Christmas 1973 – and so to church…

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St Peter's, Tiverton

Winter light, early afternoon at St Peter’s Church, Tiverton, 2013. A gallery of hassocks, appreciated by someone enough to raise them from the ancient floor so they can greet visitors with all the flourish of a medieval pageant. The subjects are wild and varied, many birds and even Saint George tackling a dragon. In particular their are owls. Many owls. (Currently owls are all over our high streets, from stylised 1970s versions staring saucer-eyed from tea towels to teapots, doorstops, notebooks… this is definitely the decade of the wild wood. If only people loved the real thing as much.)

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Only in winter. They’re the most convincingly shy owls I’ve met.

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I wish you could buy this kind of light as an electric bulb.

St Peter's Church, Tiverton

At one end of the church is this wall painting, a pristine postcard from the early seventies, a trail through centuries of townspeople. It’s folk art perfection with more than a hint of medieval heaven and hell. There’s so much to see – from the artist’s effort to write the times into the face of each decade to the turn of each head. And it ends in louche, 1970s perfection. You can almost read a quiet, assertive knowledge in the girl’s face: ‘Look how far we’ve come’. Where did we go?

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I could almost be going home to watch the 1973 Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, for here’s the Queen Mother. In this corner of Devon she’s still graciously doing her thing.

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An Exmoor September

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Tangled wood: Horner, one of England’s largest oak forests.

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Coming down like the wolf on the fold, cohorts gleaming purple and gold…

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Church of All Saints, Selworthy. A gleaming monument from across the valley, an iced confection when face-to-face.

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A little too much confection for some, but it’s too pure not to be enjoyed…

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Exmoor is even more special because the ugly signage frenzy has yet to reach it. Black and white metal-embossed roadsigns abound, as do National Trust signs of the same vintage – beautiful, timeless lettering and craftmanship.

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Or this plaque on a seat at Webbers Post, originally a viewpoint once used by a local huntsman to watch his hounds.

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Memento Mori in Stoke Pero churchyard, although he didn’t follow his wife so soon, having another 20 years in which to wander free…

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Now to savour the time-worn signwriter’s art. Make the most of it while it lasts…

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Saint Melangell’s hares

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In the seventh century, Brochwel, Prince of Powys, was hunting hares with his pack of hounds; a hare took refuge beneath the cloak of Melangell, a young woman of such sanctity that the hounds would not go near her. Brochwel could not encourage the hounds, and the hare was saved. Brochwel gave Melangell the valley as a place of sanctuary, and her church and shrine can be found there near Llangynog. Hares were known locally as ‘Melangell’s lambs’, and the church is full with them…

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Whistler in the wind

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There is much more recognition of Rex Whistler these days, but his brother Laurence has also left behind some amazing work. Here are two windows – inscribed on glass with scriber and drill – from St Nicholas Church, Moreton, Dorset.

Summer, Laurence Whistler

Detail of the Seasons window, with butterflies about to burst from the bubble

The church was hit by a German bomber in World War II, and rebuilt with the windows engraved or deep cut, acid-etched or sandblasted by Laurence Whistler with craftsmen where necessary. These images (with a little adjustment) are reproduced from the guide book and are originally from Scenes and Signs on Glass from the Cupid Press, Woodbridge.

The Trinity Chapel window, Laurence Whistler

Trinity Chapel window, 1982

The Trinity Chapel window is a tribute to a pilot shot down in the Battle of France in 1940, and genuinely stunning. Sunlight and rain reveal nature regenerating, with scenes of Salisbury Cathedral near to where the pilot was stationed, and his cottage home. Vapour trails are suspended and in the corner is a broken propeller bearing two sets of initials and the dates of the pilot’s brief marriage.

I can’t help thinking this would have been quite a personal and possibly a difficult project. In his book Initials in the Heart, Laurence Whistler records the happiness of his marriage to the actress Jill Furse, and the cottage in Devon they shared. She died in 1944 at just 28. It was the same year in which his brother Rex was killed in the war.

Laurence Whistler, Jill Furse, 1941

Laurence Whistler and Jill Furse, with family, Devon, 1941, from Initials in the Heart, published by Rupert Hart-Davis, 1964

I’ve collected quite a few of Laurence Whistler’s books of poems and his biographies of his brother. The diligence with which he kept memory alive is incredibly moving, and I think he is an excellent, insightful writer.

More of that another day…

Gilt in the City on a winter afternoon

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London, a freezing weekday afternoon walking from Spitalfields. We’re looking for churches, and a synagogue, which we picked from a handbook. Whitechapel Gallery beckons on the way and we go for a look. I’ve no idea what’s on, but it turns out the theme is Urban Nature, which is fairly apt. Only 24 hours in London but fate assumes we’re missing trees and moorland already.

