An Aldringham Man of Many Talents
One can hardly fail to notice some evidence of Cecil Lay in and around Aldringham, especially if one explores the Parish on foot. Some of his delightful and unusual buildings are somewhat hidden, but others are more obvious, not far from the Leiston to Aldeburgh road. Yet it's not only his architectural accomplishments that make Cecil Lay noteworthy. He was an equally talented artist and poet.
As well as having many creative gifts, Cecil Howard Lay was something of a character. He was born and died in Aldringham, spent most of his life in the village, and ought to be remembered within the Parish - these words and pictures may go some way to preserving memories of him here.
Cecil Lay was born in Aldringham School House on 30th April, 1885. His father, Aldophus Oscar Lay, was the schoolmaster at the village school for 40 years, and an enthusiastic and able drawer. His family were seafarers from Essex, and Cecil's mother, Anna Maria, née Dove, came from a farming background. Cecil's parents preferred him not to associate with pupils of the village school so he was educated initially by a private tutor, and then, as a weekly boarder (1898-1904), attended Queen Elizabeth's School in Henley Road, Ipswich (so named for the charter that queen gave the school in 1565).
Although he wanted to be an artist, to assuage his parents, Lay trained as an architect. At first he was articled to J S Corder, the well known Suffolk architect, in Ipswich, and between 1907 and 1911 studied at the Architectural Association in London. In 1912 he set up his own practice, and became a Member of the Royal Institute of British Architects in the same year. In order to study painting Lay then travelled in Belgium and Holland, becoming a close friend of Frank Brangwyn who influenced Lay's work. Lay also corresponded with the American poet Ezra Pound.
Although he wasn't in active service, the Great War shocked and horrified Lay. Following a nervous breakdown he returned to Suffolk, rarely leaving the county again.
Best known in the Parish for his architecture, Lay built Raidsend (1912-1914; now Aldringham Court Nursing Home) for his mother, who desired the largest house in Aldringham. This lovely building is probably his finest creation and the exterior survives largely unchanged, though modern single storey extensions have been added. The house is of late Art Nouveau style, with gracious tall Dutch gables, lofty narrow windows, unusual pargeting in the form of fruits and leaves, still gaily coloured, a curved hood over the entrance porch and bow railed balconies at first floor windows.
Lay designed other novel and inventive structures, most of them large houses in the vicinity of Aldringham and Aldeburgh, using traditional Suffolk styling in an original new way. It's not difficult to recognise his designs although some have been almost completely lost behind modern additions. He was responsible for some of the town-planning of nearby Leiston, as well as the restoration of Aldeburgh Parish Church. Lay became a Fellow of the RIBA in 1925.
Rural Suffolk inspired Lay to paint and write poetry, and though less renowned for these talents he excelled in both. He worked in a long, narrow, wooden studio situated in woodland alongside an earthen drift behind his house. Paintings were stacked against the walls, and although he perhaps only tolerated children he did allow a small boy to follow him around the studio and surrounds in his later years.
Lay's early prints echo the style of Aubrey Beardsley, but during the 1920s and 1930s he developed a typically deco approach, producing many oil paintings capturing local people in a startling imitative naive style and in brilliant colour. His watercolour landscapes are more natural and relaxed. His paintings and drawings were widely exhibited throughout the UK as well as in France and Canada during his lifetime, and have been shown since, notably at the Fry Gallery in Aldeburgh in 1978, coinciding with the publication of a collection of his poems, 'An Adder in June'.
Most of Lay's volumes of poems were published between 1927 and 1934, and are largely collections of short lyrics, many drawing on his knowledge of the countryside, others succinctly describing people, places and situations in his unique, perhaps oblique, style, some of them erotic. National Press opinions of his early verse comment on his ‘Elizabethan frankness, simplicity, admirable lyrical impulse combined with tigerish intensity and focus, wit, beauty and blunt realism. His romantic sensibility was blended or moderated with classic restraint.' A selective volume of his ‘Collected Poems' was produced posthumously in 1962 by Lance Sieveking.
