St Edmund’s, Southwold. Revisiting Rood Screens – Suffolk II

St-Edmunds-Southwold1

At heart I am a visual culture purist. I say this to forewarn you about my comments regarding the rood screen and pulpit of St Edmund’s Church in Southwold.

St Edmund’s is a beautiful medieval church built in the Perpendicular style. It’s full name is ‘The Church of St Edmund, King and Martyr’. The building we see today (suggested date 1413 in the church’s guide, but circa 1430 in both Pevsner and Mortlock accounts) was built on the site of an earlier thirteen-century church, a smaller building that had been destroyed by fire. According to the church guide during 1758 the foundations of that original building were located underneath part of the present church.

St-Edmunds-Southwold-porch

The straight lines of the Perpendicular style have been emphasised at St Edmund’s by the luxury flushwork of flint and stone. The linear quality of the building is doubly emphasised by the striking effect of an inlaid chessboard decoration on the west tower that is repeated on the exterior walls of the south porch.

From the appearance of the grand, ornate exterior it is evident that St Edmund’s was built at a time when the parish of Southwold and its environs had generous wealthy donors. This is confirmed by the quality of the surviving medieval interior furnishings that include the rood screen, the pulpit and the font.

St-Edmunds-view-to-chancel

Of course, the splendid, painted and gilded rood screen alone is worth a visit to the church, but there is also a fine pre-Reformation pulpit and a beautifully decorated and adorned hammerbeam ceiling together with the original, though defaced font.

St-Edmunds-Victorian-ceiling

Now here is the issue. Between its glorious fifteenth-century heyday and today, St Edmund’s, along with many East Anglian medieval churches, has had some turbulent, destructive times, and equally, some impoverished, neglected and generally detrimental times. The visit of William Dowsing and the iconoclasts in 1643 brought the first and substantial destructive episode which included the defacing of the font.

SOUTHWOLD, APRIL the 8th. We break 
down 130 superstitious Pictures ; St. Andrew ; and 4 
Crosses on the four corners of the Vestry ; and gave 
order to take down 13 Cherubims; and take down 20 
Angels ; and to take down the Cover of the Font. 

Quote from 'The journal of William Dowsing of Stratford,
parliamentary visitor, appointed under a warrant from the
Earl of Manchester, for demolishing the superstitious 
pictures and ornaments of churches.' Journal commenced
1643, Sudbury, Suffolk.

Defaced-font-St-Edmunds

After this deliberate, seventeenth-century image smashing came the long period of straightened times for Church of England buildings as the eighteenth century saw the rise of the Nonconformists and the subsequent fall in C of E congregation numbers. A neglected St Edmund’s functioned with a series of temporary curates as the chancel roof and wood of the east window slowly rotted away.

However, with the rise of the Evangelical movement across the course of the nineteenth century it was all change again. A widening interest in re-examining the medieval past combined with the Victorian’s obsession for progress, resulted in large funds being provided for extensive renovation schemes at St Edmund’s.

The attractively painted ceiling of the hammerbeam roof adorned with painted angels we see today is one such renovation scheme. The replacement ceiling is a fine example of nineteenth-century carpentry and decorative painting skills as well as an insight into how a previous generation reinterpreted our shared medieval past. The Victorians aimed for reconstructing a perfectly finished past whilst our twenty-first-century sensibility is all about the delicately preserved, authentic original however dilapidated and tatty it looks.

St-Edmunds-Angels
Painted roof angels – a Victorian interpretation of the medieval aesthetic.

Apparently, the colourful blue and painted details are very near to sketched records of the original medieval ceiling, but how fair a facsimile it is difficult to judge. That situation is brought acutely into focus when we turn to consider the ‘restoration’ of the medieval pulpit during the 1920s.

Medieval-pulpit-over-restored
Original medieval trumpet-stemmed pulpit. Disappointingly over restored in 1928 under the guidance of F E Howard.

Along with providing designs for the reredos, the lectern and the font cover, an ‘inspired young church architect from Oxford’, F E Howard (1888-1934), oversaw the restoration and painting of the pulpit. Sadly, the once elegant original medieval trumpet-stemmed pulpit is almost obliterated beneath thick layers of overdone paintwork and gilding.

