Download the book – free

The Light Ships cover A

The next Light Ships event will be held this Saturday, 22 November, at Wrangle Church.

The main book launch, with a screening of a wonderful old film of Boston in 1943, will be at 3.00pm – but do come a bit earlier if you can, to see the exhibition and enjoy being in one of the Fenland’s loveliest churches. From 2.00pm there’ll be refreshments and an organ recital by Tony Fitt-Savage, who was organist at Sandringham for almost 40 years.

From today, The Light Ships is also available as a free download. It is a PDF file, which most computers can open with a programme like Acrobat Reader. It can be enlarged on screen for easier reading, or printed out. There are two versions: the low-resolution file takes less time to download, but the high-res file has better quality pictures. Click on the links below to save the file to your computer.

Copies of the printed books will be available on Saturday at Wrangle and the following Saturday, 29 November, at Gosberton, where the launch coincides with the church’s seasonal Christmas Tree Festival. From 1 December 2014, you can also buy copies for £5 plus postage from Transported:

Transported

Holbeach St. Marks Community Association Building,

Sluice Road, Holbeach St. Marks, Lincolnshire PE12 8HF

Phone 01406 701006 Email TransportedLauren@litc.org.uk

Books will also be available through the churches included, with all proceeds will go to church funds or supporting future arts opportunities in Boston Borough and South Holland District.

The Light Ships Book

A southern light ship sheltered in a northern land

It’s been quiet on The Light Ships blog because there’s so much to do getting the book ready and preparing for the events which will be happening in November – more news about all that next week. But in the meantime, here are some photos of the Italian Chapel, on the island of Lamb Holm. I had a longstanding invitation to give a lecture in Kirkwall at the end of September so I got to spend a weekend in Orkney, which is one of the loveliest and most interesting places I know. When a friend took me to see the Chapel I saw why it is the most visited site in an area not short of wonderful monuments right back to Neolithic times.

The chapel was created by Italian prisoners of war, who were in Orkney to work on the Churchill Barriers which link several islands and close the eastern approach to Scapa Flow. The men requested a chapel and were assigned a couple of Nissen huts. In a few months of 1943, using only salvaged materials and working in their spare time, they created an extraordinary vision of the kind of church they were used to attending at home. Several men were skilled craftsman, including the painter Domenico Chiocchetti, who was responsible for the Madonna and Child among much else.

When they left, in September 1944, they entrusted the chapel to the people of Orkney who have looked after it impeccably in subsequent years. Signor Chiocchetti and others of the men involved returned in later years to do repairs and add further embellishments, cementing a friendship that had grown in the least auspicious of circumstances, and across all the cultural distance between Orkney and Italy. Today, the Italian Chapel continues to bear witness to humanity’s creativity in its search for meaning: a northern light ship.

Making a mark

 

You expect to see stained glass in an English parish church: it’s one of the visual signs that instantly identifies a church as such, like a spire. Most of it was put in by the Victorians, because so much was destroyed by puritans and other iconoclasts in the 16th and 17th centuries. The Victorians meant well, and some of their work is very fine, but often it’s literal, sentimental and crudely coloured, like the pictures in the King James Bible I was given at primary school.

And so, as a result, we see the splash of colour in a church, but don’t often look at the pictures it makes. These three windows, which fill the Victorian apse added to the east end of Sutton St James church, are what you see when you come into the church. When I was there, the southern one glowed with sunshine (which is why the photograph is so dark and bright), but I didn’t look very closely.

But a conversation with Pauline Stebbings changed its appearance entirely. The central window, she said, had been commissioned by her grandmother as a memorial to her grandfather, in 1947. When she had died two years later, the children had installed the northern window and then, when one of them had died in 1951, the third window was made. Pauline remembers the family being involved in deciding the design of the windows:

I do like them and so many people say how good they are. I can remember when I was small, having them on the big table – the plan of it all and working out what scenes they put in and all that.  But the family did say it didn’t matter how many more of them died, there wouldn’t be any more put in, because I suppose they’d cost the earth now. But it would be a lot of money then, wouldn’t it?’

