Thursday, 31 October 2013

A Forgotten Anglo-Catholic Artist

The other day I found a stack of devotional leaflets from the 1920s, 'The Passion of Our Lord According to Saint Mark', in a cupboard in the north vestry. They're interesting because they show the sort of liturgical experiments Swanvale Halt was trying out at that time (if indeed we did try it out, I shall have to check through the old service books), but also because of the illustrations.

This is obviously just what the Last Supper was like. Like Mass. Of course.  It's a surprise Jesus isn't wearing a maniple.

But this illustration of the Agony in the Garden is gorgeous.

The artist was Thomas Noyes Lewis, a very prolific painter and book illustrator of the late 1800s and early 1900s, who was born in 1862 and died in 1946. If you go searching online you can find quite a bit of his stuff, including illustrations of Nordic legends and good manly inspirational cards for young Scouts. However I expect even more people actually encounter his work without knowing it's his, as I discover I've done over the years. Here, for instance, is a lovely example from a booklet describing the rituals of the Mass for Anglo-Catholic laypeople, at least laypeople worshipping in churches which use the Book of Common Prayer according to the Percy Dearmer model.

This latter booklet is called Through the Veil: Communion Book, and in Noyes Lewis's determination to display not just what actually happens but the inner significance of what happens - so in this picture you see Jesus hovering over the altar as the veil is quite literally lifted to show the heavenly reality of our earthly acts - it's dotty to modern sensibilities, but rather moving.

I know nothing more about Thomas Noyes Lewis. I wonder how he discovered his faith, and got into the business of painting it.

Monday, 21 October 2013

Well Hidden

Given the extent to which Cornwall has been scoured and re-scoured by well-enthusiasts, you wouldn’t think there were old Christian holy wells yet to come to wider attention, yet accidentally I found one. Down Well Street in Callington is this very humble spring, the Lady’s Well or Pipe Well, once the main water supply for the town and covered in its little well house in 1816, a plaque informs us. The water still flows copiously but Callington’s citizens are now prevented from falling down the steps by a spectacularly ugly set of railings which form a sad contrast to the exuberant mural on the wall next to the well. The church, technically a chapel-of-ease to the old parish church at St Dominic until relatively recently, is dedicated to the Virgin Mary which fits in with the old title of the well. How it has escaped the attention of all the many, many writers on Cornish wells I can’t imagine, though it may be that none of them ever visited so prosaic a place as Callington to look for them.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Making Wells

One of the attractions of Cornwall for deluded souls interested in ancient sites is the abundance of holy wells, and more has been written about Cornish wells, across nearly two centuries, than any other part of Britain. I was able to visit a few on this holiday, and the ones I saw aroused some new thoughts. More than England east of the Tamar, so far as Cornwall is concerned the belief that holy wells are unsullied survivals of a primeval past is easier to credit and given more credence. And yet they aren’t necessarily, any more than wells elsewhere.

I stopped at St Cybi’s Well in Duloe, a site all the more moving for its situation yards from a busy road, and then St Keyne’s Well a mile or two away in a tiny enclosure of its own beside a minor road junction. St Keyne’s is particularly well known, with its legendary power, long recorded, of granting mastery in a marriage to whichever partner first drinks of its water after the wedding ceremony, and I found offerings left in the bushes next to the well – ribbons, corn crosses, a decorated shoe. It’s certainly now as much a modern pagan as a Christian holy well.

But what struck me first and set me thinking was the structure of St Cybi’s Well, something I would not have been able to notice more than twenty years ago when I was first hunting for Cornish wells. The ‘classic’ Cornish well house you can see in the photograph forms a porch complete with a seat, within which is the entrance to the well itself. The two elements are completely different. The outer porch is formed of large, shaped granite blocks; the inner well is much rougher, consisting of unshaped stone piled into a beehive shape which reminds me very much of other wells, St Piran’s at Trethevy and St Carantoc’s at Crantock. The Duloe well was ‘restored’ in the 1930s
by the local branch of the Old Cornwall Society, and it’s very clear that the form which determines our image of it today dates to that time, and bears no relationship to what it looked like before; its appearance then was probably far closer to those older north Cornwall wells, rather than conforming to a ‘classic’ shape.

At St Keyne’s Well the effect of ‘restoration’ by the Old Cornwall Society is even more marked. Here, there definitely was a small arched well house as it was depicted in a mid-Victorian illustration; but as far as I can see, not a single stone of that old well survives in what we see today. Once again, the little well house consists of shaped granite, its glistening modernity obscured by eighty years of moss and lichen, but the whole building is made of the new stone rather than covering an older fabric. The basin which receives the water is suspiciously regular and geometric; I doubt even that is older than the 1930s. Furthermore, the well now sits in a little paved stone enclosure with two entrances marked by upright stones which are clearly supposed to look like ancient megaliths. Nothing like this appears anywhere in the Victorian engraving of the well: it’s an invention, the creation of a group of people intent on making concrete a fantasy of early Christian Cornwall with its pagan roots: a tiny theme park of Dark Age religion. But nobody points this out.

