Christchurch Mansion cimuseums.org.uk
Clifford Road Air Raid Shelter www.cliffordroadschool.org.uk
Ipswich Art Gallery www.ipswich.gov.uk
Ipswich Museum www.ipswich.gov.uk
Ipswich Transport Museum www.ipswichtransportmuseum.co.uk
Ipswich Waterfront ipswich-waterfront.co.uk
Museum of Knots & Sailor’s Ropework despawson.com
Wolsey’s Gate www.suffolkarchives.co.uk
The Judgement of Paris is one of the most famous stories of antiquity and you’ll find a novel – perhaps unique – interpretation of it in Ipswich.
In the Suffolk town’s Christchurch Mansion gallery and museum, carved panels above a fireplace show Paris, son of the Trojan king Priam, minding his own sleepy business. The messenger god Hermes wakes him up, for Paris is known for his fair-mindedness and somebody has to decide which of the three goddesses Hera, Athena and Aphrodite is the most beautiful.
In the conventional version of the tale Paris rejects the bribes offered by Hera (dominion over Europe and Asia) and Athena (wisdom, skill, victory); instead he chooses Aphrodite, whose offer to give him the world’s most beautiful woman causes the Trojan War.
In the Ipswich version from 1509, Hera and Athena are clearly five or six months pregnant. Did that influence the prince? How extraordinary that such a plausible twist on an age-old story should have occurred to an ancient East Anglian woodworker when it escaped many of the greatest artists in history.
The overmantel was apparently carved to celebrate a wedding. The bride, presumably, is represented by Aphrodite. Who the other goddesses impersonated is a question best left unexplored. The piece went into the home of blushing groom Sir Humphrey Wingfield in Tacket Street, Ipswich. By 1796 it was above a fireplace in the Tankard Alehouse, still in Ipswich. Now it is a focal point of the Wingfield Room of Christchurch Mansion just to the north of the town centre.
It’s a spectacular work, and its state of preservation is remarkable when you consider that in 1796 all the goddesses were clothed. According to an engraving from that time, in the first, judging phase, only Aphrodite is naked and she turns her back, looking coyly over her shoulder. Subsequently, at the reception to the right, Athena is fully clothed, Hera is merely topless and a slightly overexcited Aphrodite turns out – wouldn’t you know it? – to be with child too. Nobody is pregnant in Isaac Johnson’s engraving. If there’d been a piano in the picture, he might have drawn a veil over its legs.
This is far from the only treasure in the Mansion. There is also a gallery full of Constables and Gainsboroughs. Rooms are decked out from Tudor times onwards, including the servants’ quarters. Corridors – and some of the rooms – also serve as galleries, with Suffolk artists a speciality but also works by Picasso, Matisse, Renior and Barbara Hepworth. In the Victorian Wing a selection of period toys includes – anachronistic but forgivable under the circumstances – a quite magnificent doll’s house, called ‘The Manor’. This was shown around the country during World War Two, to raise funds; apparently many of the furnishings were made from Winston Churchill’s cigar boxes.
The Mansion stands in the 33 hectares of Christchurch Park. If you walk through the park, look out for tree stumps/trunks carved into sculptures about 2.5 metres tall.
In the direction of the town centre from here, you may see a number 60 bus going to Gainsborough via Reynolds Road. If, instead, you head west you’ll come to Ipswich Art Gallery and, just down the road, Ipswich Museum. These could hardly be a greater contrast. The Museum is authentically Victorian despite having moved once or twice. It’s atmospheric and attractive, with plenty of variety and several shining stars – the woolly mammoth, for example, and the invocation of the Egyptian afterlife. I’d include a huge model of the Royal George among the main attractions but the notes candidly acknowledge that the French POWs who made it did so without access to drawings, and so their work may have elements of a French warship of the time.
The Museum, like many others around the country, makes good use of mannequins. I particularly liked the war-weary woman in bed in an Anderson Shelter, a discarded magazine of the 1940s on her lap, her eyes realistically glazing over.
The Art Gallery is a completely different kettle of fish. It’s bright where the Museum uses dimness to highlight the exhibits; geometric where the Museum is more irregularly structured; and there’s a democratic feel to the way the work is arranged. The building is octagonal and the gallery occupies the ground floor, a balcony and outlying rooms.
Both of these, like Christchurch Mansion, are free. You’ll pay a meagre sum to get into the Clifford Road Air Raid Shelter Museum east of the town centre, if it’s open while you’re in town. Slightly further out of town in that direction is the admirable Ipswich Transport Museum, which is more often open on a Sunday than a Saturday.
It would be inconsistent in this context not to mention another unique contribution Ipswich makes to life’s rich tapestry. It is the home of the Museum of Knots & Sailor’s Ropework.
This is the creation of Des Pawson MBE and his wife Liz. The Museum’s collection is housed in a shed that Channel 4 has featured on Shed of the Year, and you can visit it by appointment. Alternatively, you might chance across a large selection from the collection in a window display in Ipswich’s Waterfront area.
As with other such specialist displays, the science of knots and ropework involves a distinctive and appealing vocabulary. Central to this aspect of seamanship is a large conical tool known as a ‘fid’. A setting or stretching fid would have been used with the help of a mallet to stretch the cringles. But of course.
The Window Museum is produced by the Ipswich Maritime Trust, which promotes an association with the sea going back to the seventh century. The Trust’s success is evident in the thriving Waterfront district. The Ipswich ‘wet dock’, once regarded as the largest enclosed dock in the country, has undergone regeneration in the past 20 years and the job is not yet finished, but the results are already apparent: a sparkling marina, quayside restaurants, water-borne leisure activities and a gradual reclamation of the area for the life of the town – and its visitors.