The idealised vision of an obscure artist

Moulton Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),  Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm
Moulton Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),
Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm

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:

Gosberton Church by William Burgess,  From Twelve views of churches in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire; drawn and engraved by W. and H. Burgess, Fleet 1800-1805
Gosberton Church by William Burgess,
From Twelve views of churches in Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire; drawn and engraved by W. and H. Burgess, Fleet 1800-1805

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.

Spalding Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),  Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm
Spalding Church, Lincolnshire, by William Burgess (1749-1813),
Pen, ink and wash drawing 21.5 x 32.5cm

The original skyscrapers

Boston Stump

The train curved round and then I saw, for the first time, that astonishing church tower known as the ‘Boston Stump’. This tower is not quite three hundred feet high; but nevertheless, situated as it is, it looked to me more impressive, not as a piece of architecture, but simply as a skyscraper, than the Empire State Building in New York, with its eleven hundred feet. It is all a matter of contrast. Here the country is flat; you have seen nothing raised more than twenty or thirty feet from the ground, for miles and miles; and then suddenly this tower shoots up to nearly three hundred feet. The result is that at first it looks as high as a mountain. Your heart goes out to those old Bostonians who, weary of the Lincolnshire levels and the flat ocean, made up their minds to build and build into the blue. If God could not give them height, they would give it to him.

J. B. Priestley, English Journey, 1932

Apparently, the earliest appearance of the word ‘skyscraper’ relates to the topmost, triangular sail on a square-rigged sailing ship, in the late 18th century – something that must have been familiar in a port like Boston.

But church towers and spires have been stretching up to scratch the heavens for centuries. Competitive pride pushed communities to outdo each other, especially in wool-rich counties like Somerset and Lincolnshire. Travellers on the Great North Road seeing the distant spires of Grantham and Newark must have debated which was the finer. Lincoln Cathedral, visible for miles around on its cliff, once capped its towers with wooden spires, the tallest of which collapsed in 1549, not to be replaced.

Running like a thread through all these stories is the idea of humanity challenging the deity by daring to leave the earth and, like Icarus, falling to destruction.

Links

Boston Church, Lincolnshire," by James Harrison (1814-1866), watercolour. Dated 1821
Boston Church, Lincolnshire,” by James Harrison (1814-1866), watercolour. Dated 1821