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The story of Ilam - Exploring a corner of the Peak District in art

PUBLISHED: 00:00 16 May 2019

The story of Ilam, panel 1 Photo: Sally Edwards

The story of Ilam, panel 1 Photo: Sally Edwards

as caption

Helen Moat visits artist Sue Prince, who has painted the story of the village, and explores this exciting corner of the Peak District National Park

The story of Ilam, panel 10 Photo: Sally EdwardsThe story of Ilam, panel 10 Photo: Sally Edwards

The sun was bathing the countryside in soft green as I drove south along the crest of the White Peak. Pale clouds scudded across a powder-blue sky above the meadows and hills that rippled out to the Staffordshire Moorlands. I dropped down into the Pinch, squeezing between drystone walls, steep-sided valleys and rocky bluffs before crossing the bridge; then hugged the River Dove to the hamlet of Milldale. As I headed down Ilam-Moor Lane, the pointed Bunster Hill came into view with a long ridge bumping across the skyline to the west. I breathed in long and slow. This southern tip of the Peak District National Park has something that connects mind and spirit: it's a landscape that's gentle and caressing, yet dramatic and forceful.

I'd driven over this way – not just to immerse myself in the landscape – but to talk to artist Sue Prince at her home on Beechenhill Farm. I'd found her Ilam Story boards one day on the walls of the church in the valley below: 12 panels that told a visual tale of the model village and its surroundings from Neolithic times to the 21st century. What had inspired Sue to paint these panels, and why?

Sue welcomed me into her tiny studio crammed with pens and books and folded lengths of linen that retold the story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in painted images and captions; Sue's latest community project.

It all began with a trip to Southern Sweden in 2004, Sue told me, when she discovered the almost extinct Swedish tradition of Bonad painting. She immediately connected with the folk-art panels that had traditionally brightened the dark rooms of Swedish cottages at Christmas time, covering walls with religious themes in vivid colour.

River Dove at DovedaleRiver Dove at Dovedale

'After Christmas, the panels were wrapped up and packed away in trunks until the following year. Eventually, they fell out of fashion and were left forgotten in attics; others simply painted over,' Sue explained.

By the early 21st century, there was only one active Swedish Bonad painter in the regions of Småland and Halland. Then Sue came along. This English woman took the near-extinct Swedish art form of painting stories on sheets of linen or paper and, with enthusiastic locals, revived it. Over 11 years Sue returned to southwest Sweden every other summer to teach local people how to make the traditional organic egg tempera paint with egg yolk and earth pigment and the gesso of rabbit skin glue and chalk that's applied to linen or cotton canvas. She'd explained the techniques of the Swedish masters, who'd filled richly coloured canvasses with drapes, swirls and patterns around the painted stories of the sacred, mythological and the everyday.

I asked Sue why the Swedish Bonad narrative paintings had had such an impact on her life, changing the way she painted so fundamentally.

'Before that point, I felt I hadn't found my own unique voice. My head was full of stories I wanted to tell but I didn't know how to communicate them. When I saw the Bonad paintings in Sweden, I loved their warmth and simplicity; they were the perfect vehicle for telling my own stories.'

Back home, Sue shared her passion for Bonad painting with Ilam Art Club, local artists and communities: first the Ilam Story, then the Ashbourne History Paintings for the Treasures Festival, and most recently the Alstonefield Church Bonads for the Ann Green Festival – celebrating the oldest legible gravestone in Britain, dated 1518. Currently, she is working on the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight tale with a group of Leek enthusiasts.

I left Sue behind at Beechenhill Farm and drove on down Ilam-Moor Lane to the village. Inside the Church of the Holy Cross, I peered through the dusky darkness at the printed boards and realised the painted narratives make a quirky and informative pictorial guide to Ilam – an inspirational way to explore the stories of the surrounding landmarks and landscapes. I photographed details of the Bonad panels – the places I wanted to explore – and set out on my quest to rediscover an area I knew well, this time through Sue's artwork.

I didn't have far to go to begin with. The rich history of the church is woven into the Ilam Story. On the first panel, an art club member had painted a woman clutching her baby as she stood surrounded by hungry wolves – soon to be savaged to death. It would result in her heart-broken husband, the medieval King of Mercia, withdrawing from the world to live in prayerful contemplation. The second panel showed St Bertram's Chapel, erected several centuries later in 1200. I found the saint's tombstone tucked away in a dim cavern-like space – a suitable shrine for the King-turned-hermit who lived out his years in a cave.

Ilam HallIlam Hall

Fast forward six centuries and to the sixth panel. The art club had painted the altogether grander crown-shaped mausoleum and monument to David Pike Watts who'd purchased Ilam estate only a few years earlier. I found the marble monument in the Chantrey Chapel, the elevated man looking every inch the successful businessman (even on his death-bed) as his family gazed up at him in adoration.

On the same panel, the rebuilt Ilam Hall spread out across the board – the Gothic Revival mansion a statement of wealth and power for Pike Watt's son-in-law, Jesse. With its parapets, pinnacles and decorative chimneys, leaded glass, arched and oriel windows, no one could question his standing.

Climbing the hill from the church, the country house (now a youth hostel) still looked impressive even though only a small section of the original building remains. From the Italian Garden the views to the crinkle-crankle Bunster Hill and Thorpe Cloud demonstrated to me that the Watts Russell family had bagged one of the best vistas in England for their stately home.

More details on the panel chronicled the fortunes (and misfortunes) of the Watts Russell family through the 19th century, including Jesse's charming 'olde English' Ilam cottages, designed by eminent architect George Gilbert Scott. I headed down to the estate village, admiring the steep-gabled houses with their decorative bargeboards and hanging tiles. But it was the Mary Watts Russell Cross, sitting prominently to the right of the sixth panel I was keen to see. I found the memorial to Jesse's wife in a triangle of road at the edge of the village, rising in tiers like a Gothic wedding cake to a height of 40 feet. The tenth panel of the Ilam Story had shown the top of the monument flying off in a 1962 storm, its restoration only getting under way in recent years.

Cottages at IlamCottages at Ilam

There is more to the Ilam Story beyond the village. I walked along Dovedale to the Stepping Stones, where Donkey Burton was depicted in the ninth panel giving tourists donkey rides in 1950. I didn't see the kingfisher that had been painted above Burton's head, but I watched dippers bobbing in the river's shallows. I continued on to Reynard's Cave, where an enterprising local had sold lemonade to thirsty walkers, 70 years before Donkey Burton, in panel six. I pushed my way up to the mouth of the cave, glad that it was just moss and vegetation laying claim to the cave these days. I remembered the picture Sue had painted of Lord Byron alongside his words on panel five as I continued up the River Dove on the Derbyshire side: 'Was you ever in Dovedale? I assure you there are things in Derbyshire that are as noble as in Greece and Switzerland.' I couldn't argue with that as the Dove squeezed through a narrow gorge, forcing me onto a boardwalk that hugged the water's edge.

As I climbed out of the dale and up to Bunster Hill, painted in panel nine with a blazing bonfire at its top (celebrating King George's coronation), I thought about Sue's passion for Bonad painting. 'It's telling a shared story of place or event.' I was so glad that Sue had been willing to share her stories with me in her studio on Beechenhill Farm – and continues to share with anyone who's prepared to make the trip to the little church in Ilam.

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