Patina and palimpsest: the legacy of Lacock

Talbot gravestones, Lacock
The Talbot family gravestones, Lacock, 2020

The time has come for my family to leave Lacock, having arrived in here in 2015. Back then, I welcomed the place for the resonances of its photographic heritage and my own geographical journey: it seemed to promise a moment of consolidation, of leaving lands connected to my upbringing and education, and finding home in something more intellectually rooted.

Five years later, and there is so much to be thankful for that has happened here. I could draw up a list of significant moments, a project report for a life lived across work, church, and my children’s early primary years. It might put some markers in the sand, in the way we tend to with autobiographical reflection. But here I want to think about it more conceptually, in the frame of considering a photograph, above, of the Talbot gravestones in Lacock’s cemetery. I walked past them every day doing the school run, and they often appeared to me like sentries: two upright, uniform guards, firmly poised amongst the tilting and wavering forms of nearby headstones. Their prominence grew in my mind’s eye when the two cedar trees marking the entrance to the cemetery were cut down, and they became the surrogate gate-keepers on a more prosaic, but human, level.

They’re ornamentally unremarkable, no decoration to speak of, no elaborate detail in the carving, not even any lyrical prose to mark this most influential family of the area. They don’t bear the marks of attention from the living either, becoming slowly more and more weathered, claimed by lichen and red valerian pushing up through the gravel. Recently a resident complained that they ought to be looked after, and tended to, by the National Trust, who own most of the land that used to belong to the Talbots. The Trust declined. The photographs in this local news article show the resident in one image arms folded, next to the gravestones, and in another leaning across to place a territorial hand above Talbot’s name. I wondered if my photograph should have me too like that, testifying to my purpose being there, claiming the connection as an authoritative steward of photography’s histories. Or whether I should adopt something altogether more poetic, something like John Dugdale’s self-portrait cyanotype, where he is seated below Talbot’s name in a frontispiece for his book ‘Life’s Evening Hour’ (2000).

Instead, my image has just the stones, assuming a formal portrait pose of their own. I like the lining up of linear histories, a testament to time that comes from verbal identification first – not personal association, not physical connection, but something embedded in language. It is language that assumes the patina, language whose greying clusters and diversions for rainfall draw the patterning of nature’s palimpsest. Everything happens around language, around Talbot’s world-changing invention AS language – even if I locate the scene, its shapes and frame in a pictorial mode (of that, there, then), I also draw it into association and conversation (a black-and-white lurch into semantics). Lacock for me was all about this, all about a shifting, layering landscape of photography. I think I had hopes that as a ‘promised land’ it would offer some concrete direction or place from which to orient myself anew – when actually it fostered something else, something less static, something still to be written, a habit of creating slowly, askew, and in the dark. Despite the spectacular lenses of film crews, Harry Potter and National Trust promotion, Lacock is a small place, and things remain small there, tended or untended. But I’d like to think that for me, they will also flow as milk and honey.

The day the churches shut up shop

St Cyriac's Church doors
St Cyriac’s Church, Lacock; 24th March 2020

This week, the churches closed. The coronavirus spreads worldwide, and in line with a governmental announcement curbing all social gatherings on the 23rd of March, the Church of England confirmed the closure of all church buildings on the 24th.

There are so many ripples and ricochets felt as the doors are pulled shut. Permit me, if I may, to add a reflection based on my own church, St Cyriac’s in Lacock, Wiltshire – a small offering of wonder and lament. Let me say first that I understand, and agree with, everything about church community existing in the people, rather more than the building. I recognise that to pray, worship, and serve is taking faith into new spaces, and that beauty and truth will grow differently as a result – I’ve seen it in small ways already; my family’s singing, on broadcast services, and in my husband’s parish newsletters. Amen for this.

