Tag Archives: Suffolk paintings

SUTTON HOO 7TH JULY

Above – Sutton Hoo Series. River Bank, River Deben. Oil on 23.4 x 16.5 inches. Rose Strang 2021 – one of today’s paintings of the Sutton Hoo Series inspired by the landscape surrounding Sutton Hoo in Suffolk.

Below are paintings in progress in which I’m trying to capture something of the atmosphere of the mounds at Sutton Hoo. Although the Sutton Hoo side of the River Deben is actually fairly quiet and uninhabited, the other side is busy with boats, houses and cafes. I’ve chosen views with almost no signs of human habitation to hopefully suggest how the landscape might have felt to people living in East Anglia in the 6th century.

Interestingly, many historians and archaeologists suggest that the story of Beowulf could describe the cultural interests or beliefs of Anglo Saxons in the 6th century. The surviving manuscript of Beowulf was written some time between the 10th and 11th centuries. It’s an ancient tale of that time, referring to a legend set in the 6th century. There was no known title to the manuscrip,t but scholars called it Beowulf since the story revolves around his adventures.

Though the characters themselves are not English, it’s suggested that the manuscript may have been written in Rendlesham, Suffolk – near to Woodbridge which is directly opposite Sutton Hoo across the River Deben.

The story revolves around heroes, kings, queens and characters in or from Scandinavia, but although many of these characters are mentioned in Scandinavian ancient literature, Beowulf himself isn’t mentioned anywhere but in the actual story of Beowulf. Perhaps he was a maverick member of these great Scandinavian dynasties who broke away, or was exiled.

Names,a mong other references, suggest possible connections; there was a Scandinavian dynasty called the Ylfings, written as Wulfings in Beowulf, also an Anglo Saxon dynasty was based in East Anglia called the Wuffingas. All is speculation as so much has been lost to time and subsequent ruling dynasties.

Have a read of this partial summary (from Wikipedia) below the paintings, of the plot of Beowulf, in light of the burial mounds at Sutton Hoo and their contents …

Sutton Hoo Series, Hawthorn. River Deben. Oil on 23.4 x 16.5 inches. Rose Strang 2021

The protagonist Beowulf, a hero of the Geats, comes to the aid of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose great hall, Heorot, is plagued by the monster Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands, then kills Grendel’s mother with a giant’s sword that he found in her lair.

Later in his life, Beowulf becomes king of the Geats, and finds his realm terrorized by a dragon, some of whose treasure had been stolen from his hoard in a burial mound. He attacks the dragon with the help of his thegns or servants, but they do not succeed. Beowulf decides to follow the dragon to its lair at Earnanæs, but only his young Swedish relative Wiglaf, whose name means “remnant of valour”, dares to join him. Beowulf finally slays the dragon, but is mortally wounded in the struggle. He is cremated and a burial mound by the sea is erected in his honour.

This suggests the origin of the Anglo Saxon practice of burial mounds full of treasure. It also introduces dragons – always a mysterious aspect of ancient stories and apparently central to the art and culture of the Anglo Saxons.

I might explore the theme of dragons further in the next few days. I now have just one painting to complete, which I’ll post here this Friday.

Sutton Hoo Series

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.

Tranmer House near Sutton Hoo. Photo Rose Strang 2021

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.

Tidemill. Woodbridge. Photo Adam Brewster 2021

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.

River Deben on the east side. Rose Strang 2021

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.

Burial Mound 1 in the sunset. Rose Strang 2021