Red and Blue in Truro Cathedral

THERE IS A COPY of an icon, originally painted in Constantinople, in Truro Cathedral. This well-executed replica stands near the west end of the chancel. It depicts the Holy Child, Jesus, being held by the Virgin Mary. It exemplifies what we were told several years ago whilst being shown around a collection of icons in the Sicilian town of Piana degli Albanese, whose population is descended from Albanians who fled from the Ottomans in the late 15th century. These folk speak not only Italian but also a dialect of Albanian, known as Arberesh.

The icon in Truro shows the Virgin Mary dressed in dark blue and Jesus dressed in red. Our guide in Piana had shown us that in all the icons, the same thing can be seen. Conventionally, in Byzantine icons, Jesus is almost always dressed in red and the Virgin Mary in blue. The copy of the icon on display in Truro Cathedral is no exception to this tradition.

Mosaics and Greeks in Moscow Road

THE SYNAGOGUE IN Bayswater’s St Petersburg Place, a gothic revival edifice, looks no more exotic or out of place than the Victorian gothic Church of St Matthew built 1881-82 on the same street. In fact, it is another building to the north of these two that is unashamedly exotic in appearance: Aghia Sofia (Saint Sophia), the Greek Orthodox cathedral on Moscow Road. This domed building constructed for a community of prosperous Greek merchants was designed by John Oldrid Scott (1841-1913 and completed in 1877.

The first Greeks began arriving in London at the end of the 17th century. By the late 19th century (according to the website http://www.stsophia.org.uk), members of the Greek community in London:

“… were distinguished for their industry and their business acumen, and … soon became for the most part financially independent. They now wished to enjoy a more comfortable life, both for themselves and their families. They kept their offices in the City, but took up their private residences in other parts of London. The favourite districts were Lancaster Gate and Bayswater. These districts, which today are almost in the centre of the unending metropolis, were then only on its fringe, and to go from the City to Hyde Park, for instance, was considered a long excursion, which was undertaken, normally, only on holidays, as a relaxation and in order to enjoy the fresh country air.

After three decades had passed from the founding of the Church of Our Saviour [in the City near London Wall], no one any longer had his private residence in the City; and whereas previously all had lived within a very short distance of the Church, now five whole miles divided the Church from the residential district of the faithful.

For the men, in particular, who had every day to make the journey to the City, a tiring one with the means of transport then available, it was hard to undergo the same fatigue on Sundays also, when they were supposed not only to perform their religious duties, but also to rest from the labours of the week. Moreover, the number of the Greeks had greatly increased, and there was scarcely room for them all in the Church then existing. These various difficulties made it imperatively necessary to build a new larger Church, situated closer to the residences of the Brothers.”

Just as the Jewish people, who had also settled in Bayswater, far from the older synagogues in the City and established a new one near their new homes, the Greeks did the same. Moscow Road’s St Sophia’s church interior is filled with icons and other religious paintings is colourful and attractive. Instead of frescos on the walls, which were believed to be at risk of damage from London’s damp climate, the church’s interior is lined with mosaics. Some of the earliest of these were designed by Arthur George Walker (1861-1939). In 1926, the Russian born mosaic artist Boris Vasilyevich Anrep (1883-1969) created some more mosaics for the cathedral. The marble floor of the edifice is also attractive.

Hepworth and Mondrian in Salisbury

IN THE 1930s, both the sculptor Barbara Hepworth (1903-1975) and the painter Piet Mondrian (1872-1944) lived in Hampstead (north London). Hepworth and her two successive husbands lived and worked in the Mall Studios near Parkhill Road. Mondrian lived at 60 Parkhill Road. According to one of Hepworth’s biographers, Eleanor Clayton, writing in “Barbara Hepworth. Art and Life”:

“The beginnings of a friendship between Hepworth and Mondrian can be seen in her letters to Nicholson at the time: ‘so glad Mondrian said nice things about me & work. Goodness U did learn a LOT.’”

