Fred Mizen was born in Great Samford, Essex in 1893.
It is known that he served his country in World War One where he lost his left eye and a finger from his left hand. On his return he went gardening for people in the village and surrounding area, no doubt unable to continue with the rigours of farm labouring.
Little is known of his early life but it is known that he worked the various farms around the area of Great Bardfield, where he had moved to and lived out his days. It is said that he had been making corn dollies and other straw works since his childhood, where he had seen them made in the fields by other farm workers.
Edward Bawden. Litho for Life in an English Village, 1949. John Aldridge is on the left with Sergeant Baker, the Landlord Mr Jarrold and Fred Mizen. Fred was gardener for John Aldridge and Edward Bawden. One of Fred’s bell corn dollies hangs over the bar.
A discussion between Muriel Rose and Alex Coker (see footnote) provides valuable information:-
Muriel: My first sight of a corn dolly was when Tom Hennell cycled into Great Bardfield with a corn dolly strapped to the handlebars of his bike. Working for an exhibition after the war and wanting some corn dollies I learned that there was a sheaf of corn lying in the garden of John Aldridge’s Place House. I mentioned to the gardener Fred that I would take the corn over to a dolly maker in Debden.
Fred replied, “What do you want to go all that way for, I used to make them in the form of bicycles”.
That night I was upstairs when Lucie Aldridge called to me, you must come downstairs at once. There was Fred standing in the hall with his black patch over one eye and his injured left, hand, bent injured hand plaiting up, as neat as possible, a beautiful corn dolly plait and we were all very thrilled. He then showed us exactly how it was done by crisply turning one straw over another.
While Eric Ravilious and Tirzah were living first in Great Bardfield and then Castle Hedingham…Tirzah recalled: “Place House and Brick House both employed a gardener called Fred Mizen, a tall man, attractive because he looked like a pirate as he had a patch over one eye. He had won Edward Bawden’s heart by covering the garden at Brick House with paper windmills to scare away the birds and he was good at amusing Joanna when she sat up the garden in her pram.
Basil (Taylor) had first made his acquaintance in the pub as he was a hearty drinker and at Charlotte’s dance he got very drunk and stated a fierce argument with the communist Mr Thompson, a kindly but boring man with a beard, dressed like Gill in a one-piece smock tied at the waist with a rope and underneath, bare legs and sandals. Charlotte hustled them into the supper room at the side of the hall where they started fighting which she tried to stop, until John Aldridge arrived to assist her and pushed them both outside. Charlotte was feeling very tired and she went home and fainted and so missed the rest of the dance.”
Fred was indeed an extraordinary Corn Dolly maker. He made the giant exhibits of the Lion and Unicorn for the Festival of Britain in London in 1951. They were seven feet tall and took about six months to build. These pieces really brought him to the public eye. At the time Fred was gardening for John Aldridge, who, with Dick Russell and Hugh Casson (later knighted) were to design parts of the South Bank site. How the Lion and Unicorn came about is a little unclear, maybe the name was given to Fred or he was asked to make two models of his choice for an unnamed pavilion.
The first photo shows Fred making the Unicorn, the fourth photo is the Lion and Unicorn at the Festival of Britain 1951.
Muriel: At the time of the 1951 exhibition several well-known artists were living in Great Bardfield. Dick Russell, in charge of the Lion and Unicorn Pavilion had the brilliant idea of getting Fred to make for them a lion and unicorn of about six feet or more in height. They reached the ceiling of his cottage and for the detail he had an HP Sauce bottle and looked very carefully at the Royal Coat of Arms under a magnifying glass and got all the details he required. He was a little at a loss with the eyes and turned to John Aldridge and John helped by painting the eyes.
Alec: Was his work checked at intervals by an artist or somebody?
Muriel: Nobody, Fred would not have liked anybody else to have much say about it when he was doing it. I do remember one exciting moment when he came down to work in the garden in a great state because that night a mouse had got up in the head of one of them, and was making merry up there. They had to get the mouse out of the cottage door, which was no mean feet.
During this construction, a young Elizabeth Smith, aged 9 at the time, went with her father to deliver flowers to Mrs Mizen and saw them being built. It is said that Fred knew of a mouse building its’ nest in one of them but he didn’t have the heart to remove it. We know that a mouse’s nest did appear during the Festival of Britain. After the Festival had closed the Lion and Unicorn went to Selfridges in Oxford Street where the mice in the basement finally destroyed them.
The publicity that resulted from the Festival led to something of a revival in interest in Straw plaiting, all from Fred’s work. As a result of this publicity, Fenwicks in Bond Street asked Fred to make some corn dollies for their Christmas stock. He worked hard and delivered his stock by hand. On being told that a cheque would be sent in due course, he took up the dollies and went into the street, selling them all to shoppers going about their Christmas shopping within half an hour.
Muriel: One of the friends who used to stay often at the Place was writer and poet Robert Graves and Fred and Robert became great friends when Graves visited.
The Malting Maid and Barley Queen heads. The giant straw figures with John Aldridge and Fred Mizen.
Fred’s grandson Philip Mizen has been an invaluable help in this blog and commented: It is my understanding that John Aldridge was responsible for painting the heads of The Malting Maid & The Barley Queen, this would tie in the whole Great Bardfield artists collaborative element.
The ‘collaborative element’ mentioned by Philip concerns the Great Bardfield Summer exhibitions, where art works in the artists own homes led to thousands visiting the remote village during the summer exhibitions of 1954, 1955 and 1958.
Fred’s display for the 1953 Coronation celebrations. Edward Bawden’s drawing of Fred’s corn dollies.
Fred was also prolific in his original work of thatching and one example of this work can be found a mile or so from Great Bardfield on the Saling Road. It is the old lodge house to the Parkhall Farm Estate. One chap, whose father was estate manager in the early 50s remembers Fred thatching the roof and teaching him, as a lad, to make corn dollies.
Although a number of Fred’s works are known, only a few remain. Some of these can be seen at the Museum of Rural Life in Berkshire. These include an anchor, some 42inches high, horseshoes, pitch forks, scythes and fire irons. The farm implements are life size. He also made the Barley Queen and the Malting Maid for the Brewery Society to display, these were both 9 feet tall!
Fred Mizen continued making straw/wheat works until his death on 19th October 1961. His legacy is the renewed interest in the craft and since then, many people have taken to teaching and writing about it.
In 1928 Muriel Rose set up in the Little Gallery in Ellis Street, London where many women designers working on their own, or with a partner, benefited from being able to exhibit and sell their work in this way. She became the main sales outlet for the block-printed textiles of Phyllis Barron and Dorothy Larcher, and their assistant, Enid Marx. Silverware and cutlery by Catherine Cockerell, printed papers by Tirzah Garwood and the studio pottery of Katherine Pleydell-Bouverie and Norah Braden.In common with many other exclusive outlets for the crafts, the Little Gallery did not survive the Second World War and closed in 1940.
Alec Coker (1912-1986) was an experienced straw dolly maker and writer. Coker devoted his retirement from 1965 until his death in 1986 to spreading knowledge of and teaching the craft of corn dolly making.
Graham Bennison https://www.facebook.com/BennisonArtist
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