Author Archives: James Alexander Cameron

About James Alexander Cameron

I am an art historian working primarily on medieval parish church architecture. I completed my doctorate on sedilia in medieval England in 2015 at The Courtauld Institute of Art.

Episode 2 – Ashbourne, Bakewell and Tideswell: Giant Churches All-Out Attack!

臨時ニュースを申し上げます

大至急避難してください!

エピソード2:アシュボーン、ベイクウェル、タイズウェル:巨大教会総攻撃!

Production is much better on this and I shortened the theme song (even 15 secs is quite long for YouTube!)

As you see, I’m keeping to schedule. Hope to continue this “pilot run” up till Christmas then see how things stand. Next one should be about monasticism, then maybe another Great Mistakes if I can get to a cathedral.

 

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Great Mistakes at Lichfield Cathedral

 

Somehow Lichfield escaped getting an entry in my infamous viral post! Well, now it’s got its own video shaming every little niggle you’ve never noticed.

You should notice a bit of an improvement in the production of this one. Hope the next one will be even better!

Taking a chance on the soundtrack with the old “fair use” claim of something so obscure that no one cares about it…

YouTube pilot episode 1: Cumbria

Let’s not muck about building up hype, we’ll just give you some content!

It’s fun learning this and do remember I’d never actually tried editing a video before this – I’ve learnt a lot. There are limitations with the footage which should improve in subsequent episodes. I hope you don’t find some of the audio too distracting, but I thought this cut was interesting and entertaining enough to release.

Please comment on the YouTube video if you enjoy!

Trailer for Stained Glass Attitudes: the YouTube channel

It’s finally here! The trailer no one was expecting! And perhaps cares about even less than that Han Solo movie! It’s my new YouTube channel coming soon!

I have realised more and more that the chance of getting any institution to support the study, research, promotion of engagement, and the dissemination of knowledge regarding English parish churches is looking vanishingly unlikely. But I’ve thought: who cares? Why not cut out the middle man? Why not just bring content directly to as wide an audience as possible?

I have always struggled to write about parish churches on this blog. The effect of architecture, especially on the smaller end of the scale, is extremely difficult to convey with just a few photo thumbnails aligned left and right of some text. That’s why I’ve started self-shooting and learning video editing techniques to put together some 15-20 minute films about groups of particularly interesting churches in my current catchment area, also conveying something of their setting in contemporary rural England. They will be a bit silly, yes, but at heart they are the sort of ideas I’d be teaching to BA students if I had a more steady lecturing career. Having done my first professional site tour this summer, I’m more experienced in stringing together narratives in situ, and presenting a story about these under-appreciated buildings, so I’m excited to try and bring that experience to your device’s screen.

The trailer is supposed to be funny first and foremost (Inception horns just make me laugh, sorry), but there are some clips of things amongst the silliness I’ve been working on in the last few months. The videos will be as professional as I can manage, which of course will be “not very”, but they do have proper post-production with editing, effects and a musical soundtrack (so more so than a lot of YouTubers gurning into a camera in their bedroom ever manage). However, if they prove to be successful with you (yes, you), then they will only get better.

I know there’s nothing worse than a nauseating millennial mugging at you to “like and subscribe” at the end of their YouTube video about how to use the clone tool in Photoshop or their reaction to the new Avengers movie, but please do click the subscribe button (if you use Chrome, have a Gmail address or use an Android device, you essentially already have a YouTube ID). It makes a huge difference to a new channel if it has a registered fanbase and will help me a lot in taking this blog the next step further to create more church architecture content. The first episode should “drop” (as aforementioned nauseating millennials are fond of saying) in a but a few weeks.

Medieval Artoons

I apologise for the silence from this blog in past months: it has been a tough year. I know it has its fans (thanks for all those who get in contact with me to say you enjoy it) and I’m working hard to relaunch with some exciting (no, really) new (well….) content (yes!) about English medieval churches. Watch this space for a preview very soon (like, in a month).

It won’t just be text. It will move!

Anyway, here’s a collection of my old cartoons regarding medieval art, some drawn as birthday cards and never seen in public, newly inked, scanned, recaptioned and archived for your viewing pleasure. Some have aged better than others. Some of them might not have been that good in the first place.

Clippit

The joke here (besides haha the Office Assistant was annoying remember him) is that the “Beatus” page is the most iconic first page in any type of medieval manuscript, and psalters are instantly recognisible because of a great big “B” initial on the first page, without having to be able to read any of the script.

