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U3A Writing: Reflections On A Summer Day

Radmila Dancer was deeply moved by a painting which she saw in a quiet Norfolk church on a summer's day.

A beautiful, early September day in Norfolk, a suitable day for meandering along the coast, including a visit to St.Nicholas's, a l5th century Church at Salthouse, venue for an exhibition of work by various North Norfolk Artists, eclectic in art mediums, skills and that elusive quality, recognition and even, fame!

Some of the work is a posthumous farewell to Anthony Benjamin, an artist whose long career encompassed painting, sculpture in wood, metal and plastics, drawing and print making. This native and internationally known artist's epitaph includes a couple of quotes: "For him, art was not a discipline to be pursued in isolation but a means by which fundamental intellectual problems could be explored.'' "An idea is more important to man than any physical object.''

The church is beautiful in the starkness of white washed walls, large windows which flood the simple altar with brilliant sunlight, bringing special emphasis to a classic pedestal arrangement of cream roses, lilies, carnations, freesias. The ancient wooden furniture has worm-eaten fleur-de-lys finials, so fragile, a notice warns against touching them. Remnants of venerated, faded paintings remind one that the large church was erected in ancient days when Salthouse was a thriving fishing port.

There are local family memorials, reminders of life's transience. In the far corner of the church, the local poetry group is gathered together under the watchfu and enthusiastic eye of their friendly tutor. The gentle rhythms echo the sense of sacred history in this venerated place, still worshipped in but also an ideal place for varied artistic expressions. The eclectic art works are displayed throughout the church, on walls, corner stalls and niches. A "flying'' work unfurls from the ceiling.

Spending an hour or so, looking at and admiring some exhibits more than others, eventually leads to an enthusiastic conversation with the attendant, who turns out to be one of the artists who is exhibiting three oil paintings. One of which I found very thought-provoking. A striking and large canvas, representing a huge black outline of a derelict ship's hull, with the anchor for ever embedded in the dry dock. To the right of it, along a gangway, a small figure of a man, turned as if to catch the glimpse, through the huge gash in the black hulk, of a small boat illuminated against the vivid blue horizon. When I first saw it, it seemed to strike a cord, yet somehow it was puzzling. The longer I viewed it, the more I recognised the basic elements of the 'vanitas paintings, the idea that human existence is fragile and transient, that all possessions we acquire are merely vanity in the face of the inevitable. Yet, somehow, it was the theme of life and death, and so I was gratified to be exchanging ideas with the actual artist and finding that my conclusions were correct.

This in turn led to the reasons for the painting, which went back to an incident in the artist's childhood, more than forty years ago. The artist's father was a local Lifeboat man and on one particular day, decades ago, was instrumental in saving many lives from a sinking boat. The incident had lain dormant for many years, unntil the day when the artist, then in his early 50s, was walking round a small fishing harbour. There was an old, dark hull of a fishing wreck silhouetted against the greyness of the sea and the vivid blue of the sky. As he got closer, in the distance he could see a small yacht- and the memories of the life and death day when he witnessed his father's bravery and lifesaving skills came flooding back.
The huge black wreck, the miniscule scale of the human form against the fury of the grey sea, the little boat representing life against the blue skies, these stark contrasts of opposing forces of life and death, powerfully expressed in the painting, were a reminder of his father's and hundreds of other lifeboat men's valiant battles for life amidst the fury of nature.

That artist may not be valued by so called art experts, yet his work touched me deeply. Its theme and images remain with me still. For a brief moment, we shared thoughts and memories in a simple yet imposing 15th century church, overlooking the meandering, timeless, Norfolk coastline. The soulful cries of the gulls competed with the shriek of the jet-planes skimming the ever-changing, everlasting North Sea waves.


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