Heywood Sumner (1853-1940)—Artist & Archaeologist: a Forest authority and enthusiast

Heywood Sumner at his desk in Cuckoo Hill (courtesy of the late Mr and Mrs Charles Gibson of High Hall).

I know of no other individual who had such a profound impact on our knowledge of the Forest – its character, its history and its prehistory. His written works are so profound and yet readable and accessible that there can hardly be a resident or lover of the New Forest who has not read some of his published work. As Professor Barry Cunliffe wrote, “One thread that runs through Sumner’s life is a love of the countryside and interest in its people.” (Heywood Sumner’s Wessex (1985), 17.). J.P. Williams-Freeman in his obituary of Sumner wrote, his “work deserves more than a passing reference…he spent much of his time walking the New Forest and recording with painstaking accuracy the earthworks which he found, most of them hitherto unknown. His books, illustrated by his own distinctive and precise hand, are classics of their kind.”

A watercolour of a forest scene by Sumner, called Splash Bridge

Family background and early life

Heywood Maunoir Sumner (to give him his full name) was born in the rectory in Old Alresford where his father, the Rev. George Henry Sumner (1824-1909) was rector and also Bishop of Guildford. His mother, Mary Elizabeth (née Heywood) later became famous in her own right as the foundress of the Mothers’ Union and in memory of this achievement she is commemorated on one of the easternmost buttresses, erected in 1911, which support the south wall of the nave of Winchester Cathedral and also by a Art Nouveau tablet in Old Alresford Church. The Sumner family itself is steeped in the history of the Anglican Church, of which Heywood’s great uncle, John Bird Sumner (1780-1862) was archbishop of Canterbury and his grandfather, Charles Richard Sumner (1790-1874) was bishop of Winchester.

With such a family history it might have been expected that Heywood would find himself drawn into a role in the life of the Church of England, but that was not to be the case. Educationally he had a good start, following earlier Sumner family members into Eton College and from thence into Christ Church, Oxford, where he read law. He proceeded so far as to be elected to the bar at Lincoln’s Inn in 1881 but then completely changed tack becoming engrossed in the pursuit of drawing and design: a pursuit that appears to have had its origin in his undergraduate days. He became a disciple of William Morris (1834-96) and the Arts and Crafts movement which he had founded. His early sketch books survive, and I had the opportunity to study these through the generous permission of the late Charles Gibson. They clearly display his developing expertise with pen and ink drawing that throughout his life was to enhance all his subsequent works. But his distinctive style was to emerge gradually from the more traditional style exhibited so clearly in his first published works, His first was a series of 22 etchings to illustrate, Itchen Valley from Tichborne to Southampton published in 1881. This was succeeded in the following year by 21 etchings covering the Avon valley from Naseby to Tewkesbury. It seems almost serendipitous that only a year after that publication that Wise’s renowned book on the history and scenery of the New Forest was to be republished in what was described as Southeran’s Artist’s Edition enhanced by twelve etchings by Sumner to complement the original Walter Crane illustrations.

It is worth recording that in the successive decennial censuses from 1871 to 1911 Sumner describes himself as “Artist” and, only in 1891, is there the additional embellishment of “Decorative art, Sculpt.” Although after 1911 he became a committed and accomplished amateur archaeologist, producing high quality and beautifully illustrated reports and three major books which remain as valuable and accessible accounts of his early achievements. However, that significant part of his life must await a later Reflections article.

In 1883 he married Agnes Benson, sister of William A.S. Benson, with whom he had shared accommodation whilst at Lincoln’s Inn. It seems probable that this was the time that he developed his great enthusiasm for the current art scene, of course, drawn particularly to the Arts & Crafts Movement in which he became very closely involved.

During the early years of his marriage he lived in London, mainly in Kensington, convenient for his participation and involvement in the milieu of the art world. And it was during this time that he fathered five children, namely, Michael George (1885-1958), Dorothea (1886-1970), Beatrix (1888-1972), Benedict (1893-1957) and Christopher (1896-1966). Michael was the only one his children to have married, but they had no children.

