I don’t know how I have managed to miss this astonishing festival in previous years – it’s not far from where I live, but tucked away in the network of lanes between routes to other places.
Perhaps that’s one reason why, going down the drive laced with cowparsley and buttercups, it felt like we were slipping into another world – a world we are losing and a new one we are finding. There are ribbons tied in trees, and sculptures, and everyday objects that look like they have been placed with transforming love and care. You feel yourself relaxing, and being lifted, and filling with wonder, even as you arrive.
Jason Gathorne-Hardy writes in the programme
The farm sits within a landscape that has been planted and cultivated for hundreds, possibly thousands of years. Small areas of farm parkland and pastures [known locally as pightles] are enclosed by hedges of hawthorn, crab apple, blackthorn, field maple, hazel and elm. This grassy landscape is punctuated by free-standing trees: oak, ash and poplars tower above the hedgerows……
White House Farm is a truly remarkable place. They have been running this festival since 2011, using their working farm buildings as workshop space, studio space, and exhibition space. This year’s theme is Florabundance.
As you meander through the farmyards, directed by handwritten signs on wood, you find open doors to peer behind, revealing breathtaking beauty. There is so much, but I’ll just pick out a few details among a true abundance.
In the lamb nursery room – which is used as such earlier in the season – laid out on white tops, were the most exquisite bronze vegetables, fruit and seeds. Alice-Andrea Ewing had cast them from produce during her residency at the farm. The beauty of the natural forms coupled with the weight and seriousness of bronze gave them an extraordinary presence, as if we could see and feel everyday things as truly wonderful.
The combination of old farm buildings and small cubes of art gallery white really charged ordinary food with a sense of the artist’s reverence, such as with these pears, and medlars.
I loved the way the whole place was so hospitable. There were were toys and picnic tables and clues to adventures outside – and inside the lovely Suffolk chairs, old and new, were often beside piles of books that, if you felt inclined, would send you on the trail of other adventures – of friendships and connections between the artists and those who had gone before, and the places they love, and their mutual “cross pollination”. The Benton End trail was a joy to follow – especially the connection with the iris paintings we would come to later.
I loved the transformation of the everyday, the desire to honour simple planting and growing, that was evident everywhere. In particular, Tessa Newcomb with works “The onions continued to be elegant”, “The last moment of the Year, 2018”, and a whole barnful more….. and Ruth Stage’s limpid winter light, again in pictures of the farm and nearby walled garden.
It was the corrugated old threshing barn that held the largest and most breathtaking works though. Jane Wormwell’s large canvasses of detailed corners of her garden, and tangles of hedgerow brambles, were remarkably powerful and moving. These huge flowers put me in a better perspective. The main exhibition space was given over to Jelly Green’s iris paintings. This is why we had come – the publicity material had small snatches of them, and I really wanted to see them in real life with all the thickness of the paint and vividness and aliveness of the colours.
Some of these were flowers cultivated at Benton End by Cedric Morris, who taught Maggi Hambling, who taught Jelly Green.
The vivacity, the joyfulness of the paintings was breathtaking. I could have spent much longer there.
There is a tiny chapel in one of the barns, with a cross on the table before an animal feeding trough, a manger. The walls have small pictures of refugees, and brick-sized scriptures alongside. It was a good place to stop, to breathe, to pray. The whole place is full of a deep sense of presence, of connection, of goodness, of life.
We walked through the bluebell wood, following the winding path, slowly, breathing deeply, letting the colour and the scent fill us.
More from Jason Gathorne-Hardy
It is easy to believe that we, as humans, can control our environment: that we dictate the terms on which we live on this planet. But that notion of power over of all that we survey is probably a mistake. Plants give us oxygen to breathe, clean water to drink and the raw materials for shelter, food, medicines, comfort and rest. To borrow a phrase, ‘we live in their world’. We have lost a lot of biodiversity in the past two hundred years. Locally, this is made abundantly clear by referring to George Crabbe’s plant list for Framlingham and District in the early C19th…….
The Exhibition also seeks to honour their presence in our gardens and landscapes and celebrate the importance of plants in our lives – alongside natural pollinators and seed carriers – through the work of selected guest artists. Implicit in this is a positive and hopeful story: that the diversity of flora and fauna that we once lived with…. in whose world we lived…. may once again become abundant and resurgent…. which is something to celebrate!
What a joy it was to come home, and to see that the irises in our own garden were beginning to open.
If you live in Suffolk, the exhibition is open for one more weekend – the Late May Bank Holiday. The tea in the farmhouse is very good too!