Thursday 23rd October 2014

Good Afternoon. Welcome to Coventry Cathedral. An extraordinary place. A story you can't ignore.

Art Exhibition Opening

Speaking at the opening of the 'Journey into the Light' Art Exhibition at the Cathedral on August 31st, Professor Frances Spalding said this:

Lord Bishop, Acting Dean, ladies & gentlemen, my thanks go first to the Reverend Canon Dr David Stone for inviting me to open this exhibition tonight.  I understand that at the moment he is on a well-deserved holiday but I want to thank him publicly all the same. And may I also thank John Willis and Martin Williams and all those who have worked with them to make this exhibition possible.

It is a fine idea to exhibit, as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations, preparatory work for the rich array of art and design found in this cathedral. And the title of this exhibition is also wonderfully apt. To step into any sacred building, small or large, is to enter a different kind of space and often to embark on a journey. Take Lincoln Cathedral, for instance. The repetition of the columns and arches down its nave, as in many of our ancient cathedrals, creates a strong axial movement that draws us in and begins a journey which ends, liturgically, at the high altar. Here at Coventry the experience is different. Basil Spence's desire for a Cathedral 'like a plain jewel-casket with many jewels' resulted in a building in which art and architecture co-exist, mutually supportive and in dialogue with each other.  As a result, our journey through the Cathedral is affected by colour, light, words, form and movement. We are drawn on by evanescent effects of light, as when colours from the stained glass in the Baptistry or nave windows filter on to floor and walls, as much as by the static, unaltering image of the risen Christ in Graham Sutherland's tapestry. At various stages the art works enhance the journey's dynamic, and give additional focus to the meanings and purpose of this building. Whatever we have come for, whatever we are consciously or unconsciously seeking, it is almost impossible not to be caught up in the visual drama this cathedral offers, and to be stimulated, enriched, and altered by it.

We are reminded in the catalogue that three million visitors came to this building in the first year of its existence, to marvel, no doubt, in that post-war era, at the quality of the materials used and at the boldness of the Cathedral's conception and design. Inevitably, the building conveyed, at that time, several messages, not least renewal, reconciliation and Resurrection. But the message we are celebrating tonight is that Coventry showed the world that modern art and design, of the highest order, can be put to the service of the church. In the fifty years that preceded this Cathedral, much that had been placed in churches and cathedrals in the way of modern art had been tame, conservative and uninspiring, in part owing to a breakdown of confidence and faith between the artist and the Church. Suddenly here, at Coventry, was a different way of doing things. In the 1950s the young sculptor Elizabeth Frink, aware of the despair felt by many in the wake of the atomic bomb, had been specializing in dead or wingless birds. It was a bold move to commission from her the eagle lectern. And its proud, uprising stance and harsh expressiveness must have brought a new charge to the reading of the Gospel.

There is something in this building for everybody. It may be Ralph Beyer's lettered panels that seek to convey the rawness and urgency of early Christian lettering. It may Basil Spence's Crown of Thorns screen which so beautifully frames Steven Sykes Angel of the Lord on the back wall of the Chapel of Gethsemane. It may be the balletic precision which Epstein brought to the poses of St Michael and the Devil on the outside of the Cathedral and which so perfectly expresses what Provost Howard wanted - 'Flashing brightness, Strength and Beauty, Freedom from malignity, Confidence'.

But whatever one's personal taste in relation to each and every one of the treasures in this cathedral, there are certain encounters that seem to offer universal significance. There is that moment, for instance, when we stand in between the old and new cathedral, on the pedestrian walk way linking this building with the commercial heart of the city, and we are held at an intersection between the secular and the sacred. The transparent glass wall at the entrance sustains this link with the everyday world, creating an unexpected conjunction between passersby and the angels and saints engraved by John Hutton on the glass wall. Another breathtaking moment is when you reach the far end of the cathedral and turn and look back. Suddenly the nave windows come into view, their rich colours framing the white light at the entrance, giving it additional emphasis.

