George Heywood Maunoir Sumner came from a family of clergymen including an archbishop of Canterbury (his great uncle), while his mother, Mary Sumner, founded the Mothers Union. He was brought up at Old Alresford, Hampshire, where his father was rector. He, however, decided to study law rather than enter the church. Sumner was called to the bar in 1879, but by this time his real interests were in the arts. He soon became a successful artist in the Arts and Crafts tradition, and was a follower of William Morris, but was also influenced by pre-Raphaelite design and later Art Nouveau. Morris and Co. commissioned a design for a tapestry depicting a medieval deer hunt incorporating scenery based on the New Forest. This is now owned by Hampshire Museums Service.
He married Agnes Benson in 1882, and for the next few years worked as a professional artist in London, producing many drawings for books and magazines, also watercolours, posters and wallpaper designs. The quality of his illustrations was appreciated by his contemporaries including Walter Crane. His most innovative work was in sgraffito art, made by scraping away the top layer of plaster to reveal a design in two colours. Surviving examples can be seen in several churches including Church Crookham in Hampshire. The decoration of the nave apse at St Agatha’s Church, Portsmouth is described in the Hampshire volume of The Buildings of England as his masterpiece and “one of Portsmouth’s few major works of art”. He also produced designs for mosaics, stained glass and furniture.Among Sumner’s earlier works is a volume of etchings, showing views in the Itchen Valley, and a further volume about the New Forest by John Wise for which he contributed twelve etchings. We hold both volumes among the Cope Collection, along with loose plates from the volumes in the Print Collection. Sumner’s many interests included traditional music, and in 1888 he published The Besom Maker and other country folk songs with his own illustrations. He had collected the songs himself (mostly in Hampshire) and so was a pioneer in this field, predating Cecil Sharp by some years. He was a member of the newly formed Folk Song Society.
Sumner, his wife and five children, moved to the New Forest in the early years of the twentieth century after some years in Bournemouth. He had a house built to his own design and using local materials at Cuckoo Hill, South Gorley, (now a care home). This resulted in The Book of Gorley, an illustrated collection of his writings on local history and rural life. It includes his feelings about this time of year, with which many of us would sympathise: “I was born and bred on Hampshire chalk, and I love it, but I do not love it as a home when the rains fall and the springs rise in the New Year. Then during the months of January and February and March …the usual keen air…has a clammy breath and chills to the very marrow.” Apparently he found the climate within the New Forest more congenial, and much enjoyed walking through winter woodland: “The bare, deciduous trees reveal exquisite tracery of branch and twig, surmounted by a veil of varied tinted buds. Green mosses of vivid hues mingle with the grey fur of lichens on bole and trunk and bough.”[‘A winter walk in the New Forest’, Proceedings of the Hampshire Field Club Vol IX, 1925.]
In 1924 Sumner published The New Forest, an illustrated guidebook reprinted in 1972, which thirty years after the author’s death, the publishers considered “still the only book on the Forest which is both entertaining and a valuable source of reference”.Sumner soon became deeply interested in the earthworks and Roman pottery kilns of the area. As well as making surveys, he excavated a number of sites which resulted in many drawings annotated with his characteristic handwriting. He was inspired by the example of General Pitt-Rivers’ excavations in the nineteenth century, and always recorded his findings with great care. Special Collections holds several of his archaeological publications, and his accurate illustrations of pottery types would not look out of place in a modern excavation report. At the same time, he vividly described, with an artist’s eye, the trees and wildlife which surrounded him during his excavations. He also investigated Stonehenge and the earthworks of Cranborne Chase. He published The Ancient Earthworks of Cranborne Chase in 1913, described by Professor Barry Cunliffe as a masterpiece: “its meticulous plans are minor works of art, while the descriptions are models of clear observation and precise recording”. By the time Sumner died in 1940, he was considered one of the leading archaeologists in the country. By then much of his art had been forgotten, or thought of as “old-fashioned”, but that is now no longer the case and he is again widely appreciated.