I really enjoy it when a book combines the beauty of art and text. I am very much a word person; I love the feel of words and the emotions they can create, but also the power of words and the knowledge that can be contained within them.
But what really impresses me is when I get the same feel for images in a book, when the power of words can be magnified by the illustrations that accompany them. I find it is not often that I am moved by both. This week I have been lucky – a new acquisition I purchased for the Local Studies Library collection at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre has done just that, and I felt I had to write about it!
The book in question is A Wiltshire Childhood by the artist Peter Upton. Now Peter is much better known for his equine artwork, particularly Arabian horses (he is also the author of many articles and a book on the topic). He is the nephew of Charles W Cain, etcher of Arabia in the 1920s. His work is known worldwide and he has exhibited in London, the US, Sweden and Cirencester. He continues to exhibit at the Mathaf Gallery in London.
A Wiltshire Childhood is a much more personal narrative, however, about the recollections of Peter after he and his twin brother Roger came to Wiltshire during the Second World War, living near Cricklade. Understandably, the illustrations are too. Another aspect of the book that really intrigued me is the mix of almost intimate details provided in the writing, but with no exact locations specified. I am not sure why this is the case, apart from perhaps preserving the anonymity of those Peter is writing about, but it got my research skills itching to get going. The beautiful hand drawn map provided me with a clue – it held lots of detail on it but not the name of the town that featured. ‘Bicknoll’ leading towards the downs and white horse enabled me to locate the town as Royal Wootton Basset, and the map fitted perfectly with the Ordnance Survey, the shapes of the roads leading from the town fitting exactly. I could then match other names such as Hunt’s mill to the area too…
The book itself is a collection of essays based on Peter’s ‘lasting love for the rural life of my childhood’. Peter believes that the past can be so easily forgotten, and many ways of the past have already gone. The images alongside the text in the book are a wonderful reminder of what has past, and a way of helping preserve this knowledge for the future. Peter’s writing is very emotive; he is an excellent storyteller, weaving his memories of people, places, language, nature and crafts into a vibrant and evocative narrative. The detail is fascinating, from his conversations with a farmer and stud owner, to his vivid description of the working day of the ‘horsemen’ and the work of important agricultural jobs like muck spreading, harvesting and thatching, to his experiences of the manor and with local people going about their everyday business like the baker and the milk round.
I particularly like Peter’s description of the site of ‘the farmhouse’, ‘…where a footpath meandered between cowslips and buttercups; its hedges of blackthorn with dog-roses a-blush and blackberry blossoms. Across the meadow among sombre yews and tombstones, stood the little church, brooding and damp’. The author’s illustrations are simple but at the same time packed full of detail, enhancing the text even further. Buildings, flowers, animals and agricultural equipment are included, alongside drawings of people at work. You can easily get drawn in and spend forever enjoying the contents.
What is left to say, apart from a highly recommended read!
A Wiltshire Childhood is available to view at the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre or to loan via your local library, ref. AAA.910.
Julie Davis, Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre, Chippenham