Cecil Lay married Joan Chadburn, daughter of the painter Haworth Chadburn, in 1932. Joan was also a talented artist and children's book illustrator. They had no children. After his marriage Lay converted two cottages near to Raidsend to make a home at Arch House in Aldringham (since extended and modernised almost beyond recognition). Joan Lay was one of the three auxiliary nurses who attended the Stirling aircraft crash in Aldringham on 24 March 1941, in a vain attempt to save the crew.
Lay was a well known character in Aldringham. His poetic and artistic observations show he enjoyed country life and rural pursuits. As a young man he shot game, still toting his shot gun in his later years, although he lauded wildlife in his poems. He frequented the nearby Parrot & Punchbowl Inn through his adult life and indeed put pen to paper writing poetry after visits to alcohol.
As well as dogs which appeared in some of his paintings, he kept a one eyed goose named Clarence, who lived for 21 years, dying not long before Lay, in 1955. Clarence was aggressive, noisy and very strong - in a confrontation with a bicycle he bent a wheel. In another attack he lost his eye to a pitchfork being used as a defence.
Lay also kept tortoises, attracting scholarly attention with his prolonged study of the behaviour of one of them, observing what appeared to be ritual dances on emergence from hibernation and noting dietary preferences through the seasons.
Cecil Lay seems an intriguing person, and a little knowledge of him leaves one wanting to know more. He was apparently friendly but moody, and expressed himself in whichever way seemed right for the moment - in words or music, on paper or canvas, as a sculpture or in a building. He was indeed a man of many talents.
Cecil Lay lived in Aldringham until his death on 6th February, 1956, and is buried in Aldringham Churchyard near to his parents. The fading words on his neglected headstone read:
CECIL HOWARD LAY
WHO WAS BORN IN SUFFOLK
LIVED IN SUFFOLK AND
DIED IN SUFFOLK
POET, PAINTER, ARCHITECT
APRIL 30 1885 - FEB 6 1956
ALSO HIS WIFE
JOAN JESSIE LAY
DIED 18 MAY 1980
AGED 85 YEARS
A delightful biography, together with reproductions of some of Cecil Lay's works, written and contributed by historian Dr John Blatchly. Many thanks to Dr Blatchly for this and other material he has provided.
In 1978 Cecil Lay's widow, Joan, decided to make all of his paintings available for sale. They were exhibited at the Parkin Gallery in London. The exhibition Catalogue has been reproduced by the kind permission of, and with thanks to, Michael Parkin. Thanks again to Dr John Blatchly for lending the Catalogue.
Cecil Howard Lay poetry publications
Click on the links below to read some poems
- Sparrows and Other Poems (1927)
- To Suffolk (separate, from the above)
- Grotesques and Arabesques (1928)
- In and Out (1930)
- Seven Poems (1932)
- Eight Poems
- April's Foal (1932)
- Ha and He (1933)
- Samples (1934)
- The Collected Poems of Cecil Lay (Introductions by A.E. Coppard and Lance Sieveking) (1962)
- An Adder in June, Selected poems (Introduction by Herbert Lomas) (1978)
Link to East Anglian Film Archive
An Anglia Television, 'About Anglia Special' documentary about the Suffolk-born poet, artist and architect, the late Cecil Lay, was broadcast in 1964.
Watch this charming short film, A Gentleman of Suffolk, Aldringham, Suffolk.
- Aldringham people, with thanks.
- Aldringham Court Nursing Home, with thanks.
- Archives Hub - Literary papers and correspondence of Cecil Lay are held at Leeds University Library, part of the Brotherton Collection, the gift of Joan Lay, Cecil Lay's widow.
- British Listed Buildings website
- East Anglian Daily Times
- Wikipedia - As the Wikipedia entry, much of this article is adapted from Herbert Lomas, Cecil Howard Lay, (Biographical introduction) in C. H. Lay, 'An Adder in June', Selected poems (Fry Gallery, Aldeburgh 1978). That introduction is more complete and eloquent than these words.
Many thanks too to those who have made comments or contributed pictures and photographs, including Joan Lay's family.
If you have photographs to supplement those published on these pages please email them to the Parish email address: firstname.lastname@example.org