This lovely lino cut of a Dartmoor pony by Paxton Chadwick is one of my favourite pictures. It was given to me for my 18th birthday by the artist’s widow, Lee Chadwick. It wasn’t framed but she had added a note with her late husband’s framing instructions: it should have a white frame with a grey mount, with more space below than above the picture. The framers followed his instructions to the letter, which pleased Lee, whose note, I remember, told me that “he had an eye for such things.”
I never met “Chad”, as the artist was known; he died the year I was born. Lee came into our lives a few years later, when her son Peter lodged in our attic as a student, and she became one of my parents’ closest friends for the rest of their lives. Jill, the pony model for the picture, had been Peter’s childhood pet who lived in a field next to their home on Leiston Common in Suffolk (Jill’s other job was to help preserve this plot of natural heathland, as myxamatosis had decimated the local rabbit population that formerly grazed it). Years later, in 1981, myself and a friend had an adventurous holiday camping out in what was still known as “Jill’s Field” for a couple of weeks.
We loved it there, using it as a base to explore the local countryside and sights such as Aldeburgh and Saxmundham. The wildlife was abundant, with swallows nesting nearby and a pair of ancient tortoises living in the back garden.
It wasn’t the first time I had stayed in Leiston, as we had a couple of family holidays at Lee’s place when I was a child. The Chadwicks had designed the bungalow themselves in the 1940s as an artist’s studio, flooded with light from all sides (essential as Leiston had no electricity then and Chad worked by paraffin lamp), and surrounded by the expanse of wild Suffolk Sandlings heathland that is Leiston Common. I remember one late summer holiday when I slept in a tiny room full of ripening apples, a smell that still takes me back to that magical time.
Of all my parents’ many and diverse friends, I think Lee Chadwick was my favourite. She was a truly remarkable and special person, who lived an extraordinary life. Born Lee Bosence in Battersea in 1909 to a family of herbalists, she developed an early passion for nature and wildlife when the family moved to Surrey at the outbreak of the first world war. She studied English and Psychology at Bedford College in London and her first career as a teacher brought her to Leiston in 1937, to teach at the progressive Summerhill school founded by A.S. Neill. It was here that she met Chad, who taught art at the school, as well as being a member of the Communist party who had succeeded, against all odds, in being elected to the formerly Tory-held local council. Lee joined the Party around this time and also served as a Communist councillor for Leiston: a considerable achievement in such a Tory stronghold. (Like my parents, she left the Party in 1986 and joined the short-lived Democratic Left, writing a regular nature column for their newspaper Seven Days).
During the Second World War Lee worked in the Garrett Engineering Works in nearby Sizewell and in the Land Army, while Chad served in the armed forces (which also requisitioned their house on the common for the duration of the war). She also became a full-time local organiser for the Party at this time, as well as secretary of the East Anglian Federation of Women for Peace. After the war they had their son, and Lee raised him plus a flock of free range chickens on their land, while Chad became a successful nature illustrator for Penguin and later wrote and illustrated the Pantoscope series produced by Cassell. His illustrations were exquisite in their detail and sensitivity (there is a nice tribute here). Sadly, Chad died of cancer in 1961, and Cassell asked Lee to complete the text for the series. Her research for these booklets led Lee to embark on her second career: by the time we met her a few years later, she was a published book author.
As a child, I loved to write stories and dreamed of being a writer myself one day, so to meet a real live author was very exciting, even if she did write non-fiction rather than “stories.” Her books included the agricultural study Seeds of Plenty in a Hungry World (Methuen, 1968); a book about Lighthouses and Lightships (Dobson, 1971) that I remember my Dad ordering from the local library when it came out (but I was sad to see it withdrawn from stock some years later when I worked there, never having been borrowed); an account of her Cuban Journey (Dobson, 1975); and the culmination of her lifelong fascination and love for the Suffolk countryside, In Search of Heathland (Dobson, 1982). Lee took a keen interest in my writing and always made time to read my stories and talk to me about it whenever she visited. She had such a gentle grace about her, seeming so deeply fascinated in whatever you had to say that even a small child like me could feel that my words and opinions were just as important and valid as those of the adults around me. Later when I studied comparative religion at university we had many long philosophical discussions on the topic.
We shared a love of nature and the “ordiments” that she gave me tended to be more scientifically interesting than most of my china animals: a polished conch shell, a tiny tortoise made of walnut shells, a lump of teal green copper ore (none of these have survived in the Usmeum, but I remember them well). This blog is the nearest I have ever come to those childhood ambitions, but I like to think Lee would have approved of my efforts. (I know she would have loved the campaign to save our local library, which saw me sleeping there for a few nights during an occupation).
By the 1980s Lee was physically quite frail, but this didn’t stop her determined campaign against the building of the Sizewell nuclear power station on her beloved heathland. Although the campaign failed to stop it being built, the subsequent publication of her meticulously researched book led to Suffolk County Council refusing planning permission for a third reactor at Sizewell.
I now have my parents’ copy of In Search of Heathland, and looking at it now, I wish I had paid more attention at the time and discussed it with Lee. It is a beautiful book which incorporates exquisite pull-out illustrations, one of which, British Reptiles, is from an unfinished work on British flora and fauna that Chad was working on when he died:
Lee had such a good relationship with her publisher, Dennis Dobson, that she was invited to holiday with the Dobsons at their home, which was then the ancient Brancepeth Castle in Durham – and she took my parents along for the trip! They had a wonderful time, as they did on many other memorable holidays with Lee, to whom they were both very close. They travelled to Hungary together to visit my parents’ friends, and in the late 1980s they drove up to Scotland on an epic journey to Mum’s relatives on the Isle of Lewis. I have some lovely photos of the 3 of them on that holiday:
Last Christmas when I visited the Northampton branch of the Usmeum (Brother 2’s house) I noticed something on the mantelpiece that I recognised from our home:
The tankard commemorates an important workers’ struggle, but inside I found a note that marks something more personal:
For me, this 38 year old slip of paper expresses perfectly the connection that Lee shared with my parents, a friendship rooted deep in the solidarity of their beliefs.
Lee became increasingly frail in her 80s, but no less active. In the end, she outlived both my parents, having treated her heart condition with a deep relaxation therapy that enabled her to stay on in her beloved home until her death in 2003 at the age of 93. My eldest niece was born around this time and we all travelled to Suffolk for a special memorial ceremony at the studio, where Peter, a successful artist himself, now lives with his wife Bridget.
I treasure many special memories of Lee’s long friendship with my family; these items represent just a few. I feel very privileged to have had such an uncommonly interesting and inspirational person in my life.