I met Tony Quinton at Gosberton Messy Church, a monthly event for young children that is one way in which the church expresses its mission today. An artist and teaching assistant, Tony is passionate about connecting his faith with his creative practice. He shared these photos taken in Lincoln Cathedral a few years ago, which I include here with thanks.
Three days after Christmas 1797, an artist called William Burgess was in Moulton and made this fine ink and wash drawing of the church, writing on the bottom ‘sketched on the spot by W Burgess, Dec 28 1797’. He wrote the same thing on a drawing of Spalding church so, if it’s a true record, he had a productive day, despite it being one of the shortest of the year.
At the time, there was no technology capable of reproducing such a drawing in large numbers. Printing allowed only black ink or white paper, so greys were produced by tricking the eye. Very fine black lines on white ground can give the illusion of shades. Engravers copied an artist’s drawing onto a copper or steel plate, scoring marks onto the surface that could hold ink. Many artists were also engravers, because selling a number of prints was a better way to earn a living than selling a single drawing.
There was clearly interest in pictures of these churches by early 19th century, because the drawings of Moulton and Spalding were engraved and published a few years later in a volume dedicated to Fenland churches, alongside views of Boston, Kirton, Holbeach, Gedney, Sutton St. Mary (Long Stutton), Tydd St. Mary, Fleet and Gosberton. This is what Burgess’s drawing of Gosberton church looked like as an engraving:
The volume was published in Fleet by William and Hilkiah Burgess (presumably William’s brother and perhaps the engraver), and there is a copy in the British Library (and 78 other libraries across the world). I can find very little information about William or Hilkiah, though there are a few other surviving works including views of Croyland Abbey and Lincoln Cathedral. Apparently there’s a file on him assembled by the Frick Art Reference Library in the United States, but his spirit continues in these drawings which continue to give pleasure so long after his death in 1813.
There’s an artistic puzzle about these pictures though, as well as a historical one. If these drawings were made on 28 December 1797, as William states, why do they show trees in full leaf? Although they are closely-observed representations of the churches ‘on the spot’ the artist was not concerned with mere accuracy. This is an idealized vision of the church in its surroundings, the church in its Sunday best. As such, it’s another sign of the admiration these buildings have inspired and a recognition of their symbolic preeminence in their communities.
George Harrison once said that you can’t hear a ukulele without wanting to smile. I know what he meant: I was beaming throughout the Ukulele Orchestra of Spalding concert at Holbeach St John church last night. As the sound of church bells is naturally joyful, the sound of the ukulele just brings a smile to your face.
It helped that the Orchestra played familiar songs with style, adding colour with flashes of violin, trumpet, recorder – and triangle. It helped that their performance was full of self-deprecating wit, and the jokes nicely polished by age. It helped too that the church members who’d organised the concert to raise funds were so welcoming, providing an interval buffet of heroic generosity.
It all made as happy an event as one could wish for on a summer’s evening in a fenland village. C community, art and church in easy harmony: at the end of the evening, the Orchestra returned what they’d been given to help with church funds. Everybody went home with a smile and a tune in their heads.
PS The Ukulele Orchestra of Spalding plays about 50 concerts a year, all in aid of local charities: they will be performing at Gosberton Church on Saturday 25 October: more details on their website.
One aim of The Light Ships is to draw attention to the artistic work of people connected with the Fenland churches. Yesterday, I was able to include two photographs by Michael Strutt, who is a bellringer at Gosberton. Today, I’m delighted to share this poem by Valerie Venables, a writer and member of Moulton Methodist Church. Valerie took part in a wonderful morning’s conversation I had last week with residents of the village, generously hosted by Mary Brice. This poem is one result; my thanks to Valerie for sharing it with us.
The ancient barques are yet alive!
Alive with the love of those whose unnumbered hands,
over ages long, have filled their holds with treasures.
The skilled hands which have hewn and sewn, carved and painted,
bedecking the old walls and timbers with flowers,
hauling the ropes that sound the bells, ringing out joy,
and the one which solemnly tolls for departed souls.
Shoals of silvery words swim in pools of sunlight,
streaming through coloured glass, some caught and thought upon,
others dart away, lost to the day.
The music comes, the sound waves lapping
against the shores of consciousness, starting gently,
then billowing strongly, a storm of chords and notes.
The massed voices raised in praise, now and as always,
soar up into the roof space; an upturned ship shape.
Our country churches, the arks of preservation,
sail on through the ages, navigating changes,
yet remain constant still, to the ever profound.
Faith unfathomable, deep depths of mystery,
The lightships float on an endless sea.