But here, just for now, I mean to see the building, to hover at the door, listening to the silence. I resonate with the Dean of Westminster’s words, reflecting on the closure of Westminster Abbey, that it feels like a hard thing to close the doors on a building that speaks. And for me, St Cyriac’s speaks volumes. This time last year, I took over a thousand photographs of the place. I immersed myself in its material culture (from the cockatrice on top of the spire to the hare curling round a pillar), in its setting of Easter time through candles and curtains and cups, in its history from knights to cameras, in its life unfurling as people came and visited, cleaned and prayed, sung and whispered. I did this primarily for a project of reinterpretation – to write a new guidebook and produce new postcards. But now they have a poignancy, typical of photographic documentation, of something not just passed, but of something silenced.

One of the things that makes a body of photographs work, that connects the images like words in a sentence, is the consistency of visual language or content – and here it’s the church. St Cyriac’s as I’ve seen it is a language, not just a symbol. With its own dialect (probably West Country). It transcribes and translates my community’s fumbling expressions of what it means to be human both physically and spiritually. Depending on your faith position, it can be like a relative who reminds you ‘what things were like in my day’, or it can be like material mindfulness in spoken word. It can be a thick accent with the clod of tradition, or a pure echo of light and air. It can only sound like this because it’s been talking for hundreds of years, a veritable wisdom tradition in its own right. I struggle to shut it out of my mental and emotional landscape, which is why it is so odd to be shut out of it.

Fundamentally here, what I want to remember is that stones and mortar have this kind of vitality, this kind of contributing conversation, for people doing their wondering (and wandering) out loud. When Jesus pointed out that the stones of Jerusalem were bursting to talk, I think he shone this light on their language. I for one don’t want to lose the accent.

Picturing the Peacock Arts Trail

Pictures in Lacock Church
Art work by Sheona Beaumont, painter Victoria Cleverly, and Lacock Primary School; St Cyriac’s Lacock.

From the 5th to the 13th October, I’ve been busy exhibiting and curating an exhibition in St Cyriac’s Church, Lacock, as part of the Peacock Arts Trail 2019. We’ve had a wonderful 10 days, with over 1,000 visitors to the building, and plenty of inspiring chats over a cuppa and cake. Joining me in exhibiting were local painter Victoria Cleverly, and the pupils of Lacock Primary School.

At our preview event, I unveiled my community project Wall of Remembrance. This is an 8-panel, 35-aperture photographic installation, displayed in the south transept at St Cyriac’s. Featuring lenticular photography (where the images appear to change as you walk past them), Wall of Remembrance commemorates the service and commitment shown by local servicemen and women during the First World War, as well as the love of the families who supported them. The piece is the culmination of a community project in Lacock that began in 2018, having been commissioned by the Green Café at St Cyriac’s Church, and supported by Wiltshire Scrapstore, initially as part of Lacock Remembers 2018. Local families were invited to contribute to the project by sharing their photographs, medals, clippings and other objects connected to war time.

These objects appear in the lenticular panels and include portraits of Major Charles Selwyn Awdry and Major Allen Llewellen Palmer, as well as of Matilda Talbot serving at the Red Cross Hospital in Corsham, and Ivy Gladstone at the Chippenham and Bowood Red Cross Hospitals. Other images include a Soldier’s Penny given to Ernest Leonard Stevens, an engraved communion cup presented to St Cyriac’s in memory of Basil William Ramsbottom, and a shell casing. The poppies in the images were made out of clay by the 1st Lacock Scout Group in 2018. 

My work also included the display of Scriptorium (first displayed in 2018). The complete text of the King James Bible text, with the exception of the Psalms, is transcribed onto Fabriano drawing paper with light, with one book per page. Cyanotypes are photographic prints produced without a camera, in this case with the superimposition of an acetate layer and a single peacock feather, over the sensitised paper. The vivid blue pigment forms as a result of iron compounds reacting to light – the process was originally adopted in the copying of architectural designs known as blueprints. I’m playing with ideas here of old and new copying of sacred texts – the scriptorium was where medieval manuscripts were copied onto parchment, and ‘script’ is also a programme in computer code for running or executing the display of public domain text.

