Ichthyosaur cider brandy, and a revival at Benton End.

This beautiful 90 million year old ichthyosaur was discovered in a quarry at Thorney in Somerset around 1850, by the ancestors of Julian Temperley, a cider brandy maker. It was dug up again recently in the family’s garden.

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Mr Temperley (pictured) said that his ancestors had buried it again, because they were god-fearing men who worried that it might disprove the Bible. An image of it will be used on bottles of 20 year-old cider brandy. It’s a brilliant story.

I’d only add one thing; it’s true that the existence of prehistoric life wasn’t common knowledge before Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1856. But just over the border in Dorset, Mary Anning, had been discovering similar fossils from 1811, when she found her first ichthyosaur with her brother Joseph, until her death in 1847. Mary recognised them as extinct animals, and her correspondence with scientists like Baron Cuvier (who contradicted her, and had to back down) meant that her work was one of the building blocks of paleontology. Her friend the geologist Sir Henry de la Beche published her reconstruction of the Jurassic Coast as Durior Antiquor ‘Primeval Dorset’in 1830. So much has changed in how we now think dinosaurs looked and lived, but Mary Anning’s view of marine reptiles still holds up extremely well today.

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(c) British Museum of Natural History

The Natural History Museum reminds us that Mary Anning was ‘the unsung hero of fossil discovery.‘ Very sadly, the credit for her discoveries was often pirated by the (male) scientific bigwigs who published them. All the more credit to those such as De la Beche and Charles Dickens who appreciated her. It’s said that the tongue-twister ‘She sells seashells’ is about her. More concretely, I once saw on Ebay an 1840s bisque porcelain Mary Anning ‘nodder’ – a wobble-headed figurine exactly like something from a giftshop – so she must’ve had a cult status by the end of her life.

Elsewhere, with thanks to the reader who sent it to me, Sworder’s Auctioneer’s are having a sale of paintings by Sir Cedric Lockwood Morris, the painter and plantsman who founded the East Anglian School of Painting and Drawing at Benton End in Suffolk with his partner Arthur Lett-Haines.

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(c) Sworder’s Auctioneers

I wrote about the Benton End School a while back. At the time I knew nothing about it, except that Joan Warburton, Lucian Freud, and Barbara Gilligan went there. I’ve become very fond of it since then, so I was very happy to read that the seller is going to give part of the proceeds from the sale of paintings like Morris’s Foxgloves and Warburton’s Freudlike portrait of Morris to Benton End,

Warburton Portrait of Cedric 1943

(c) Sworder’s Auctioneers/Estate of Joan Warburton

which is being turned into a school for painters and gardeners by the Benton End House and Garden Trust.

Cedric Morris flowers Smaller

(c) Sworder’s Auctioneers/Estate of Sir Cedric Morris

Barbara Pinchbeck, the driving force behind this brilliant project, was first inspired by a lecture on Cedric Morris given by Philip Mould, an expert on Morris, and it was Philip who told her that Benton End was on the market. That’s wonderful. Being a successful art dealer has many rewards, but few can be as satisfying as this.

There are only two items of news in this house at the moment. Parliament, and the Rugby World Cup. The other night in Westminster reminded me of something Kenneth Clark says at the end of his monolithic TV series, summing up the qualities that he sees as the biochemistry of civilisation; small rooms to think in, the influence of women and – he says – lovingly running his hand over a small Henry Moore on his desk, ‘I believe in politeness.’ Either that, or Mr Speaker will need a red card and a sin-bin.

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