A flurry of Frith photographs

The Holy Bible, illustrated with photographs by Francis Frith, 1861

This month I’ll be speaking at the University of Oxford’s seminar series ‘The Bible in Art, Music, and Literature’, with a talk entitled ‘Pick & Mix: the non-linear Bible as modern artists visualise it’. I’ll be exploring a few artists discussed in my recent journal articles, but also introducing some thoughts on Francis Frith. Frith’s albumen prints were the first to illustrate a Bible in 1861, as seen above. In many ways, what he did with photographs of Palestine anticipated the range and breadth of new, modern ways to visualise the Bible. I’ve called this a pick & mix approach, not to be derogatory, but to argue that for him and for others something positive is going on with respect to the interpretation of the Bible in visual culture – the recasting of its language and stories as essentially non-linear. Here, I expand on what this meant in Frith’s case.

Frith travelled to Egypt and Palestine three times between 1856 and 1860; during and immediately after the trips, he published at least eight titled works, including this and a following two-volume ‘Queen’s Bible’ – the first photographically illustrated Bibles. These were undoubtedly at the more formal, exclusive end of his commercial printing enterprises, which also included serial travel books, sets of stereoviews, illuminated visual presentations, and card- and glass-mounted views sold separately. Frith delighted in the immersive effects of photography – his were not the typical wall-mounted print set for exhibition in societies. In his hands photography had different work to do, conjuring up the travel experience and imaginatively engaging the viewer to transport them to another world.

More than this, Frith was a Quaker (later a minister), and the idea of transport had a lot to do with seeing and experiencing something true – in this case, with a lens on the landscape of Egypt and Palestine, it was exposure to its meta-truth as read in the Bible. Frith’s Bibles are inserted with topographical views of particular places (such as Bethlehem, Mount Sinai, and Jerusalem) on separate pages. They interrupt the seamless verbal script, offering a conceptual junction with the real world. It isn’t simply a case of illustrating the text, it’s the alignment of another space with, alongside, through, the text. It’s a new epistemological venture. Truthfulness as it might be read has now a spatial dimension as something that might be inhabited. Frith found that the photographic image made immediate, spiritual claims on the viewer:

We can scarcely avoid moralizing in connection with this subject; since truth is a divine quality, at the very foundation of everything that is lovely in earth and heaven; and it is, we argue, quite impossible that this quality can so obviously and largely pervade a popular art, without exercising the happiest and most important influence, both upon the tastes and the morals of the people. … We protest there is, in this new spiritual quality of Art, a charm of wonderful freshness and power, which is quite independent of general or artistic effect, and which appeals instinctively to our readiest sympathies. 

Francis Frith writing in ‘The Art of Photography’ in 1859 (emphasis original).

Such a charm of wonderful freshness and power becomes, in contemplating biblical sites, a matter closely related to faith. The past is realised in order to enliven a theological imagination. The reader-viewer may well connect with the romanticism of the picturesque view, may indeed connect with the factual visual information pertaining to ancient biblical sites, but the trump card was really that they might connect with the living truth of God’s activity in the world (as much present as past). The facingness of the world exerts its non-linearity on biblical reading here. And in so doing, Frith I think sees in miniature the effect of big screen photographic representation – that catapulting of realistic spectacle and immersion which has rendered the Bible extra-textual in so much of our modern visual culture.

More at the seminar… And for those that can’t, some of these ideas are being worked into an essay for an edited volume, to be published with Routledge later this year (Transforming Christian Thought in the Visual Arts: Theology, Aesthetics, and Practice).

Picturing the Peacock Arts Trail

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…