Victoria’s thoughtful paintings with geometry, layers, and textures of natural form and detail (seen together with the artist above) were found in all corners of the church. It was wonderful to create spaces of accented contemplation, where a kind of slow looking worked between painting and architectural setting, and also brought organic shapes and subjects into view. The Lady Chapel at St Cyriac’s worked particularly well for this relationship with its wall and ceiling paintings featuring natural world designs in abundance. Other parts of the church such as the pulpit and the font received specific artistic interventions from the school pupils, who I’d invited to respond with ideas around the theme of unity. With Victoria’s help in class, the results are joyous and colourful, expressing hope and beauty through a world recycled and held together (with plastic and palm-prints), and a rainbow-like church seen in the pulpit above. Other paintings were displayed hanging between the pillars and also share exuberant multimedia designs from children aged between 6 and 9.

It’s been a privilege to share this space and its time with so many interested and enthusiastic people. To the parents and church members who helped with stewarding and cake – you’ve been amazing, and we couldn’t have done it without your help! It’s made the event feel special and connected to the community in new and exciting ways, so thank you. To the church PCC and the team at the Peacock Arts Trail, thank you too. I’ve really appreciated your professional support, with dedicated helpers and layers of expertise all working to make something magical happen – not just here but across the other trail venues. What a rich creative field in this corner of Wiltshire! Here’s to the next one in two years’ time…

St Cyriac’s Day and the tale of the Lacock Cup

The replica Lacock Cup
The replica Lacock Cup, made for St Cyriac’s Church, Lacock in 2019

Today, 16th June, is St Cyriac’s feast day in the church calendar. It hasn’t been particularly noted at St Cyriac’s Lacock in the recent past, but this year we had something to celebrate. In 2013, the Lacock Cup, the church’s medieval masterpiece, was sold to the British Museum and the Wiltshire Museum for £1.3m. Agreed as part of the sale was the commissioning of two replica cups to be made, one for Wiltshire Museum, and one for St Cyriac’s Church. Thanks to the expert craftsmanship of Mike Neilson at the British Museum, we received the replica about a month ago. Today it was used for the first time at our communion service.

Mike Neilson’s worktop, 2017; the replica Cup at St Cyriac’s, 2019

Standing at 35cm tall (with lid), the replica shares with the original its construction in two parts from 1kg of hammered silver, with gilt details. The original, an extremely rare piece of medieval silverware, was made in the fifteenth century initially for secular use as a communal drinking goblet at feasts. It was at some point given to St Cyriac’s, where it was used as a chalice for centuries, though no-one knows its original owner or donor – it has no markings or inscriptions. Its sale was a sensitive issue amongst the local community, with some opposition from those who strongly felt it should remain. It was sensitive enough to percolate through church discussions about how to celebrate the replica without causing further offence. For me, working on incorporating the Lacock Cup into a new church logo (as part of my recent project at the church working on design and interpretation) caused consternation for some, enthusiasm from others. Which gave a lot of pause for thought about the meaning of the Cup, and why we would want to celebrate it. I found myself wanting to champion what is its key, central, visual theology – the thing which centres not so much on its history, nor its design, but on its use.

The communion cup, this communion cup, stands for the truth of what Christ has done for his followers and for Lacock’s joining in with this truth. As a material object it is undeniably a unique and beautiful artefact, which yet becomes something relational and communicative at holy communion.  It is fundamentally not just a dead object solely of museum interest (though that is cultural capital that a church with high tourist footfall would be foolish to downplay), it is representative of life-giving sustenance through the gospel, through the commemorative words of Jesus at the Last Supper, and his death remembered in drinking wine from the chalice at communion.  St Cyriac’s has that living tradition, and is deeply centred on the purpose and the life that it represents.  In the middle of the National Trust village that is Lacock, the church community are in a perfect position to declare this USP in a world where history or heritage forgets the reasons why people worshipped, indeed who they worshipped and why they still do. There is something of a breaking frame mentality needed to identify this as a USP in connection with the Lacock Cup. It is, and should be, a positive reason for celebrating the replica. The fact that it hasn’t been for some has served to show me how deeply and how ingrained we can become stuck on particular interpretations about objects of visual art or literature (leading from particular feelings) because of past associations. But I’m passionate that this can change, that St Cyriac’s can remember its first love, that we found (almost literally) the pearl of great price – the great thing about that parable being how it transformed the person who found it with a contagious, fizzing excitement. Again and again, in my interpretation project, I find myself buzzing with that excitement. Not just about the Cup, but about all of our heritage as as worshipping community – more about that later this year. For now, I end with the manifesto I wrote for the church’s PCC report about my design work with the logo:

