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Learning to look: Edwin Smith

Browsing in a secondhand bookshop, thirty years ago, I came across a large format book entitled English Abbeys and Priories, filled with page after page of the most beautiful black and white photographs. I’d always loved photography and knew the work of people like Robert Capa, Bill Brandt, Don McCullin and, most of all then, Henri Cartier-Bresson. But Edwin Smith was a new name, and his work had none of the drama or narratives of modern life I’d been drawn to before. These images of ancient buildings seemed timeless, not least because they rarely included people.

Though the book seemed expensive at the time, it has been one of my most rewarding possessions. I’ve spent hours looking at the photogravure plates – a costly form of reproduction rarely used nowadays but capable of giving deep blacks and silvery greys that beautifully captured the subtle tones of Smith’s work. And over the years, I found other books by Edwin Smith: English Cottages and Farmhouses, Scotland, Ireland, Pompeii, Athens and many others. Sometimes his photographs were just used as illustrations but the best volumes, usually published by Thames and Hudson in the 1950s and 1960s, were long photo-essays of a kind publishers no longer produce. And the best of these were created with his wife, the writer and artist Olive Cook: it is rare to find two creative sensibilities so well attuned as these.

Smith was an artist at heart, though he had little success as painter or draughtsman. The only exhibition of his paintings, in 1944, earned a single sale and he later observed that he must be the only artist with a complete collection of his own work. Although it was in photography that he found artistic success, his real peers are artists like Edward Bawden, Peggy Angus, Enid Marx, John Piper and Eric Ravilious.

Edwin Smith died in 1971, aged only 59, but his work, never fashionable, was already out of time. Neo-romantic in spirit, it was a conscious resistance to certain aspects of the modern world, including its tendency to make everywhere look the same. And that matters not just for reasons of aesthetics or sentimentality but because the places where we live shape how we live.

In art, as in life, this perspective always risks nostalgia and worse. It is easily dismissed as backward-looking, fuddy-duddy even. But the voices who question the headlong rush towards progress are important, and sometimes they are right. In the anxious times we live in today, there has been a revival of interest in the 20th century English neo-romantic artists like Angus, Piper and Ravilious. Edwin Smith, whose photographic archive is held by the RIBA, is being rediscovered with a major exhibition of his work in London this autumn. It will have been worth the wait.

Ordinary Beauty: The Photography of Edwin Smith

Christian art in a post-Christian society

As The Light Ships has developed, I’ve been thinking more and more about the complex relationship between faith and art. I’ve written a longer, more general piece about those issues on the Regular Marvels site. If you’re interested in these ideas, do follow the link to read the article.

Regular Marvels

‘If I say that this is a post-Christian nation, that doesn’t mean necessarily non-Christian. It means the cultural memory is still quite strongly Christian. And in some ways, the cultural presence is still quite strongly Christian. But it is post-Christian in the sense that habitual practice for most of the population is not taken for granted.’

The only really surprising thing about these measured, thoughtful words is that they were spoken by Rowan Williams, poet, theologian and former Archbishop of Canterbury. In many ways it seemed – and was greeted as – a statement of the obvious. Dr Williams’ interview was followed by quiet murmurs rather than controversy, as if he’d said something everyone knew but was too embarrassed to say.

The consequences of European Christianity’s decline in authority are vast and unforeseeable. They affect individual and social life not just here but also across the world, because elsewhere religion…

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A church in a church

Moulton Chutrch in Moulton Church

When I wrote about the drawing of Moulton Church by William Burgess, I hadn’t noticed that a copy of the engraving that he made from it is actually in the church. Finding pictures of the church you’re in displayed on its walls is another small pleasure. They may be old or new, professional or amateur, skillful or a bit ordinary: they’re always worth a look. And in their quiet way, they underline people’s constant need to express what they value by representing it, even when reality is all around to be seen as itself.

An ancient tradition in an ancient church

Bicker Church

Today is Bicker’s Gift Day, when parishioners and others are invited to visit and support the church. Gift days are traditionally held close to a church’s Patronal Day – the feast day of the saint to whom the building is dedicated. In Bicker’s case that is St Swithun, a slightly obscure but much venerated Bishop of Winchester in the ninth century.

The dedication to a Saxon saint underlines Bicker’s ancient origins: formerly a harbour and – like Wrangle – prosperous centre of salt-production, the village was already substantial when the Domesday Book was compiled. The scale and quality of the 12th century nave of St Swithun’s church – of which only a part survives – is impressive, even among the Fenland’s fine churches, and deserves to be better known.

 

 

An elephant in Moulton

Moulton Elephant

It never occurred to me that elephants would feature in a project about village churches, but they keep turning up. This one lies on a carpet in the children’s area of Moulton Church, waiting for some small person to sit on him. There seems nothing incongruous about him in this graceful medieval building: both serve to express the human need for love.

Some of the older residents of Moulton remember how severe church services once were: it was forbidden even to turn around in the pew. Times have changed. Mary Brice spoke to me about the festival of animals she organised in the church a couple of years ago, which included a service to bless and give thanks for local people’s pets: dogs, birds, cats and other creatures took place with their owners, while the then vicar’s cockerel paced the ancient floor.

I think the medieval people who made Moulton would have felt entirely comfortable with the presence of animals, living and stuffed, in their church. People lived more closely with animals then than most of us do today, even taking them to court in certain circumstances.

Treasure tucked away in Boston

You wouldn’t think to look if you didn’t know they were there, which may be why the carved figures under the seats of the choir stalls in Boston Stump have survived when so much medieval church art has not.

Medieval church services were sung standing up, several times a day for those in religious life. Thus was born the idea of the misericord, a little wooden shelf on the underside of a folding seat that provided the old, infirm (or less motivated) with something to lean their backsides on when they were supposed to be standing at prayer. Its a very human solution, pragmatic and realistic as mediaeval people often were. It’s name derives from the Latin for an act of mercy.

Because a misericord was rarely seen, the carpenters who made them were allowed more freedom in their work. So, rather than saints and biblical scenes, they carved animals, heraldic symbols and scenes of everyday life. The result is a rich picture of life in the Middle Ages, full of humour and interest – and St Botolph’s church in Boston has as fine a set as you can see anywhere.

There’s a boy being whipped by his teacher, protecting himself with a schoolbook; a bear baited by a man with two dogs; a man and a woman sitting beside a cooking pot; a hunter pursuing a deer with a fearsome arrow; and much more. And if Ernest Napier, author of an excellent guide to the Boston misericords hadn’t told me about them, I’d have left without discovering the wonderful art hidden below the seats.

Sinking ships

Cowbit Church from the Wash

Cowbit stands just 10 feet above sea level, protected from the Welland floodplain known as Cowbit Wash by a huge earthwork called, appropriately enough, Barrier Bank.

This photo, taken from the drained land below the Bank – famously used for ice-skating contests on frozen floodwaters – gives an indication of the scale of the fenland drainage works. Cowbit church tower does not  dominate the landscape here. Sunk into the earth over the centuries – see how far below the road is the 15th century tower door – it peeps humbly over the protective bank that has kept building and people safe from floods and similar acts of God.

Cowbit Church

In 1856, the First Series of the Ordnance Survey mapped Cowbit, the Wash and the surrounding area. Not so much has changed in the subsequent 160 years, and the map nicely shows the relationship of river, land and fen, the little village holding to the bank where it has been so long.

Cowbit on the Odrnance Survey 1856

In 1947, a cameraman for British Pathé shot this unused film of what happens when the dykes are overwhelmed.