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Elgar, Vicat Cole and the Ghosts of Brinkwells

By Carol Fitzgerald and Brian W. Harvey

Includes reproductions of paintings of Rex Vicat Cole

ISBN 978-1-86077-442-3

202 pages


Phillimore Publishers



This is a book to treasure, written by two authors who have clearly accumulated an immense knowledge and understanding of the life and works of Elgar. It is a meticulous and imaginative survey of the Elgars’ years at Brinkwells, the isolated cottage in the depths of the beautiful West Sussex countryside to which Elgar, and his wife Alice, retreated from a London torn by the horrors of World War I. Here Elgar found peace and inspiration to write his three chamber works: the Violin Sonata String Quartet, and Piano Quintet in A minor; plus the Cello Concerto in E minor.

The authors have astutely chosen to highlight the work of the artist Rex Vicat Cole from whom the Elgars rented the cottage while the artist was away on war duties. Elgar was able to use Vicat Cole’s substantial studio, in the cottage grounds, with its inspirational views across the countryside, as a music room. The book includes a number of coloured plates of the artist’s paintings: woodland landscapes revealing Vicat Cole’s love of trees, a love shared, of course, by the composer: "This is what I hear all day – the trees are singing my music – or have I sung theirs?" (Elgar: letter to August Jaeger, 11 July 1900).

Vicat Cole’s career and his meticulous representations of tree shapes and foliage patterns in paintings that show an almost pantheistic reverence, is engagingly covered as well as the painter’s family’s love for Brinkwells and their reluctance to let the Elgars - Carice and Edward after the death of Alice Elgar in 1920 - buy the cottage’s main lease from them; the property was in the ownership of the local Stopham estate.

Carol Fitzgerald and Brian W. Harvey begin their book by setting the importance of Elgar’s music in the context of the English Music Renaissance then proceed to a more contentious section on what some may regard as the variable quality of Elgar’s output and the worth of his more patriotic works. Elgar’s psychological makeup and his various physical ailments around the time of the Brinkwells rentings - including troublesome and painful septic tonsils - are all discussed, together with his growing disinclination towards conventional religious beliefs. All the factors leading up to Alice’s search and finding of the cottage to satisfy the composer’s yearning for the peace of the English countryside, are covered. Much space is given to the help and inspiration of friends like the author Algernon Blackwood with whom Elgar had collaborated to produce The Starlight Express and who very likely dreamed up the ghostly story of the Spanish monks who were transformed into the grisly shapes of some distorted trees near Brinkwells, because of their satanic rituals: a fancy that was to find its way into the writing of much of Elgar’s chamber music; his muse Alice Stuart Wortley ‘the Windflower’ and his japester friend and musical helper, Billy Reed.

The Elgars’ everyday life at Brinkwells is charmingly related – it becomes very noticeable how the burdens of running the household and organising the journeys to and from London fell to Alice, while Elgar concentrated on his hobbies: woodwork and fishing, for instance, as well as his music; but both found time to enjoy their surroundings and numerous walks. The chapter on the ailing Alice as she sank towards her death on 7 April 1920, and its devastating effect on Elgar, is most poignant.

Astute analyses of the all four Brinkwells works are included with quoted comments from contemporary and modern observers. Also included is a calendar summarising the Elgars at Brinkwells, a list of Elgar’s eminent doctors, and details of the Vicat Coles’ lease of the cottage. There are also a number of pictures that I cannot remember seeing before including one of Elgar’s daughter Carice outside Brinkwells in 1935 and another two of Carice’s dog Meg - one with Elgar and the other with Carice One thing I did miss - a survey of recordings of the works and the authors’ recommendations.

An imaginative and in-depth examination of the inspirational beauty of an English southern county woodland on the works of Elgar and Rex Vicat Cole his landlord and inspired landscape painter, both entranced by trees. A book for all Elgar enthusiasts to treasure.

Ian Lace




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