The Girl or the Paint-box

On one side of the lane that summer there was a field of pink clover in full bloom, and bees went to and fro across it from their hives in the orchard of the farm. This mill lane curved downhill to the right; trees became fewer towards the end, where there was a gate. Here the left-hand bank and fence ended. The way went along through a narrow meadow which sloped down to the straight stream, bordered with poplars, above the mill. Its quiet-flowing current was fringed with patches of water-moss on either side. Lily leaves reflected the sunlight, and anchored upon the surface were the precious yellow lilies themselves… With box, easel and canvas ready, there was only one thing, to paint the river. In those days this river had all its mills working. Life was there, and the water-way had its uses, making it a paradise to the artist.

Suffolk Pastoral, with the river Dove and clover field, 1909, private collection on loan to the Munnings Art Museum

Summer Afternoon on the Wensum, 1909, private collection 

It was memories of the vista looking across from above the mill-stream, with distant poppy-fields, which led me away to this story. And now I think of afternoons in a boat, taken from near the wooden bridge by the mill, with a paintable girl for company, and how we used to row down through dark-shadowed curves of deep river with the sound of poplar leaves above, pattering always like rain. Tall reeds whispering in a breeze that ruffled the river’s surface in steely smudges. Shaped masses of clouds, which form on sultry days, made light and shade, and cattle and horses stood under the trees on the banks.

The rival to painting, the girl sits with the tiller-cords in her lap. I am rowing. She looks ahead from under a wide straw hat, light from the ripples reflected up into her face. Sunlight falls on the shady hat and pink dress; and the river in the shadows, with glitter on the lily-leaves and water-moss, is the background behind her.

There are always things to paint when we leave our paint-boxes at home. There sits the model; the discarded box, brushes and easel should be with us too.

Idle Moments, 1906, private collection

The September afternoon draws to its close… The after-glow spreads upwards and fades; mists are rising; delicate traceries of willow-leaves are patterned against the light; late warblers sing in the reeds as we pass along the mill-
stream to the sound of dipping oar and moving rowlocks. Tranquil hours have passed, and sure enough there is ahead of us the pale, ghost-like, whitened form of the miller’s man, who stands waiting for his craft to return. As he holds the boat, and I step ashore, turning to give her a helping hand, I see a low-toned, pale-pink figure stepping across against a background of liquid gold, striped and barred with long, dark, moving lines of reflections a picture momentarily seen, and never forgotten.

Evening at Hoxne, 1909, private collection

Alfred Munnings, An Artist’s Life, 1950

Read more about Munnings love of painting the river with books published by the museum