Oldest Fields and Widest Skies: An evening with Martin Bell
In the last glow of the fading October daylight, Dedham Assembly Rooms welcomed Martin Bell on October 3rd on the occasion of the Munnings Birthday Lecture. A newly instituted annual event in the calendar of programmes delivered by the Munnings Art Museum in Dedham, Essex, the lecture format is intended to touch on a subject of relevance to the world of the Alfred Munnings.
Martin said of his father, Adrian Bell, known for his writing about rural life and for instituting The Times crossword in 1930, that “He was a man with a broad empathy for country ways. A quiet man.” Touchingly, Martin added that “I loved being known as his son.” Of his father’s friendship with Munnings, Martin recalled how “They took a liking to each other. Munnings was a larger than life character. He used to drive around in a chauffeur driven Buick.” Martin’s parents had been living in Stoke by Nayland when they met and befriended Munnings.
Critically, Martin’s talk went on to sketch out something of Munnings’ connection to war; in doing so, he anticipated the exhibition of Munnings’ images of the Canadian cavalry in World War 1 that everyone at the museum is so excited to be presenting next year.
Addressing the more sombre aspect and context for some of Munnings’ work, Martin noted that: “You can’t talk about Munnings without thinking about war. All his paintings were done within ‘earshot’ of war. I think Munnings’ work is coloured by war.” Unsurprisingly, and to the great interest of our audience, Martin went on to discuss his own direct relationship with war in terms of his news reporting from Vietnam and Yugoslavia, amongst other warzones. For Martin, Munnings was sensitive to the toll that war took and he acknowledged how Munnings and his work marked “a collision point” with modern art and broader aspects of the modern world…the very world that World War 1 had begun to bring into focus.
The beating heart of Martin’s talk was his evident care and concern for Suffolk. Addressing our sold-out, enthralled audience of 120, Martin’s comments and stories ranged across subjects such as war, news broadcasting (including an amusing anecdote about interviewing Margaret Thatcher) and the current state of politics and his frustration with Brexit.
Memories of place and space were key to Martin’s talk and, towards the end of the evening, quoting some of his own poetry, he used the following phrase to describe the Suffolk landscape as a place of “the oldest fields beneath the widest sky”. In these few words Martin could not have more truthfully spoken to the spirit of so many of Munnings’ landscape paintings.