When John Ireland was visiting Amberley in the 1920s, writing Amberley Wild Brooks in 1921, the village was not only an exquisite one, but also one inhabited and visited by artists and writers. Arnold Bennett and family stayed in Box Tree Cottage for several weeks on an extended holiday, this property the home of artist Fred Stratton. Fred’s son Hilary Byfield Stratton (1906–85) went on to become a well-known sculptor. A distant link with the world of John Ireland emerges here, in that this Stratton was married in Chelsea Old Church in 1937, to Billie Despard, an artist’s model. Stratton was Eric Gill’s assistant, working with him in South Harting in West Sussex in 1919, on a memorial obelisk following WWI (shown right).
Another Amberley artist was Gerald Burn (1862–1945), an etcher and engraver. His home was in Penny Hill, with attached studio. Many of Burn’s works take Sussex as their focus, for example his representation of the lovely Stopham Bridge (below).
Predating these two artists, Edward Stott (1859-1918), settled in Amberley after studying in Paris. Stott left many wonderful paintings, but also played an important role in the preservation of Amberley’s thatched cottages.
Ireland visited Jersey on many occasions, and lived on Guernsey in 1939 and 1940. The Channel Islands are not, however, only these two biggest and best-known, but embrace three distinct groups of islands. The northern cluster, centred on Alderney, also includes uninhabited Burhou, Ortac, Renonquet, the Casquets and a number of small islets. Furthest south, virtually on the Normandy coast, are the Iles de Chausey, as well as Les Minquiers and Douvres. John Ireland’s islands lie in the centre, and this group includes Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Herm, Jethou, Brecqhou, Lihou and smaller, fantastically-named reefs such as Les Écréhous, Les Dirouilles and Les Pierres de Lecq. Finally, there are tiny Tintageu and Crevichon, the latter renamed the green cone of Merg by Compton Mackenzie in his 1926 novel, Fairy Gold.
In the early 1920s, when Ireland was busy with his many Hardy-inspired works, he visited Cerne Abbas on several occasions. It is an ancient Dorset settlement originally centred around a Benedictine Abbey founded here in the year 987. Surrendered to Henry VIII in 1539, the Abbey was ruined, but by the 19th century Cerne was a thriving market town. By the 1920s, when Ireland was spending time there, the place was served by several old inns and was the home of the painter Joseph Benwell Clark.
Cerne’s surviving religious sites include St Augustine’s Well, an ancient spring adjoining the former Abbey, and the lovely St Mary’s church. Towering above it all, accessible on foot from the site of the Abbey, is the Cerne Giant, a fertility symbol cut into the hillside, donated to the National Trust by the Pitt-Rivers estate in 1920. It is then the town’s long and complex history that particularly resonated with John Ireland, with the theme that so often emerges with the composer: the juxtaposition of pagan and Christian.
During the years c. 1906–1914 John Ireland visited Jersey every summer, each time spending around 6 weeks there. At that time the railway was flourishing, with a line that ran from the west to the east coast, taking visitors from Gorey, with its castle and pier, to Corbière, with its dramatically-situated lighthouse.
The train ran on a single track and there were regular services, as can be seen from the timetable of 1916. One of the stops was Fauvic, on the Royal Bay of Grouville. This is where Ireland conceived his potent little piano piece, ‘The Island Spell’. Perhaps, then, he made his way there by steam train?
From Fauvic there is a view of France. There are martello towers and a beach whose outlook is radically altered at high and low tides. It is a magical spot still, and before the First World War must have been quite a halcyon place for a composer enjoying a moment of summer solitude.
Many aspects of ‘The Island Spell’ can be mapped on to this landscape experience. The piano miniature has an undulation and sweeping range commensurate with the powerful ebb and flow of the tide in this vast, sandy bay. Surely the right hand ‘tings’ are inspired by the glitter of sun on the sea. And the faint relationship with Debussy’s ‘La Cathédrale Engloutie’ and superimposition of the impressionistic words of Arthur Symons have associations with the Normandy vista seen by Ireland while floating in the sea off Fauvic.
A marvellous collection of photographs shows many of the railway stations as they would have been in Ireland’s time.
One of the dedicatees of Ireland’s piano suite, Sarnia, was the Guernsey flautist, Alfred Sebire, known to the composer as ‘Seeba’. Sebire (1892–1980), a former pupil of Charles Souper and John Amadio, was introduced to Ireland by another Guernsey man, Andrew White, who became friendly with Ireland and John Longmire when they were living on the island in 1939–40. Sebire’s connection with Sarnia is intriguing, as the long panpipe roulades that make up ‘Le Catioroc’ are perhaps influenced by this flautist. Sebire remained friendly with the composer after his departure from the island, seeing him on his return to Guernsey in 1948, and then visiting him at Rock Mill in Sussex in the late 1950s.