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Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Giuseppe Penone has found a tree, cast it in bronze, gilded the interior and cut it into pieces so we can gaze through the hollow trunk that once rose up and away and into the sky. It’s called Space of Light, or more fluidly, Spazio di Luce.

I’m not thinking of trees, but concrete cylinders, because a few days ago I saw a road trip movie where the characters stowed away inside one on the way to Spain. But then today I’m the country mouse and so perhaps the impact is working in reverse. Are Londoners sensing the forest?

It’s great to be in the city after a stretch in the tiniest villages: I need the antidote, keen to fill the mental landscape with tube trains, cranes and artificial light. It’s a bit like Lucozade, which as a child I would have drunk regularly except it was only allowed when you had a cold.

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Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Rise trees of the wood, of the forest… rise trees of the orchards, of the avenues, of the gardens, of the parks, rise from the wood that you have formed, take us back to the memory of your lives, tell us about the events, the seasons, the contacts of your existence. Take us back to the woodland, the darkness, the shadow, the scent of the undergrowth, the wonder of the cathedral that is born in the wood land.

Text by Giuseppe Penone writing in 1979, cut and pasted from Wikipedia

There’s a display about Rovesciare I propri occhi (To reverse one’s eyes) which involved the artist wearing mirrored contact lenses and exploring the countryside by touch. His quote alongside connects trees reaching for light with the retina capturing images with light. It suggests we share flesh and fibre with trees, our gaze questing like tree limbs and branches for the sun.

It’s reminding me of the rental DVD that hung around for weeks because the unappetising description was ‘astronomers search the skies for stars while a group of women search for body parts in the desert nearby’. Nostalgia for the Light was actually beautiful and meditative and mind-expanding: astronomers experiencing stars as history – via light years – are linked with a harrowing archaeology of Pinochet’s regime in Chile, to explore the past and what really constitutes our now and future.

I’m not sure if there’s any genuine connection, but all these ways of thinking about light feel like pieces of a jigsaw which would probably be worth the effort… that our history is carried in the light is a fantastically poetic concept.

The sky outside is pewter grey and glacially cold. Looking up I see a crow – all very Gormenghast – and the building is gilded with leaves (by Rachel Whiteread). It’s a hyperreal, gothic moment, compounded seconds later by a White Hart nestling in the greenwood of a pub sign alongside the sunset glow of Burger King signage.

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The synagogue is closed, as are a couple of churches. The past is close at hand, glimpsed through rails, definitely asleep. Construction is everywhere: plate glass moves vertically at a stately pace and the new structures expose their vital organs, sometimes messily.

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The trees opposite one church are gruesome – stunted and blackened, purest 21st century gothic (above). But in the gleaming hermetically-sealed paneling there are secret latches…

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So sudden, it’s a hallucination. I’m reminded of a series called The Georgian House from the 1970s, in which a servant boy was transported from 18th century Bristol to the future, only to rush out in shock and headlong into the traffic.

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We’re forced to look upwards and pointed to a gilded heaven. But this is not an instruction from the past: it is everywhere, in the pneumatic drilling on the air and the visions through the window.

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Like the gilded tree, this poor creature is felled and hemmed in too…

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And in case we might linger too long, a glance up at the wall urges us to make much of time…

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With all the relentless development outside, you could feel pity for poor besieged churches. Hemmed in like this precious table…

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Be at rest: the table is preserved. No-one has put anything on it or under it – like these caskets of history, these places of worship we’re standing in. The power of God can resist building directly on even if it can’t manage the doorstep outside.

But for a moment I see little difference between inside and out, past and present. Perhaps this isn’t a benign oasis. It’s all power and awe. Look up, look up. These ancient buildings are not besieged – they are bulwarks of power, just like the monoliths in the financial heart of the City of London. They’ve both met head on and neither will budge.

Meanwhile, someone else who wouldn’t budge looks on…

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Charles I was my favourite King. Here he’s restored, airbrushed, gilded, and the focus for another slightly odd cult. What with Richard III, there seem to be opportunities these days in marketing maligned monarchs as celebrities.

Back home I read that Rachel Whiteread’s decoration of Whitechapel Gallery is echoing “London’s rooftop repertoire of gilded angels, heraldic animals and crests”. Looking back on the photos, there’s gilding in most of them. A country mouse might think London’s really paved with gold.

St Nicholas Church, West Lexham, Norfolk

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A noiseless, patient spider,
I mark’d, where, on a little promontory, it stood, isolated;
Mark’d how, to explore the vacant, vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself…

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Summer’s green all girded up in sheaves,
Borne on the bier with white and bristly beard…

Sonnet XII, William Shakespeare