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Steeped in Shakespeare and Sutton

Last week I was in Sutton Coldfield for the excellent Shakespeare in Sutton Festival, staged by FOLIO Sutton Coldfield, a charity run by the library information service.

Arrival in the town of my youth, to be met by Festival organiser Zoe Toft of FOLIO Sutton Coldfield

Though I spent most of my childhood in Sutton Coldfield my family left the region at the end of the ’70’s while I was at uni, a period that saw major changes to the town. As I have family in nearby Lichfield I’ve been back to the area a few times since returning to the UK, so I’m not altogether unfamiliar with the town's evolution, but it’s always a bittersweet feeling when I revisit old haunts.

With the exception of a few day-trips, this was my first proper outing since the onset of the pandemic, so for multiple reasons it was wonderful, and it really highlighted the value of immersion in a project.

Often as illustrators we work on commissions that have no personal connection to us, in fact the cold, business-headed pay-by-the-hour approach dictates it’s best NOT to get over-involved with commissions, time is money after all, if the budget is fixed, the less involvement the better - just stick to the drawing, illustrators do the work just as efficiently, provided you have source material you don’t have to be deeply embedded in a project in order to illustrate it. Over the years I’ve illustrated maps of places I’ve never visited, book covers of titles I’ve not read (often because they were in Japanese!), posters for events I’ve not attended, and magazine topics I’ve no personal experience of, that’s the nature of the illustration business. Sometimes the cost of deeper involvement would be far beyond the client’s budget, at the start of my career I illustrated two books for a London publisher, one set in New Zealand and the other in Japan, I was crestfallen to find the editors had no intention of funding a trip to either to gather references - all that had to be done through my local library, a short walk from my studio!

However, sometimes closer involvement is essential to understand and produce authentic work. Whether the project be your own personal or parallel experience, or stories that pull you into a period, concept or place, design industry projects where we become participants with the event or theme or subject, those ventures in which we have some kind of deeper involvement are the ones that really resonate to us, the ones that mean the most, regardless of the size of the job. They are the commissions that enrich your experience and often, your artwork. Essentially you're paid twice - once for the artwork, and once again in the pride and satisfaction of being part of a team working on something personal that will remain with you forever. With the Sutton panorama, more than the artwork, the project overall had multiple levels of engagement, with it’s uncovering of the town’s past, my personal memories, and the deep dedication of all the team involved. It was part work, part life-exploration.

My specific involvement with the Festival was the panorama map Sutton Coldfield in the Time of Shakespeare, which is on show until the end of this month on Sutton Parade in the windows of the former M&S (online version here). The research, with it’s myriad historical discoveries of old familiar locations was a revelation, I see the area now - and my heritage within it - in a completely new light, way beyond the realm of the illustration. It’s by far the most personal illustration commission I’ve ever undertaken.

Signing limited edition prints at the library. At the time of writing there are still some available. (pic: © Zoe Toft)

This trip back to Sutton for the Festival though was remarkable, an even closer delve back into the archives of childhood than expected. From the moment I stepped onto the platform of Sutton train station, for the first time in something like 42 years (previous recent visits were by car!), forgotten memories came flooding back.

What happened in a nutshell….

On Day 1 I finally met face to face with Festival organiser Zoe Toft, and our volunteer driver Charles, who, in gloriously perfect weather drove us around many of the surviving locations I’d drawn on the map. Finally I got to see them up close, in context within the landscape. An intense day of sight-seeing, zipping from one often hidden architectural glory to the next across the region, there are too many to post here (I’ve shown more on Facebook), but here’s a few highlights.

Moor Hall Farm, reputed to be the birthplace of Bishop Vesey, dating from the 1400's, the present building is early Tudor. Now, like most of the surviving Vesey properties, a private residence.

High Heath Cottage, the smallest and most complete surviving Vesey stone house from the 1540's, it still stands in a remote location, unoccupied and in poor condition.

Monument to Lord Edward Ridgway in Middleton Church.

The stairway at Middleton Hall. The hall was allowed to descend to a derelict state in the last century, before being discovered by ramblers who began a campaign to restore this important monument.

Zoe and Charles at Water Orton bridge, another of Bishop Vesey's contributions to the area, dating from 1520, incredibly it's still used by traffic. A similar bridge over the Tame at Curdworth has not survived.

