Heywood Sumner's last major artistic work "The Chase" (1908)

Heywood Sumner's last major artistic work "The Chase" (1908)

The Book of Gorley

24th July 2022

Heywood Sumner is a man that has disappeared into history. I had never heard of him when I found him immortalised in the silent, solemn walls of St Mary the Virgin in Llanfair Kilgeddin where Sumner spent many weeks carving the beautiful Sgraffito decoration into layer upon layer of plaster.

Each stacked brightly-coloured layer built an interest in this man, and his works inspired me to discover more about him. He started life as a lawyer and started it again as an illustrator but while working his way through the Arts and Crafts world of William Morris shifted his talents between designing windows, tapestries, and even plates. Despite this, he ended it in a different world altogether - Archaeology.

Sgraffito decoration of St Mary the Virgin, Llanfair Kilgeddin

Sgraffito decoration of St Mary the Virgin, Llanfair Kilgeddin

Out of my interest, I discovered The Book of Gorley, his beautiful hand-written diary. Replete with watercolours, anecdotes, and the last whispered words of a world which disappeared; living on the page in a way that in art alone he could not.

The diary charts Heywood's transition between worlds, finishing up his commission to decorate All Saints in Ennismore Gardens while plotting a retreat from the competitive art circles of London towards a quieter life in the country that he feels will be better for his wife's health.

As you flick over these initial pages, you are given a window into and feel the intimate pull of a mode of being that was disappearing. Locals deputised to handle negotiations, county-wide traversals searching for the man who owns the freehold, and a history lesson in construction of most old cottages surviving today. In the end, Heywood has 2.5 acres of land at Cuckoo Hill, allowing him to start his new life.

Heywood Sumner House in 1905

Heywood Sumner House in 1905

In the following chapters, as the Sumners settle into their new life, the Book of Gorley hits the stride it'll continue till its end. Word is mixed liberally with watercolour to chart the journey of the Sumner family alongside the surrounding mud-walled cottages twice as old as their residents.

We get the most beautiful hand-drawn maps I've ever seen, a fully illustrated explanation of cider production, and an illustrated recreation of a heath fire. The Book of Gorley isn't a treat because of the glimpse it gives you into the past but because it is this intimate tapestry, the woven medley of those that live amongst him, anecdote of the area written alongside the landscape of home.

Old Grant

Old Grant

One of my favourite chapters, the Cottage Chronicles, is dedicated to the residents of Gorley. Chief amongst them are two venerable gentlemen, Old Jame and Old Grant. Each immortalised in watercolour above their tales, written in original accent and replete with anecdotes assembled over their almost 100-year lifespan. With Heywood relaying these figures for posterity, we are granted a window into a way of life that precedes the touch of the Industrial Revolution.

Old Jame

Old Jame

What makes this a lucid work of writing is the swirl of both author and subject, a great coming together in a fusion that reveals a greater truth. When taken together, the mundane and non-mundane details recorded side by side with the same attention immerse you fully within Gorley of 1905 in a way that is only paralleled by the greatest of literature.

You intimately feel Heywood the man, capturing events as only an artist could, painting an immortal living world that keeps your eyes gripped to the page, himself being the thread binding the mediums together.

As an aside, it's important to remember that in 1905 great iron rails were still seeping into every corner of the country, sucking in the agricultural products needed to sustain growing cities, leaving suburbs at every rail halt. In the back of Heywood's mind, this land of cottages, small holdings, and all expansive heath would soon be hemmed by smog and Edwardian terraces. With this context, we meet the most emotive pages. Our eyes connect across the centuries, and his attention turns towards me, the reader. He addresses us both beautifully and directly.

I should like to be able to give some sort of a record of the present life & look of this northern end of the forest. Something that will enable my reader of A.D.2000 to see, as I now see, these wild hills & woods & valleys - a vision that time, & the changes & chances will otherwise surely relegate to the dark limbo of vanished Forest Life. And with this end in view, I think that pages of pictures will be more illuminating than pages of writing. ... I shall tell the unborn reader whom I serve, I shall trust to my pencil rather than to my pen.

Heywood Sumner, Cuckoo Hill, The Book of Gorley pages 88-89.

I bought this book to understand the man behind his art. I finished it in one sitting because that is what was delivered. I feel deep in my soul that something is missing from our present, and in this chapter, I felt it most intensely. Living in an age of barely remarked upon social change has left me desperate to get my hands on whatever fragments of the old world are within reach, desperate to find out what things were like before the great digital tsunami washed away all that preceded it.

In this half-forgotten book of a man long since disappeared, I found a kindred spirit that thought so strongly of the future - it gripped him so tightly he could not escape that it would soon be the past. He was so dedicated to this that he spent weeks recording bushels of trees, every bridge, every river, and every hill so that some record - any record of his present could survive on to me.

Heywood's map of Gorley, early 1900s

Heywood's map of Gorley, early 1900s

By the end, I was so invested in Heywood's world that when I turned the final page my thoughts turned from the world of 1900 into a frenzied all-consuming panic over its fate in the year 2022 A.D. Is Furze hill still there, that solitary natural monolith gazing over the horizon? Or has its place been robbed by a tower block?

Does the Heath still flower with heather? Or was it blasted in two to shave a few minutes between Southampton and Bournemouth? What of Cuckoo Hill and the Heywood home designed by himself? Is it still there, a survivor of the years, a solitary monument to the man himself? Or is the "House with beautiful sunsets" now 6 feet under a 1950s housing estate replete with cul-de-sacs and inch-high grass?

My trembling fingers turned from the page to type the stomach-turning words "Google Maps Gorley" - dread growing with every rotation of the loading spinner, knowing deep down that it was the victim of a 60s planner and nothing remains of Sumners world. Suburbia must have spread like grey goo across every field while a 6-lane motorway wraps the heath, choking the life out of the countryside villages like a giant concrete boa constrictor.

Fortunately, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Comparing the map of Gorley to the map that's come to me from Google through a thousand-mile-long glass tube it's clear that Gorley escaped the pain and suffering that afflicted many areas over the last 70 years.

James Hayster's Cottage then
James Hayster's Cottage now

James Hayster's Cottage

That's ultimately the power that this book has had over me. Yes, I went into it with my bias towards discovering more about this man and was captured by it more than most. Is it your cup of tea? Who knows. All I can tell you is that this book is unique in a way no other work of literature could be.

Like many Victorian men, Heywood has a biography that veers in all directions. He spent the remainder of his life at Cuckoo Hill in Gorley, spending his time on architectural surveys of Hampshire, using his artistic talents to record pre-historic barrows and the landscape, and even wrote a visitor's guide to the New Forest. Towards the end of his life, he spent his time recording the impact of World War 2 on the lives of the locals. He died of a stroke at the age of 87 in 1940.

His work in the art world had faded into the mists of time, buried deep under the layers of history that had piled up since the plaster was wet at St Mary the Virgin. It even escaped his obituary, overshadowed by his later work as an archaeologist. Hopefully, I have done something to demystify the man that wrote it. To any wayward travelers, you can pick up the Book of Gorley for anywhere between £3 and £10 on eBay.

To my reader of 2100 A.D., I hope Heywood hasn't been otherwise relegated to the dark, anonymous limbo of artists that have graced the world with great beauty and only survive as part of the dissolved mass of craftsmanship that exists behind every church door.

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