Franciscans

Franciscan friars would just tell the Pope that laypeople bought it for their church, and technically it’s his.

Edward II This one hasn’t aged well. The joke (such as it is) is that David Cameron was accused in September 2015 of performing a lewd act with a pig’s head as an initiation ceremony for the “Piers Gaveston Society” in his student days. Thing is that he disgraced himself so much the year afterwards Edward II isn’t even in the same league anymore as incompetent statesmen go.

 

EffigiesSomething about patrons’ agency, I guess. Medieval tombs weren’t always full of humility and bold invention. In fact a lot of the time they look the same, and probably nothing like the people they represent.

RiemenschneiderTwitterI haven’t inked this one essentially because I couldn’t face doing all those intersecting ogees on the retable that Stan and Ollie are about to ruin. It’s also supposed to make a point about how different guilds worked together on art objects and the painters were always paid the most. Sculptors like Riemenschneider must’ve just hated the smug gits.

bluetoothinked

Bluetooth  wireless technology is actually named after King Harald Bluetooth of Norway, father of Sven Forkbeard, who was briefly king of England, and Sven’s son became Cnut the Great. This is all funny enough as it is without this.

Isn’t it funny how many of these have thrones in them? Old habits die hard, I guess.

See you soon!

Why are some churches locked?

Confined recently to Lancashire, I have been exploring the remaining medieval parishes in the local area I haven’t visited. It can come as a surprise, to those lucky enough to live in East Anglia or Wiltshire, that in some areas, it is not the norm for churches to be open. Or even seemingly any way to get inside without attending a service? It particularly annoys me when a church proudly declares it has received Heritage Lottery Fund money for a big repair, but yet there is not so much a phone number for a churchwarden displayed. Why should an essentially private building get public money?

I do believe that the ideal position of all Anglican churches is that they are open to all during the day. So for a church to be locked, there has to be some factors that exist that cause this not to be true. It is a misconception that the attitudes of vicars cause a church to be open or shut. Priests are really only in control of the services and ministry in the parish. They are usually members of the Parochial Church Council, and while they may certain extra rights of veto, but they do not in any sense control how the building is run. The custodians of the building are the elected churchwardens (usually two in a parish). But ultimately, of course, the owner of the building is the diocese, and anything that happens requires a faculty from them – even if the building is not nationally listed (and any medieval church is at least Grade II listed by default).

Here is what I think what cause churches to be locked, from the most reasonable to the less so.

1. Reaction to manifest problems

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If these were medieval cock ‘n’ balls they’d be listed

People can get up to terrible things in public buildings. And you will hear stories about how people have urinated in church pews, vandalised the altar, broken statues, stolen money or pulled up brasses. And of course, if there is an active threat to a building, why would you not protect it? But such attacks are exceptionally rare. I have been in hundreds of churches, and I have never had to report any vandalism that seems to have occurred recently (except perhaps some things a congregation has done to their own church which I suspect they haven’t got a faculty for). It can be harrowing for a congregation to have their church violated, but it is a shame to finally take it away from the public due to a one-off event.

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Brent Eleigh church had its unique 14thc high altarpiece wall painting damaged in 2016 by a mentally-ill man. The church, however, remains open as it was before the incident.

Christian churches in modern Britain are lucky that they (currently, at least) have no systemic prejudice against them, unlike Mosques or Synagogues, which can have vile campaigns against them from hate groups. If there are repeated attacks on a church, they are the acts of individuals, not a mindset. However, if a church is being targeted, it would be foolhardy to let those individuals continue and not take protective measures. But once the culprits are caught, normal opening can be resumed. But some churches seem surprisingly pessimistic about humanity, not to mention vindictive.

2. Reaction to perceived risk

A suburban church at the centre of a housing estate where even the grounds are padlocked

So this leads us to the next point. Risk. Things that are happening is one thing. Things that might happen is another. But risk must be managed. A church in a rural village, that has congregation visiting throughout the day, many events, houses nearby, has almost no risk, beyond the “crazy person” scenario. An isolated rural church, with no fittings of monetary value, has a slightly higher risk. A suburban church, which the churchwardens and priest do not live near, and bored children running about is another matter. One in a city centre, is another entirely.

Of course, perhaps the largest active threat to churches, is the theft of roof lead. Of course, this does not need access to the interior – indeed, it actually helps the thieves if they are sure the church is locked and there’s no one inside before they get up there and steal the roof. All risks however, must be managed accordingly.

