So rare a find. A recognisable strawwork picture of a named village in remarkably untouched and excellent condition, with provenance.
The view is of the village of Yaxley in the Fens. The parish of Yaxley comprises the hamlet of Norman Cross, which was the site of a large prisoner of war camp between 1797 and 1814.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Yaxley was nestled in rolling hills rather than in fenland that had to be drained to prevent flooding. But this landscape was of the artists' imagination.
There are windmills shown, one of which could well be the Old Drainage Mill and Scoopwheel on Yaxley Fen, and the old church of St Peter with its imposing tower.
The name of the village is shown in straw on the bottom and particularly charming I think are the two figures bottom left, one a well dressed old gent with his walking stick and the other a soldier in uniform.
On its original panel backing and framed in its' original moulded and painted black frame, with age related wear, and under original glass.
Size overall: 12.25" x 10" 32 x 26cm
Provenance: Lot 317, Bonhams, The Sampson and Horne Collection, 28 April 2010. Their labels and ticket price are on the piece and can be seen in one of the photographs below.
Norman Cross Prison and Prisoner of War Work
Norman Cross Prison was located in Huntingdonshire, being the world's first purpose built prisoner of war camp or "depot", built in 1796–97, lying south of Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, between the villages of Folksworth, Stilton and Yaxley.
It was built to hold prisoners of war from France and its allies during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. After the Treaty of Amiens the depot was emptied of prisoners and, in 1816, largely demolished.
The average prison population over these years was about 5,500 men, most being low-ranking soldiers and sailors, including midshipmen and junior officers, with a small number of privateers.
With the permission of The Government Transport Board, many prisoners at Norman Cross made artefacts such as toys, model ships and domino sets from carved wood or animal bone, and straw marquetry.
Some highly skilled prisoners were commissioned by wealthy individuals, with some of the prisoners becoming very rich in the process.
Archdeacon William Strong, a regular visitor to the prison, notes in his diary of 23 October 1801, that he provided a piece of mahogany and paid a prisoner £1 15s 6d to build a model of the Block House and £2 2s for a straw picture of Peterborough Cathedral. Examples of similar fine work can still be seen at Peterborough Museum.
Prisoners were permitted, with limitations, to sell artefacts twice a week at the local market, or daily at the prison gate to visitors and passers by. Prices were regulated so the prisoners did not undersell local industries. In return, prisoners were permitted to buy additional food, tobacco, wine, clothes or materials for further work. Some of the most talented made a great deal of money, which they were allowed to take home with them on their release, although many opted to remain in the country.
Between 1806 and 1814 Yaxley’s market generated more revenue than the market in neighbouring Peterborough. An illegal trade in straw plait flourished with help from local publicans and this caused a national outcry and straw hat makers complained bitterly of a shortage of supply. One Yaxley man was sentenced to two days in the pillory at Norman Cross for trading illegally.
St Peter’s Church with it commanding position in the town is clearly shown as are at least two mills. Due to the flat watery nature of the land surrounding Yaxley there were many mills at this period. One was the old Yaxley Tower Mill and The Millhouse on Broadway, which ceased operating around 1900 and was shown in local adverts as “for sale to pull down” in June 1902.
Others were The Old Drainage Mill and Scoopwheel on Yaxley Fen and The Yaxley Stone Mill, later called the Black Mill, due to its later plastered and tarred appearance.
Wally Chamberlain Oulton's The traveller's guide (London, 1805, vol. 2, page 927) offers a description of Yaxley:
“... near the Nen river, situated on a fine gravelly eminence abounding in excellent water, and commanding a beautiful view over the circumjacent country. It is in the road to Peterborough, small, but neat: the houses are well built, and the church has a lofty spire. Here are barracks used for the confinement of French prisoners ... On Sundays the gates are thrown open, and people of all descriptions admitted throughout the day, and the prisoners have been know to receive from those visitors above 200 ... for the toys of bone, straw, boxes, models of vessels, and other small articles, manufactured in the course of the preceding week ...”