Following their bicycle rides around the Essex countryside in 1930 Eric Ravilious and Edward Bawden commenced renting half of Brick House, Great Bardfield in June 1931, Edward Bawden’s parents subsequently buying the house for them in 1932 for £500.
John Aldridge arrived in Great Bardfield in 1933 moving into Place House along with his partner Lucie Brown (nee Saunders) a rug and fabric designer and artist friend the bi-sexual Basil Taylor, plus cats!
Aldridge was born in 1905 in Woolwich the son of a well-heeled Royal Artillery Officer. He was educated at Uppingham Public School, Rutland and read “classics” at Corpus Christi College Oxford where he was also good at games, particularly rugby. He received no formal art training; after graduating from Oxford University in 1928, he settled in London with excursions to Paris, Germany, Italy, Tenerife and Majorca. His first exhibition in London was the Seven and Five Society Exhibition in 1931 following an invitation from friend Ben Nicholson. His social circle in London included poets Ruthven Todd, John Betjeman and life-long friend Robert Graves.
Tirzah Ravilious (Garwood) recalled: “The new people at Place House were also becoming interested (in the local political meetings), at least John Aldridge was: but I remember stopping with Basil Taylor outside a left-wing poster on the front of Brick House and his asking confidentially, ‘What do you think of Communists?’ and me replying, ‘I don’t like them, they’re so ugly: and feeling that we agreed, like guilty conspirators, we said no more.’
Both Lucie (a divorcee) and Aldridge were very devoted to cats and amongst the cats moving in with them was a homeless tabby called Smith. Another cat, a half Siamese black female called Trippet had constant families.
Place House was an Elizabethan house dating from 1564 on the outskirts of the village. It had an odd little attic up irregular steps and its own chapel. Central heating and a bath were installed, and Aldridge and Lucie commenced mending and painting the house. The large garden had run wild and Aldridge, like Bawden, was a keen gardener and set to work creating the beautiful garden featured in many of his paintings.
Images: Cats, Fry Gallery Collection. Lucie weaving a rug. Place House to the Right. Place House and Cat. Cat rug designed by John woven by Lucie.
Aldridge started to paint in oils scenes of Great Bardfield, unlike Bawden and Ravilious he had little interest in commercial art. Aldridge was not at all interested in Bawden’ and Ravilious’s pictures saying he couldn’t tell the difference between them!
Two paintings of Great Bardfield
While Aldridge derived inspiration from his locality he was also successful with his excursions into Italian subjects having a love of Rome and classical architecture in particular.
Aldridge once wrote: ‘A painter, like a poet, selects subject matter because it seems vital to him’.
Betjeman wrote: ‘His painting is 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. He is also the gardener’s artist’.
Homes and gardens. Final photo is ‘Mallorca’ 1936.
Aldridge and Bawden were happiest when painting or gardening, swapping plants and seedlings. The two collaborated in 1938-39 on a series of high-quality wallpaper designs that became known as “Bardfield Papers”. Unfortunately, the war came along and terminated the whole enterprise.
Meanwhile Eric and Tirzah Ravilious moved to nearby Castle Hedingham setting up home in Bank House, the move exacerbated the complications appearing in their marriage. Tirzah soon returned to Bardfield as Eric hadn’t made any arrangements for a pregnant Tirzah traveling to Braintree Hospital from Hedingham. While Eric dashed off to London to see lover Helen Binyon, Charlotte and Tirzah played cards but the morning after Tirzah felt the first pains of childbirth. Charlotte went to Place House to summon John and Lucie and she was driven to the cottage hospital. John Ravilious duly arrived, and Eric cycled over to Braintree to see them while John and Lucie also visited along with Tirzah’s mother who came all the way from Eastbourne.
Back at Bank House the Ravilious’s and Bawden’s socialised with John and Lucie along with Basil Taylor. Taylor had been a larger than life figure back at the Royal College of Art in the 1920’s along with his mistresses. Taylor developed a liking for drinking neat spirits and being devoid of work was getting into debt with people in Great Bardfield. He stopped living at Place House and moved to a nearby village living with two sisters. That Christmas of 1935 Charlotte rang Tirzah to say not to send presents to Place House, an awful thing had happened, Basil had committed suicide with an exhaust from a car. Taylor had quarrelled with John and Lucie and Tirzah later revealed a confidence to Aldridge that Basil had been in love with him.
Tirzah’s feelings for John Aldridge also grew and after Ravilious had stated that he should go and live with Helen Binyon she told him that she was in love with Aldridge. An affair between Tirzah and Aldridge slowly developed gathering pace in 1938 when Ravilious resurrected his affair with Dianna Low. Tirzah and John’s affair stopped suddenly in 1939 when Aldridge stated ‘it was having an effect on his relationship with Lucie’.
Back to his art Aldridge exhibited at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1934, after which his international reputation began to rise. Hiss painting ‘Deyd, the Valley’ painted in 1933 was hung at the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale along with works by Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. Unlike his contemporaries Aldridge made only limited forays into printmaking, his 1938 lithograph ‘Mill in Essex’ one of a handful of fine prints.
He married Lucie in 1940 when he signed up to join the war effort attached to the British Intelligence Corps as an officer interpreting aerial photographs. He served in Italy and in North Africa and met up in Florence with Bawden who had been appointed as a war artist.
After the War, Aldridge painted the builders repairing a bomb-damaged Brick House. It was likely that the trellised building Eric and Tirzah gave to the Bawden’s was blown up at the same time.
In 1949 he became assistant at the Slade School and was made an Associate of The Royal Academy in 1954 and a full Academician two years later. Starting in 1949, Aldridge taught at the Slade School for Fine Arts of University College London, under the realist painter Sir William Coldstream.
Aldridge was at the forefront of the Great Bardfield open house exhibitions which became a huge success with people coming in their thousands to view new work for sale and to have a look round the very innovatively decorated homes of the artist. In 1955, Aldridge told a London Observer reporter that “people seem to prefer this domestic informality to galleries”. The novelty of viewing modernist art works in the artists own homes led to thousands visiting the remote village during the summer exhibitions of 1954, 1955 and 1958.
Aldridge divorced Lucie in 1970, marrying Norwegian Gretl Cameron, the widow of his poet friend Norman Cameron. In 1980, on Aldridge’s 75th birthday, London’s New Grafton Gallery held a retrospective of his work.
Thanks to the notoriety of the Artists, the draw to the village continues to this day, a testament to the love of the artists. Aldridge was the one artist to stay living in the village for 50 years until he passed away in 1983, his wife Gretl having died a few months earlier.
In recent years, the value of Aldridge’s work, especially his oil paintings, has increased enormously as this previously underrated artist receives the attention he deserves.
Lucie Aldridge’s autobiography (once lost now found) just published 16th August 2021.
Link to excellent YouTube https://youtu.be/am7gUcZbI8k
Graham Bennison https://www.facebook.com/BennisonArtist