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1908 Deep in the Maze of Summer Woods

Though his name has passed into obscurity, Rex Vicat Cole may stand as paradigmatic of landscape painters of the Edwardian era, deeply invested in the insular codes of Victorian art but acutely aware that the rural world celebrated in his paintings stood on the verge of oblivion. The work of earlier British artists was particularly vivid for Cole since his father, George Vicat Cole (himself an Academician) and grandfather, George Cole, had both achieved professional success as landscape painters, and Rex grew up surrounded by the materials of the painter’s craft, with a library of illustrated books and regular visits to the Royal Academy and other exhibitions.

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His own work, richly coloured and often thickly impasted, struck a more emotive note than that of his father, which had been influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites. He made a special study of trees, leading to the publication of a scholarly treatise, British Trees, issued in two substantial volumes in 1907. After several painting trips to Sussex, Rex Vicat Cole took the lease in 1905 of a cottage near Fittleworth, which offered “one painter’s ideal isolation from the world”.1 Cole light-heartedly described the cottage, named Brinkwells, as “the labourer’s home”.2 The tiny rooms were indeed of the scale that might have accommodated the family of an agricultural worker and, in the garden, Cole built a large studio suitable for six-foot canvases. Brinkwells commanded magnificent views across the Weald of Sussex; chestnut and beech woods surrounded the cottage. Through the Edwardian years, until the outbreak of the First World War, Cole created a series of oil paintings and a multiplicity of drawings and photographs striving to preserve the idyll he found in these woods.

Of Deep in the Maze of Summer Woods (exhibited at the Academy in 1908), painted near Brinkwells, the artist merely noted: “Foxgloves, Sun shining through trees on the thick masses of fern & plants through which girl & child (wife & son of the painter) make their way” (Fig. 1).3 This description does no justice to a work which enfolded the viewer in a swirling vortex of opulent greenery, with shafts of sunlight penetrating the thick foliage. The woods are wildly fecund, and Cole is euphoric, allowing the orchestration of his Sussex rhapsody a greater chromatic range than he had hitherto attempted. Although the sweeping lines of the composition suggest an affiliation with the decorative swoops of art nouveau, in the painting’s complex architecture, as well as its expressive power, there is a memory of Turner, whom Cole admired above all other landscape painters. In 1915, Cole wrote:

Turner strengthened with his absolute knowledge of their construction, used trees at will weaving magnificent compositions with them … He utilized them for every device at the command of art; in one place as bits of light and dark; in another as links between single forms; here as a piece of delicate leaf tracery like lacework seen against the sky, there as massed spaces of heavy foliage leading into the gloom.4

This is a manifesto for Cole’s own practice as a painter, since almost every one of these Turnerian strategies is apparent in Deep in the Maze of Summer Woods.

Years later, when the market for Cole’s Edwardian landscapes had collapsed, and the First World War had swept away the world to which they belonged, the artist took a knife to the canvas and destroyed the unsold Deep in the Maze of Summer Woods, slashing at it in a fit of despair carrying with it a taint of the historical violence of the war years. But he found himself unable to destroy the small icon of his family’s happiness at the heart of the composition. For the rest of his life, in his studio, he kept a tiny remnant, barely ten inches tall, of the six-foot canvas depicting his wife and son (Fig. 2). A century later, this numinous fragment still articulates the intense joy felt by Cole in the peaceful Sussex woodlands and animates the sepia photograph of the original painting with vibrant colour. Its fate after 1910 speaks both of world events and of the fickleness of taste.

Brinkwells would soon exert its spell over another Edwardian deeply enmeshed in Victorian pastoralism. While Cole was serving in the Artists’ Rifles in 1917, he sub-let the cottage to Sir Edward Elgar. Elgar installed his piano among the sketches and unsold canvases in Cole’s garden studio, including Deep in the Maze of Summer Woods. The composer’s experience of the landscape, now more than ever conditioned by a pervading sense of loss, was mediated by the presence of Cole’s paintings.5 He wrote to friend Troyte Griffith (the subject of one of the “Enigma” Variations): “I am so dreadfully disappointed that you cant come to Brinkwells you wd have loved it (It’s Vicat Coles) there are many sketches and pictures … I shd have something to say also on British R. Academic art, no Art.”6

Even in the countryside, there was no escape from the tragic events in France, since, as Elgar noted in a letter of 30 May 1917, “incessant gunfire (distant canon)” could be heard echoing through the Sussex Woods. The paintings around him, like the landscapes beyond the studio, came to stand for a lost Edwardian world, contrasting bitterly with the cacophony of industrial warfare and its analogues in modernist cultural production. At Brinkwells, Elgar composed the austere, other-worldly late chamber music, which forms an elegiac commentary on the opulent orchestral compositions of his Edwardian heyday such as the two Symphonies of 1908 and 1911. In the ’Cello Concerto', written at Brinkwells in 1919, Elgar’s music inhabits a sound-world of autumnal colours, its orchestration is spare and its form terse. The Sussex compositions, created in an artist’s rural studio and deeply imbricated in the visual culture of Edwardian pastoralism, stand as moving elegies for the lost world enshrined in Cole’s Deep in the Maze of Summer Woods.

  1. Rex Vicat Cole, in “Sussex in the World of Art”, Sussex Daily News, 2 February 1938, quoted by T.J. Barringer, The Cole Family: Painters of the English Landscape (Portsmouth: Portsmouth City Art Gallery, 1988), 126. On Brinkwells, see the excellent study by Carol Fitzgerald and Brian W. Harvey, Elgar, Vicat Cole and the Ghosts of Brinkwells (Chichester: Phillimore, 2007).↩︎

  2. Rex Vicat Cole, British Trees, 2 vols (London: Hutchinson, 1907), Vol. 1, 217.↩︎

  3. Annotation by Rex Vicat Cole on verso of a photograph of the painting bearing the stamp of Dixon & Sons, photographers, 1910. Cole Papers, Private Collection.↩︎

  4. Rex Vicat Cole, The Artistic Anatomy of Trees (London: Seeley Service, 1915), 29.↩︎

  5. For a full account, see Harvey and Fitzgerald, Elgar, Vicat Cole and the Ghosts of Brinkwells; and Barringer, The Cole Family, 125–138.↩︎

  6. Elgar to A. Troyte Griffith, 7 June 1917, in Percy M. Young (ed.), Letters of Edward Elgar and Other Writings (London: Geoffrey Bles, 1956), 231.↩︎

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