So these images were created in the years after the Second World War, by a local farming family to honour and remember those they had loved. No more and no less than the continuing process of the generations leaving their mark on their church, for themselves and those who come after.

A young painter in Moulton Chapel

Rex Thorpe - Moulton Chapel (1904)

Fred Thorpe was born in Moulton Chapel in 1894 and attended the primary school there. He painted this picture at school, when he was about ten years old – so it dates from about 1904. It’s a bit the worse for wear, but its colours have remained beautifully vivid, and like many children’s drawings it’s full of attention to the detail of life. Children are often excellent at looking, though their technical control of paint and pencil may not yet be as strong.

After school, Fred went into farming, working as a cultivating and threshing contractor, initially with steam engines – probably like this one, lovingly maintained by the Dawson family of Bicker, and which you can see at the Steam Threshing event in aid of church funds, this coming weekend. Both his son and his grandson followed hi into the contracting business, working across lower South Holland.

Steam engine, Bicker

Fred must have been proud of his picture to hang on to it, and now it has become a treasure passed on in his family. I came across it thanks to Rebecca Lee, who is working on one of the other Transported commissions in the area: Outside Broadcast. Rebecca took the photo and I’m grateful to both her and Rex for permission to share it here. It’s left me wondering about the many small and unknown artistic treasures there may be on walls, in drawers and in people’s memories, about the places and people who matter to them in the villages of South Holland…

News about ‘The Light Ships’

It’s been quiet on these pages for a few days because I’m working on the first draft of the book – well, to be more precise, on the first draft of the first part of The Light Ships book. Using only the words of the 70 or 80 people I’ve met in the past three months, this is the core of the book. It is something of an experiment, as I try to weave a true and interesting tapestry from all those conversations. I did a short version of that for another book called Where We Dream, but this is very different, not least because this is a much bigger conversation between people who have never met. I expect to have it done by the end of the month, so that everyone can check their own part, as it were.

In the meantime, here is a little gallery of church kneelers, which are for me the very symbols of art that in the service of life, faith, community and memory. It is also an art without pretention or, it seems to me, egotism.

More news in a week or two…

On the eve of war

 

In 1914, Macmillan & Co published the latest in their successful series of topographical books on England. Highways and Byways in Lincolnshire was written by a retired Hampshire Headmaster, Willingham Franklin Rawlings, and illustrated with pencil drawings by Frederick L. Griggs. It was a handsome volume, over 500 pages of rich text about the county, with – as usual in Lincolnshire – much attention given to the ancient churches.

Griggs’ drawings, even allowing for the limits of available print technology, are very fine. Although he contributed illustrations for a number of similar books, Fred Griggs (1876 –1938) was far more than a jobbing artist. He studied at the Slade and was associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. He made an important contribution to English etching and has been described as ‘the most important etcher who followed in the Samuel Palmer tradition’.

And, like Edwin Smith, John Piper and so many other 20th century artists drawn to the subject of churches, his work was firmly within the English neo-romantic tradition. Here are his drawings of fenland churches as reproduced, on the eve of the First World War, in Highways and Byways in Lincolnshire.

 

 

Access to churches

Asgarby church2

A baking July afternoon in Lincolnshire. Everything feels flattened under the heat: sheep, crops, fields. The houses I pass are quiet as if people are waiting for the cool of evening to come out of doors. A wrong turn has brought me to Asgarby, a village I’ve never seen: a few houses and a lovely church sheltered by trees as they so often are in the English countryside. I pull over and walk down the lane to the iron gate of the churchyard; a little wooden sign says ‘welcome’. But, with disappointment, I find the church locked. At least the windows are low and filled with clear glass, so I get tantalizing glimpses of the lovely, light-filled interior through the spider webs. But it’s not the same as being able to sit in the cool stone for a few minutes before going on my way.