3. Low level of resources

However, with all the good will in the world, some churches do not have the resources available to manage these risks. They may not be able to afford security cameras or motion-detector alarms for the sanctuary. They may not have PCC members who live near enough the church to be able to open and close it every day. Of course, this factor can always be solved by campaigning, raising interest, and fundraising, but then that leads us to the next point…

4. Low level of interest

Who would ever want to go in here anyway

Quite frankly, to overcome problems in opening churches, there has to be a desire. And some PCCs simply do not have it. Well, obviously, they can’t open the church because they live next village over and go to work. I don’t know who lives in the Old Rectory, they probably aren’t interested in looking after the key. Goodness know who runs the pub now, never go there.

5. Protectionism

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Barbed wire a good addition to any crenellated parapet

This then slips over to last point, and the most extreme. For a village, a parish church is an important asset. What is an English village without its little church? It helps house prices if your village has a church that at least plays lip service on Sundays. Great for the village to have weddings, too. So you treat it like an asset, and lock it up tight. You don’t want ramblers coming in with their muddy boots. Kids knocking over the Easter flowers.

The most extreme level of this is with Evangelical churches, who have the money for security, but keep the church locked as a statement that God is everywhere, and the church is just a meeting hall. This is certainly not true of all churches with a lower-church, charismatic leaning (as sometimes the level of worship is set by the priest, and as I say, priests often have little to do with the opening status of churches), but ones where the entire PCC share this mindset can be the hardest of all to get into.


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This just made me sad tbh

So which of these points is the most important to combat in getting more churches to open their doors? I think it’s 2 and 4, as 1 and 5, as the most extreme, are rarer. The thing is that “perceived risk” is often overestimated. Usually the worst churches for opening are in what are now satellite villages around big, formerly industrial cities, such as Liverpool. There’s a prejudice against people from “the town” who might come into “their village” and cause trouble. How do you combat this? Well, it’s point 4. Gently moan at them. Tell them people do want to visit the church.

And it’s to their benefit, in the long term anyway. If people who live in urban areas – that is, most people in England – think Anglican churches are locked, unwelcoming, private clubs, the hostility against the established church from the general public is only going to increase, and with it, available funds diminish. Yes, there will always be problems with that great mass we know as “the general public”, but if you can’t find tolerance and forgiveness in a church, where can you?

Dark Pastorals: art and English identity

Brexit

The desolation of the new 10 pence coins.

It’s not much fun being British at the moment. Whereas, years ago, people used to fret against hooligans shouting “IN-GER-LAND”, going on about the 1966 football World Cup, the Dambusters and waving the flag of St George, the identity articulated these days is invariably British. It seems that “Britain” has become a cipher for English self-importance, exceptionalism, and punching above its weight. Britain First. For Britain. Brexit means Brexit – all of these are English above all else. Cultural identity is often expressed through a self-deprecating tweeness, embodied by the endlessly lauded but utterly dismal opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, and a new set of ten pence coins. T for tea. Q for queuing. The E for England is wasted on English Breakfast (surely F for Full English would have been better?). The disdain we give to our fellow constituents in the UK epitomised by Scotland being represented by the Loch Ness Monster.

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Major events in the peopling of the British Isles, from “The fine-scale genetic structure of the British population”, Nature 519, 2015.

What is “British”? Technically, there is an archipelago off the north west of continental Europe known as the British Isles. This consists of a long island, Great Britain, a few smaller islands such as Man and Wight, and controversially includes the island of Ireland to its west. It has been settled by many peoples over the millennia, until the Kingdom of England was consolidated under the House of Wessex in the 10th century AD. There are now two countries that occupy these islands: the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (yes, that’s actually our county’s name) is made up of four constituent countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Their alliance as “Britain” has been precarious to say the least.

Wales and Ireland never had strong dynastic kingdoms in the Middle Ages. The Normans had a crack at both following the 1066 Conquest, but it was Edward I who subdued Wales into becoming a principality of England in 1282, and Oliver Cromwell brutally reconquered the island of Ireland in the 1650s: the subsequent confiscation of Catholic landowners’ property setting the scene for the division of the island in the 20th century. Scotland and England were of course, bitter rivals in the Middle Ages, but shared a monarch by the 17th century, formally joining together as the United Kingdom in the Act of Union of 1707.

Victoria_Disraeli_cartoon[1]In 1800, a second act of Union brought Ireland into the United Kingdom. The 19th century was when the idea of “Britishness” as we know it today was forged through the British Empire. The East India Company was dissolved in 1858 and India came under direct rule from the Crown, making Queen Victoria Empress of India. Britain also benefited greatly in the Scramble for Africa. This archipelago became a new Italy and London its the new Rome of an Empire that famously spanned the globe.

