The Britten-Pears Red House experience

At long last I have visited the Britten-Pears residence, shrine and museum which is the Red House, Aldeburgh, Suffolk. It was indeed up there with the Bloomsberries’ Charleston, near Eastbourne,;or with Karen Blixen’s Rungstedland, near Copenhagen (or her house by the Ngong Hills, near Nairobi). All are places where creative people surrounded themselves with good taste. Above all, the Red House could be compared with the wonder of Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge. Both these East Anglian gems are, after all, pilgrimages for the “Soft-Modernism” which the middle classes adopted from their post-war Bohemian leaders in style. In the event, the Red House excelled, and was almost a disappointment too.

The Red House has an ambition which none of the other houses shares. At least, I that’s what I took from the Britten Pears Foundation website before my visit. I gathered that the idea is that the whole site – especially the Library and the Studio (both designed for and used by the pair) – should resonate and fructify in the inhabitant’s and the visitor’s mind. They are creative domestic factories or workshops, much like a monk’s cell. I mean that these two creative spaces should help one get into a useful frame of mind, just as they had the original owners. I take it that this is the point of a creative and a spiritual pilgrimage. We aren’t meant just to gawp and admire the good taste of the two musicians: rather, we are invited to get our own juices flowing.  Anyway, I certainly found both rooms very moving. In their own way, they were as energising as the RC shrine at Walsingham – or Binham Abbey – turned out to be when visited a couple of days later, or St Benet’s Abbey on the Broads soon after that.

The next sort of thing I want to say is a little more complicated. Still outside the residence itself, there is a very good museum-cum-gallery on the life of Benjamin Britten.  It is fairly conventional, with its cases of objects, but pretty moody too. There is a good audio guide. But for all these experiences – in the studio, the library and the museum-cum-gallery, one is on one’s feet. One can’t touch much, one can’t sit at leisure. I found myself mulling over why we shouldn’t be given a more relaxed sitting and lounging experience, augmented by a DVD player, or a streaming device, in which one could immerse oneself. One might wallow in a rerun of Britten documentary; or listen to his music (or Pears’s singing); or a virtual museum visit. All on headsets, of course, and in high quality audio.

It also occurred to me that the point of the Britten-Pears experience goes way beyond the lives and musicianship of the pair, or rather that all these are examples of lived, accessible Modernism. This is modernism of the sort described by Colin St John Wilson in his The Other Tradition of Modern Architecture: The uncompleted project. I mean that the furniture, paintings and books of the outbuildings were all of a piece with what had become mainstream, post-war taste. To that extent, the Red House is a sort of Festival of Britain festival, and could usefully give visitors a guide to that world of Utility becoming G Plan. This new taste was a lot to do with mass consumption, and Britten is most interesting for not being alienating or overly advanced in anything, from his composition to his reading list or his furniture or wall hangings.

I wonder if it would be going too far to let the library become a sitting and lounging place? Nothing in it looked fragile or precious. And even if the books can’t be touched, there would be nothing against letting visitors sample the reading taste of our imagined and erstwhile hosts by thumbing through or reading second hand copies of the books they owned. If one imposed a silence rule, the atmosphere would be preserved. The challenge would be similar to that faced by the Sailors’s Reading Room in nearby Southwold which was, when I last visited in the 1980s, accessible for use by all.

Anyway, my idea comes to this: it would be interesting to see what could be achieved in the way of making the visitor’s pilgrimage to the Red House a little more, as it were, active.

The same general thoughts apply to the foundation’s website: most of the effort already made in the Red House, and its exhibition, studio and library areas could readily be rendered online, along with wonderfully immersive audio material.

As to the house itself, it was almost a disappointment. There were flashes of elegance and style in some of the rooms, and even of cheerful domesticity – which isn’t the same thing. But it was interesting to note that whilst one went hoping for Kettle’s Yard, there was quite a bit of Nuffield Place about it all. I think I see the problem the curators face: to put out as much of the good stuff as possible (the whole dinner set, for instance); or to create that delicious Mary Celeste experience (the room as though a neutron bomb had just vaporised the inhabitants, leaving a frozen moment in objects). I wouldn’t like to have to solve the dilemma, but it’s there.

I should say that my few hours thinking about Britten has made me admire him more. I admire his accessible but thorough-going music; his choice of architects; his tennis-playing; his liking fast cars; his devotion to place). I think I understand his masculinity, austerity, severity and seriousness quite well. I don’t mind his boy-loving aesthetic and don’t suppose it made him a nuisance to anyone. I have known a fair few pederasts whose main problem, but also whose main virtue, probably consisted in sexual restraint. I am not at all crazy about his socialism (him with a bell to summon to serving staff, indeed), nor his pacifism (and I doubt he read his Wilfred Owen as closely as David Reynolds).

Tracking down and trying to match up some of my responses to the Britten-Pears experience, I think there is a sort of collision between the splendidly monkish spirituality and industry in the studio and library, and something quite provincial, suburban and even fusty these lovers made in their home. No harm in that, anyway; and none of my business, really. And all of it making a visit which knocks around in the mind beautifully.


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Publication date

06 October 2014


Mind & body