ANYONE who came across Kate Tryon as she wandered the villages, fields and dusty rural lanes around Swindon with her sketchbook, easel, paints, brushes, pallet and collapsible wooden stool were in for a surprise. It is unlikely that folk from these ‘ere parts would have heard an accent remotely like Kate’s.

She was, you see, an American, and in the days before the wireless and the talkies such a brogue would have been largely unknown in this neck of the woods. We, of course, can only wonder what Kate made of the peculiar-bordering-on-unfathomable pronunciation of the indigenous Moonraker.

What is clear, though, is that Kate loved the place – the aura, the atmosphere, the nature and wildlife and the sheer sweeping beauty of the countryside adjoining our burgeoning railway town.

After her first foray to Swindon and its satellite settlements in 1910 she returned to the area on five occasions and as a result left us with an array of magnificent paintings that capture a rustic, now long gone landscape and way of life.

“For those who are interested in the history of this area, I think that Kate Tryon’s legacy is as great as anyone’s,” said 88 year-old Sheila Povey, an expert and enthusiast on Kate’s work. “I just love these paintings,” she added, flicking through a folder containing copies of some of Tryon’s images.

The artist’s deep affection for the hills, hamlets, meadows, thatched cottages, grand houses, churches, woods and gardens in the vicinity of Swindon inspired some joyous paintings of Coate, Hodson, Chiseldon, Liddington Hill, Old Town and further afield.

They are like bygone photographs that have somehow burst into blissful, radiant colour.

Following her first visit here when she was 45, Kate went on to produce more than 300 oils and sketches, sandwiching her pilgrimages between the era immediately before World War One and the era immediately before World War Two.

So enamoured was she with the area that, back in the States she wrote a book about her “adventures” in the splendour of North Wiltshire (see panel).

But what drew an American to a relatively remote part of distant Britain in the days when you could hardly hop onto an eight-hour transatlantic flight from the East Coast?

This is how Kate responded when considering the issue: “The lark, the nightingale and Richard Jefferies – those are the three things that brought me to England.”

Kate Tryon’s relationship with this area is unusual, very likely unique but a heart-warming one with a couple of unexpected twists...

Born in Maine in 1865 Kate Tryon (nee Allen) studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and became a writer, artist and lecturer specialising in birds and nature – a passion which led her to the works of Swindon poet, author and one-time Adver correspondent Richard Jefferies (1848-1887).

So captivated was Kate by Jefferies’ evocations of the countryside around Coate where he grew up that she felt compelled to head for Swindon to paint these scenes the late writer had described.

She was, as the Advertiser reported during one of her earlier visits, “putting on canvas the familiar scenes of our author’s Wiltshire home.”

Tryon went so far as to place the countryside near Swindon on a par with that of her beloved Martha’s Vineyard, a nature-rich island in Massachusetts where she also painted extensively.

Alighting from Swindon station in 1910, she hired a driver to take her to Coate but before arriving was dropped off so that she could amble to the farm and reservoir and immerse herself in the sights and sounds of so-called “Jefferies Land.”

Had she made the trip 115 years later, she would almost certainly have been horrified at the swathe of bricks and mortar now arising from the fields separating Coate from Liddington Hill – and probably caught the next steamer home.

At the time, however, this largely unspoilt carpet of countryside lived up to everything Jefferies had described and everything Kate had anticipated.

So she unpacked her easel and got cracking...

Now I don’t know whether Jefferies ever nipped into The Plough at Chiseldon for a thirst quencher during his numerous expeditions onto the Downs but one of my favourite Tryon works is an idyllic image of the view downhill from this particular hostelry.

Anyone who passes the inn on the A345 from Marlborough will be familiar with the scene Kate painted, which is as recognisable now as it was then… despite the somewhat less than bucolic intrusion of the M4.

Kate loved Chiseldon, painted many scenes in the village and indeed “settled herself” in a brick cottage for a year or so during the Twenties.

