East Midlands Hidden Paintings


East Midlands

Dan Snow retraces the career of artist Arthur Spooner, whose paintings are scattered across the region and record events and people as he saw them. But how reliable is the work?


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I'm one of those people who has never really been too bothered

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about art. Not my cup of tea! But I'm about to make some discoveries

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that might just change my opinion. That is absolutely as is shown in

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paintings. That's fantastic. That picture could've been painted

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yesterday. It turns out that some artists were

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as devoted to recording the past as I am to discovering it. And some of

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the paintings here in the East Midlands, hidden away from the

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public gaze, hold the key to some fascinating, forgotten history.

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You never know quite what you're going to find.

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But is seeing believing? And can we trust the artist to tell us the

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All of my life I've been fascinated by history and the amazing stories

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from our past that surround us. And the way I like to explore these

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stories is by getting as close as possible to their source: diaries

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and manuscripts, digging up bones and ancient remains, climbing

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castle walls, driving tanks. Real, tangible history is what I like

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best! But there is one other potentially

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vast reservoir of information about history that all too often, I've

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tended to ignore. I'm talking about paintings. The whole country is

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full of them, and they're not only in the places that you might think.

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And what's so interesting about paintings is that they are time

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capsules packed with clues about the past. These murals for example,

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tucked away in a city-centre shopping arcade, are based on real-

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life Nottingham bigwigs from the 1920s: a local freemason, a

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prominent doctor's wife, a Notts County footballer. That's the thing

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about paintings they're not always what they seem. I'm really

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intrigued to find out how useful paintings can be in the pursuit of

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history and this is the perfect place to start looking. Nottingham

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Castle Museum, sitting on top of the city it's home to thousands of

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paintings from all over the world, many of them owned by us, the

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I'm not art critic, but I am fascinated by paintings that can

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use a historical source that tell us something about the faces,

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clothing and the ways of life of the people that lived hundreds of

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years ago. If you're interested in the history of Nottingham, there's

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a name that crops up again and again: Arthur Spooner. And here is

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his most famous painting. It's of the renowned Nottingham

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Goose Fair, painted in the mid 1920s when it was still held in the

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market square. When I look at this, I think how

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much has changed, but also how much has remained the same. It's a very

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recognisable scene. It's a fair, human beings all crammed into a

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city centre venue, much like still goes on today. People rammed into

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that space, but it's also that the details are so fascinating. You've

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got the little tram tracks on the street, that little boy's belt

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buckle is so clearly of its time. You've got what looks like a Middle

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Eastern figure there wearing a fez, a reminder that British society was

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a lot more diverse back the start of the 20th century than we now

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think of it as. The clown in the centre of the picture who's selling

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those annoying, gimmicky party things. And you've got these

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wonderful steam attractions, the chimneys blowing out steam. We can

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almost hear and smell the steam as well.

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So who is this artist, Arthur Spooner?

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He's a Nottingham man who paints Nottingham and Nottinghamshire. He

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studied here, he tried London and he came back. He wasn't

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internationally recognised. How do you define the kind of art

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that Spooner is producing? I suppose for the 1920s, it's quite

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old-fashioned, it's representational. So does that mean

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that he's trying to paint things as they actually are, to keep a record

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of it? Yeah, he's definitely documenting life, isn't he? When

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you look at his paintings, you get a sense of what life must have

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really been like at the time so it's full of detail. Ironically, he

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might not have been very popular at the time. He might be useful to us

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now because we can actually tell what was going on. Yeah, they're

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stacked full of information. what about The Goose Fair? It's

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such a vibrant painting. What does that tell us about the history of

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Nottingham? To me, that's a real end of an era. It's a very 1920s

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picture in terms of its fashions. You've got the Exchange building in

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the background, which was demolished in 1926. That's kind of

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the last Goose Fair in the centre of Nottingham. After that, it got

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moved out. What a wonderful source we have for that, those dying days

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of the Goose Fair. Yeah. Spooner clearly wasn't ever going

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to be an artist superstar but for me his decision to instead use his

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painting skills to record local people and events makes him a man

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after my own heart. To find out more about Spooner and his

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paintings I need to delve a bit deeper. Literally. Most public

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museums and galleries don't have enough space to display all the

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paintings in their possession. So where are the rest? Well in this

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case they're down here...in the very bowels of the building.