But all Empires rise to fall. The first half of the 20th century – not that we learn this in school – was the century of Britain’s worst atrocities as it grasped onto its declining Empire. The concentration camps in the Boer War. The Amritsar Massacre. The Bengal Famine. The Firebombing of Dresden. The Partition of India. The Maylan Emergency. Britain was first humiliated on the world stage by the Suez Crisis in 1952. When Egypt nationalised the Suez Canal – the artery of the Empire from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean – Britain threw a tizzy and invaded Egypt to win it back. They couldn’t.

Since then, we don’t seem to learn and still act like we’re super important. The Falklands (oh yeah, we won that one, great job Maggie). The Iraq War. The exit from the European Union. The current mudslinging reaction to the Skripal incident in Salisbury. The idea of “Britain” is so deeply toxic, symbolising entitlement, control, exceptionalism and dominion, I almost think it’s unsalvageable. It would be deeply significant if we acknowledged – and this is something that could have happened if the 2014 Scottish independence referendum has gone the other way – that England is a nation on an island, not an island nation.


Anyway, time for art. How does one cultivate an English identity? We of course need to acknowledge that all our art is greatly influenced by waves of immigration, not some unshakeable racial character. Next, we acknowledge our neighbours: the constituent countries of the UK, but also Europe. Then of course, we need to accept responsibility for the Empire. But first, we actually need to recognise our great works.

Watts, George Frederic, 1817-1904; Sower of the Systems

G.F. Watts, Sower of the Systems, 1902.

In our fetish for tea and queuing, we don’t celebrate our own art. I go on about how no one takes our medieval parish churches seriously as objects of knowledge, instead dismissing them as picturesque curiosities. It’s the same for our artists. It is only recently that the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers have become acceptable in “serious” art history, and great artists such a G.F. Watts and Edward Burne Jones are studied in the context of European symbolism rather than as eccentric wackos. But our orchestras only play a few select pieces and composers from the English tradition: especially bloody Elgar, making Nimrod from the Enigma Variations into some radio-friendly jingoistic hymn. Composers such as Arnold Bax, Arthur Bliss, Granville Bantock, William Havergal Brian, York Bowen, George Butterworth, Arthur Butterworth are basically unknown (I don’t know why they all begin with B). Sullivan, Britten, Tippett and Walton also receive short shrift. The Hallé are about the only major orchestra who make an effort with English music: London orchestras play more Russians (Shostakovitch, Stravinsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff) in a single concert than they do English composers in an entire season. Because money.

And yes, a lot of British culture is dangerously obsessed with money, including the art establishment. Probably the most famous living English artist is Damien Hurst, an artist absolutely orientated to the market, who thrives on capital, and is incapable of making any sort of statement to his audience except “ooh, isn’t it scary that we’ll die?” and “wow this looks expensive”. Bombastic shite from vacuous shills like Thomas Heatherwick and Anish Kapoor strives to be “iconic”, but is empty of meaning, let alone any culpability. The Garden Bridge went away: but only because it turned out to be unprofitable.

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Winchester Cathedral, N transept, 1080s.

England can do great things when it’s left to itself for a bit. But it needs ideas. It needs stimulation. And English art and culture has always benefited from moments where the floodgates to outside influence were opened. The Norman Conquest kick-started the great rebuilding of the country’s cathedrals and monasteries one of the most extraordinary feats of architecture, even compared to those of Antiquity.

 

 

Anglo-Norman Romanesque then developed in its own weird way. Chevron, beakhead – stuff that no one else did. Then just as it started to eat itself with self-referentiality, the floodgates opened again, to French Gothic. In the last quarter of the 12th century, Wells, Canterbury and Lincoln pioneered a new era of English architecture. It was all dogtooth and shaft-rings for a good 50 years when we were fighting with France on and off from 1202 to 1243.

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Parish church of St Mary, Kirkby Lonsdale (Cumbria), E counterfacade, first half of 13thc.

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Parish church of St Mary, Lawford (Essex), chancel S elevation, 2nd quarter of 14thc.

Then in come the waters again – bringing in France tracery which is a lightning bolt for Lincoln’s Angel Choir, Southwell chapter house, Lichfield and Exeter. Parisian microarchitecture in the 1280s inspired arguably our greatest period of art-marking: the Decorated Style of the early 14th century, Ely Lady Chapel, the surprising flourishes of exuberance found in unassuming parish churches such as Hawton, Irnham and Lawford.