In 1897 due to the onset of Agnes’s ill-health the Sumner family moved to Bournemouth, purchasing Skerryvore in Alum Chine Road, Westbourne, the former home of the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson in which he wrote several of his famous novels including Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and The Dynamiter. Agnes, it seems, did not derive the anticipated health benefits from living in the resort causing Heywood to remark, “The health giving of the place seemed to be used up.” However, they had lived there from 1897 to 1903, six profitable years from Heywood’s point of view, for while he was engaged in a number of important art and design projects nationally (mainly in churches), he nevertheless found it gave him an opportunity to explore by bicycle eastern Dorset and south-west Hampshire. As he described it, “I used to bicycle about a great deal in those days, 40, 50 and 60 miles and so it came to pass that I knew the country around Bournemouth and renewed all my old acquaintance with the New Forest.” It appears he had developed his fascination with the New Forest during his honeymoon in 1883 which was spent at the delightful and isolated Bolderwood Farm, the home of the Tame family, forming a friendship with them which endured.

It was during these extensive cycle excursions that he also looked for a suitable rural place where he could establish his permanent home. The rather complex negotiations and dealings he had with the local people at Gorley fill several pages in his book, Cuckoo Hill. It is only necessary to remark that he designed and built, using the local labour and expertise, his charming house, in a style reminiscent of C.F. Voysey, the outstanding exponent of Arts and Crafts architectural style.

Sumner as family man at Cuckoo Hilll

It is difficult to learn much from the available sources on Heywood’s relationship with his wife Agnes. Superficially, at least, and perhaps actually they appeared to be a devoted couple and certainly loving parents to their five children. I have the impression that Sumner much enjoyed the companionship of his children and certainly was willing to accommodate their young and companionable friends. The fact that he wrote them a detective story called Gallows Hill, filled with delightful illustrations and rather humorous characters. The detective was named Clewes and Mr Doublebody Howl, the criminal. The drawing of the trial is a delight in itself and full of fun. One cannot help but feel it was informed by Sumner’s short spell in the legal profession. A further clue to this interest is contained in his book Ancient Earthworks of the New Forest he writes, ‘Elderly people of blameless life may be found who confess that they prefer Detective stories to Love stories. To such field Archaeology should appeal. The zest of detection impels the attempt to understand ancient earthworks’.

Sylvia Branford (née Longstaff), writing in Forest Views the Bramshaw parish magazine in June 1986, states that she is not aware of how her parents came to know the Sumners, “But my sisters, Ursula and Barbara, can remember the Sumners arriving at our home, Picket Hill, on the large bicycle…” The Longstaff girls made frequent visits to Cuckoo Hill, to play with the grown-up daughters, Doris and Beatrix (they are recorded as Dorothea and Beatrice in the censuses) who appeared to welcome and enjoy their company. During the long summer vacations the two boys, Humphrey and Benedict, were also present which gave added zest to their enjoyment. At that time the Sumners employed four indoor staff, one of whom, Clara Petty, had been with them for over twenty years. Picket Hill, in Hightown, Ringwood, is only about three and half miles south of Cuckoo Hill. as the crow flies.

The New Forest Guide book

One gets a strong sense of Sumner’s desire to impart his knowledge and discoveries as widely as possible. And we can witness that in the production of a small New Forest guide book in which he applied both the immense amount of knowledge amassed in pursuing his field and archaeological digs supplemented with a surprisingly wide range of published sources, thus providing a distinctive and clear guide book to the New Forest. A modest first sentence explained its purpose, “This little guide-book is planned for the wayfarer—to suit his pocket both in size and cost.” It was to be illustrated with his pen and ink drawings and as he announced it was to be “a handy companion, giving a brief account of the district, past and present, of its topography, history, traditions and scenery; and it aims at supplying a useful introduction to the subject, reminiscent of the past, and of the varied beauty that pervades the wild expanse of wood and heathland.”

The first edition, printed by C. Brown and Son printers of Ringwood and running to 88 text pages plus six pages of advertisements and ten full page pen and ink drawings by the author. It went on sale in 1924 at 1s. 6d.

 The first printing was of 2,000 copies which must have sold well for on 15 April 1925 a second edition of 4000 copies was produced in two separate printings, the first costing the same as the original but the price of the second increased to 2s. 6d.

The fact that it received a very favourable review in The Times Literary Supplement, describing it as “a very useful and comprehensive account” perhaps indicates that the fame that had befallen Heywood Sumner as a lover of the New Forest had spread nationally.

This article was written by the President of the LDHS Jude James. We are grateful to him for allowing us to use publish it on our website. It should be noted that this was first published in the New Milton Advertiser and Lymington Times on 16 Feb 2018.