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This really is exciting, going to the store rooms. This is where they

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keep all of the treasures that they don't have room to display upstairs

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in the galleries. It's like Aladdin's cave, it's fantastic.

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Fantastic. Many more hidden Wow, that's amazing. These long,

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dead, old men, their faces emerging But what about that other man I

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came down here to investigate? Ah, this one here looks like a familiar

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artist, Spooner, a great, grand civic occasion. Very accurately

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painted. Beautiful buildings of Nottingham in the background.

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Amazing, isn't it? A bit of research tells me that the

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painting is a record of the then Princess Elizabeth's visit to

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Nottingham in 1946. It was clearly the kind of event that warranted

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the Spooner treatment. That must be a commission. The

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faces in that must be people who wanted to be in that picture. That

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was painted well after Goose Fair, 20 years later. His reputation then

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was somebody who could record things, not just record, but add a

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sense of life to them as well. I think that was what he was really

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And this is that scene today. It's called Old Market Square and it's

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still the beating heart of the city of Nottingham. But something

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troubles me about that painting - the faces of the great and good are

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all very carefully painted and everyone else is a bit indistinct.

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It's almost like he's been paid to show them right at the centre of

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the action. And that makes me question just how reliable a source

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these artists are. Did he paint that scene as it really happened?

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I've been told that just up the road from here I might find a few

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more clues about the elusive Mr Spooner and his art. Spooner was

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very much Mr Nottingham and inside this building his name was like God.

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The Nottingham Society of Artists was established in 1880 and from

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1946 till his death in 1963 Spooner was the society's President. I'm

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sure he'd be delighted to know that the pursuit of artistic excellence

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is still going strong today. That's not Nottinghamshire. It is

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supposed to be Delphi. That looks like it, I recognise the three

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columns. Muriel Norman remembers when

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Spooner's influence dominated the art classes here. Where and when

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did you first come across Spooner? I first saw him at the School of

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Art. I was never in his class, but he was to go through from the life

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class to the antiques room where Spooner taught so I knew him quite

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well by its side, although I was never one of his pupils. What was

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his -- he well known for? He was very strict and keen on drawing,

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and observation. If anyone, I remember one day, there was one of

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his female pupils in who had been doing a model. It was an abstract.

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He said, what is that she --? She said, that is how I see it. He said,

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your eyes must be different from mine. He was quite caustic. He

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wanted people to observe things closely and draw them. Drawing was

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the main thing. So it he like to to represent things on a campus as

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they were in real life? Absolutely. That what's -- that is what makes

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him great now because he was painting things as he saw them.

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That is right. He also wanted people to enjoy them. He loved

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colour, but he did insist on drawing. So it is something

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important was happening in Nottingham shire, they would get

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Spooner to record it? Yes. Talking to Muriel, Spooner was a

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man obsessed with detail and accuracy, but I am sceptical how

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far an artist can be trusting. Amongst all the formal portraits

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and pinpoint accurate commissions of Spooner's there were a couple of

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very striking paintings down in the Nottingham Castle secret vault.

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This one is a spoon as well, but it is a different kind of painting,

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more indistinct. It is a beautiful building. It is a ruined abbey.

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Classic British stately home. I think it's time to head out of

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the city and see some of Spooner's This Abbey is the ancestral home of

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the infamous Lord Byron. On a day like this you cannot imagine what a

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romantic setting it is. I wonder why Spooner painted these

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scenes. Like many of his works there's not much information on

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their background. It's almost as if they are totally self-contained

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with all the information locked within oil and canvas, ready to be

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I wonder whether Spooner came here to relax and enjoy the freedom. It

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is a bit like a modern-day spin- doctor: You have to tell a certain

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story in a certain way to suit the needs of poor has got the cash.

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It meant Spooner was prolific. But I want to track down examples of

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his work than can really tell a historical story.

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This could provide the answer. As we have learnt from our trip to the

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council, a huge number of oil paintings are owned by the public

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in this area. But this is the first attempt to catalogue them all.

