibition celebrating the role of trees and woodland in British landscape painting. Drawn from the world-famous Cecil Higgins Art Gallery Collection, some forty watercolours, drawings and prints from the past two centuries will be on show and will include works by John Constable, John Sell Cotman, Edward Lear, Samuel Palmer, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland and Lucian Freud. The show will highlight the importance and enduring popularity of trees in art, and explore various themes which have evolved in artists’ depictions of nature: magical and dreaming trees, trees in the countryside, the pleasures of woods and the lure of the exotic.

The exhibition has been organised in collaboration with Christiana Payne, Professor of History of Art at Oxford Brookes University.”

Here’s a selection that caught my eye :

1 George Price Boyce

George Price Boyce (1826 – 1897)
At Binsey, near Oxford, 1862

The two pollarded willows put me in mind of William Morris’s wallpaper and fabric design Willow Bough.

The lure of the exotic
British artists have long been fascinated by the Mediterranean. In addition to the bright light and easygoing lifestyle, they were attracted by its exotic looking trees. Particular trees such as olives, cypresses and palms, would give an authentically southern flavour to their landscapes. Artists travelled abroad for varying reasons. Edward Lear travelled, all over Greece, and even went further afield to Albania, Egypt and India, in search of subject matter.

I’m thinking particularly of those dragon trees in Tenerife.

Edward Lear (1812 – 1888)
Corfu and The Temple at Bassae, 1849
I’m currently reading a life of Edward Lear by Jenny Uglow. He’s best known these days for his nonsense verse but his watercolour paintings are beautiful.
Lear thought the situation of the Temple of Apollo at Bassae, Greece the most beautiful that could be imagined, with rich oakwoods on all sides. But he visited the Temple in a snowstorm in March, and the oaks were bare. After he returned to England he painted a large oil of the subject with a huge oak, in fulloleaf in the foreground (now in the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge). It’s not clear whether the greens in this drawing, probably applied later in the studio, indicate the evergreen ilex trees that he also saw there, or the oaks as he imagined they would be in summer.
He loved the lush vegetation – including some of his favourite trees: olives and maritime pines. The strong vertical lines of the cypress trees set off the view of Corfu town.

There’s a section on Bedfordshire trees. “Beautiful trees are never far from us in Bedford. Step outside to to see walnuts, sycamores and oaks in the gardens, and horse chestnuts and yews on the castle mound. Stroll to Bedford Park and find Bedfordshire Champions, some of the largest specimens of trees in the county. Explore the new woodland of Priory Country Park, or the ancient woods of Clapham Park. 

Natural geology gave Bedfordshire the Greensand Ridge, a band of sandy soils running diagonally from Linslade to Gamlingay. Its ancient woods, medieval parkland, and hunting grounds from the time of Henry VIII survived largely because the land was too poor for farming. 

Ours has been a county of passionate tree planters, from the Victorians, who laid out our formal parks, to the Laxton family of Brickhill who cultivated 27 new varieties of apple. We are still growing trees today and still looking after woodland, both ancient and modern.”

4 Edward Hull

Edward Hull (1823 – 1906)
St Peter’s Green, Bedford 1858

The hornbeams featured here have all gone now – replaced by a row of limes. Planted about 100 years ago. The lime has been chosen as an avenue tree for 100s of years due to its beautiful foliage.

5 John Constable


John Constable (1776 – 1837)
Fir trees at Hampstead, 1833

Constable loved trees. Drawing of Scots Pine and a larch. Drawn on 4 pieces of paper joined together and exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1834.

6 Edward Poynter

Edward John Poynter
The wooded landscape, 1900

The large oak trees are inviting, but the interior of the woods looks gloomy and claustrophobic, and we might feel that the young lady with the parasol is wise to stay in the sunlit meadow.


2 comments on “A Walk in the Woods at The Higgins, Bedford

  1. dovegreyreader says:

    Isn’t it a shame that we don’t get to hear about exhibitions like this. It sounds wonderful but hadn’t even heard a whisper about it. Thanks for the vicarious visit, it looks splendid.

    • You are quite right, Lynne. It was just the fact of reading the book review that lead me to it. And I thought ‘In Bedford?? I’ve never been to Bedford’. Then it dawned on me to check out the distance from Peterborough and the date just fitted perfectly too. Also, in a previous post I mentioned the Ed Kluz. That was almost on my doorstep but I only heard about it by chance. I suppose it’s the outdoor exhibits that get the most publicity at the YSP. What else are we missing, I wonder? Even if we can’t get to them, I’d like to know. Country Life and The Weekend FT are quite good sources.

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