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News > Alumni News > OI Has Artwork Posthumously Displayed at Christchurch Mansion

OI Has Artwork Posthumously Displayed at Christchurch Mansion

Cecil Howard Lay (OI 1898-1904) is little known outside his native Suffolk. He was born in the village of Aldringham (near Aldeburgh and Leiston) in 1885.
28 Nov 2023
Alumni News
 Michael Sheehy, who wrote this article about Cecil Lay (OI 1898-1904)
Michael Sheehy, who wrote this article about Cecil Lay (OI 1898-1904)

He died in the same village in 1956 and is buried alongside his parents and wife in the local churchyard.

He was the son of Aldophus Oscar Lay, who was the schoolmaster at the village school for 40 years. His family were seafarers from Essex, and Cecil's mother, Anna Maria, née Dove, came from a farming background. They chose to separate Cecil from the other local children by having him privately tutored, later sending him as a boarder to Ipswich School. Cecil was there from 1898 to 1904 before training as an architect, first under J. S. Corder – who was much admired for his diligent study of the medieval buildings of Ipswich – and then from 1907 at The Architectural Association Schools in London. In 1912, on his return to Suffolk, Cecil began work as an architect, creating a modest collection of local buildings in Aldeburgh and Leiston, strongly influenced by the Arts and Crafts and Art Deco styles of their time. His main interests, however, were art and poetry. As a young man, he travelled to Holland and Belgium, studying their rich visual culture.  

It was in Flanders where Lay first met and became life-long friends with Frank Brangwyn, a fellow artist based in Bruges. The First World War affected his spirit deeply. Though not personally involved, the horrors of the conflict left him traumatised and disturbed eventually culminating in a breakdown in 1921. Occasionally in the 1930s he exhibited at the Royal Academy, where his unusual style brought interest from the likes of Augustus John, but for much of the rest of his life, he chose to seek refuge in the quiet safety of Suffolk. He remained in the village of his birth for the rest of his life.

Lay is primarily thought of as an eccentric countryman and a keen observer of nature and rural life. In his poetry, as well as his paintings, he seeks out the small details of his local environment. His paintings in particular display an affectionate view of the world around him offering a whimsical vision of Suffolk characters and events. Two of his oil paintings are currently on show in 'Animals in the Art Gallery' at Christchurch Mansion in Ipswich until 14th April 2024, offering a rare chance to see his work in public.

Cecil Lay was a self-taught artist. His architectural training brought a sophisticated sensibility to his work but this was combined with a naïve painting style and a use of vivid colouration in his oil paintings. Ensconced in his garden studio, his working process was secretive and private, with even his wife claiming to never have witnessed him painting. His working day often involved long early morning walks in which he sketched and soaked up the atmosphere of his beloved Suffolk landscape. He was a regular at the village pub, The Parrot and Punchbowl, and it is claimed he designed the pub sign. Like Stanley Spencer in Cookham, Cecil Lay made Aldringham and its surrounds his whole world.

Cecil Lay's death in 1956 did not see him or his work drift entirely into obscurity. Lance Sieveking, a writer and broadcaster, had for many years been interested in Lay and all that he stood for. In 1964, he presented and narrated A Gentleman of Suffolk, a short film for Anglia Television in which he evoked the spirit of the deceased artist by visiting the key places around Aldringham that had meant so much to him.

Sieveking loved to explore the locality in his Rolls Royce, travelling at the speed of a bicycle. In the film he says: 'The narrow winding lanes of Suffolk are full of odd forgotten corners where bits of the past linger' and it was on one such expedition that he recalled a chance meeting with the artist. Having seen a scrawled 'For Sale' sign on a grand house, he ventured in to find out more. 'In the garden of the cottage, I found a tall elderly man dressed in tweeds. He was talking to a white goose...'

Lay was not only the vendor but also the architect of Raidsend, (now Aldringham Court Nursing Home) which was up for sale. The impressive home had been designed and built for Lay's mother and now stood empty. Sieveking was given the keys and 'spent a wonderful hour or so going all over the house'. He came across a large stash of Cecil Lay's paintings which were stacked unsold and forgotten against a wall and this was his introduction to this unique artist. 'He was what the French call an original. A loveable original,' says Sieveking in his narration.

Later interest came when his widow finally decided to sell his work. In 1978, an exhibition at The Fry Gallery in nearby Aldeburgh was followed by a retrospective of his long-unseen works at The Parkin Gallery in London. He remains little known as an artist, architect or poet. The range of his expression was highlighted by Sieveking when he said: 'It was a matter of chance whether what he was thinking came out as a sketch-plan for a house, a tune or as a painting or as a poem'.

To read the full article written by Michael Sheehy, illustrator, musician and Museum Assistant, Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service and to see images of Cecil Lay's work please visit https://artuk.org/discover/stories/cecil-howard-lay-a-gentleman-of-suffolk

To find out more about the Animals in The Art Gallery Exhibition at Christchurch Mansion visit https://ipswich.cimuseums.org.uk/events/animalsintheartgallery/

 

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