Elsewhere there are new holy wells. On my journey around Rame Head I was keen to find Garry Wells, marked on the OS map and which I’d joked to friends might well turn out not to be a spring but a chap in a beanie hat sat on a bench … However it is indeed a well, pretty easy to find along the footpath which leads west from the main path between the chapel and the coastguard station. The water pours out of the slate cliffside, and is retained within a concrete kerb. Very interestingly, the kerb is decorated with inlaid chips of slate which form the word UBIQUE (Latin for ‘everywhere’) and two sets of initials, FM and WH. What’s going on here I can’t guess, but someone clearly visits the well for some purpose as there were remains of tea lights and a few shells and pebbles left on the ledge next to the spring. You don’t usually carry candles in your pocket just in case you happen across a sacred site.

In St Germans I idly wandered up a side street and came across a cottage by the name of Venton Gwavas. ‘Venton’ is Cornish for ‘spring’, while ‘Gwavas’ means a housestead or farm continually occupied through the year, so perhaps we could render this in English Winterfold Well. Built into the cottage wall are a covered pump and an older-looking stone chute which presumably tap the same source of water, though no water is obvious now. The owner of the cottage has placed typed Biblical verses in frames next to the well, namely John 6 (‘I will give them to drink of the water of life) and Isaiah 12 (‘You will drink with joy from the wells of salvation’).

Both these last two wells are the subject of modern reverence – in the case of Venton Gwavas, perhaps recognised no further than the person who owns the property. Together with the two older sites they show the difficulties of assuming continuities and identities which aren’t necessarily there, even in Cornwall.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Down In the Woods Today

Well, actually about a week ago, for this folly which is not part of the Rame group but lies further north in Mount Ararat Woods just along from Pentillie Castle. I read about it in a short but very enticing reference in Headley & Meulenkamp: they call it ‘excellently decayed and really creepy’ and describe the ‘delicious thrill of terror’ it provided. Looking at the map and observing a trackway to the site, but no public footpath as such, I wasn’t sure whether it was possible to reach, but decided to investigate anyway. I wedged the car as hard into a bank as I could to keep it off the tiny road that leads to the woods, and strode off in wellies through a gate. The gate bore a little tin sign that disconcertingly read ‘PRIVATE NO ACCESS’, but as the gate was wedged open you couldn’t read this until you investigated, so gingerly I carried on. The gingeriness was only worsened by pheasants exploding out of hedges every few seconds, and eventually I came across an entire enclosure full of pheasants, so decided to turn back. There was a lower path, however, and I took that instead. After a couple of hundred yards this second path turned southwards and the Mount Ararat Mausoleum came into view.

And what a reward: what appeared to be a small castle, embattled and set against the darkness of the trees, appeared, along with a pair of information boards which rather assumed that random members of the public would indeed be stumbling along at some point to find the thing. These described the controversial career of Sir James Tillie, the madman responsible for the fabric you now see, who caused it to be built as a resting place for his mortal remains; but, the story goes, his intention was not to be buried, but to be seated permanently in a specially-made chair to await the Resurrection, dressed and furnished with pen, paper, and with food delivered at regular intervals by the servants. What became of his body when the Parousia failed to occur in short order was not actually recorded, but now there is an exceptionally grim and ill-tempered statue gazing forever from the stone courtyard, rather unreasonably as the view of the Plymouth Sound he enjoys is actually quite pleasant.

The gloomth and decay described by Headley & Meulenkamp has given way to a firm restoration carried out a couple of years ago, so the monument now looks quite spruce. Is this really what a folly-hunter wants, one may wonder; but during the refurbishment the flagstones of the floor were uplifted and human remains found beneath. So Sir James still seems to rest where he intended, if not in the same mad manner as he planned. 

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Follies of the Rame Peninsula

My holiday trip was to what I now know is called ‘The Forgotten Corner of Cornwall’ – the quarter of the county south and east of Liskeard where hardly anyone now bothers to go. My first full day was spent exploring the Rame Peninsula in more or less dull and drizzly weather, a tiny area yet packed with interesting bits and pieces, from the derelict Tregantle Fort to the little chapel out on Rame Head where, for some unclear reason, people leave bunches of flowers.

The last stop of the day was the Mount Edgecumbe Country Park. This time of the year the House and the formal gardens around it are closed, but you can wander the rest of the landscape and view its follies almost at will. On reading the description of Mount Edgecumbe some years ago I toyed with adding it to my original list of Gothic Gardens, but decided it didn’t quite fit the bill: it is essentially a landscape with follies scattered around it, rather than a topography tweaked and exploited to provide thrilling experiences of the Sublime in which follies may play an organising part. At Edgecumbe the structures frame basically peaceful views out over the Plymouth Sound. The Ruin is a nice, and in fact extremely convincing, mid-18th-century folly; Milton’s Temple provides a note of Classical tranquillity next to a lawn and pool; though I rather like the little viewpoints, Picklecombe and Red Seats, the former apparently cobbled together from Gothic architectural junk, the latter a sort of fake Roman ruin made from slate and stone. But, as I say, not really a Gothic landscape, though it could have become one with the right imagination and will.