Unattended churches are vulnerable to thefts, though perhaps less than they once were thanks to modern security measures. At greatest risk, according to statistics published by Lincolnshire Police, are personal property (such as mobile phones), equipment found in the community spaces now common in churches, and building materials – above all lead. Last Friday night, five strips of lead were stolen from the roof of Gedney church. It’s a distressing blow to any church community and the repairs will cost far more than the stolen metal will fetch. But the church being locked made no difference.

Since 2001, both Labour and Conservative governments have made free admission to national museums a point of principle. It’s certainly one mark of a civilised society that its major public museums are open to all. But not everyone can get to the V&A, Tate or the British Museum to see the nation’s treasures. It may be free to get in, but getting to the entrance is not.

There is great art in every part of the country though: in England’s historic churches. These buildings are among the oldest and finest we have. They are treasure-houses of sculpture, stained glass, metalwork, painting and other forms of art, where elite and everyday tastes claim legitimacy in a cultural negotiation that has left its trace over centuries. And they are freely accessible. When they are not locked.

Simon Jenkins describes the parish churches as a vast, dispersed museum of England: I think they are different and more interesting than that, but I know what he means. They are immensely valuable places in so many ways and they belong to all of us.

So perhaps the Department of Culture, Media and Sport could find a way to help ensure that more of them are open, to more people, more often. There’s the Heritage Lottery Fund, ministers will say – but they haven’t spoken, as I have, to elderly people who have struggled with the forms only to be turned down, twice. A government-backed insurance scheme might be one form of assistance, but there are undoubtedly others. A little imaginative help to the communities who use and cherish these buildings, for themselves and for the nation, could make a simple by substantial difference to people’s everyday access to their artistic heritage.

Asgarby church9

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

Ancient and Modern

Medieval visions

Wrangle Church is known to architectural historians for its rare 14th century stained glass. Such survivals are unusual in English parish churches because artistic work associated with Roman Catholicism was frowned upon after Henry VIII established a Protestant Church of England, and especially by the convinced advocates of Puritanism in the 17th century. Statues, metalwork, books, paintings and stained glass were all stripped out, broken, burnt or sold. The people of Wrangle saved at least some of their ancient glass by burying it; but when it was safe to retrieve it, centuries later, its original design had been forgotten, so the glass in the north aisle windows is beautiful but hard to decipher.

Olive Cook, who produced some of the finest post-war books on English buildings and topography with her husband, the photographer Edwin Smith, gives a good account of Wrangle’s medieval stained glass:

An inscription formerly part of this splendid window is recorded to have stated that it was made to the order of Thomas de Wynesty, Abbot of Waltham from 1345 to 1371. A late mediaeval date for the glass is indicated by the naturalism of the figures, the type of armour worn by the soldiers (camail, bascinet and sallet, which replaced the bascinet), the predominance of canopy work, by the fact that the mosaic technique of early glass painting has been abandoned for larger areas of colour and above all by the use of silver nitrate (a late 14th century discovery) to produce a magical range of yellow tints ranging from the palest lemon to rich amber.

English Parish Churches, Edwin Smith, Olive Cook & Graham Hutton, 1976

A modern vision

But it would be a pity, in admiring this valuable ancient work, to miss the latest addition to Wrangle’s artistic treasures: a stained glass window in the south aisle, dedicated to Lincolnshire farming. It was commissioned by Harry Clarke, a worshipper in the church of St Mary and St Nicholas for 64 years, the window was installed in 1997.

It is entirely contemporary in style, with its sky streaking across the panels in bright colours not found in older glass But the heavy horse and the old tractor – a Massey Ferguson or Fordson Major, perhaps – on which Harry Clarke sits, recall an older time, so there is a little nostalgia in the image too. There is also a wealth of detail to find: a crouching cat, a patient dog and lots of birds. There will be children who will come to love this window for generations to come, as their eyes gradually discover its treasures.

And in one corner, a reminder of something that happened when the artist was working on the window: ‘Diana, Princess of Wales, died in Paris, 31 August 1997, RIP’. So is another piece of history, and art, laid down in a parish church on the Lincolnshire coast.