Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Art in the farmyard

May 31, 2018 by  
Filed under Profiles

Judith Tooth visits a Suffolk farm celebrating art, food, farming and landscape.

Five hundred people gathered for lunch at the launch of this year’s Alde Valley Spring Festival – feasting on a huge curry prepared by Suffolk chef Peter Harrison using local ingredients.

The recipe included Alde Valley Mutton, bread from Pump Street Bakery, yoghurt from Marybelle, juice from High House Fruit Farm and salads from the East of England Co-op, all served with cyder generously donated by Aspall.

Diners ate for free – but donations totalling £2350 went to support the local church restoration fund, Suffolk Wildlife Trust and Suffolk Refugee Support.

Now, farmer, curator and artist Jason Gathorne-Hardy, creator of the month-long festival, and team including local artist Becky Munting, who combines the role of assistant festival manager with painting wildlife around east Suffolk, can take a well-earned rest: the annual celebration of arts, food, farming and landscape at White House Farm, Great Glemham, has drawn to a close.

The farm buildings, filled with sculptures, paintings, etchings, lithographs, drawings and photographs, and the workshops, turned into open studios for artisans and makers to practise their crafts, are quiet again; the farmhouse, the festival’s ‘Hedge Quarters’ and pop-up café, has returned to domesticity.

This year’s festival took as its inspiration a bronze head of the Roman Emperor Claudius. It was found in 1907 in the River Alde, just two miles upstream from the farm and close to the home of renowned painter and sculptor, Maggi Hambling. Her work featured large in the festival, as did that of another Suffolk artist, Laurence Edwards, whose sculptures created an interplay between bronze past and present, of art pulled from and placed in the landscape, says Jason.

Working farm

“While the exhibition part of the festival celebrates visual arts within a working farm landscape setting, my parallel aim is to nurture the development of craft practices. So I offer workspace residencies during the festival, but with the aim of the farm becoming a hub for crafts and rural skills. We also manage residency workshops by invitation for drawing, painting, poetry and so on.

“One of the joys, through art, is seeing barns full of familiar sounds, the chink chink of hammer and nail, of woodworking, leather, tiles, wool, and the interweaving threads of knowledge. I’m very aware of the marks of people who have worked here in the past – it’s immensely meaningful, and one aim is to nurture and bring back people to these barns and this landscape.”

Jason, a zoology graduate, began his own journey as an artist following a nervous breakdown in his early ‘20s. It was a traumatic time, he says, but tremendously helpful in retrospect: a big turning point in his life. It also gave him an insight into mental health issues.

“As a culture we do tend to sweep these issues under the carpet, yet nearly everyone experiences extreme stress at some point. It’s very troubling, but it’s also normal, and it’s important that people feel able to ask for help.”

Living landscape

During his recovery, Jason sat in the lawnmower shed at his parents’ house carving wood, drawing and using earth pigments to paint. His art critics were farmworkers and friends: there was no room for “highfalutin’ conceptual stuff”.

Life classes for three years with Maggi Hambling followed. Then, moving from studio to Suffolk landscape, he drew inspiration from the artist Harry Becker, who lived and worked in Suffolk 100 years ago, and whose work was shown at this year’s festival.

Like Becker, Jason drew from life in the landscape, capturing the once commonplace Suffolk Punches, Red Poll cattle and sheep, and people in the weekly markets at Campsea Ashe.

The festival began life in 2003 as an exhibition in a cottage next to Great Glemham church. The following year it moved to White House Farm, where it grew from the farmhouse into various farm buildings otherwise used for farming activities. Around the same time Jason launched the Alde Valley Food Adventures with the aim of building awareness of foods produced in the area. In 2011 the two initiatives merged, bringing together food, farming, landscape and the arts in a working farmed environment.

Local food

“My interest in landscape comes from my grandfather and father, who had a strong interest in wildlife conservation. And I’ve been very influenced by my mother’s interest in farming and food. Her research around big superstore developments exposed the real vulnerability of the fabric of the local food economy, which, while it was very diverse and creative, lacked an identity.

“Arguably there’s an urgent need to relocalise food production, to embed it within the landscape and allow communities to take back more control of it, and to allow farms to become homes for new ways of producing food and new centres for skills development and job creation in a low impact way. In particular there’s a need for access to land and resources by a younger generation, and an extraordinary opportunity to integrate different styles and scales of production.”

White House Farm, in the upper reaches of the River Alde, spans a wide range of soils, from alluvial deposits to sandy loams and clay, and grows wheat and barley for seed, vining peas, sugar beet and oilseed rape, with some land rented out for potatoes. There is also a small sheep flock run on a profit of pasturage agreement, with some of the meat bought back each year to market under the farm’s Alde Valley Lamb and Alde Valley Mutton brands.

“We have an exclusive supply arrangement with Gerard King of Salter and King, the craft butcher in Aldeburgh, and run seasonal launches with him: a mutton renaissance in February – part of a project launched by the Prince of Wales a few years ago to bring mutton back into people’s consciousness and celebrate it – and a spring launch with lamb.


“I’m also collaborating with Steve and Lynn Tricker of Truly Traceable from Halesworth, known for their venison pies. Their new mutton pie using Alde Valley Mutton was launched at this year’s festival, and we served it with a hedgerow salad, with purslane, hawthorn blossoms and shoots, jack under the hedge, plantain buds, sorrel and mint, all gathered from hedgerows on the farm.”

The farm is part of Great Glemham Farms, a family partnership of five traditional farmsteads. While each is owned individually and has its own focus, they have been contract-farmed together for the past 18 years by Framlingham-based FS Watts and Sons.

“Our approach is that we have three assets: arable, grazing, and the landscape they sit within. While we’ve contracted out the arable cropping and hired out the sheep flock, we’ve retained control over environmental management, and my role for the past few years has been as working partner for the partnership on that.

“We’re nearly at the end of our HLS agreement and are now looking at higher tier Countryside Stewardship. The land that we’re fortunate enough to own falls within a catchment sensitive area and so we’re looking at landscape-scale conservation projects and a catchment based approach. And we’ve just applied for a water environment grant to help us put water resources and management, with their associated ecological benefits, at the heart of our landscape and farming practices.”


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