Above; Sutton Hoo Series. River Deben. Oil on 16.5 x 23.4 inches. Rose Strang 2021
This is the first of a series of paintings inspired by Sutton Hoo in Suffolk, England. The series will be on exhibition at the Limetree Gallery, Long Melford from August 2021.
I was inspired first of all by the film, The Dig which tells the story of the excavation of Saxon burial mounds in Suffolk called Sutton Hoo. Almost everyone I know has watched the film but for those who haven’t; the film follows the story of Edith Pretty, a widower and owner of land that includes Sutton Hoo – un-excavated burial mounds thought to be Viking. She pays local archaeologist Basil Brown to explore the mounds and very quickly he discovers that they are earlier and far rarer than Viking – in fact Anglo Saxon in origin.
I thought the film was a wonder of cinematography, capturing the dreamlike landscape of Suffolk in all its subtlety. It was also a poetic and moving meditation on what makes life meaningful.
Since I was visiting Suffolk to meet my partner’s family, we visited Sutton Hoo while there. I’d already decided to paint the landscape, and thanks to The Dig I had some foreknowledge of the history of the mounds. I knew too that seeing the place in person might be a disappointment. A talented camera-person captures landscape at its best, in the misty light of dawn for example or a glowing sunset. I knew I might have to bring considerable imagination to our exploration!
As it happened though, it was a perfect, warm sunny evening with almost no one around. We looked at the mounds – surrounded by hawthorn, pine trees and tufty grass, on which numerous rabbits were enjoying their dinner. The house that belongs to Edith Pretty is still there – Tranmer – sitting on top a hill overlooking the River Deben.
To get down to the river we walked through some woods, past leafy ponds and over a grass bank. The River Deben winds all the way from a village called Debenham down to the coast of Suffolk like a silver snake, becoming wider as it reaches the sea. Where it broadens out there’s a small town called Woodbridge, known for its Tide Mill and tranquil views across the water.
The west bank (Woodbridge side) of the river is busy with boats, houses and cafes, but the east bank, where you find Edith Pretty’s house and the Sutton Hoo mounds, is very quiet. We saw just a few people as we wandered along the riverside. It felt dreamlike, gentle – hidden or secret even. I began to see why people might choose this spot as a place to bury their dead.
Sutton Hoo wasn’t a simple cemetary for everyday people though, the (unplundered) mounds contained jewels, helmets, swords, textiles and various objects that would have been extremely valuable. The theory is that Burial Mound 1 was the grave (or perhaps Cenotaph) of King Rædwald. He was descended from the Wuffinga dynasty and would have been a powerful leader. He ruled from about 599 to 624 but very little remains of Anglo Saxon belongings or history, thanks partly to later Viking raids.
The Saxons were also a sea-faring people though and Burial Mound 1 was found to contain an entire ship, in which the grave objects were contained. No obvious body was discovered, but there were chemical remains suggesting a body had been there.
What also interests me is that Rædwald lived in a time when people in Britain were encouraged to adopt Christianity and monotheism as their religion. Rædwald’s burial mound contained a bowl that was typically Christian in theme and design, but most of the objects were typical of an Anglo Saxon burial. In fact Bede tells us that Rædwald did adopt the Christian religion towards the later part of his reign, but it’s likely this was more a a political move than a spiritual change of heart.
I don’t say that in a cynical sense, but more because it benefitted leaders to adopt Christianity since Rome was so powerful. Rædwald’s wife (whose name was unknown) was described by Bede as Pagan. Rædwald must have felt conficted. There’s a story that describes how she rebuked him for his lack of morality in one particular situation – so-called Pagans had a code of ethics too of course!
The above is a very cursory run-through of history I’ve picked up from The Dig and reading through Wikipedia, but the question that intrigued me most was – why did they choose this particular landscape for these prestigious burial mounds? I came across a website by someone called Lindsay Jacob (http://underlyndenchurch.com/) who describes a little about Anglo Saxon beliefs. It reminded me a lot of the research I’d done during my Arthur’s Seat Sacred Wells painting series. Landscape itself was spiritual and sacred in ancient cultures. They believed that certain places were liminal – places seen as ‘in-between’ or as some people might describe it – where there’s ‘a thin veil between heaven and earth’. These places were usually hills, streams, rivers, certain trees and so on.
Sitting on the banks of the River Deben the water looked calm as a mill pond, reflecting a milky sky. It looked to me as though if I removed the land there’d be nothing to differentiate sky from water – a band of grassy land off the river bank looked like it was floating in space. I tried to capture that in my painting above.
I’ll write more about Sutton Hoo in the next blog post in a few days when I post the next painting.