Visitors to the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral can see an abstract sculpture at the southeast corner of the grassy space enclosed by them. At first sight, it looks like a sculptural version of a painting that might have been created by Mondrian. It is a sculpture by Barbara Hepworth called “Construction (Crucifixion)”. This bronze artwork was created in 1966, and then donated by the artist to the Cathedral in 1969. It is according to a notice by the sculpture:

“… Hepworth’s response to Christ’s Crucifixion …”

The interpretation of the piece’s symbolism is far from simple, as a website text (https://www.salisbury.anglican.org/news/the-crucifixion) explained:

“What we see are 3 verticals linked by a single horizontal bar, and by 2 other horizontals at different heights.

A large circle, attached to the intersection of the horizontal and vertical lines, is painted citrus yellow on one side and blue on the other. At the bottom of the central vertical, we see red on its own beneath the blue side of the circle, and red and white beneath the yellow. On the yellow side, a metal hoop encircles the point of crossing.

Hepworth wrote that she found it ‘very serene and quiet’, but that doesn’t have to guide what we make of this piece. We could see the yellow circle as the sun, the blue circle as the moon, the red paint as blood, the 2 verticals on either side as the crosses of the 2 men crucified with Jesus.

Or we could contemplate its hardness, weight, size (12ft tall and 2-and-a-half tons) and stark simplicity. We could seek to find meaning here, or we could stand before it and try to imagine the experience of meaningless horror and sheer emptiness which brutality of any kind must impose on those who witness it. For us, it need not seem ‘serene and quiet’ as for Hepworth. On the contrary this cross might confront us with the tragic lack of meaning which has so often afflicted humanity since the cross of Christ was first set up.”

Whatever its symbolism, Hepworth’s piece is attractive and looks good surrounded by the gothic architecture of the cloisters. Above all, its appearance immediately brings to mind thoughts about thw works of art created by Mondrian. One website (https://artistscollectingsociety.org/news/barbara-hepworth-sculpture-returns-salisbury-cathedral-permanent-display/) describes the piece as “Construction (Crucifixion): Homage to Mondrian” and then continued as follows:

“The sculpture is thought to explore the duality of Jesus Christ in its use of geometric symbols and features bold colours borrowed from the palette of ACS member Piet Mondrian, referenced in the artwork title.”

I was very pleased to see this work once again in March 2022, soon after publishing my book about Hampstead, past and present, in which I have included a substantial chapter about the modern artists who lived and worked in the area between the two World Wars. There is a good chance that Hepworth’s encounters with Mondrian and his work whilst they were both in Hampstead is reflected in the appearance of this abstract Crucifix, which stands in the cloisters at Salisbury.

PS My book, “Beneath a Wide Sky: Hampstead and its Environs” is available from Amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B09R2WRK92).

The Connecticut connection

THE CITY OF CHELMSFORD is the county town of the English county of Essex. It is a place that until November 2021 we felt. without any reason, was not worthy of a visit and have tended to avoid, skirting it on its by-pass. It was only recently that we realised that the place is home to a cathedral. Being nearby on a recent tour in Essex and curious about its cathedral, we paid a visit to Chelmsford and were pleasantly surprised by what we found.

St Cedd window in Chelmsford Cathedral

The cathedral, which I will discuss later, is housed in what used to be the parish church of St Mary. The edifice is in the centre of a pleasant grassy open space. One of the buildings on the south side of this green bears a plaque commemorating Thomas Hooker (1586-1647), who was the curate and ‘Town Lecturer’ (a position established by the Puritans) of Chelmsford between 1626 and 1629.

Hooker was born in Markfield, a village in Leicestershire (www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Hooker) and studied at the University of Cambridge (https://connecticuthistory.org/thomas-hooker-connecticuts-founding-father/). At Cambridge, he underwent a moving religious experience that made him decide to become a preacher of the Puritan persuasion. He became a well-loved preacher, first serving the congregation of a church in Esher (Surrey) before moving to preach at St Mary’s in Chelmsford in 1626. A preacher in a neighbouring parish denounced Hooker to Archbishop Laud (1573-1645), a vehement opponent of Puritanism, and was ordered to leave his church and to denounce Puritanism, which he was unwilling to do. In 1630, Hooker was ordered to appear before The Court of High Commission. Soon, he forfeited the bond he had paid to the court and, fearing for his life, fled to The Netherlands.