Part-of-rood-screen
Part of the rood screen depicting the twelve Apostles. From the left St Matthew, St James the Less and St Thomas. Disappointingly a heavy piece of church furniture and a large floral display were obstructing a clear view of the north side of the rood screen.  Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1480

Curiously, the writer of the church’s own guidebook gives special credit to F E Howard for making St Edmund’s interior the delight it is today. However, even the guide’s sympathetic author informs us that any desires by Howard to renovate the rood screen were not permitted.

FEHoward-font-cover-and-lectern-detail
The font cover (left) and a detail of the lectern (right) as envisioned by F E Howard (1888-1934) in a medieval style. Painted wood and gilding. 1928

Personally, I am very, very pleased he was stopped.

The rood screen at St Edmund's, Southwold, Suffolk
Part of the rood screen (the south side) at St Edmund’s, Southwold, Suffolk. From the left St Paul, St John, St James the Great, St Bartholomew, St Jude and St Simon. Oil on gesso on a wood panel with gilding. 1480

I have nothing against Victorian art and it is as much part of the history and culture of this church as the medieval art. Nevertheless from the our twenty-first-century viewpoint the Victorians’ well-meaning yet heavy-handed painting and renovations can border on vandalism. The repainting of the damaged saints’ faces by Sir George Richmond in 1874 are bad enough, but just think what Howard would have done in the 1920s to all that delicate gilding on the rood screen given half a chance.

Victorian-head-on-medieval-StPaul

As I mentioned at the beginning I am a visual culture purist and as such I appreciate seeing what is left of our medieval culture when it is gently conserved, but I do realise that a little active conservation is necessary. Of course, what we have left is still only an approximation of the reality of the past. Today’s impression for a visitor to St Edmund’s is nothing like the spectacle and mystery experienced by a medieval parishioner or even a Victorian church goer as all the medieval stained glass was blown from the windows by a bomb in 1943 during the Second World War.

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Who is out of step with whom?

Every-inch-hand-paintedEvery inch of my silk scarves are hand painted by me. It’s obvious, I know, but that means like other artisans who craft all their own pieces, I can’t compete with mass-produced work. I’ve written several posts about my experiences of selling on Etsy and last May commented on the relationship between crafters and Etsy. More recently it has been reassuring for me to read that I am not out of step with many of my fellow artisans who like me have found that Etsy is no longer the platform for their work.

My-work-on-frameInterestingly, earlier this week, the American business magazine Forbes interviewed Gil Luria, director of research at the investment firm D.A. Davidson, concerning the state of the online marketplace Etsy. And, in his commentary he opines

. . . . .  the biggest change in the run up to Etsy’s 2015 IPO — [was when] the company removed its requirement that all goods sold on the platform had to be handmade. This gave big manufacturers access to Etsy’s loyal customer base. When Etsy started listing $10 bracelets from Chinese factories right next to $100 bracelets handmade by homemakers in Wisconsin, the homemakers could no longer compete.

Initially you may think that perhaps hand painted silk is not as easily copied and mass-produced as some jewellery appears to be, but a big manufacturer simply takes original artwork for a scarf, scans it and then laser prints it onto silk over and over. This state of affairs doesn’t merely affect solo crafters. Within the luxury brands sector companies often have their work copied, and, as I am sure you have noticed, fake versions are found at street markets all over the world. One feature which frequently adds value to handmade work is when there is only one of its kind and consequently even a limited ‘print’ run is unacceptable let alone approving mass production. When Etsy permitted mass-produced stock to be listed directly side by side with handmade they effectively undercut and devalued handmade and at the same time diminished and diluted their own brand!

portia-apple-model-instagram

 

Amazon versus Etsy – handmade does not equal cheaper

Handmade-Amazon-Etsy-artisansThere was once a world before Amazon. I remember having to hurry to the university bookshop to get a recommended textbook before they sold out. If I wasn’t fast enough I’d have to wait, sometimes a couple of weeks, for my local bookshop to obtain a specialist book for me. Amazon and the Internet changed all that. Naturally, in this ‘Age of the Internet’ there have been plusses and minuses. There have been some winners and, unfortunately, some losers, not least those who make a living from cultural production. Musicians, writers and photographers have all had to find new unique interactive ways to sell their work to their respective markets. We’ve seen the rise and rise of live music events, literary festivals and even some professional photographers moving to live shows to exhibit their output. Authentic experiences are valued and traded which is perhaps one of the underlining elements fuelling the renewed interested in original handcrafted work.

