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.

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

A poem from Moulton

 

Wyberton Church, Art and Flowers Festival, June 2014
Wyberton Church, Art and Flowers Festival, June 2014

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 Lightships

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.

 

Valerie Venables

God’s Acre

Luck be a lady

Ladybirds have a special place in our hearts, reflected in their many names, and their place in popular culture. Children are captivated by their dots and red shells, and the ease of getting close to them. They are gentle, inoffensive, nurturing creatures, as suggested by the old rhyme:

Ladybird, ladybird fly away home, Your house is on fire and your children are gone…

Ladybirds are associated with good fortune in many European cultures. A Polish children’s verse ends:

Biedroneczko leć do nieba, przynieś mi kawałek chleba

Fly to the sky, little ladybird, bring me a piece of bread

In France, they’re known as ‘la bête à Bon Dieu’ – God’s creature, in English, although it doesn’t sound as pretty. There is a legend that a ladybird saved an innocent man’s life by landing repeatedly on his neck and so obstructing the executioner.

Life among the graves

This ladybird, minding its business in Moulton churchyard, is a reminder of the life that is nurtured when churchyards are not trimmed and manicured like municipal gardens. Costs and changing attitudes have helped us see long grass in churchyards not as lack of care but as a different kind of care. After all, until quite recently, it was common for sheep to graze in churchyards, which was quite appropriate since their wool had often paid for the beauty of the building.

Cherishing Churchyards Week 2014

Caring for God’s Acre is a small charity dedicated to the conservation of churchyards and burial grounds, both for their importance to people and to nature. Their website is full of valuable information and resources about conservation, and they support volunteer-led conservation projects across the UK. Between 7th and 15th June, they are holding Cherishing Churchyards Week, encouraging more people to get involved in looking after their churchyards not least to make them good homes for ladybirds, among the many other creatures in need of sanctuary in the modern world.

Links

Steeple Jackass

‘Climbing church steeples appears to have been an unusual pastime, with those conquering the climb usually leaving a ribbon for challengers to retrieve. In 1812, labourer Robert Jarvis is said to have taken this recreation to new extremes by climbing Moulton church spire with his small child in his arms and tying the infant to the weathercock with his handkerchief. Leaving the child there
 he returned to earth and went home to fetch his wife to view the spectacle and admire his skill before ascending once again and safely retrieving the child. His wife’s reaction is not recorded!’

This extraordinary story appears in Wide Horizons: A History of South Holland’s Landscape and People.

Mary Bryce, who lives in Moulton, sent me these photographs, taken from the church tower (though not the top of the spire where Robert Jarvis dangled his child); they give some sense of what the climb involved. The originals are in the collection of the Spalding Gentlemen’s Society, the learned society which marked its 300th anniversary in 2010.

And the British Pathé film of Mr. C. L. Ager, though filmed in Surrey, shows that the tradition of tying a handkerchief to a weathercock was still alive in 1920. The way in which he presents the handkerchief to the vicar at the end of the film suggests the social deference that still existed too.

Wide Horizons was commissioned by South Holland District Council in 2010, written by Paul Cope-Faulkner, Hilary Healey, Tom Lane John Honnor and Liam Robinson, and published by Heritage Lincolnshire. A fascinating insight into how this part of the county came to be as it is, the book can be downloaded free from the Council’s website.

Links

PS And this is what the spire looks like from the ground up…

Moulton Church Spire

An ancient art

Arranging flowers into a pleasing display must be one of the oldest expressions of human creativity. One can imagine even a Neanderthal responding to the colour and form of flowers by wanting to bring them close, to keep them as living evidence of nature’s extraordinary abundance. A flower arrangement is a still life that embodies the transitory nature of life that paintings can only represent.

Is it art? Of course it is, if art involves trying to articulate what you feel, think, believe and value through creative work that speaks to others.

In the Fenland church flower festivals people make arrangements in response to themes. Long Sutton’s ‘Count your Blessings’ inspired creations that celebrated hearing, books, music, friends and neighbours, employment and the health service. At Moulton, people represented ‘The Wonderful World of Colour’ with displays on Dulux, Cluedo, the Blue Danube and Lincolnshire Yellowbellies.

Having no aptitude for this, I admire those who have such artistry, and sympathise with Susan, the vicar’s wife played by Maggie Smith in Alan Bennett’s monologue, ‘Bed Among the Lentils’:

I’m even a fool at the flower arrangement. I ought to have a Ph.D. in the subject the number of classes I’ve been to but still my efforts show as much evidence of art as walking sticks in an umbrella stand. Actually it’s temperament. I don’t have it. If you think squash is a competitive activity try flower arrangement.