In 1633, Hooker immigrated to The Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he became the pastor of a group of Puritans at New Towne (now Cambridge, Mass.). To escape the powerful influence of another Protestant leader, John Cotton (1585-1652), Hooker led a group of his followers, along with their cattle, goats, and pigs, to what was to become Hartford in what is now the State of Connecticut. They arrived there in 1636.

When Hooker and his followers reached the Connecticut Valley, it was still being governed by eight magistrates appointed by the Massachusetts General Court. In 1638, Hooker preached a sermon which argued that the people of Connecticut had the right to choose who governed them. This sermon led to the drawing up of a document called “The Fundamental Orders of Connecticut”, which served as the legal basis for the Connecticut Colony until 1662, when King Charles II granted The Connecticut Charter that established Connecticut’s legislative independence from Massachusetts. Hooker’s importance in this process has led him to be remembered as “the father of Connecticut.”

In 1914, the church of St Mary in Chelmsford, was elevated to the status of ‘cathedral’. The reason for this is slightly complex but is explained in a well-illustrated guidebook to the cathedral written by Tony Tuckwell, Peter Judd, and James Davy. In the mid-19th century, London expanded, and the size of its population grew enormously. Many previously rustic parishes that became urbanised were absorbed from the Diocese of Rochester into the Diocese of London. This resulted in a denudation of the Diocese of Rochester. To compensate for this, Rochester was given parishes in Hertfordshire and Essex. The Archbishop of Rochester lived in Danbury, Essex, which was closer to the majority of his ‘flock’ than anywhere in Kent. In 1877, the county of Essex was transferred into the new Diocese of St Albans in Hertfordshire. However, by 1907, 75% of the population of this new diocese were living in Essex. A further reorganisation led to the creation of two new dioceses, one in Suffolk and the other in Essex. After some acrimonious competition between the towns of Barking, Chelmsford, Colchester, Thaxted, Waltham Forest, West Ham, and Woodford, it was decided that Chelmsford should become the cathedral seat of the new Diocese of Essex. St Mary’s, where Hooker of Connecticut once preached in Chelmsford, became the new cathedral. In 1954, the cathedral’s dedication was extended to include St Mary the Virgin, St Peter, and St Cedd, whose simple Saxon chapel can be seen near Bradwell-on-Sea.

The cathedral, of whose existence we only became aware this year, is a wonderful place to see. Its spacious interior with beautiful painted ceilings contains not only items that date back several centuries but also a wealth of visually fascinating art works of religious significance created in both the 20th and 21st centuries. To list them all would be too lengthy for this short essay, so I will encourage you to visit the church to discover them yourself.

Having just visited Chelmsford, its cathedral, and its tasteful riverside developments, my irrational prejudice against entering the city and preferring to avoid it by using its bypass has been demolished. Although Chelmsford might not  have the charm of cathedral cities such as Ely, Canterbury, Winchester, and Salisbury, it is worth making a detour to explore it if you happen to be travelling through East Anglia.

As a last word, it is curious that although there are places named Chelmsford in Massachusetts, Ontario, and New Brunswick, there does not appear to be one in Connecticut; at least I cannot find one.

An oval church in London

THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM in London’s South Kensington district was constructed between 1873 and 1881. It was designed by the prolific Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905). Almost hidden away but close to Oxford Street, there stands another distinctive building designed by Waterhouse. Dome decorative brickwork on the east side of the structure proclaims that it was built as:

“Kings Weigh House Chapel”, and:“These buildings were erected in the year 1891 for the worship and service of God”.