  • The Cup serves our community’s church by reminding us of sharing in the blood of Jesus.
  • The Cup serves our community’s village residents by owning our own history positively.
  • The Cup serves our community’s village businesses (NT, school, etc) by championing what we stand for amongst Lacock’s other ‘trades’.
  • The Cup serves our community’s worldwide visitors by sharing our beliefs regarding our heritage.

Lent and soul patience

South windows at St Anne’s Bowden Hill, Wiltshire (1856)

Lent started on the 6th March. I went to an Ash Wednesday service at St Anne’s Bowden Hill (Wilts), got the cross marked on my head and remembered that I am dust. This Lent, I’m putting my foreground research in the background, and committing my time to a church project for Lacock and Bowden Hill. At St. Cyriac’s, Lacock, we’ve taken down all the signs and most of the devotional material – a version of the Lenten practice to cover up all the visual prompts for worship. It’s a way of doing visual theology ‘aniconically’. It’s not that there’s no visual stuff, it’s that the visuality of emptiness or absence is part of the symbolic prompt to self-reflection and penitence. In these windows at St Anne’s, there’s no dominant iconographic programme, and the effect is of slow luminescence, meandering looking, piecemeal symbolic identification, and also reading (above the windows are engraved inscriptions, here ‘Let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap if we faint not’). I see it as an invitation to slow down.

The giving of yourself to a new project, to people, to an idea, to a place – is a commitment, a yes to something you have chosen, over other no’s. That involves the path of fidelity, the dying to other options – and it’s a VERY different posture of the heart to the yes-to-everything distracted/rebounding focus of our culture’s invitations to connect and invest. We don’t really move forward by saying yes to everything because we have endless options – we move forward because we said yes to something more singular, and because we said no to other things. The saying no, the stalling/stepping sideways into life’s viscosity looks like hanging backwards, feels like hanging backwards, but it isn’t. In the grace of what time is and of who we are, there is space to recognise that fullness doesn’t need to be hinged to fixation or frenetic activity. The story of history, of wisdom, is always the story of a couple of steps forward, a couple of steps back; it’s always the story of a glimpse of what you could be, and then you head off in that direction, and there are setbacks and you have dark nights of the soul and you wander around the woods and you get lost and then friends become enemies and enemies become friends, because that’s how it works (with thanks to Rob Bell…).

In a previous post, I identified constellations in/with which I work, rather than programmes. Which has the similar sense of allowable ‘drift’ in practice and attention. D’you know what though? It’s really hard. It’s hard in the pressure of our world’s emphasis on efficiency. It’s hard in the self-doubt about wasted time, about ‘indulgence’ when there are ‘better’ things to do, about who cares anyway. If it were a flight from the real, then perhaps these pressures would stick, but actually the point is to distill to a deeper reality. Lent affords the explicit naming of something we instinctively resist: namely that our natural end-point is dust. We don’t ultimately achieve things in our own self-effort, except in Christ’s promise of new life, except in love from without, except in flinging ourselves on God’s meaning and mercy beyond death. Everything we do can become a patient weaving of our heart, body, mind, and soul into this pattern we don’t yet fully see. We don’t see, that’s the point – and we can re-situate our ‘not seeing’ in the promises of Easter’s ‘being seen’. I hope what I’m doing gives itself to that possibility, to a direction of being seen by God, in amidst all the looking and reading that our parish churches (not to mention research in the humanities) invite.