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Spoon a features heavily as you can imagine. Lots of portraits of local

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bigwigs, military officers and horses. But there are a couple that

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are intriguing and not far from This is Portland College in the

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middle of Sherwood Forest. Here they specialize in giving people

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with all kinds of disabilities the opportunity to learn, re-train and

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It doesn't take long to find my Spooners hanging in a corridor. But

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before I investigate them there's another painting hanging nearby

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which has a lot to say about the 60-year history of Portland college.

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It's a portrait of a lady in her prime. She's gazing off to one side

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as if she's seeing a vision and a lady of vision she certainly was.

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Meet Winifred Duchess of Portland. I found this fantastic portrait

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inside the college. It was painted in 1912 by a favourite of the

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aristocracy. It is a beautiful portrait, her famous skiing is on

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show and it is dripping with pearls. She looks every inch the Duchess. -

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- her famous skin. Winifred may have been born a

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Victorian and married an aristocrat but it turns out she had a very

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modern attitude to disability and independence. It started early in

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married life with her support for injured soldiers and local miners

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and ended when she founded Portland college and realized her life's

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ambition. Here she is, a sprightly 82, with the young Princess

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Elizabeth and Prince Philip at the laying of the college foundation

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stone in 1949. But what inspired Winifred to start her mission and

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how does all this relate back to our old friend Arthur Spooner? Well,

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here are the paintings that brought me to Portland College and they

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appear to hold a vital clue to why the duchess developed such a

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passion for helping the injured and disabled.

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The paintings are titled Welbeck during the Great War. This was the

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stately home of the Duke and Duchess of Portland. Fascinatingly,

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the Union flag is flying up there and underneath it is the bed cross.

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It appears to be some kind of hospital or rehabilitation centre.

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People in gritters are playing croquet, nurses are very visible.

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This was the front of the House, the scene of great peace and

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tranquillity. Many of these soldiers would have escaped from

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the whole hall that was France, terrible fighting. This one is

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fascinating as well. Some red crosses and people recuperating

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from their injuries. A very military field, they are all in

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uniform. Perhaps this is a figure of the Duchess in the middle. She

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is wearing pearls, she has the tilt of her head I recognise from the

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other portrait. I wonder if this is the Duchess as she wanted to be

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represented and remembered, looking after those less fortunate than

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herself. This was 30 years before So how useful an historical clue

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has Spooner left us? To find out I'm heading 12 miles north to

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Winifred's old home. Welbeck Abbey is in the heart of the historic

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Dukeries, an area of north Nottinghamshire famous for once

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being seat to not just one but four Dukedoms, nestling shoulder to

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shoulder. Welbeck is no longer a ducal seat and remains a family

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home, alongside a gallery, a farm shop and a cookery school. But in

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Winifred's time you wouldn't have seen many members of the public

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wandering around here. Welbeck was a thriving centre of late Victorian

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and Edwardian high society with the 6th Duke and Duchess hosting lavish

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balls, grand dining, state politics and royal visits.

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As one of Nottinghamshire's finest artists, are third spinach had

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benefited from the patronage of the Duke and Duchess. -- are put

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Spooner. But the upper eyesore at Portman College produced a

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It's impossible to understate just how traumatic the First World War

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was for the whole country. The massive losses had never been

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experienced before and the vicious, mechanical form of warfare resulted

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in not only a huge death toll but totally new kinds of disfigurement

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and injuries. You can imagine why a woman like the Duchess with all of

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these resources to hand may have But I've got to keep my historian's

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hat firmly fixed in place and check that when Spooner painted the

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scenes at Welbeck during the war he wasn't just doing a bit of handy PR

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for the Portlands. And I know just the man to help. Derek Adlam has

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been the curator of Welbeck Abbey for almost thirty years and there's

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virtually nothing about its rich history he doesn't know. All was

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the Duchess Winifred like? She was a very warm-hearted person. She had

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a great deal of sympathy for the common man. She was particularly

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aware of the number of injuries that took place. Part of the family

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income came from the minds and so she founded an orthopaedic hospital

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to treat injured miners. It was turned into Portland College.