The complex of buildings on Duke Street faces the northeast corner of Brown Hart Gardens. They were designed to include a chapel and a Sunday school as well as other offices. The chapel derives its name from a former dissenters’ chapel that used to stand above the Kings Weigh House in Eastcheap. It was formed in about 1685 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/King%27s_Weigh_House). In 1834, the site of the church was moved to larger premises at Fish Street, near London Bridge. Where it used to stand there is now an entrance to Monument Underground station. In 1882, the Fish Street site was compulsorily purchased bt the Metropolitan Railway. The Duke of Westminster offered the congregation a site on Robert Street (now Weigh House Street) and funds to construct yet another chapel (https://victorianweb.org/art/architecture/waterhouse/3.html). The church accepted his offer and their chapel designed by Waterhouse is what you can see today.

I have only seen the chapel’s decorative exterior with some Romanesque features, which were achieved using brickwork and contrasting whitish masonry, but have not yet entered it. However, I have seen pictures of its interior, which show that it is quite interesting. Apart from the impressive tower on the southwest corner of the church, I was struck by the oval structure that forms the bulk of the building. This houses the main place where the congregation worships. With the long axis of the oval running east to west, the oval ‘nave’ is surrounded above by an oval gallery with several rows of tiered benches (www.british-history.ac.uk/survey-london/vol40/pt2/plate-23). I have not seen many oval churches like this but did see one in Edinburgh (Scotland), the neo-classical style St Andrew’s and St George’s West Church. In this case the long axis of the oval also runs east to west.

The chapel was bombed during a communion service in 1940 in October 1940, when two people were killed and the chancel was damaged. During most of WW2, the chapel was requisitioned as a fire watching centre, presumably because of its high tower, and also as a ‘rest centre’. After the war, the damage was repaired, and the church was rededicated in 1953. By1965, the congregation ceased using Waterhouse’s chapel. It was decided in 1966 to disband the church at the Duke Street site and sell it.

In 1967, the chapel was bought by the Ukrainian Catholics. They have used it as their cathedral in London. Its full name is now ‘The Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Holy Family’ (Українська Католицька Єпархія Пресвятої Родини в Лондоні). The church is open for services, usually either early in the morning and/or in the early evening (www.ucc-gb.com/cathedral). Sadly, we looked at the place mid-morning, but we will visit it again one day when there is a service in progress so that we can view its interior.

A cloistered pathway

A LABYRINTH DIFFERS from a maze in that the former contains a continuous path without the confusing branching and blind endings found in the latter. Often the pathways of a maze are lined by walls or hedges so that the person within them cannot have an overview of the layout of the maze. In the case of labyrinths, these are frequently absent and someone entering a labyrinth can easily observe the layout of its pathway. Labyrinths have been constructed since time immemorial, but the one laid out on the lawn in the cloisters of Norwich Cathedral was only constructed in 2002, to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign.

The cathedral’s website (www.cathedral.org.uk/visit/things-to-see-and-do/the-labyrinth) notes:

“The Labyrinth forms a continuous path and represents a spiritual journey. Although there are many twists and turns, and at times we may be uncertain where the path will take us next, we are never lost … a labyrinth affirms the gentle guiding hand of God, who even when we may feel lost or confused, is leading us ever onward … Quietly walking the labyrinth can be a way of seeking to resolve a problem, seek guidance, grieve a loss, release a fear or just to be with God. Labyrinths are familiar feature in all cultures. The seemingly simple act of following a pattern is a surprisingly profound means of soul-searching, engaging body, mind and soul.”

I like the sentiments expressed in this extract but wonder how effective this labyrinth is really in helping to resolve difficult personal problems. I suppose when navigating a labyrinth, one’s mind briefly concentrates on this task rather than continuing to mull over whatever is bothering it. This short distraction from one’s inner musings can be therapeutic just as is the case with doing sport or concentrating on a hobby or artistic activity or craftwork.

A new sculpture at Wells Cathedral

New metal sculpture by Antony Gormley at Wells Cathedral

Among the carvings

At venerable Wells Cathedral

Stands a novice

The sculptor Antony Gornley (born 1950) has added a new artwork (made of metal) to an empty niche on the west facade of Wells Cathedral in Somerset, England

The most southern city in England

AN HOUR IN TRURO is hardly enough to get to know the county town of Cornwall well, but it is long enough to discover that the city’s centre is attractive and interesting. In 1876 the Diocese of Truro was founded and in the following year, it gained the status of ‘city’, making it the southernmost city in mainland Britain. Until the diocese was established, the county of Cornwall including the Scilly Isles and a couple of parishes in Devon were in the Diocese of Exeter. Given that the Christian faith was well established in this southwestern part of England at least 100 years before the first Archbishop of Canterbury was appointed, it was high time that Cornwall had its own diocese and archbishop.

