Art from the heart of the Broads

IAN COLLINS A century on the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads is now being recalled in a Norwich Cathedral exhibition celebrating East Anglia’s oldest living artist.

IAN COLLINS

Back in the 1929 heyday of British seaside holidays, the EDP reported that Lowestoft - Land of the Rising Sun and Gateway to the Broads - had prepared for a bumper summer season by printing 40,000 copies of a town guide.

The paper noted that "the beautiful and arrestive front page cover" was from a painting by Miss P Miller of Oulton Broad.

Philippa Miller - Pippa to her many friends - celebrated her centenary in January with a show of her dramatic documentary pictures of wartime Norwich, which drew large crowds to the cathedral.

Now embarking on her second century, the East Anglian artist is staging a sequel exhibition in Norwich Cathedral called An Artist's Broadland. It comes complete with a charming catalogue charting the joys of sailing across a watery wilderness in all weathers from Edwardian times.

Pippa was ideally placed to record such a world in words and watercolours - for her father was the Oulton Broad boat-builder Fredrick Miller.

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He produced yachts and cruisers and, in 1908, a prototype hydroplane for Brooke Marine. Later he even turned a Thames barge, the Pauline, into a floating hotel.

The Millers would take to the water in September (the usual end-of-season month for holidays by boat-building families) in a converted Norfolk wherry, and Pippa would join her parents in painting the unfolding scenes. Soon she was sailing her own craft. In a memoir from 1923, printed in the current catalogue, she wrote: "The wonder of Broadland, its delights and charm - I love every breath of it. Even in a storm, when all the furies of the elements are let loose, then I am completely happy.

"Imagine a vast and almost unending flatness of lonely marsh, swept and torn with rain, the monotony relieved by windmills with fast-twirling sails and by clusters of willows striving with all their might to keep their blue-grey coats from tearing into even tinier shreds than they already are, looking lonely, bleak and wild.

"Imagine yourself, warmly clad, a tiller in one hand, a straining rope in the other, and your back and feet jammed hard against the combings of a sturdy little yacht. Her sails are full to the utmost and her mast and halyards creak as you speed along the narrow winding reaches of the River Chet, drawing from muddy creeks the water in your wake with a swish and a plop.

"Then at a bend you perform the necessary quick hauling to save a gybe, and possibly a broken spar, ease over, and race on again close-hauled, balancing yourself at a precarious angle on the windward deck, now high out of the water, now low during a momentary lull.

"Soon the rain ceases and the sun bursts through; soft clouds are hurrying across the sky, causing gleams of sunlight to race over the marshes, fearful lest other gleams should catch them. On you speed, past sleepy hamlets and old-world inns, where ancient ferry boats still ply from quay to quay.

"Before you now is the promise of a glorious sunset, an expanse of wind-blown clouds low on the horizon. The breeze is lessening and your course altered as you swerve into the main stream to make your moorings for the night."

Anyone who has ever enjoyed (or endured) a wet and breezy sail on the Broads will recognise that picture. But happy the person able to paint it.

As Pippa wrote of those Broadland evenings of 80 years ago: "What a subject for the artist! A riot of colour, all gold and red, lighting the dusky blue of the sky and tingeing fairy wisps of cloud into a melody of flame.

"Below is one long sweep of crystal green, broken by the contour of fantastic forms with gnarled and twisted trunks and a quaint church tower."

Then, having turned in soon after that sunset, "you would be up at sunrise to watch and glory in the gold disc climbing through a shimmering mist that has hung festoons of pearls from every reed".

After breakfast - "how good is the smell of cooking when the air is fresh and clean and the earth still wet" - the yachtswoman might walk in search of fresh supplies, possibly glimpsing a grass snake and a kingfisher, and certainly butterflies, en route.

"Your path leads on to a tiny village and here you would find one room of a cottage is the village store, containing every conceivable necessity from paraffin to tinned fruits, Dutch cheese to cigarettes. Perhaps from a nearby farm you would purchase apples."

Every conceivable necessity pre-war style! But then a timeless guide resumes: "Once more, sailing on, you decide to venture up a dyke that looks more interesting than most.

"Drooping willows form a guard of honour at the entrance. On either side are the water lilies, their golden buds nestling on the surface with many blue and green dragonflies hovering above.

"In so narrow a stream, the yacht appears to glide with amazing rapidity; from the bow can be seen in the cool, green depths of weed, swaying with the tide, shoals of roach and in the sun-warmed shallows literally thousands of minnows.

"A moorhen in flight flutters across the bows and squawks as it pushes its way into the reeds. Presently, an unexpected view lies ahead. The dyke merges into a mere or broad. As far as the eye can see grow clumps of sedge like tiny islands scattered over a vast sea, ideal haunts for wild fowl.

"As you pass by, a swan and its young look on in disgust - or is it pity? - and then swim away to a safer sanctuary . . ."

After attending Lowestoft School of Art, Pippa Miller moved to Norwich - teaching art and craft at Blyth Secondary School from 1930.

She made witty model sculptures and continued to paint and walk and sail across her beloved Broadland. Unseen until this year, her watercolours of bombed Norwich now form a priceless record - there is another chance to view them in the current exhibition, and they are to be bequeathed to the Castle Museum.

But the heart of the current show is a meandering voyage with a scene of Thorpe St Andrew entitled Start of the Trip. The caption 'Busy Brundall' may invite a laugh from those caught up in the more teeming recent reality.

Past Surlingham ferry and broad, and Rockland Dyke, we reach Reedham and Haddiscoe - where the great white fin of the modern flyover contrasts with a brown wherry sail beneath.

In zig-zagging memories of other journeys we call in at Ringland, Wroxham and South Walsham and linger longingly at Burgh Church - where the medieval tower is all but lost behind a canopy of trees and within the infinite grandeur of the surrounding marsh and sky.

But this slow sail through Broadland ends back in Oulton Broad, where Pippa Miller's heart has really remained throughout a happy, creative and much-travelled life.

An Artist's Broadland, by Pippa Miller, is in the north transept of Norwich Cathedral until Monday, August 29. Copies of the catalogue cost £5 at the show - or can be ordered from Peter Haining, Peyton House, Boxford, Suffolk CO10 5DZ (please make cheques payable to Peter Haining).

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