Saturday, April 17, 2021

Oddington, Gloucestershire

Doomsday, 1

Medieval wall paintings are among the most fascinating and tantalizing works of art. The fascination comes often not from the quality of the drawing but from the fact that virtually every English example is damaged, faded, and fragmentary. This is a result of iconoclasm in the 16th and 17th centuries, when images in churches were destroyed, often by covering with whitewash. Nearly every English church wall painting has been recovered from beneath at least one coat of whitewash, and the art’s condition depends on the damage done by this overpainting and the skill of the restorer or conservator, as well as the effects of time, damp, and modifications to the building.

Even so, medieval wall paintings can be extremely powerful. Visiting St Nicholas’ church, Oddington – which entails a trip down a long lane to a spot far away from houses and wonderfully quiet – makes one unprepared for the surprise on opening the south door. The enormous 15th-century doom painting stretches over virtually the entire north wall of the church.

The doom or last judgement is the event that takes place when, at the end of time, the souls of the dead are allotted their final place in Heaven or Hell. The events are complex and doom paintings are crowded with figures. As the light in Oddington church isn’t ideal for photography, I’ll describe what I think is going on in this one.§ At the top sits the figure of Christ (slightly to the right of the centre in my picture), with his feet above a disc, symbolising the earth. On his left and right sides are disciples. On either side of the world-disc are angels, and they are probably blowing trumpets to waken the dead and announce that the last judgment will take place: it’s possible to discern a narrow pale line coming from the mouth of the right-hand angel: the tube of a trumpet, I think. Next to the left-hand trumpeting angel stands a figure with a crown: St Peter. Groups of the righteous and repentant are welcomed to heaven by more angels, clearly recognisable by their spread and feathery wings. Heaven itself is, of course, architectural – there’s a slender tower with crenellations on top, linked by a wall (with more crenellations) to what is probably another tower on the far left. The celestial city had a wall, naturally, as any medieval city would do. One of my favourite touches is the small angel on top of the tower, who seems to be helping a soul into Heaven (or is it a bad soul trying to get into the city without authorisation and being pushed away?). On the right is Hell.* Yellow flames are discernible towards the bottom right. A horned devil fans the fire with a bellows. Other devils, dressed in striped garb, round up sinners and get on with the business of torturing them. Further touches: a person hanging from a gallows and another figure kneeling as if begging for mercy. Gruesome stuff, but it would have looked even more dreadful when the paint was new.

The fact that the colour has faded and so much of it has gone is perhaps what makes these paintings so moving. We can only look at them at all thanks to the lucky accidents of discovery and conservation, and their distressed state seems to lengthen the distance between our time and the painter’s. If medieval worshippers trembled with awe at the fate of the lost souls, we are more likely to be awed by the connection this art helps us make with their distant world. We don’t travel back in time or indulge in some ‘virtual medieval experience’ when we look at these paintings. We’re forced to confront another harsh reality: the power of passing time.

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§ Clicking on the image to enlarge it may make it easier to see the details. 

* The whole lower part of the painting has two different background colours. The right-hand half has a red background: this is hell; the left-hand section has a grey-looking background which maybe was once blue: it’s the heavenly realm.

Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Stanton, Gloucestershire

More curves

Bear with me, patient reader, as I indulge my interest with yet one more bit of corrugated iron. The key to the material’s success, from the time of its invention in the 19th century to today, is how the corrugations give this thin, lightweight material strength. Another of its virtues is how it can be bent during the building process, to make roofs that are inexpensive, strong, and curved to shed the rain effectively. Hence its widespread use in barns and sheds – as long-suffering regular readers will know from various past posts.

Here’s another use of the curving process. The photograph was taken some years ago at a plant nursery tucked away in the Cotswolds. The owner was then using several corrugated iron sheds and Nissen huts for work and storage, and where two sit together, whoever erected them has improvised a broad gutter between the two to take the rainwater that runs off. This entailed merely bending a sheet of corrugated iron into a semi-circle. It’s disarmingly simple, and could be made to fit the gap, which is a little wide for a single conventional gutter. Of course, like any gutter, it needs cleaning out, otherwise plants will grow in it, as they have begun to do here. But it’s an ingenious bit of bricolage, to which I raise my hat.

Saturday, April 10, 2021

Ryall, Worcestershire


Somewhere in rural Worcestershire, on a road I use quite often when there are no restrictions on travel, these pleasant curves pop up near the roadside. They’re one of the rural landmarks that tell me roughly where I am, how near I might be to one town or another, and they take their place in the ranks of field barns, outlying farms, lone pines, lonelier pubs, and telephone boxes on corners as my personal markers. I suppose I first noticed these buildings because they’re pale in colour, standing out from but harmonising with the surrounding landscape, as they harmonise with the cow parsley blooms in this view, taken when I finally stopped to take a better look.