Article-Sunday-Times-Style-magazine

The world moves on and you know an alternative trend has gone mainstream when a company like Amazon sets up an online retail service called ‘Handmade’. And, it’s already old news at the point when the UK Sunday Times Style Magazine publishes a feature on the new Amazon Handmade offer as a challenge to Etsy the online marketplace for artisans. There’s been quite a fuss in the world of artisans and crafters on various forums discussing the pros and cons of changing one’s selling platform, but not much discussion about why an enormous, global company such as Amazon thinks there’s serious money to be made out of handmade, artisan goods. As far as I can see Amazon used to be the go-to site for a mass produced product at a very good price if not the cheapest. And, it’s easy to have a “pile ’em high sell ’em cheap” attitude if you’ve got scale and muscle and a good just-in-time relationship with your suppliers. But surely all that is the antithesis of the artisan/cottage industry model.

What-about-the-artisans

Artisan-work-in-progress-it-takes-timeEach handmade item takes a real person skill and time to create. Most crafts involve specialist knowledge and honed skills together with that all important essential- creativity. Artisans have experience working with raw materials and understand the precise associated processes that will culminate in a unique handmade piece. Within any specific area of artisan production there is a range of abilities, quality of materials used and standards of finish attained, but there is always more time involved to produce ‘handmade’ items. And, as they say, ‘time is money’ therefore handmade should not equal cheap.

If we just step back for a moment, one of the primary outcomes of the Industrial Revolution was the saving of time and the increasing of productivity through machine manufacturing. Machines were faster and more consistent producing thousands and thousands of identical versions of any given object. Nowadays, we take mass production for granted, it is the norm.

So what’s Amazon doing getting onto the ‘handmade’ bandwagon. Let’s face it there isn’t any real possibility of scaling up for most artisans as by the very nature of your work you are making things that require intense, time-consuming human activity and not machine/technological production. So if there’s not profit to be made by scaling up production what is the big business model? Well, that would be scaling up the makers – that is vast numbers of people listing and selling a few pieces. But what of the individual makers – perhaps a working life similar to that of the medieval weavers of East Anglia. Oh joy!

Artisan created piece, Thelma pink. Designed, hand drawn and hand painted  crepe de chine silk scarf by Agnes Ashe. Only one available.
Artisan created piece, Thelma pink.
Designed, hand drawn and hand painted
crepe de chine silk scarf by Agnes Ashe.
Only one available.

Digital prints versus hand painted

Perhaps the inquiry ‘digital prints versus hand painted’ appears at first glance a non-starter as a challenge. After all, whether digital or any other kind of print, the notion of prints is that there is more than the single original. The collection of images here is considering the original inspirational flowers and how they have been worked into textile designs for either multiple print use or one-of-a-kind hand work.

A print is a copy of the original and the more copies there are somehow changes the value of the original – or does it? There are many reproduction copies of, for example, the ‘Mona Lisa’, but the original is almost priceless. The arrangement of a ‘limited’ print run is the intermediate solution between an expensive original and cheaper mass produced copies. In many cases it obvious the difference between an original and a print – Monet didn’t paint his many different water lilies on the side of shopping bags, but large canvases.

However, in the world of silk painting a digital reproduction on a scarf is sometimes termed as a ‘limited edition’ and then labelled as ‘hand’ made if a square of digitally printed silk has had the edges sewn by hand.

A digital print on silk from an original piece of artwork.
A digital print on silk from an original piece of artwork.

There is something uneven and unrepeatable in the process of hand painting silk that gives a finished piece a unique appearance. Even when you have an original drawing, watercolour or oil painting translated into a digital form and then printed on to silk the accuracy and consistency of the technology somehow reduces the irregular, fluctuating effect of the hand painted original. Obviously, I’m used to working with silk and examining it closely and I’ve found it hard to put my finger on precisely what the difference between digital and hand painted is, but a difference there certainly is and it is more than just knowing there is only one like it!