Yesterday I made a journey to Hove Library to see the book “Unknown Brighton” which was published in 1926, containing text by George Aitchison and illustrations by Stella Langdale, who is a member of my family tree. I had first heard of this book through the website “Ye Olde Sussex Pages” and a little research using the Brighton and Hove online web catalogue revealed that there was a copy in Hove library.
I had never been to Hove before, yet I “knew” where to find it as I instinctively wandered upstairs and found the local studies room, sought out the Brighton shelves and there it was! I was absolutely delighted to be able to hold the very book in my own hands. It had that well worn appearance, with pages a little fragile and well thumbed. The blue cover and gold embossed lettering was slightly faded and looking to the side one could observe the curved and folded leaves of paper, hiding the treasure within.
Stella did 24 aquatint illustrations for this book, and a number of line drawings which annotate the text at key parts. Even though these were prints of aquatints, it was wonderful to see these as they reveal a little of Stella’s style. The influence of the Glasgow school in her long flowing lines can be seen, particularly within the Pavilion illustration, and elegant use of tone and shadow add to the delight (view more of Stella’s work here, and read my previous posts about my genealogical art journey project here). The words of the book relate to the many sides of Brighton which a visitor may not know about; written in the 1920’s one wonders to what extent the visitor of those times went “of the beaten track” to discover the environment beyond the seafront, aquarium and pavilion. Indeed, many visitors today may do the very same, although the Lanes is of course now well known for shopping and entertainment.
There were a number of references to the development of Brighton as a settlement, and also to several works held in the museum. I ventured to Hove museum as it was nearby, and discovered the very same amber pot which Stella had completed line drawings of! Information panels told me that this pot was “one of Britain’s most important bronze age finds”; for me it is also a great family history find… nose to case with something Stella had seen, and drawn!
On return to town I also went back to the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, seeking out a mug which featured in the book. I knew from a previous visit that it was likely to be part of the Henry Willett collection, as a maritime themed item of pottery (Willett was a local businessman who amassed a huge collection of porcelain and catalogued it into various themes to help people learn about different topics relevant to social history, it was given to Brighton museum in 1903- therefore quite new for the Langdale family and other Brighton residents at the time when Unknown Brighton was written). I scoured the display cases and opened all of the discovery drawers in the room, to no avail. No sailors cup. I did find it on one of the interactive displays, however, so I have “sort of” seen it, and discovered it was made in 1895 by Charles Brennam. Item 324 must be in store!
In the section regarding the Lanes, available on the “Olde Sussex” website two images from this book are shown, one of Black Lion Lane and one of a fig tree. After my amber cup find I was feeling upbeat and thought, yes, I will try and find those views. Chances of finding a random tree in the middle of a busy City Centre? Pretty minimal, but I thought I would try anyway. The Lanes were less busy than the previous few bank holiday sunny days and it had only just stopped raining. The paving was sprinkled with rain and shone in the sun, good exploring territory as only the hardy few would be out and about at this time (late lunch, when those huge bed and breakfast full English-es have worn off and tastebuds start demanding attention again).
Black Lion Lane was easy, I had actually walked down this lane before, and seen the lion (as detailed in a previous post). On thinking about the aquatint, I recreated the view in my minds eye; it was the route from Ship Street to Black Lion Street. The little inshot about halfway up the snickel (as Yorkshire folk would call it, but here my Pevsner guide tells me it is called a twitten) looked familiar, it was on the right hand side of the aquatint therefore must be in that direction. The hanging lantern was long gone, a modern street light was in its place. I took a photo of this and then walked back in the other direction to take another photograph, just to be on the safe side. I marvelled at the crazy pebbled walls, which have now become familiar to me and stroked one appreciatively on the way past. It was shiny and smooth with the passing of many people. I wondered if Stella may have done the same thing.
At the end of the lane I stepped out of the enclosure to the street and into the light of Ship Street, looking back at my find, happily, and pausing to think how interesting it was to actually be walking in the places where my ancestors had been. I peeked across the road. There was another twitten, inviting exploration. I was feeling a little tired and was about to go back through the lane to find a coffee stop, but thought “no, another five minutes won’t hurt”. I walked across the busy street (avoiding the white and teal taxi, whose colours reflect the railings on the promenade) and into the lane. This lane was no ordinary lane. There were buildings on one side and a low wall with gates on the other. Some plants were hanging over the brick wall and some trellis was trying to keep control of a tangle of greenery which appeared to be winning that particular battle. Looking up, I saw bright green leaves with the sun shining through. Slowly it dawned on me that there was something unusual about these leaves. They were a pretty shape and some had fruit. Was this THE tree? Not being the best at botanical studies I doubted my initial judgement, but I took some photographs and thought out loud “how long do fig trees live?”. This was not just any old tree, this was a beautiful tumbling tree, whose branches reached over the wall and spread out happily. Just like the one in Stella’s drawing.
I retired to the 16th Century Cricketers Arms (Brighton’s oldest pub) and had a long lemonade and lime pause. Had I really found the tree? Was this the one in the aquatint? Was this a fig tree or was I just making it up, hoping it was true? I resorted to modern technology; wifi revealed that yes, this was indeed what a fig tree looked like, and yes, it did look remarkably like the one in the aquatint. Ficus said Wikipedia. Ficus religiousa I thought! Not the Bodhi tree, but a little family tree remaining just for me!
The sources of information which I used for this blog post are:
- Aitchison, G (1926) Unknown Brighton (John Lane, The Bodley Head Publishing)
- Antram, N and Morrice, R (2008) Brighton and Hove (Yale Books)
- Brighton Museum information panels and interactive display -the Willett collection
- Brighton and Hove Online Library Catalogue- https://brighton-hove.spydus.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/HOME
- Cricketers Arms – information panel
- Hove Museum information panel- the amber cup
- Ye Olde Sussex Pages- The Lanes A History http://yosp.co.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=517&Itemid=1166&lang=en
- Wikipedia – Ficus http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ficus