A fine photo exists of some local lads gathered around Kate’s easel admiring her depiction of a thatched cottage and its smoking chimney.

She later described the incident, saying the “urchins” who had been on their way to a game of cricket, had “never before seen little mounds of paint ‘choked out of toothpaste things’ transformed into a cottage, trees, sky, hillside and a brook.”

Many of Kate’s landscapes are easily recognisable today despite the onset of modernisation – the incline of Marlborough Road into High Street, Old Town for example.

Swindon’s nearby manorial home of the Goddards – The Lawn – is now long gone but its grandeur lives on courtesy of Tryon’s tranquil image of “the great house.”

Complete with monocle, Major Fitzroy Pleydell Goddard invited Kate to paint from wherever spot in the Italian Garden she wished before offering her lunch. Just across the way the Corn Exchange chimed every quarter of an hour.

Kate was drawn back to Swindon in 1911, 1912, 1924, 1927-28 and – for a final time as war once more loomed – in 1938 aged 73.

Remembering her days here, she once wrote: “If anyone ever asks my idea of heaven... I shall say ‘The Wiltshire Downs on a spring morning’.”

  •  THE people at the Reservoir-keeper’s cottage took her for a courageous and self-possessed young woman. But she wasn’t – not just then, anyway.
    Inwardly she was all-a-tremble. The two sisters had seen her approaching on the field-road carrying something queer.
    “A peddler,” said Lottie. “Let’s not go to the door.” And they didn’t...
    So begins Kate Tryon’s adventures at Coate and the wider Swindon countryside upon her arrival in 1910 – the beginning of a 28-year association with area, as related in her book. 
    Most of the book concerns Tryon’s first visit but with several episodes added from subsequent stays.
    It is autobiographical but Kate tells her tale through the third person of “painter/tourist” Eleanor Hale of Boston, taking a “wry, oblique but deeply affectionate look” at rural life in this area more than a century ago.
  • THE story of the respected American artist with an infatuation for the countryside around Swindon could have ended with the death of Kate Tryon in Massachusetts at 87 in 1952.
    But it did not...
    In 1963 following the opening of the Richard Jefferies Museum at Coate Farmhouse where the writer was born, a very special visitor arrived.
    It was Kate’s daughter Sylvia Kramer who brought along 35 of her mother’s works to donate to the museum.
    Some can still be seen there in the original wooden frames hand-carved by the artist, others are kept at the Swindon Museum and Art Gallery.
    Sylvia was told by one villager: “No-one in Coate will ever forget the American lady who came over to paint Jefferies Land.”
    Even stranger, perhaps, was another visitor who “suddenly turned up” in 1997, knocking on the museum door.
    It was Kate’s granddaughter Kate Schneider – and she had a special gift, too.
    Mrs Schneider and her husband were directed to Richard Jefferies Society members Sheila Povey and her now late husband John.
    Mrs Povey said they were thrilled and amazed when Mrs Schneider offered them an unpublished typed manuscript which her grandmother had written based on her visits to Swindon (see panel.)
    Documented by Sheila, Adventures In The Vale of the White Horse ‘Jefferies Land’ by Kate Tryon was published by the society in 2010 and is available price £12 from:
  • THIS is Kate Tryon’s description of one of her favourite villages while visiting Swindon a century or so ago.
    “Chiseldon, though bound to the not-distant town (Swindon) by the railway, and of late years by the motor-bus, is not spoiled. 
    “Its rusticity is fading but slowly, despite several rows of brand new villas on the outskirts occupied by new-comers from town. 
    “Besides the church it has two kinds of Methodist chapels, two or three rather superior old houses with their own grounds and trees which, together with several sunken lanes, pretty nearly conceal the village.
    “The place boasts two bakeries, each with grocery-shop attached, and two or three grocery shops pure and simple, three ‘pubs’ if the Plough Inn out on the Marlborough highway is not indeed claimed by the neighbouring hamlet of Badbury Wick.”