Before trudging round Edgecumbe I’d stopped at Penlee Point to investigate a couple of tiny features on the map. At the edge of a wood the Ordnance Survey described a ‘Folly Tower (in ruins)’. All I could find at the site was a circular stump of mortared stonework some three feet across and eighteen inches high, half-swallowed by ferns. That meant I wasn’t expecting much as I toiled down the hill to find what the map insisted was a ‘Grotto’.

Instead, despite such scepticism, my effort was rewarded by a quite stunning structure built onto the cliff wall, consisting of a tunnel leading to an arched chamber with openings looking out over the waters of the Channel. It has an impressive bleakness: there is about it not the slightest flicker of Rococo finesse, and you wonder not only at the effort that went into its construction but also the thinking behind it. It’s hardly a place for comfortable contemplation as the winds scour its archways and angles. Yet somebody comes here: there was a bunch of yellow tulips quite recently deposited. I gather from the Interweb that the building goes by the name of Queen Adelaide’s Grotto, and may belong to the Edgecumbe family of follies as the whole Rame Peninsula was originally part of the estate, but beyond that I’m in the dark as to its history. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Going Under

Just before I went on holiday last week I attended an ecumenical event. Young Morgan plays the trumpet with our occasional church band, and does so very effectively, but formally he ‘belongs’ to our local King’s Church. I’m keen to build links with them, especially as they are outside our local ecumenical structures at the moment, and along with our curate and a couple of other folk from the Swanvale Halt congregation I went to his, and another young chap’s, baptism. Boldly it was to take place in the river at the back of the library. I gather that the chief cause for concern was not the temperature of the water, which is moderate at this time of year, but the mud and slime underfoot: it’s not a very big river, not very fast and not very clean.

How it worked was like this: A couple of worship songs were sung and the officiating gentleman, clad in a wetsuit, explained what baptism is about. The young fellows were then taken severally into the river with their godparents (one each) and asked whether they believed in Jesus and repented of their sins. The dousing (I was pleased to note, properly done in the name of the Trinity) over, members of the congregation present were invited to contribute ‘words’ according to how the Spirit moved them. That was the only point at which we edged into territory I found problematic. Most of the contributions were fairly bland although one older chap did comment that when Morgan went under he saw a fish in the water, ‘Which I think is God saying you’ll be a fisher of men’. I pondered what meanings I could have drawn from the dragonfly I saw at the same moment, dragons being a longstanding symbol of chaos and threat, or the ill-omened magpie I also spotted.

That apart, the rest of it is all structurally pretty similar to a Catholic baptism. It’s not the real thing, of course: to my thinking and feeling it’s ‘thin’ and bare compared to the richness and depth of a more ritualised service. But then, they would say the same thing about what I do with babies at our stone font. What it does is throw the emphasis on the feelings and intentions of individuals, rather than those of a worshipping community; the two models are essentially the same, but the form they take is controlled by different fears and experiences. Realising that gives proponents of those two approaches something concrete to talk about.

And as I said to our curate because we were there it was definitely Valid. I carried my biretta, but I didn’t wear it. 

Friday, 11 October 2013

The Song of the Iron

Back in the Good Old Days nuns used to do the church linens. At Swanvale Halt we had the next best thing to a nun, a former one whose entire life was devoted to the Church, or to cake making. She was our Sacristan and the church linen chest was a constituent kingdom of her empire; and those who attempted to assist her in the great work never quite came up to scratch. Preparing an eight-foot altarcloth, as she told me, was no joke: it had to be boil-washed, starched, spun (which was easier than wringing it by hand), ironed when wet, ironed again on the other side, left to dry, ironed again, and finally painstakingly rolled onto a cardboard tube to prevent creases. Only then was it good enough to grace the Lord’s Board.

Well, our ex-Sister died last year and for a year before that doing anything with the linens was beyond her. Because I’ve been doing the cloths myself I was very relieved when one of the churchwardens, who runs a guest house, said she could put them through her lovely big industrial linen-press and save me the bother. The results are OK, but I know in my heart of hearts that they’re not quite there. I would look out across the altar on a Sunday morning and see a field of tiny creases heightened by the straking light. I will carry on doing them myself, until I find somebody else who sees the need and has the time.

You might complain, perhaps, that modern generations don’t care enough about what happens in church, about the signs and marks of their salvation. However, it might be just as true to reflect that it isn’t an entirely bad thing that people have something else in their lives. The early Anglo-Catholics had such great appeal at least partly because the colour and drama of Anglo-Catholic religion formed such a stark contrast with the drab dullness, and sometimes horror, of the lives most of their parishioners lived. If church is no longer completely the focus of ordinary people’s hopes, dreams and aspirations; if it is no longer provides the most sublime experience they can imagine; if their senses (and perhaps souls) can no longer thrill quite so much to creaseless linen and perfect folds in a corporal or a lavabo towel; that may not be a development without a positive aspect.