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picture in here, which shows patients and the Duchess in the

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middle, it was in October 1914. The war had only been going on for two

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months maximum. The hospital must have been founded very close to the

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beginning of the war. The Duke and Duchess must have been aware of

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just what the outbreak of war implied and that they must played

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some part in relieving the distress, and making up for facilities that

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might not appear to have been prepared by the government forced

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up it is a wonderful picture of her because she is in profile. She was

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extremely beautiful. She is beautifully dressed in a special

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unit for. You can see in the photograph that she is wearing

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pearls which would have been strictly forbidden a bunk -- among

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the other nurses. Her Vale looks different as well. A couturier

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designed and made her uniform as well. The thing that Winifred would

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have been getting her hands dirty? I think it is very unlikely. She

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would have been there to give moral support and comfort. She would have

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provided practical support in the sense that there was a Medical

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Facility lacking, if that was the case, she would have provided it

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all asked her husband to provide it. Welbeck Abbey is a fascinating

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place. While many similar estates have thrown their doors wide open

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to the public, Welbeck retains an air of remoteness and secrecy. But

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in pursuit of Spooner and the Duchess I've been allowed a rare

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visit into its heart. Just how accurate was Spooner when

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he was painting his pictures? This is a fantastic place. That is

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absolutely as is shown in the paintings. That picture could have

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been painted yesterday. Of course, the foliage has gone, but it is

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just extraordinary. I always like a piece of art are more when it is

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based on reality. It is wonderful to know that he was painting things

:20:48.:20:54.

in situ from probably around here. The fact that he got the buildings

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so accurate and put what looks like Winnifred the Duchess in front of

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them with the wounded soldiers means that we can believe that they

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probably would have been wounded soldiers and nurses mixing out here

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and enjoying the fresh air. People recovering so far from the trenches

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where they had sustained the terrible injuries forced up what

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was she trying to achieve when she got spinner to paint these

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paintings? Beat Spooner paintings simply are

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to make a record of what had happened at Welbeck. They date from

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1918 so it was already clear that the war was coming to an end and so

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the Duke would have commissioned them in order to make a record of

:21:35.:21:40.

what had occurred and the contribution that Welbeck had made.

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But they are a bit utopian. I would have liked to have been a patient

:21:44.:21:49.

at the hospital. I am sure they are an accurate the craft -- reflection

:21:49.:21:55.

of what was here. The kindness of the Duchess, the facilities of the

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hospital. We do not know whether the nurses here were dealing with

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serious trauma or whether it was more in the nature of convalescence.

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There is this charming men To which belong to to one of the nurses. It

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is a little collection of her own photographs. They are little

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snapshots. These seem to corroborate that the Spooner view

:22:21.:22:27.

of life here, it is a lovely realistic scene. Yes. Swimming and

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boating, and Spooner paints them playing croquet, skating. Why did

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they get spinner to paint them? was a very good painter. He had a

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great pair of hands when he wanted a record made. A so it implies that

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they wanted accuracy. Absolutely. The Duke like everything to the

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straight and clear. He labelled things, he lied leading accounts of

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things behind so that there would be no doubt about facts. Obviously,

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commissioning these paintings in 1918 as the first war was coming to

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an end, so that must have been why he called Spooner to make the

:23:15.:23:23.

record, an accurate record, of the day's in Welbeck's history. So this

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is the old kitchen block. This is the kitchen block as it was painted.

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It is where the soldiers were being looked after. Here is an

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inscription. This building was used as an obsolete hospital during the

:23:37.:23:43.

Great War. It continued to be used until the end of hostilities. All

:23:43.:23:47.

of the guys had acute injuries and needed medical care. So we've

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solved the mystery of why Winifred was so passionate about

:23:49.:23:52.

rehabilitation and why she founded Portland college - the pinnacle of

:23:52.:23:54.

her life's work. Winifred believed that disability shouldn't mean

:23:54.:23:59.

ending up on the scrapheap. Sixty years later her legacy lives on.

:23:59.:24:02.

Wayne Kirkham first came to the college because of spinal disorder

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that now means he uses a wheelchair. He now works here.

:24:11.:24:14.

