A Prospect of Worcester from the East is an oil painting on canvas which has been laid on board. It was painted around 1750 and has been attributed to John Harris the Younger (1720-1755) based on analogy with other known works by the artist. There is some feeling however, that the painting could be the work of a number of artists evidenced by different styles of painting in the rural foreground of the work when contrasted with the depiction of the city itself.
Worcester City Museums acquired this painting in 1987 with generous assistance from the V&A / MGC Purchase Grant Fund, NACF and the general public. At the time of purchase the picture caused some excitement in the city, depicting as it does an accurate view of Worcester as it stood in the mid eighteenth century. It was a period of intense remodelling, rebuilding and civic pride. The spires of St Andrews and St Nicholas were brand new additions to the Worcester skyline. The Cathedral and castle are visible as are the sails of trows moving along the River Severn, and the Malvern Hills in the background. Worcester would become known for its Georgian architecture from that time to the present day.
It is likely that the painting depicts a scene during the late summer harvest. Reapers are cutting the crop under the direction of the farmer. A gentleman to the right is shooting at a covey of partridges and on the left the men building the hayrick are drinking from a flagon of beer. This is a rare depiction of seasonal activities on a home farm.
This picture is part of a trend in eighteenth century painting that depicted farming activities as representative of health, calm and the good life at a time when the British economy and population were becoming increasingly urbanised. Much is missing from this idyllic view of both rural life and the City of Worcester. The worsening conditions for farm labourers, due to new farming techniques and enclosure are not represented. Neither is the emerging plight of the urban poor.
The location from which this artwork was painted has long been known. The easily identifiable shape of the garden that makes up the foreground of the painting can be found on the Doherty map of Claines which was completed in 1751. The map is now in the care of Worcestershire Record Office. The building was called The Redhouse and stood in the area of present day Lansdowne Crescent. The site of the house has had a long and eventful history.
During the civil war it is thought that the Redhouse was the headquarters of Cromwell’s besieging Parliamentarian army and that the city’s surrender was signed there. Following the civil war the house continued as a Gentleman’s farmhouse on the outskirts of the city, not as well known as nearby Blanquettes or Perdiswell Hall, but a substantial house nonetheless. In 1718 an entry in the Worcester Berrows Journal describes the Redhouse as having “two orchards, two wall’d gardens, a pidgeon-house, and other out-houses”.
In the mid eighteenth century when the Prospect was painted, William Browning and his new wife Margaret were living in The Redhouse in Claines. William was from a landowning family from Martley and his wife, Margaret Hill was the only child of John Millington Hill, a glover. William and Margaret were blessed with nine daughters though sadly only three survived to adulthood
There is no doubt that the family embraced the opportunities of the emerging industrial revolution. William appears to have had interests in a company named ‘The Pensax Coal Mining Company’ which mined coal, iron stone and other minerals in the Pensax area of the Wyre Forest coalfields. In the eighteenth century the coalfield was scattered with numerous small mines working where the coal was at its shallowest. It appears that the Browning family owned land here at Pensax which they leased for the sinking of pits and mining of coal.
William Browning passed away in 1777 aged only 55. The Berrows Worcester Journal reported that the cause of his death was an apoplectic fit that occurred whilst he was out taking the air in his chaise. He was buried under the middle aisle close to the chancel at Martley Parish Church alongside his brother Armell. Their white marble memorial plaque sits high on the wall of the church above the pulpit.
The house became known as Marlbank from at least 1873 though it is unclear whether the house was rebuilt or renamed. From 1929 until 1934 Marlbank was the last home of Sir Edward Elgar. He had known the house all of his life and described it as, “ ..an old house and now much built in…” It is curious to imagine the personalities that must have visited Marlbank during Elgar’s time there. He certainly composed and recorded some of his later works in the house. It was at Marlbank, that Elgar finally lost his battle with cancer in 1934. He had returned home to die.
Sadly, Marlbank was demolished in 1969 following an unsuccessful plan to turn the house into a YMCA hostel. The public outcry was not enough to prevent the demolition of the house to make way for three blocks of modern flats that are known as Elgar Court. Their name, a few blocks of garden wall and their famous view of the city is the only reminder of the true nature of the site on which they stand.
In the winter of 2009 and 2010 a team of volunteers spent many hours at Worcestershire Record Office researching this history of the Redhouse and the Browning family culminating in an exhibition in the first half of 2010 entitled ‘A Prospect of Worcester’. Their work was helped a great deal by the earlier work of Joan Knowles. Museums Worcestershire would like to thank Christine, Helen, Janet, Lynda and Rob for many hours of hard work.