There is a further burst of light in this building in the Baptistery window, the product of the creative collaboration between John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens. As is well known, this commission was not part of Basil Spence's original design for the Cathedral, but came in at a later date. While thinking and talking about what could be done in this 80 ft high space, Piper and Reyntiens visited an exhibition of America art which included a prominent display of Abstract Expressionism. Sensing that abstract art was again coming to the fore as a vehicle for thought and expression, they boldly put forward to the Reconstruction Committee a design that delivered its impact and message solely in abstract terms. Asked if the window had any symbolism, Piper - at that moment - said - this is according to Reyntiens who was present - 'No not really, other than a burst of Glory.' The committee wavered. Then Basil Spence spoke words that Piper never forgot: 'Gentlemen, this cathedral is my life and I know that this design is right for it.'

Piper, like Spence, had witnessed the destruction of the old cathedral. He had been rung up the morning after the terrible bombing of the city and was asked to go that day and make a record of the cathedral which, over night, had been reduced to a blackened, ravaged, roofless ruin. The memory of what he experienced in this city on the morning of the 15th November 1940 must have underscored his conversations with Reyntiens over their designs for the Baptistery window. Both knew it would have to become part of the visual dance that links the various commissions in this building. The close proximity of this window to the transparent end wall and the light that pours in through it made necessary the use of strong colours. Piper's burst of glory has come to be variously interpreted -  as the light of the Holy Spirit, or the Light of Christ, or the glory of God. It certainly has a regenerative power. Visit the Cathedral early on a summer morning as the sun comes up, and you find this burst of light doubled in such a way that it almost suggests that the sun has entered the building. Whatever the intended or unintended symbolism in this window, it is a triumphal, but not triumphalist, response to the earlier destruction.

Architectural tragedy is not just about the damage caused to bricks, stones and mortar. Bound up with any building is a sense of human presence, human use, layered memories, accumulated history and associations. The bombing of the old cathedral, as Louise Campbell, has written, was a blow to religion, architecture and history. Today, all those who work or worship in this building will be aware of the extensive history that has accumulated over the last fifty years, as, year by year, associations, memories, meanings gather and accrete, and a sense of community ownership and belonging deepens. Many associations may spring from an involvement with the artworks, especially when they resonate with liturgy, as for instance, when a Baptism is taking place. At these moments the building does indeed become a theatre of the soul.

It also continues to demonstrate an invigorating and inspiring commitment to the modern. The vigorous exchange that exists today between contemporary artists and the Church owes much to the example of Coventry Cathedral. No wonder it is the pride of this region and continues to excite and impress visitors with its demonstration of that arts & crafts adage -  'the making well of whatever needs making'  - and its pursuit of the eloquent and the best.  All that is left to me now is to declare the exhibition open.

Professor Frances Spalding

Frances Spalding is an art historian, critic and biographer. She read art history at the University of Nottingham and began writing journalism and books while still a post-graduate.

In the late 1970s and 1980s she wrote extensively on twentieth-century British art, at the same time developing an interest in biography. Her reputation was established with 'Roger Fry: Art and Life' in 1980 and she went on to write lives of the artists Vanessa Bell, John Minton, Duncan Grant and Gwen Raverat, as well as a biography of the poet Stevie Smith. Her survey history, British Art since 1900, in the Thames & Hudson World of Art series has been much used in schools, colleges and universities, and in the mid-1990s she was commissioned by Tate to write a centenary history of this national institution.

In 2000 she joined Newcastle University where she is now Professor of Art History.

She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, an Honorary Fellow of the Royal College of Art and in 2005 was made a Companion of the British Empire for Services to Literature.

Books currently available by Frances Spalding include Whistler (Phaidon Press), Vanessa Bell and Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography (both The History Press), Duncan Grant (Pimlico), Dance till the Stars Come Down: John Minton (Lund Humphries), Gwen Raverat: Friends, Family and Affections (Harvill Press) and The Bloomsbury Group (National Portrait Gallery "Insight" series) and John Piper, Myfanwy Piper: Lives in Art, published by Oxford University Press.