One of the most renowned and outstanding pieces of art was recently within touching distance from where I was stood. On the perimeter, a high, red-bricked wall and some black wrought iron gates. We, being my other-half and our friend, passed through the gates to be met by a beautiful public garden. This tranquil gem was still at peaceful slumber in this dusky stage of winter. An unexpectedly green lawn, for the time of year, carpeted the majestic walk up to a rather romantic Christchurch Mansion. We had never before visited this beloved Suffolk landmark.
Peppered around us, were a variety of walkers and a small group of teens. The teenagers sat on benches near the gates. They talked, laughed and generally fooled around in something of a gentle way; perhaps influenced by the serenity of the setting. Two or three couples chatted as they walked with linked arms or held hands. They were all smiling or contented looking. Several individuals wandered as if deep in thought. They would be either looking high into the tree tops or they were looking down, in some way contemplating their footfall.
I like to imagine that those whose gaze was pointed up into the trees were the dreamers and that those whose eyes were examining the ground beneath their footfall were in some way just enjoying being present. Whatever these individuals were dwelling upon, they all seemed at peace with their opportunity for contemplative headspace. Perhaps that is the purpose of a beautiful parkland?
We approached the manor, studying the beautiful architectural details as we grew closer to the entrance. We became as crane-necked as those potential dreamers who were gazing into the tree tops. After moving through an entrance that lacked the grandeur this building deserved, we were comfortably inside. Instantly, the space felt enormous and somewhat confusing. A vast atrium opened up with rooms and walkways in all directions. Not least of all to regard, were the discreetly placed statues, cabinets of artwork and heirlooms as well as the impressive upper balustrades of the atrium itself.
Thankfully, a helpful attendant was on hand to sell us a tour brochure and point us where we wanted to go. I noticed that the lighting in the manor was ambient and, while initially most things appeared grand, upon closer inspection there was a great deal of dust! It didn’t matter. The building was labyrinthine and fascinating.
We moved through some wonderfully ornate rooms, stopping to look at the detail of some of the most beautifully carved wood or at stunning paintings. These included incredible works by Gainsborough and by Constable. It was such an astonishing array of art, to see. I found myself wondering why on Earth I had not visited this mansion years before, and many times since? The architecture and ambience were that of a stately, but clearly once beloved, home. My sense was that the whole venue could do with just a little more financial investment to make the experience a little more comfortable for visitors.
For example, I am disabled. I have Parkinson’s and walking is difficult. I generally need somewhere to sit, frequently, in order to pace myself and not end up triggering the worst of my symptoms. As ever, there were no chairs dotted around for people with disabilities, mobility problems or even just tiredness or old age to rest at. Or, at least, there were none evident to me. My way of dealing with that is to walk faster, ahead of my peers, so that I can then find a space somewhere to lean against a wall and just rest. This inevitably meant that some of my attention was focused on ploughing on through the venue and missing a lot of the detail, just so that I could find a space to stop for my rest.
I believe that this lack of seating is caused by the perception people have that, to be disabled is to be a wheelchair user. If you are not a wheelchair user, then your needs are invisible and so there is no comfort provided for you. It’s a simple truth but one which drives me relatively crazy whenever and wherever I go out. That is why, more often than not, I do not venture out. Campaigners have raised the issue of seating for years and years but I think that most disabled people are now so fed up with not being heard, that we have generally given up shouting about something that is so simple to resolve.
April is Parkinson’s Awareness Month.
Having ‘popped some extra meds’ to help remedy the onset of my symptoms, at least for an hour or so more, we soon arrived at what felt like the heart of the building; the exhibition room. Oh boy! The impact of this exhibition, in midnight blue, was immense. The main art-piece, and central focal point of the exhibition, was none other than legendary sculpture, from 1882, ‘The Kiss’, by artist Rodin (1840 – 1917). It was just utterly breath-taking. I felt as though I had been transported in time. Hewn out of a solid piece of marble, it was something so completely magical and exquisite.
I found myself torn between the story of the lovers, the beauty of the artwork itself and then just the wonder at how anyone can take a lump of marble and carve something so utterly beautiful from it! That really struck me as something so impressive to even envision doing. The detail was extraordinary and the emotion evoked by the sculpture was, itself, a heart warming experience. It truly was emotionally moving. When you add to this, the story being depicted in the surrounding artworks and the exhibition’s informational pieces, you find that you are in the most theatrical of art exhibitions and that this was an event to be experienced, rather than something you come in to simply see.
Regrettably, I was unable to stand and survey this magnificent artwork for as long as I would have liked. Standing is also difficult for me. I apologise if this sounds like a whinge, for it is not. I just have to describe the fact of the event. I cope by moving around. My medication makes me need to move but moving also helps keep many of the symptoms of Parkinson’s at bay, for they manifest during times of rest. If you were there, mesmerised by the beauty of Rodin’s hand, well, I was the guy who walked around a lot and swayed a lot when standing still! Had there been benches, I could have sat awhile and enjoyed losing myself to the numerous artworks around this wonderful room.
I did, however, thoroughly enjoy my time in the exhibition space and I have to commend the curator of this stunning exhibition. The artworks around the room, including pieces by Picasso, were astonishing. The entire experience of this room alone, with the glorious white light that shone from ‘The Kiss’, was nothing short of a privilege to behold. The written information alongside artworks and around the room were so well thought out, descriptive and informative. The charming women at the information stand were jolly and courteous and they even helped us to discover how this truly massive piece of marble had found its way into the upstairs of a hall with doors far too small to admit it.
As we moved away from this magnificent exhibition, which had moved me on an emotional level, we found ourselves passing through rooms with the most sumptuous wooden panelling. The walls and the floors throughout much of the building were an artform in their own right and so it seemed wholly fitting that Christchurch Mansion should form part of the museums of the area and be a great venue for art exhibitions. My next task will be to explore the gardens, once summer comes beaming brightly back into our lives.
I love taking the time to visit art galleries and exhibitions. The arts are such an integral part of human nature. This exhibition will be one that I will never forget. Whoever put this exhibition together truly did something wonderful for Suffolk and I cannot praise them enough. That said, my only request would be for seating around all such venues for those of us who need rest places.
This will be a day that I will treasure the memory of. A day of vivid imagery and of an experience that stimulated the senses and the emotions.
(c) Dean Parsons. 2019.
Ipswich Museums kindly offered me this response to the issue of seating:
“Hi Dean, thanks for sharing this wonderful article with us! So glad to hear you enjoyed the exhibition. We have recently installed gallery stools at Christchurch Mansion to address the issue of seating, unfortunately these were not brought to your attention. They are lightweight and portable and are openly accessible for all visitors to use, no need to ask staff if you wish to use one. They are located to the left hand side of the entrance. We are trialling the use of them with the intention to purchase more to be installed around the site. If you would like to discuss further, our Museums Manager is happy to speak with you.”
Thank you for taking the time to contact me with this information, Ipswich Museums. Excellent response. Despite my difficulty on the day, it did not detract from how magnificent the exhibition was.
(C) Dean G. Parsons. 2019.