Vision of a city at war

A Norwich centenarian is staging her first full-scale exhibition in the city’s cathedral to mark her special birthday. Sarah Hardy tells the story of Pippa Miller’s An Artist’s War, which is now open.

Philippa – or Pippa as she's more affectionately known – Miller has been a leading light in Norwich's art circles for decades. To celebrate her 100th birthday on Monday, friends and relations are mounting an extraordinary exhibition of her work in the noble surroundings of Norwich Cathedral.

At the heart of this exhibition, which opened yesterday, are some 15 watercolours of Norwich during the second world war. They are remarkable on several levels.

First, they are extremely competent works of art, well executed with fine attention to detail and a good grasp of the importance of light and shade.

Second, they were painted as Miss Miller continued her duties as a school teacher during the day and helped the rescue services at night as an ambulance driver.

Third, they are a near unique record of Norwich during the war years as they vividly portray how the city was affected by the Germans' 44 bombing raids.

The pictures, often painted in situ, capture scenes familiar to all who lived through those dark days. They feature the ruins of St Stephen's Church, show Caley's chocolate factory on fire and highlight the demolition of Grapes Hill and Grove Road.

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Yet the pictures, all watercolours, are not gory nor do they wallow in the horror that is war. Few contain people. Rather Miss Miller concentrated on the devastation caused by the ruthless air war, and the pictures show buildings torn to pieces, often reduced to mere rubble.

The exhibition also contains pictures of the Broads, an area much loved by Miss Miller, plus scenes from Derbyshire and the Lake District, which she visited often and clearly found inspiring.

Their quiet reflection contrasts sharply with the chaos of the other scenes, while the exhibition also features several miniature models, including a typical Norfolk village Miss Miller called Pypton, and Spitfire Cottage, a replica of a 1930s Norwich house which Miss Miller and a friend created over several months during the war.

The show was put together by Peter and Pippa Haining, who are close friends of Miss Miller. So close, in fact, that Pippa calls the artist her aunt. “My actual aunt, Pamela Chamberlain, taught at the Blyth Secondary School with Pippa for many years. My aunt taught languages and the classics while Pippa was an arts and crafts teacher.

“I was named after her. I have always called her aunt, too, and she was certainly a magical one. My aunt and Pippa shared a house in Norwich and I used to love to visit. The house was amazing, full of surprises, and they had a beautiful garden, full of treasures.”

Pippa, who now lives in Boxford, Suffolk, continues: “Pippa was always such fun, she taught me how to row and all about painting and she continually made things, she was so creative.

“She had a houseboat on the river at Thorpe, called the Nutcracker, and we spent a lot of time there, too, so it was a perfect place for a child to visit.”

She believes Miss Miller was very much a modern woman.

“Yes, she was very, very brave – very courageous to go out painting when she did. She was really a woman ahead of her time and she's provided us with a very important record of the war years.”

The idea for the exhibition came about, Pippa explains, when she and her husband started to clear Miss Miller's house. “She managed on her own for a long, long time and has only recently gone into a residential home in Norwich.

“When we helped to sort out her house, we were amazed at how many pictures we found and we all just felt that we should do something. It seemed obvious that we should organise something to celebrate her big birthday.”

Pippa says that her aunt rarely sold her paintings, just occasionally gave them away so there were literally scores of pictures to choose from. “We all thought that her wartime pictures were of particular interest as they had never been seen before.”

Peter says: “Pippa has always painted, even after she retired, and she also produced books, including one on village signs and another about watermills – again featuring places in our part of the world.”

Close friend and fellow artist Margaret Thomas, who lives at Ellingham, near Bungay, says: “Pippa never married so she could really concentrate on her art. It was her passion. She was always conscientious about her work. She liked to experiment with different media, making people's hair out of pen nibs, say. She has a very good imagination and was a very good draughtswoman but had a scorn for modern, abstract work.”

Miss Miller was born in 1905 at Oulton Broad, near Lowestoft, where her father Frederick was a boat builder. Her mother Susan was a keen amateur artist, and Miss Miller followed in her footsteps by training at Lowestoft School of Art.

She joined Blyth Secondary School in the north of the city in 1930 and stayed for many years. Now, according to her friends, she remains in good health at her new home but is somewhat confused. She celebrated her birthday quietly on Monday but attended a private viewing of the show at the cathedral yesterday.

To accompany the exhibition, a new booklet has been produced. Called An Artist's War, it reproduces many of Miss Miller's works and includes a lengthy foreword by the artist.

In it, Miss Miller recounts some personal memories of the war that will again hit home to those who also endured those years. She recalls the hunger of the postwar years, the fear of doodlebug rockets and how people tried their best to survive in terrifying circumstances.

After the exhibition, the paintings are being donated to Norwich Castle Museum to form part of its permanent collection.

It is an honour for Miss Miller and certainly makes a great contribution to the city's artistic heritage.

tThe exhibition runs from Thursday January 13 until Saturday January 22. It takes place in the north transept of Norwich Cathedral. Admission is free but proceeds from the sale of An Artist's War, which costs £5, will go to the cathedral.