The story behind The Arts Society in Wokingham

PUBLISHED: 16:07 09 October 2017 | UPDATED: 16:07 09 October 2017

Members of The Arts Society, Wokingham outside Tate Britain

Members of The Arts Society, Wokingham outside Tate Britain


Behind the scenes in Wokingham, a group interested in finding out more about everything from street art to tapestries is thriving, Linda Fawkes discovers

For a wide-ranging programme of interesting and inspiring speakers, enterprising study days and a variety of visits, it would be hard to find anywhere better than The Arts Society, Wokingham.

If this name is unfamiliar, it’s not surprising. Although the Society is not new, its name of The Wokingham Decorative and Fine Arts Society (Wokingham DFAS) has just undergone a rebranding, initiated by the National Society (originally NADFAS), to make its activities better known and to reflect its widening scope. It also makes its easier on the tongue! The Wokingham group is one of over 360 in the United Kingdom.

The local Society was inaugurated in September 2014. Tim Burton, who has been Treasurer from the start, reveals some of the challenges. “The original committee had little experience but pulled together successfully. We had to find a venue, get at least 150 members, and establish a programme. Much has been achieved in three years.”

Michael Shirley, the New Society Advisor for NADFAS at the time, recognised that Wokingham would be an ideal place for a new group to be set up. He worked with the first Chairman, Judy Tomlin, to make this happen.

The Arts Society meets on the fourth Thursday of the month, in the Salisbury Hall at Newbold College, Binfield. Robin Cops, the current chairman, is grateful to Newbold. “They have been sensitive to our needs and incredibly helpful,” he says. The Society originally met at Bearwood College, but when it was no longer available, Newbold stepped in. This gave the Society the opportunity to expand membership as Salisbury Hall holds 400 people. New members are welcome.

Robin told me he has a great committee, from the Secretary, Enid King and the Membership Secretary, Bob Parry – both of whom have time-consuming but sometimes invisible jobs – to those organising lectures and events and are more in the public eye. Martin Haslam, the Programme Secretary, explained that speakers all undergo a rigorous selection process. This guarantees the high quality of the lectures which are always informative and entertaining. The scope is wide. The topics this year ranged from ‘Life and Art in Georgian Dublin’ to ‘Peter the Great: Building St Petersburg’.

Are you interested in street art, the history of the harp, Raoul Dufy or tapestries? If so, there is something for you in the 2018 programme. Feedback is collected after the lectures and members are invited to comment. This ensures ongoing standards and helps Martin in planning future lectures. Painting, architecture, music, photography and theatre all come within the Arts Society’s scope.

In addition to the lectures, there are study days and visits. These may tie in with the lectures – sometimes speakers give a talk and later a study day – or may be independent.

Nancy Stacey, who organises four different visits a year, told me she bases her choice on suggestions, recommendations from other Visits Secretaries in the region and a good list she inherited from her predecessor. She aims for a balance of general interest and more speciality visits. She is always open to new ideas.

Some visits are unique, such as the one to Englefield House in June this year where the lady of the house provided a private tour. The house is not open to the general public. The ‘Legal London – Discovering the Inns of Court’ trip was so popular that a second trip had to be organised. There have been other visits to London – ‘Tate to Tate’ and ‘A Walk around Soho and Covent Garden’ – but trips are not limited to the big city. There will be a visit to Winchester Cathedral and the Christmas Market in December and Nancy is talking about a potential visit to Oxford and the Ashmolean Museum. Every visit has a knowledgeable guide and that’s what makes them special. “Even an hour’s worth of a guide makes a difference,” Nancy said.

As far as Study Days are concerned, four have been run so far, with more to come. These days consist of three lectures from an expert in a comfortable venue with lunch. Topics have varied from ‘An Introduction to Modern Art’ to ‘New York, New York: an Architectural and Social Discovery’. Anne Lovett, who plans the programme, tries to vary them to suit as many tastes as possible, making the day a pleasurable overall experience.

“Trying to find suitable venues has been a challenge,” she admits, though Wokingham Theatre has proved successful. An interesting future topic is ‘The Road to Shakespeare: the Development of Theatre from the Medieval Period up to the Age of Elizabeth’.

Lectures, Visits and Study Days, while important and enjoyable, do not define all that the Society does. One important aspect of the Arts Society’s work is Church Recording. A Church Record is a full list of the furnishing of a church and a local group is working in St James’s Church, Finchampstead. Branwen Mellors coordinates this activity and told me they chose an interesting local church that wasn’t too big as there were many people learning the required skills and the church was keen for the recording to be done.

The furnishings of the church are divided into sections: memorials, metal work, textiles, woodwork, stonework, windows and libraries. Everything is measured, described and photographed as appropriate. A template developed with the V & A Museum 40 years ago is used for the recording. There is a keen group of around 20 who work on different sections, a sociable activity that has been likened to a treasure hunt as you never know what you might find. For anyone interested in local heritage and wanting to contribute to the history of the country, it is ideal.

When the work is finished, the findings are sent to the National Archive at NADFAS House, Historic England Archives, the V & A and kept at the local church. The information is used by researchers, genealogists and even for insurance purposes. Branwen is hopeful her group will complete the recording of St James by the end of this year.

To date, the contents of more than 1,700 churches have been collated by the Arts Society which warns that recording needs ‘patience, a willingness to check facts, the ability to write unambiguous English and a supply of warm underwear’.

One of the priorities of the Wokingham Society this year is to get ‘Young Arts’ off the ground. The National Society aims to inspire young people, generally from eight to 18 years, with a lasting enthusiasm for the arts and to expand their horizons. Barbara Stoker, who is coordinating this locally, told me that she, Jo Metcalf and Chris Gulliver, vice-Chairman, are working with other local groups to decide how best to fulfil a role in Wokingham. They want to find an unfilled niche. This may be by sponsoring a student who needs help, awarding a prize or working with a group within a school.

They are liaising with complementary groups such as More Arts, Bracknell and Wokingham College and the Wokingham Art Society. (Note the latter is a local group of artists – not to be confused with the Arts Society, Wokingham!) This is an exciting new project with much potential.

With so much happening, keeping everyone informed is a key task. Sue Bryant is currently in charge of communications and general publicity. Much of her time has been taken up with the rebranding, no small task, and she produces regular newsletters and monthly electronic bulletins. One of Sue’s newsletters was used as an example by the national organisation to encourage other groups to produce something similar. Together with Sue Whitehead, she is producing a glossy brochure for next year’s programme.

The Arts Society, Wokingham is fortunate in working with the local firm of solicitors, Clifton Ingram. This is a beneficial partnership and Clifton Ingram sponsors several of the lectures. Their support is invaluable for what is still a young society but one that is enthusiastic and vibrant. Everyone I spoke to was animated and eager to make the Society successful. If you are interested in joining, the website address is below as is an email address for information. You can also contact the Chairman, Robin Cops, directly. | | Robin Cops:

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