Aggression really took hold again with France with the Hundred Years War, which went on till 1453, funnily enough, the greatest period of stagnation in England’s medieval architecture. I give a lot of flak to 15th-century “Perp” and rightly get a lot back from flint-fans, and while of course there are many interesting buildings, you can’t deny that it all gets a bit samey. Run-of-the-mill. Predictable. Sturdy. Self-important. British.

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E facade, parish church of St Mary, Lancaster (Lancaster Priory).

It was looking up at the end of the Wars of the Roses, when we start to let the continental Renaissance in, with “Fantastic Perp” such as Henry VII’s Lady Chapel, all of course scuppered when our megalomaniacal king pulled us out of the Catholic Church because he didn’t want to be told what to do. You can make your own comparisons there.

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Lady Chapel, Westminster Abbey, London, 1503-9.


20180323_112646So we borrow ideas – but what defines what we do with them? Pevsner famously tried to characterise English art in The Englishness of English Art. He made a bit of balls of it, by most accounts. English art has line, sometimes it’s wavy and sometimes it’s a grid, I think is the general gist of it: crap, yeah. Any purely formal characterisation of art is going to fall on its arse pretty quickly as people say “but Herr Professor Doktor – don’t other countries use lines too?”. But one thing Pevsner was sensible with was making it not about race. It’s not about any sort of John Bull shit. It’s about the island itself.

A Hilly Scene c.1826-8 by Samuel Palmer 1805-1881

Samuel Palmer, A Hilly Scene,
c.1826–8.

For me, the best English art is characterised by the dark pastoral. The most exceptional thing about the island we’re on is its landscape. In the United States, you can drive for days, and the landscape, can look exactly the bloody same. In England, I can drive for an hour in any direction (well, not west at the moment, because I’d fall in the sea) and see a dramatic transformation. However, the landscape is always characterised by a temperance, rather than sublimity. Despite the efforts late 18th century painters, our landscape is rarely sublime. We don’t have Matterhorns or Grand Canyons. It’s easy to slip into complacency, or worst, sentimentality. That’s where the meditative mode of the “dark pastoral” comes in. We indeed have a green and pleasant land, but we can’t deny the presence of its dark Satanic mills.

The 14th century Decorated draws on nature, but there is no imperial triumphalism, subduing it the control of man. Instead there’s a lingering menace in the twisted foliage, a strange instability in those nodding ogees, a dizzying intimidation in those complex vaults. The Pre-Raphaelites at their best are similar: on the surface idyllic, but not far below, an acknowledgement of the ills of society and the darkness of human nature.

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Luttrell monument, parish church of St Mary, Irnham (Lincolnshire), 1340s.

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John Piper – Dorchester Abbey, 1973.

Neo-Romanticism was the last art movement in England to fully embody this spirit of humbling awe. John Piper’s depictions of churches are not cosy watercolours, but expressive portraits of awesome places, not apart from nature and conflict, but entwined with it.

 

Ralph Vaughan Williams also embodies the spirit of loving our land but a twist of darkness, sadness and culpability throughout his work. Anyone who derides his work as “a cow looking over a gate” needs to sit down with Symphony No. 6 which, responding to the age of atomic bomb, is one of the most brutal and bleak things you’ll hear come out of musical instruments. Even his Pastoral Symphony of 1938-43 – has a very dark undercurrent, responding to the Second World War. I finish with his majestic Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis for string orchestra as an example of dark pastoral, how its superficial beauty belies turmoil in its cyclic meditation on the melody written by Tallis in the 1560s for the lines “Why fumth in fight, the Gentiles spite” of Psalm 2. First performed at the 1910 Three Choirs Festival in the Cathedral of Gloucester, it mourns the needless Earthly squabbling which led to the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the destruction of our culture for money and power. Towards the end, a single viola emerges from the plodding organ-like grandeur of the string orchestra. It’s as if it’s responding to the echoing words of the psalm which continues:

The kings of the earth set themselves,
and the rulers take counsel together,
against the Lord and his anointed, saying,
“Let us burst their bonds asunder,
 and cast their cords from us.”

He who sits in the heavens laughs;
the Lord has them in derision.

It’s like one folk musician, among the stripping of the abbey of Gloucester, saying to the “kings of the Earth” that you don’t need to do this. Yet does anyone listen?