Truro Cathedral

Between 1880 and 1910, a gothic revival cathedral designed by John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897) was constructed on the site of the 15th century parish church of St Mary. Parts of this old church were incorporated into the new cathedral and the top of its granite spire stands in a garden next to it. One of only three British cathedrals with three spires, Truro’s cathedral was the first new cathedral to be built in England after many centuries. Although a relatively recent structure compared with many of Britain’s other cathedrals, it is a fitting design for the mediaeval heart of the city with its narrow winding streets.

The name Truro might be derived from the Cornish words meaning ‘three rivers’ or ‘the settlement on the River Uro’. In any case, Truro has a river running through it, which helped stimulate the growth of the city’s prosperity. During the 18th and 19th centuries, the tin mining industry added to Truro’s wealth. Lemon Street, where we parked, is evidence of that; it looks like a Georgian street in Bath or some parts of London. The arrival of a direct railway line between the city and London in the 1860s provided a further boost to the city’s success. Earlier in mediaeval towns, Truro, which is inland and therefore difficult to reach by seaborne foreign invaders, became an important port. In addition, it was a stannary town, where revenue from the tin industry was collected, yet another source of the town’s wealth.

Our brief first visit to Truro (at the end of a long day out) has whetted my appetite for another lengthier exploration of the city, which at first sight seems to have many interesting features to excite tourists who have an interest in history.

Ely to India and back

AT THE CORNER OF Lynn Road and St Marys Street in the cathedral city of Ely in Cambridgeshire, there is a shop selling used books and an assortment of ‘objets’, all in delightful disorder. This shop, with a fine view of the cathedral, ‘Cloisters’ by name, is across the road from The Lamb pub. Apart from being a lovely shop with an informative, genial owner, Barry Lonsdale, it was once home to an interesting but lesser-known military personality. His story is detailed by a blog writer named Michael Taylor (https://www.blogger.com/profile/12276420943738372719) and I have summarised it below.  

 Billett Genn (1827-1917) was a son of Billett Genn (senior), who died in 1872, and Margaret (née Austin (http://ginn-hertfordshire.blogspot.com/2014/06/). It is probable that they lived in the house that now contains the Cloisters shop. In 1841, young Billett became an indentured apprentice seaman, a seven-year contract. For reasons unknown, Billett returned to England before his seven-year term was completed. In 1846, he signed up as a trooper in the 3rd Kings Own Light Dragoons, another seven-year contract. The Dragoons had been stationed in India for several years, arriving there in 1837 (https://amp.blog.shops-net.com/10388944/1/3rd-the-kings-own-hussars.html) for the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). Billett arrived in India in time to become actively involved in fighting against the Sikhs in the Punjab Campaign of 1848/49. Billett took part in various engagements including the Battle of Chillianwala in January 1849. This battle was one of the bloodiest during the 2nd Anglo-Sikh War (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Chillianwala), and one in which both the Sikhs and the East India Company claimed victory.

Genn was discharged and sent back to London in 1853, having been awarded the Punjab Campaign Medal. He returned to Ely where he became a schoolteacher in the city’s Needham School for poor boys. In 1867, he married Victoria Haylock. They produced seven children. Billett and Margaret lived at number 1 Lynn Road, which now contains the Cloisters shop. Margaret died in 1913 and Billett four years later. He was the last member of a family that had lived in Ely continuously for over 300 years. He was given a full military funeral.

Billett Genn was, at the time of his death, the last survivor of the Punjab Campaign (www.cambstimes.co.uk/news/the-story-of-remarkable-ely-man-billett-genn-is-retold-4887142). An unobtrusive plaque affixed to the wall of the shop commemorates this fact. We had come to Ely mainly to see its truly remarkable cathedral, which surpassed all expectation, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover this city’s far from well-known connection with distant Punjab.

