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.

Seeing red with Paul Cummins

A Paul Cummins' poppy hits the dirt
A Paul Cummins’ poppy hits the dirt

It’s 2015. We’re thinking about the New Year. But this is my stake in the ground for the old year, for memory, for something inscribed in the winter ground of dirt and decay. Arriving in the post a couple of days ago, my poppy from Paul Cummins’ installation ‘Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red’.

Its simple singleness in my garden is somehow equivalent to my inadequate comprehension of 1st World War – I didn’t see the installation in the flesh, I don’t come anywhere close to understanding the trenches in the flesh, but I do know that, for me, this single poppy (a rose, in my daughter’s eyes) is both a point of connection to my great-Uncle’s death in the Second World War on the HMS Gloucester, and a symbol of the flourishing beauty embedded in the world.

In some ways, it’s only family that connects us to the past – through their heritage, their stories, their relationships. I’ve recently published my mother’s memoirs (Family: A Bridge For One World), and experienced the unexpected hostility from family for whom the memories did not reflect reality. I’ve felt at a loss over this. For my Mum, the truth and beauty embedded in the world as she has seen it and lived it is something to which she testifies. This is not the same as the facts and the sentimentality. In the same way, the 1st World War doesn’t connect through facts and sentimentality – though often that’s the ‘mediatized’ language – but through truth and beauty. This is the kind of art work I like, and remains the biggest challenge for the kind of photography I like. I’m so grateful to my Mum for being so full of integrity as to show me a glimpse of it. In many ways, the garden in which I’m planting my poppy, is hers.

Saying Christmas louder than words

Colour Nativity, by Sebastian Bergne, 2011
Colour Nativity, by Sebastian Bergne, 2011

I’ve spent a lot of time over the last month analysing the iconographic language of photographs by Julia Margaret Cameron. Her photographs of Mary are undoubtedly tied to the realism of a posed, dressed up model who is trying to look like a biblical Mary. But the question I keep coming back to is how the ‘type’ continually resurfaces?

Photography makes the most of a real scene, real skin, real cloth, real symbols in front of the lens. And critics have said Cameron’s Marys are demonstrative of feminine domestic assertion within the constraints of Victorian society’s norms: her Mary lives in the 1800s. But I think there’s something more obvious than this which gets overlooked. Even with all that dressed up reality, her Mary is still iconographically pointing to the original Mary. Rather than an empowering of modern domestic woman, the pointing action of Cameron’s photography seems to look the other way: her model empowers and reveals the biblical figure of Mary.

There’s something irreducible about the iconography of Mary. Something that can be captured in the simple blue block of Sebastian Bergne’s Nativity above. Something that works at the level of a sign, which remains visual rather than word-based (see Emilie Voirin’s take on a nativity set). Is it the accrual of years of visual reference (conventional), or is it the way truth lives beyond language (ontological)? Is it a universal stripping down, or is it a fleshed out concept. One thing that photography generally does hang onto is a ‘fleshing out’ – that reality behind, within, around the iconography. Isn’t that an incarnational Christmas characteristic?

Artist-in-Residence comes home

Trinity College 1977, with thanks to May Cropley
Trinity College 1977, with thanks to May Cropley

My first week as Artist-in-Residence at Trinity College, Bristol has passed in a flurry of grant applications, delivering books and studio, and finding the teaspoons. Getting to the post on time, clocking in with my PhD supervisor in Cheltenham, remembering that my long summer loans have expired on my books, talking to the tax-woman and forgetting to bring in that all-important accessory, the Church of England wall-calendar has left me dizzy. But all of that is circling the right space.

I’m looking at the Trinity College photo of 1977, in which I find my parents, Tom Gledhill and Serena Holroyd. In their late ’30s, they met here, and a year after this photo was taken, they married. Another year later and I was born in Bristol, which had become their UK base in the midst of inter-continental travels including Uganda, Nigeria, India, Malawi and Kenya. The hairs go up on the back of my neck with this photo. Initially because of the invisible relation happening between my parents, stretched across the space (which I’ve talked about before – in this case, mistakenly identifying them in the 1978 photo): my Dad is in the centre at the back, as if his is the crest on the lintel behind him, and my Mum is second from the far left, standing.

But there is more to this now that I’m here too, working. As I look, I see a geometry with my own personal triangulation of father, mother and me; and also now a geometry with people, building and environment. Though this is more a sedimentary layering than a triangulation: the people are the front line, the presenting face, the uniformity of purpose; the building is the constructed stage, the bearer of history and inscription; the environment is the wavering shimmering reflection in the windows of surrounding trees and sky. The picture turns a collective portrait scene into abstract strata – there is no side or back. But if the lack of depth or conversation is frustrating, it’s also the perfect backdrop for a new adventure. A new adventure into pictures and place. I like to think I might be a little bit like one of the group, a young man towards the top left, who resolutely turns his head to the side, avoiding the common gaze.