Zoe and Charles at Maney Blacksmith's, now an art gallery. My immense gratitude to them both for the amazing tour.

On Day 2 I was in the centre of Sutton for our event, but first I had chance to retrace the medieval route from Sutton Park’s Wyndley Gate (the original entrance to the Park), past the site of the old manor house, and then north through the town, along the mill dam (now the Parade), up Mill Street to the old High Street, and back down Coleshill Street to Holy Trinity Church, checking out locations of long lost historical buildings like the Old Pie Shoppe and Cock Sparrow Hall on the way.

The wonderfully quaint Old Pie Shoppe stood until 1913 on this corner behind the current road sign as you approach today's Sutton Parade. The lane at the back (seen through the gates today) led to a fine garden, "a charming place, well stocked with fruit trees". My version on the panorama also shows Fir Tree Cottage on the other side of the road, roughly where today's Oxfam shop is (in my day the much frequented Gills toy shop).

Cock Sparrow Hall survived until the end of the 19th century, when it was pulled down by the school authorities despite public protest. Holbeche wrote in his diary "may the possessor of the property be forgiven for demolishing it, for it was wanton: a pure piece of vandalism". Here's the site today (a hedge), a photo of the Hall (collection of the library), and my interpretation on the panorama.

Bishop Vesey's tomb in Holy Trinity Church, where I met the lovely Brian, church warden.

This really, for the first time, really grounded me with a sense of deep roots in the town, though almost completely rebuilt in later times, the street patterns were unchanged, and in nooks and crannies there are some tiny remnants of the past, if you know where to look.

The rear of 18th century fronted cottages on Coleshill Street betray much more ancient stonework than their frontage suggests, including, low down on the wall under the arch of No.3, Tudor era marks where practicing archers (or possibly farmers) sharpened their arrows and tools.

This was followed by an afternoon with the map’s co-researcher Mike Hodder before the panel, talking about the map - a crowd soon developed and we had a busy afternoon, including visits from representatives of local authorities and my old school.

I was delighted to meet Charlotte, the current head of Art from my old school Arthur Terry, who passed on well wishes from my old teacher Al Sayers.

Day 3 was 23rd April, the anniversary of Shakespeare’s baptism, and his burial, so the highlight of the festival, centred on the library, with the Birmingham Library’s copy of the First Folio on display, dancers, renaissance singers, and a troupe of Shakesperian actors performing on the street. A day of Shakespeare celebration across all the arts - Interest in the panorama was intense!

It was a privilege to meet the current mayor of Sutton Coldfield, councillor Terry Wood, who spoke enthusiastically about the panorama, which may find a place on the walls of the Town Hall!

In addition to the panel, there is a walking tour around Sutton featuring illustrations from my picturebook with Jane Sutcliffe Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk (Charlesbridge 2016).

This Shakespeare festival has been a completely immersive project from day one, studying locations for the map took me on an intense exploration of the region and it’s past, which was only reinforced when we travelled around the area, seeing all the locations in reality - thankfully, I can safely say comparing map to the actual locations, we pretty well got it right! I’ll never look at landscape in quite the same way again.

The Cruck house in nearby Lichfield was a reference for domestic architecture in the panorama, and stands quite incongruously enclosed by a modern housing development. I just had chance to see it before returning home.

The festival continues with other events until the end of this month. I’m not sure what will happen to the large panel afterwards, but some kind of longer-term display for the panorama is planned. In the meantime if you’re not in the area and have yet to see the map up close do check it out online, we still have some limited edition prints left, and are reprinting the jigsaw puzzle, which sold out!

My deepest thanks to Zoe, Mike, Charles, and everyone involved with FOLIO to make the festival such a wonderfully rich and rewarding event.

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Dorothy Gibbs
Dorothy Gibbs

John, this is absolutely FASCINATING! I have other things to do, but I simply had to read every single word, and look at the map all over again. CONGRATULATIONS on your daughter, and sympathy on being alone. Enjoy the good parts!

Dorothy Gibbs, President Emeritus of the Arthur Rackham Society

Colorado USA

PS The house I live in was on a local historical tour because it was built in 1906!!

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