PS: The Genn family also owned The Lamb pub at some time

Reform and destruction in an English cathedral

SPLIT IN FORMER Yugoslavia, now in Croatia, is a city that developed in the ruins of a great establishment, the Roman Diocletian’s Palace. Likewise with the city of Ely in Cambridgeshire: it developed within the remains of another great establishment, the large Abbey of Ely, which was dissolved by King Henry VIII in 1539. By 1541, after having its charter renewed by the king, its then bishop, Thomas Goodrich (1494-1554), instigated an orgy of iconoclasm, to which I will return soon.

In 1975, I visited the city of Prizren in the former Yugoslavia, now in Kosovo (Kosova). I was impressed by what I saw in one of the place’s fine mediaeval churches. The caretaker showed me that the frescos on the walls inside the building were badly damaged, but only up to a certain height above the ground, Above this, they were as intact as one could hope for paintings of that age. He explained to me that many centuries ago, the Ottoman soldiers were ordered to destroy the figurative images depicted on the walls. They used the tips of their spears to do the job, but they only destroyed what they could reach from the ground (i.e., without using ladders). Sadly, the iconoclasts working under the orders of Henry VIII and Bishop Goodrich were more diligent in their destructive activities.

Under Goodrich’s orders, first the shrines to Anglo-Saxon saints were mutilated. Then, the vandals attacked all the stained glass and many of the statues in the cathedral, before getting to work on the large Lady Chapel on the north side of the body of the church.

The spacious, airy, light-filled, Lady Chapel is at first glance a magnificent example of 14th century gothic architecture, which was created in 1321. The excellent article in Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ely_Cathedral) describes an important and interesting aspect of the chapel:

“Below the window line, and running round three sides of the chapel is an arcade of richly decorated ‘nodding ogees’, with Purbeck marble pillars, creating scooped out seating booths. There are three arches per bay plus a grander one for each main pillar, each with a projecting pointed arch covering a subdividing column topped by a statue of a bishop or king. Above each arch is a pair of spandrels containing carved scenes which create a cycle of 93 carved relief sculptures of the life and miracles of the Virgin Mary. The carvings and sculptures would all have been painted.”

When we entered the Lady Chapel, we were in so much awe of its beauty that we did not at first notice something, which a church official soon pointed out to us. In each of the booths or alcoves lining the walls, the statues are either missing their heads or their faces have ben erased crudely. The deliberate damage to these statues was ordered by Bishop Thomas Goodrich. He also removed some of the larger statues that once adorned this fine chapel. It was seeing this destruction that reminded me of my trip to Prizren so long ago.

After looking at the Lady Chapel, we explored other parts of the cathedral, where I found other examples of statues that had lost either their faces or their heads. The iconoclasm that occurred in the so-called Reformation, which began in the 1530s, can be seen in many English churches, especially with regard to the acres of stained glass that were wantonly destroyed during that period of religious reform. Maybe, this destructive era should also be known as the ‘de-formation’. Some valuable examples of the pre-Reformation stained-glass can be seen in Ely Cathedral’s fascinating Stained-Glass Museum, which is well worth visiting. Incidentally, apart from European stained glass from across the centuries, the museum has recently acquired a fine example of stained glass from the USA, depicting a black African American.

Although I have concentrated on aspects of destruction, there is plenty of Ely Cathedral left for the visitor to enjoy, including fine gothic and pre-gothic (Norman) architecture. Many mediaeval and Tudor buildings that were once part of the abbey still exist and are now part of the daily life of modern Ely, just as some parts of Diocletian’s Palace in Split are still in use today. Some of these buildings in Ely are used by Kings School Ely, which was one of about 12 schools founded by Henry VIII. These few schools were the only part realised of a more ambitious plan to build many more schools and other new establishments.

We spent a whole day in Ely but could easily have stayed longer without being able to see all of its attractions. Prior to our departure for the city, a friend had told us that it was an unlikeable place not worth visiting. We discovered how wrong he was.