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.

An impromptu recital

Among the people I met last week at Sutton St James was Tony Fitt-Savage, who retired in 2006 after 39 years as organist at St Mary Magdalene in Sandringham. Tony was kind enough to play for us, four people in a sunlit church on a quiet Thursday morning.

The organ at Sutton St James was installed in 1910, by Cousans, Sons & Co, of Lincoln, at a cost of £160. It’s a modest instrument, but one that has accompanied weddings, funerals and everyday services in the church for more than a century, a consistent sound amidst the changing styles of congregations.

Links

Pinchbeck

Local voices

Sutton St James, as  mapped by the First Ordnance Survey in 1824
Sutton St James, as mapped by the First Ordnance Survey in 1824

Today The Light Ships move into another phase, as conversations begin with people who use, look after, live beside or otherwise have links with the village churches. We’ll be going to meet people in Sutton St James today, listening to their stories and views about the church and its place in social and artistic life.

So far, this site has largely looked backwards, drawing on the words and pictures of visitors to South Holland in mapping some of the ways in which the churches have been seen. From here on, it will be local voices that will come to the centre of the stage. The prologue is done.

Sutton St James Church

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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