Alan Bennett, Talking Heads, (1988) p. 75

Links

Long Sutton Flower Festival Plan

Hope springs eternal

The beginning of May is a lovely time in England. In the Lincolnshire Fens, usually so undemonstrative, it can be extraordinary. The fields, seeming as sterile as brown graph paper for so long, turn green in the blink of an eye as fresh shoots push themselves up through the earth, unconcerned by its weight. The verges and hedges blossom; the trees are dusted with buds. Spring has arrived.

It’s the time of flowers, when it seems that every church has its festival. Fountains of colour appear against grey stone: yellow, orange and green, red, blue and white, gorgeous colour, of an intensity that human artifice can rarely match in paint or pixel.

Village after village brings flowers into their churches, celebrating nature’s limitless diversity on which we all depend for our own life. The spring flower festival, like the autumn harvest festival, is a moment when people still pause to acknowledge the foundations of life on which everything else stands.

Long Sutton Flower Festival

Alexander Pope’s optimistic theology does not speak as loudly today as it did in the 18th century, but hope still springs eternal in the human breast.

Hope humbly, then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death; and God adore.
What future bliss, He gives not thee to know,
But gives that hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

Alexander Pope, An Essay on Man, Book III (1731)

Links

Sketching churches

Here are some lovely images from Neil Baker’s Sketchcrawl yesterday in Moulton. Neil will be running these community sketching events ‘on location’ for Transported throughout this summer. He’s inviting everyone to get involved, whatever their skill or experience of drawing. To see some of the first results, follow the links to the Sketchcrawl blog and the Facebook page.

I’m off to Moulton shortly, to visit the flower festival and Handmade in Moulton; Jo Wheeler, who is doing another of the artist commissions will be there too. I’ll post some images of the day here tomorrow.

Links

Welcome to The Light Ships

 

Linconshire (John Bee 1937)

The Light Ships

Lincolnshire’s churches have been a focus of art and community for more than a thousand years. Built by England’s finest masons and decorated by gifted craftsmen, they are treasure houses of art and sculpture, of glass, wood, metal and needlework. Their stones reverberate with the choral singing and organ music. From their towers, ancient bells peal over field and fen, as they have for centuries.

But that would not matter if the churches weren’t also where people have gathered, generation after generation, to mark the important moments of their shared life, to stop, to think and to wonder. They have seen every joy and grief, quiet happiness, anxiety and stoic resolution. They record the life of a community in parish registers, monuments, newsletters, pictures and gifts. Each one is like a ship carrying its ever changing, ever constant family across the seas of time.

A community art project for Fenland Lincolnshire

This summer, community artist François Matarasso will be exploring the church’s place in the creative and social life of 14 Fenland villages in conversations with local people.The Light Ships will celebrate every aspect of the church: fabric, furnishings and natural surroundings, of course, but no more than the memories, feelings and stories of those who are the church—the people who keep it alive, those without whom it would be just one more museum. And that includes those who never go, except perhaps for a funeral, or to whom it’s so familiar that they pass it without a thought.

Everyone with win interest in one of the villages below is welcome to contribute. If you’d like to get involved, or just to know more, please call Lauren Williams on 07747 271824 or send an email through the contact page.

A Transported Commission

François’ work is commissioned by Transported, a local programme creating new occasions to enjoy the arts in the Borough of Boston and South Holland District. The Light Ships will include these villages, which have been chosen because they have not yet had an opportunity to be involved in Transported’s arts programme;

  • Bicker
  • Fishtoft
  • Swineshead
  • Wrangle
  • Cowbit
  • Gosberton
  • Holbeach St. Johns
  • Moulton
  • Moulton Chapel
  • Moulton Seas End
  • Quadring
  • Pinchbeck
  • Sutton St. James
  • Whaplode

A harvest festival of the arts

The Light Ships will culminate in publication of a short book in September 2014. The larger part of the book will be a patchwork of voices and images celebrating the fenland church and its place in cultural and community life. There will also be an essay reflecting on the complex meanings of the parish church today. Copies will be given to all the contributors and to the churches, as a small contribution to their fundraising efforts.

The book will be accompanied by a short film, portraying the churches as works of art and places of continuing creation. Book and film will be presented at a special event in early autumn – a kind of artistic harvest festival – at which everyone involved will be able to celebrate the unique place of a parish church in each community’s life, always changing, always itself.

Keeping in touch

News about on The Light Ships will appear this blog, but it will also be used to share images, texts and other reflections about the churches. Photographs, old paintings and engravings, travellers’ tales, architectural descriptions, historic notes, poems – any and all of these will be added so that over the next few months the blog becomes a rich resources of treasures, great and small, about these Fenland churches. If you’d like to be kept up to date, click on the follow button and you’ll get an email whenever there’s something new to look at or read.

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