They confirmed my liking for corrugated-iron buildings with curved roofs – the barns, railway sheds, Nissen huts, and other structures I’ve noticed here from time to time. And they confirm too that corrugated iron can look good in colours other than the usual green or the railway liveries now seen mostly at preserved or ‘heritage’ stations. I think they probably show the material’s adaptability too. I don’t know how these sheds began life – I’d not be surprised if they were built for agricultural use, given where they are. But they now seem to be used as some sort of automotive body-repair shop. They can’t be a bad fit for this use: they are spacious and provide plenty of headroom for vehicles much larger than the chunky classic Land-Rover in the foreground. The shelter and space are no doubt useful for paint jobs too. A good honest working building: so often, that’s just what’s needed.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Flexible friends

I’ve done several posts in the past featuring new uses for redundant red telephone boxes. An art gallery in a creative dialogue with the art in Henry Moore’s former house nearby, a village information centre, the vibrant planters in central Bath – these have been the stars. There are also telephone boxes where coffee is served or defibrillators housed, boxes housing miniature libraries, and, in a gloriously self-referential bit of recycling that I wish I’d photographed when I last passed it before lockdown, a business offering mobile phone repairs. Here’s one very close to where I live; or rather, here are six, because these K6 boxes on The Promenade, Cheltenham’s main shopping street, are a throw-back to the time when phone boxes congregated together in groups. In my teenage years I remember making a call or two from one of these boxes. In fact, I remember queueing outside them to make a call, so well used were they in the days before everyone had a phone in their house, let alone a mobile in their pocket. On this street, on a broad stretch of pavement near what was once the General Post Office, there’s this group of six and, a short distance away, another clutch of four.

These six were for a while a sort of outstation of The Wilson, Cheltenham’s Museum and Art Gallery. They have housed various art installations that have entailed peering through the glass at items variously rich and strange. When I last passed, the display was bolder and attached to the windows themselves. It was like a combination of gallery and advertisement: a 3D billboard for a group of artists, with samples of work and contact details. It was part of a project called Art in YOUR Quarter, curated by the Cheltenham Trust and showcasing art created in the community during lockdown and its colourful, bold work had to be able to hold its own in the uncompromising red frame of the glazing bars, and to work across the eight large glazed panels of each outward-facing wall or door.*

If to outsiders this might seem a trifle brash for leafy Regency Cheltenham, that may true only up to a point. In recent years, the town has made a bit of a name for itself as a place that hosts an annual festival of street art. This means that, each summer, a group of artists descend on the town and apply themselves diligently to an agreed stretch of wall. The chosen sites are often tucked away in unregarded corners – unlovely end-walls on street corners, boundary walls in car parks, subways that frankly need brightening up, and so on. It’s a form of sanctioned graffiti that has won over many, including many sceptics. This display on the telephone boxes is not part of the festival but its aesthetic and its street location are compatible with it, yet also on a scale that works better in its town-centre setting. I for one am grateful that it has been brightening up a world that in these times can feel dull, or worse.

And another thing. For many of us, art is an important, even necessary, part of life. You don’t have to be a painter or sculptor to look at it that way: you just need eyes. But not everyone feels that art is ‘for them’. Putting it in phone boxes is one way to make art more visible to more people. And adding the contact details helps too. It’s not just that people might want to buy work from the artists, or to commission them. If these are local artists, it reminds people that art isn’t just in London galleries, isn’t only on rich people’s walls. It’s here, now. And importantly, you don’t need to take a train ride to London to find it. Now more than ever, that’s a message worth remembering.

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* The six boxes featured: illustration by Luna Lotus, photography by Danielle Tipton, illustration by Jose Casey, collage by Ross Morgan, illustration by J.P McCrossan, illustration by Emma Evans, illustration by STISH, illustration by Tom Graham, illustration by Martha Kelsey and illustration by Art Lad.


Friday, April 2, 2021

Malvern Link, Worcestershire

Art and nature

Malvern Link is an area to the north and east of Great Malvern, adjoining a swathe of land called Link Common. Development began after the railway arrived in the 1850s, and continued through the second half of the 19th century into the 20th. Along the main artery, Worcester Road, many of the houses , especially those near or overlooking the common, were built as substantial middle-class homes; there were also several hotels catering for Malvern’s role as a fashionable spa.

This is an example of the former, an attractive house of the very late-19th or early-20th century, glimpsed through the trees and bushes fringing the front garden. Attracted by the winning combination of red brick, white woodwork, tiles, and windows with small panes in the upper sashes, I began to think of Bedford Park, the west London garden suburb that was a product of the 1880s and hugely influential. I think, from looking at old Ordnance Survey maps, that these are slightly later, but in a similar mode.

My eye was drawn especially to the ornamental panels running across the middle of the bay. The subject is stylised foliage and flowers of a fairly standard sort, of course: just what you’d expect on a house of some pretension in a prosperous area. Often such panels are in terracotta, a material popular during the fashion for ‘Queen Anne’ architecture from the 1870s onwards. Architectural ceramics companies had a repertoire of foliage, flowers, curlicues, and various other ornamental details, and builders drew on them widely. Terracotta was usually brick-red but was also available in a less common buff shade that resembled stone. Often it is hard to tell the difference between stone and terracotta, and I am having this difficulty with these Malvern Link examples. But whatever their material, they provide a pleasing touch, now complemented by the living greenery, which, having arrived more recently than the house, seems to be imitating art.