Without this college, when you found out that you had the

:24:14.:24:18.

congenital disease, what would you have done? I would have been sat at

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home, climbing the four walls and twiddling my thumbs thinking that I

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was no use to anyone, including myself. My life would have been

:24:27.:24:31.

wasted. A tell me about the treatment you went through when you

:24:31.:24:35.

arrived here. I went through an initial assessment to see where I

:24:35.:24:42.

was, what stage, and what training I needed to go -- to get. Then I

:24:42.:24:45.

enrolled in everything I could, including coming to the physio

:24:45.:24:51.

department, using the gym, staff here, you don't just come down here

:24:51.:24:55.

to be somewhere at a specific time. If you come here, you work and the

:24:55.:25:00.

staff a year working. They soon find out what your capabilities are

:25:00.:25:04.

and they pursue. It does you the world of good. It has given me

:25:04.:25:08.

believe in myself. It has given me the tools to prove to myself and

:25:08.:25:12.

others that I am capable of living a normal life and being part of

:25:12.:25:19.

society. It probably still has ex service people here. We have a

:25:19.:25:23.

young lad who was a victim of Afghan. He took a bullet to the

:25:23.:25:28.

head. When he came along a few months ago, he was a completely

:25:28.:25:32.

different person. He is now walking with a stick which he is behind

:25:32.:25:35.

most of the time because he wants to be seen as one of the guys again.

:25:36.:25:40.

He has really come on leaps and bounds. He is a fantastic character

:25:40.:25:44.

to have around. Amazing that improvements in a short amount of

:25:44.:25:49.

time. That is what Portland does to you: It gives the belief that you

:25:49.:25:52.

can achieve what you want to achieve. The staff help you to do

:25:52.:25:58.

that. It is amazing that it is still doing the same job that it

:25:58.:26:03.

did 60 years ago. Yes. I am sure we will still be doing it in a another

:26:03.:26:05.

60 years' time. And so if it wasn't for Arthur

:26:05.:26:08.

Spooner and his half-forgotten paintings I'd never have come

:26:08.:26:10.

across Portland College and the story of Welbeck during the Great

:26:10.:26:20.
:26:20.:26:22.

Spooner may be a big fish in a small pond, taking bits of work

:26:22.:26:27.

from the great and good, but thank goodness he was because his

:26:27.:26:31.

depictions of what went on here, detailed, accurate, are fantastic

:26:31.:26:34.

bits of evidence. They tell the story of a significant episode in

:26:34.:26:37.

local history - the story of the injured servicemen whose

:26:37.:26:41.

experiences inspired Winifred to set up Portland College. They shed

:26:41.:26:44.

light on why a rich aristocrat devoted so many years to a cause

:26:44.:26:51.

And beyond that Spooner captured a watershed moment in British history

:26:51.:26:54.

a time when the established order of British society turned upside

:26:54.:27:00.

down and inside out. In that moment when Winifred, Duchess of Portland,

:27:00.:27:02.

offers her matronly care to a battle-scarred soldier, everything

:27:02.:27:12.
:27:12.:27:18.

Spinner may or may not have been aware of that, but he was there to

:27:18.:27:27.

record it, and for that, we should But there's one final twist in my

:27:27.:27:30.

investigation and it's back in Nottingham. It's hidden in the

:27:30.:27:33.

painting that first introduced me to the work of Arthur Spooner, the

:27:33.:27:42.

artist-historian. It has been very hard to find out

:27:42.:27:47.

about Spooner as a man. The archives have mostly vanished, but

:27:47.:27:52.

we have found this newspaper article from 1960. He gives an

:27:52.:27:56.

interview to this journalist and he admits in the interview that the

:27:56.:28:00.

figure of the clan in deep despair painting is actually a self-

:28:00.:28:06.

portrait. He says, I have been a town in my time. It is just

:28:06.:28:10.

brilliant, it adds another layer of interest about painting, bringing

:28:10.:28:14.

personality and colour to my understanding of Spooner. But it

:28:14.:28:19.

also makes me cautious when I approach pictures. It is a reminder

:28:19.:28:27.

Dan Snow sets out to discover whether art can really sustain and inform our memories and knowledge of the past. He retraces the career of Nottingham-born artist Arthur Spooner (1873 - 1962) whose paintings are scattered across the region and faithfully record events and people as he saw them. But just how reliable is his work? In a specialist disability college situated in the middle of Sherwood Forest, Dan discovers a pair of virtually unknown Spooners that appear to tell a very specific story about a celebrated duchess, shed light on the role of the aristocracy during the First World War and hold a clue about the origins of the college. Dan sets out to solve the mystery and test the artist's historical accuracy.


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