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How John Aldridge created a rural idyll in north Essex

The artist neither chased fame nor tired of his small patch of England.

By Michael Prodger

There is nothing immediately striking about Great Bardfield. Like many of the rural villages of north Essex, it is a pleasant but unprepossessing place. The village was supposedly given to Anne of Cleves by Henry VIII as part of their divorce settlement and it is home to a rare plant sometimes known as the Bardfield Oxlip. But otherwise it is neither as cliché pretty as nearby Finchingfield nor has the grandeur associated with the medieval wool wealth of Saffron Walden.

In the summer of 1931, however, Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden – who had scoped the area on their bicycles the previous year – rented half of Brick House in the heart of the village. Bawden’s parents, who lived not far away in Braintree, subsequently paid £500 to buy the house the following year. The arrival of these two artists proved a catalyst for their friends to move to the area and together this loose school of painter-designers became known as the Great Bardfield Artists.

Unlike the Bloomsberries at Charleston farmhouse in Sussex, the Bardfield group had no interest in European modernism – indeed, their escape to Essex profonde from London, where they trained as artists, can be read as a decamping from the contemporary world too. Their shared sensibility was for small-scale, figurative and pastoral painting cut with nostalgia and craft and design work with an admixture of folk art and William Morris. Artists associated with the group included Michael Rothenstein, Kenneth Rowntree, Ravilious’s wife Tirzah Garwood, and John Aldridge.

Aldridge was the only one to remain faithful to the village. He arrived there in 1933 with his partner, the rug and fabric designer Lucie Brown, their flamboyant painter friend Basil Taylor, and an assortment of cats. The menage moved into Place House, a supposedly haunted Elizabethan pile in need of modernisation and the ministrations of a gardener. For the next 50 years, until his death in 1983, the local landscape and buildings – undemonstrative but with a higgledy-piggledy charm – were to remain at the heart of Aldridge’s work.

Aldridge was born into a well-off military family and educated at Oxford, where he played a lot of rugby and read “Greats”. He never attended art school, however, and a private income allowed him to become a painter without having to face the financial exigencies that confronted most artists. His circle included John Betjeman and Robert Graves, and he would later make frequent trips to Deià in Majorca to visit Graves. Another friend was Ben Nicholson, who invited Aldridge to show his work for the first time, at the Seven and Five Society Exhibition in 1931. It was not a natural pairing; the society had started as a group of traditionalists but by this time they were thoroughgoing modernists. Nevertheless, Aldridge also showed alongside the Seven and Five artists Nicholson, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth at the Venice Biennale of 1934.

At Great Bardfield he was among more like-minded peers and in 1938 started a collaboration with Bawden – they were both keen gardeners – to produce wallpapers for commercial distribution. They came up with four designs in all that were later marketed by Cole & Son and known as the “Bardfield Papers”. Bawden and Aldridge carved the woodblocks themselves and printed samples by inking the blocks, laying them face down on paper and then walking over them; although supposedly one set of proofs required a Rolls Royce to drive over the blocks rather than the artists in their boots. Aldridge seems to have enjoyed the whole process, even breaking down one design into its component elements for separate printing; the onset of war, however, took the steam out of the whole enterprise.

Around the same time, Aldridge and Garwood started an affair when Ravilious resumed seeing a former lover, Diana Low. In her memoir Long Live Great Bardfield Garwood fondly recalled afternoons in bed with Aldridge, but he cut things off in 1939 when it dawned on him, somewhat belatedly, that the affair “was having an effect on his relationship with Lucie”. In their overlapping love lives, at least, the Bardfielders resembled the Bloomsbury Group.

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Aldridge finally married Brown in 1940 shortly before joining the British Intelligence Corps as an interpreter of aerial photographs. He had postings in north Africa and Italy – where he managed to rendezvous with Bawden, who was an official war artist. After the war, Aldridge resumed his painting career, took up a teaching post at the Slade School of Fine Arts, and became a Royal Academician in 1963.

He remained committed to Great Bardfield throughout, and in the 1950s, before the group began to dissolve, played an active part in the open-house exhibitions that drew hundreds of visitors to the village to see the artists’ works in their own homes: “People seem to prefer this domestic informality to galleries,” Aldridge told a newspaper in 1955.

Domestic informality informed his paintings too. Although he painted ruins in Rome, Graves’s portrait and Mediterranean landscapes, Aldridge’s work was essentially, as Betjeman wrote: “consistent, impervious to fashion and cheerfully representational. He belongs to the English tradition of local pastoral artists. He likes painting upturned earth, ploughed fields and mild landscapes.” As contemporary art changed around him, Aldridge stuck to his furrow. There is no hint in his pictures of abstraction or pop art or any of the modern movements that coincided with his own lifespan.

Aldridge believed that: “A painter, like a poet, selects subject matter because it seems vital to him,” and what was vital was the familiar, deep-rooted countryside around Great Bardfield, dotted with scruffy but functional farmyards, cottages with unmanicured gardens, allotments, tree- and ditch-lined fields, ponds, and streams that never really aspire to be rivers – even the River Pant that flows through the village is a modest waterway. In his conscious parochialism, Aldridge had much in common with two other contemporary local artists, John Nash and Cedric Morris.

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This undated painting, Beslyn’s Pond, now in the Fry Art Gallery in Saffron Walden, is typical of Aldridge’s understated style. It shows a spot a short walk north of Great Bardfield that was also a favourite with Ravilious and Bawden. The composition presents a familiar Essex scene – pleasing but not quite picturesque – but was nevertheless carefully thought out. The gallery also owns a meticulous drawing Aldridge made on the spot and later squared for transfer to canvas. It is a painting that contains a bit of everything – no figures (as was usual with him) but trees and buildings for structure, a broken horizon, water with its reflections, and a discreet but effective range of colours and textures. The pond may be the nominal subject – in fact Aldridge named the drawing simply “Beslyns” – but every element carries equal weight.

It is also a picture that exemplifies his belief that: “A landscape should be complete in itself – not just a bit of a place but a little world of its own – but it still invites the spectator to enter it.” So it is not just a picture but an invitation into Aldridge’s modest world.

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This article appears in the 23 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, A Dream of Britain