Friend Demus and I were joined at our table at the busy Ram Inn at Firle by a couple walking the South Downs. As we sipped our pints of Harveys Ale they asked "are you walking the Downs?" - "no, I replied. We are looking for a greenhouse". It was only then that I thought how ludicrous that may sound, but it was true and they totally understood what brought us to this corner of rural Sussex. You see, we were not looking for any greenhouse, but the greenhouses of Eric Ravilious. He painted the wonderful greenhouses belonging to the Gage family in 1935 and we have spoken of them often and viewed his paintings in the flesh, so as you can imagine this was an exciting jolly on a warm and sunny August day.
I have visited Firle before, I love it in fact. The Church, houses, Jim Piper's vegetable stall, Bloomsbury connections and also the pub with its excellent menu and beer - everything seems right with the world.
The most famous of ER's greenhouse paintings is the one directly below (Cyclamen and Tomatoes 1935). He also did The Cucumber House around the same period.
|The Greenhouse: Cyclamen and Tomatoes - Eric Ravilious watercolour 1935|
We finished lunch and as if by magic we bumped into Jim Piper. A lovely Sussex chap who maintains and grows vegetables in the very greenhouses that ER painted. Jim also understood by the way why we wanted to see them - he was that sort of chap, he just got it. Generous with his time and patient with two individuals resembling schoolboys who enjoyed the simple things of life. He also showed us the Victorian strawberry house.
I loved the ironwork - what stories those drainage grills in the floor could tell. The nine or so gardeners from the estate who went to war and only three returned. Mr William Edwyn Humphreys was the head gardener when ER visited to paint in 1935. He was one of the three who returned. Jim showed us a lovely photograph of them all together in the garden. Mr Humphreys is buried under the Yew in Firle churchyard. Just over the wall from the gardens he managed.
I purchased some tomatoes and a cucumber grown in the very ER greenhouse. They were out of this world. The tomatoes sliced on toast with salt and pepper - perfection!
|The Cucumber House - Eric Ravilious watercolour 1935|