My NN: Acclaimed artist Chris Fiddes reveals his favourite places
Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and Salcey Forest feature in the list of Northamptonshire places that have this artist's heart
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By Sarah Becker
Local artist Chris Fiddes has amassed an impressive body of work that graces the walls of public galleries and private collectors across the globe.
Chris has been a lyric landscapist; served in the National Service, and taught in schools, colleges and universities. Now aged 88, he still paints daily. Most of his paintings have been concerned with either social commentary or metaphors for social situations. He recently had an exhibition in Northampton's Museum and Art Gallery.
Growing up in the Kingsley area of Northampton he always yearned for country life, which he did achieve and has lived in West Northamptonshire for over 30 years. He takes a nostalgic look at some of his favourite places in Northamptonshire.
What places in Northamptonshire invoke favourite childhood memories?
“In my middle teens I went through that feral phase that so many boys do. I had a friend, (equally feral), whose nickname was ‘Cutlass’ who lived out at Stoke Bruerne, and an easy jaunt on my bike and I found myself spending increasing amounts of time over there.
“We would spend the whole day roaming the fields, hedgerows, woods and copses, getting into all sorts of mischief. Quite often we would lie on the top of the canal tunnel entrance, and rain down pebbles on the canal boats as they came through. But when we got down to the village again, the ‘boaty-boys’ would be waiting for us and there’s not much that’s harder than the fist of a lad reared on a canal boat, and not much that’s sharper than the toe of his boot!
“But increasingly often, particularly as I got older, our rambles would take us at the end of the day to Stoke Park, the pavilions and colonnade of which were designed in the 17th century by Inigo Jones, the only time his talents took him to a rural venue. Bear in mind that this was not long after the war and the house had been used by the military. This meant, of course, that much of it had been vandalised - columns tumbled, capitals lying overgrown by wisteria and creepers.”
What is your favourite place in nature?
“Another place that also has associations with my youth is Salcey Forest. In my late teens I had a friend who worked for the Forestry Commission there. One evening he arrived at my house with an orphaned fox cub in a cardboard box. I had recently read ‘ Gone To Earth’ by Mary Webb, -a story set in my father’s county of Shropshire, which centred around the domestication of a fox cub - so the idea of rearing it in an old rabbit hutch seemed quite a reasonable thing to do.
“But I failed to get it to eat the rabbit legs provided by our local butcher, and its needle sharp teeth lacerated my hands again and again, so eventually realism and humanitarian instincts prevailed. One moonlit April night, I loaded the fox cub into my capacious saddle bag, and cycled over to the spot in Salcey Forest where the cub had been found. As soon as it was released, it headed unerringly off to where its lair had been, and I never saw it again.”
Tell us about your favourite local pub.
“This is an easy one. That would have to be the Red Lion in Crick. It’s been in the ‘Good Food Guide’ for decades and uses only local produce. It’s a beautiful old 17th coaching inn; its walls festooned with trophies from bygone ages. It’s only about three miles from Ashby St Ledgers where the gunpowder plot was hatched -so that may be why June, the landlady always sticks me and my (often) bearded friends in what she calls ‘The Conspirators Corner’. But we always use it for family occasions and birthdays, and we’ve never been disappointed yet. There’s a good range of beers, and the temperature is always just right. It makes me thirsty just thinking about it. Some people regard it as my ‘second home’.
“But it’s not the only good pub to eat in in this part of the county and the chef over at The Eastcote Arms (Eastcote) is clearly a man inspired. They claim he’s the best chef in the county and he could well be. By the Gods, he understands good beef.
Where’s your favourite cultural place?
“Now clearly , my favourite cultural spot just has to be the new Museum and Art Gallery . Isn’t it everyone's?
“It’s well known that I’m not an enthusiast for modern architecture but this building - probably because it cleverly incorporates a number of existing older buildings - is an exception. Well, bricks and mortar are one thing and the people that staff it are another. And the team that staff the museum are among the kindest, friendliest, well-informed and capable people in the county.
“Every time I go through the front door, I am embraced by the staff, with everyone wanting to know how the various members of my family are. Now that is how a public building really ought to be, but can you name me another one where that is so?”
What is your favourite place to while away a few hours ?
“Well, again, that really is a ‘no-brainer’. It just has to be my studio.
“In the 18th century, my house had been a farm and there are still traces of some of the old farm buildings around. And, arguably, the most ramshackle of them all is the old farm vehicle shed, which is now my studio. And it is divided into four separate spaces, each scheduled for work or storage.
“It’s not a glamorous place. We’ve lived here around thirty years now, and in all of that time, I’ve never cleaned it or swept it. Great cobwebs festoon the rafters and ceiling. Old discarded sketches festoon the floor. The old log burner - probably emitting toxic fumes - glows darkly near my old chair. And yet most of the good ideas that have come to me in the course of the past three decades have seen their origin here. Where else would I rather be?
“Nobody enters my studio unbidden except for Richard, my agent and Will, my right hand man since the old high school days. Painting is a solitary activity. My house is in an isolated place, and my studio is even more isolated. And that suits me fine. When it comes to the serious business of painting, other people have no role to play.”
What is your favourite street?
“For me, this is a hard one because streets are an urban phenomenon. Northampton has changed so much since the days when I was familiar with it .
“If I could change the label to ‘lane’ or even ‘road’, it becomes a different prospect entirely.
“I aim to walk a couple of miles before I start work. Quite often my steps take me through an old landscaped park. You can tell it’s been landscaped, because the trees stand in groups of three or five. It speaks of long hours of unremitting toil on the part of those Anglo Saxon villagers but it makes the roadway a living testament to their strength, their resolve and their capacity to care for the land. It is a tangible link between the people, their community , and the land with which they had so intimate a relationship. We would be ill advised to lose that link. That has to be my favourite road.”
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