Michael Strutt is a clock restorer, a bell ringer (at Gosberton) and a photographer. He use Blipfoto, which has the distinction of allowing photographers to add only one photo a day, taken on the day it is shared. The resulting photo diaries allow the viewer to imagine the connections. They highlight how sequencing images – putting one after another, making a beginning, middle and end – nourishes our natural instinct to compose stories.
With Michael’s permission, here are two of his images of churches, which he captioned ‘Distant Spires’. Although I see steeples all the time, as I drive across the fenland, I’ve found it hard to capture the feel of them with the camera. There is a visual paradox at play here. Last night, coming home from Wrangle, I noticed again how much taller the Boston Stump seems from a distance than it does when you get closer. So it’s a pleasure to be able to share these fine photographs.
The idea of looking at churches with new eyes is at the heart of The Light Ships. Unless you were brought up in another faith or a different part of the world, churches are such a familiar part of the English cultural landscape that their strangeness is all but invisible. All these arrows pointing at the sky, the spires that give the project its name, are so commonplace – but what an extraordinary thing to build.
Unlike skyscrapers like the Shard, they have no monetary purpose. Their value is immaterial. And yet, they are massive physical presences. Tons and tons of stone, quarried, ferried, carted, hauled, carved, winched, set and finally billed.
For all that, it’s never occurred to me to wonder what was inside those stone needles. When you walk under towers, you see a ceiling, sometimes beautifully vaulted in stone, like this one at Gosberton.
Climb up into the tower, and you’ll probably find a room from which the bells are rung, the ropes telling you that the bells are hanging above.
But go on up, as I was able to do yesterday, and you might be able to step into the spire itself and discover this extraordinary sight, the walls stained by rainwater but otherwise unchanged in the 700 years since the masons took away the scaffolding.
‘Because the land is level it need not be supposed that it is ugly; on the contrary there is a charm in the expansiveness of the landscapes which the natives sadly miss when they are obliged to live in a hilly country where the horizon is always close at hand and the sky is much limited. To the visitor, as a rule, it is the great cloudscapes and the vastness of the dome of heaven of the Fens which makes the greatest appeal, for one is able to see the most astonishing groupings of shadow-filled cumulus clouds when the wind is bringing the great creamy-white masses across the deep azure of the zenith.’
Gordon Home, Through the Chilterns to the Fens (1925)
- Wikipedia – Gordon Home (1878-1969)
The stone that Tony Leonard was holding had taken him a couple of days to carve. It’s called a ‘springer’ because from it spring the intricate lines that make up the tracery of a gothic window. The next time I pass St Botolph’s church in Boston, it will be in place, white and crisp looking, compared to those around it. In a few year’s time, it will have weathered and softened: only an expert eye will be able to distinguish the new stone from the old.
Tony and his brother Phil have been stonemasons at the Boston Stump for 34 years. A job they began in 1980 – a few months after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister – has gone on and on, as funds have been raised and new repairs identified. They can see their work throughout the building, from the tower downwards: the south window on which they are working today is just the latest in a very long line of projects.
Next year, Tony and Phil will make the long journey from Nottingham, where they live, to Boston for the last time. They will retire and the church administrators will have to find a new way to manage the everyday conservation of the building. It will not be easy.
In some ways Phil and Tony Leonard must know this church better than anyone alive, through the daily task of handling it. Their knowledge is experiential, not intellectual, held in muscles and fingertips. It can’t be written down for someone else to read: it can only got by doing. That’s why stonemasons have traditionally learned their craft through apprenticeship, learning from those who have travelled the same paths before them.
It will not be easy to replace these craftsmen and their knowledge but, one way or another, it will be done. The church has stood for over 700 years. It has been made and remade by numberless hands over that time. Everything about them has passed away except the work they did. The first person to be buried in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral, in London, was its architect, Sir Christopher Wren. On the wall beside his tomb is a tablet inscribed with the Latin words:
Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice’
Reader, if you seek his monument, look around you
The same could be said for all those who have laboured by hand and mind and heart to build and maintain their churches for each succeeding generation.
These four heads hold up the roof of Cowbit church, above the altar. They are probably the oldest carved stones in the building and they didn’t start out where they are now, though they were always made to support a roof, probably for a church built in the 1100s. They are crudely made – at least in comparison with the skillful carving you can see at, say, Pinchbeck – but they are full of life. Their wild, untamed faces, seem either threatening or fearful.
They speak of an older world, far more insecure than ours, where suffering and death could strike from a blue sky, without understandable cause and therefore without the possibility of mitigation. In such times, the church’s protection must have seemed a vital defence against the randomness of life.
These heads belong in Cowbit church. As sculptures in a white-walled museum, surrounded by unrelated treasures, they would be prisoners of an alien culture. It’s good to see them where they have always been, rooted in the place they were made, their eyes meeting the descendants of those who made them.