Coventry Cathedral exhibition throws spotlight on making of artworks

undercroft cross
Geoffrey Clarke’s cross, now out of store and on display in the undercroft.
Coventry Cathedral its staging a special exhibition to draw attention to its wonderful artworks as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for its consecration.
The exhibition, Journey Into the Light, has been well put together, with 17 points of special interest highlighted around the cathedral, naming the artist behind that piece, or the thinking behind it by Basil Spence, the cathedral architect.


There are also additional items, such as the artist’s original drawings or models, photographs and paintings, plus information about how pieces were created or came to be agreed.
It wasn’t all plain sailing – there’s gossip about fallings out between Graham Sutherland, artist behind the huge dominating tapestry, Basil Spence and the cathedral authorities about plans to display it before its final arrival in the cathedral.
There are also drawings and paintings borrowed from the Herbert to go with the piece about the tapestry and its design – and lovely snippets such as an eagle in it being created from observations of animals at Maidstone Zoo, though it was eventually based on an eagle owl, not an eagle.
On a tour with honorary Canon Martin Williams, who has a lifelong involvement in the cathedral, he was full of extra stories and bits of information. One of the windows was paid for by Coventry schoolchildren – would they still donate their pocket money today? – and they each received a bookmark as a thank you, and he still has his copy.
He also pointed out that all the original works in the cathedral were created specially for it, and also that unlike many cathedrals which evolved over long periods and were the work of several architects this was the design of one man, Sir Basil Spence.
He said: “Coventry was designed and built in the lifetime of one architect. It was one man’s inspiration which he saw to fruition in 1962. So it’s very exciting to have got these original designs into the building because it’s never happened before. In 1962 the building was very controversial. It was disliked by traditionalists because it was one of a kind, now people say it’s lovely in a way they didn’t automatically see in 1962.
“I was working as a guide in 1962 and I was always hearing people say it doesn’t feel like a church. Today you do appear to be disconnected from the controversy that was around the cathedral in that day.”
The beauty of the exhibition is that it draws attention to things that the visitor may just look at and not question. The wonderful high altar cross by Geoffrey Clarke is an unusual shape, and contains at its centre a cross of nails, which I hadn’t noticed before, and which is apparently the only part of the old cathedral incorporated into the design.
One of the Elisabeth Frink works, high up, includes nuts and bolts from one of Coventry’s car factories of the day. Hans Coper’s enormous seven foot high candlesticks are strangely easy to miss, as candlesticks, by the altar until you read about them, and he also created some more smaller, and different shaped ones, for a nearby chapel, and they are now screwed down as the value of his work has rocketed. Coper was a German refugee to England, and the glass by Margaret Traherne in the Chapel of Unity was paid for by West German President Theodor Heuss.
In the undercroft, Martin Williams remembers Terence Cuneo sitting near the tapestry to paint The Consecration of Coventry Cathedral 25 May 1962, and also points out his traditional emblem of a mouse, running in this case behind the altar.
It’s a fascinating exhibition and I feel the information boards next to the exhibits around the cathedral should remain after the additional items have gone following the exhibition because they only add to the information available to all. If the cathedral is charging people to visit, surely it’s for more than a religious experience – and the extra information about the artworks only enhances the experience.
Sadly the principal curator and the man who had the idea of the exhibition wasn’t around for today’s press preview.
Journey Into the Light was the idea two years ago of John Willis, who has lived in Coventry since 1961, and who is a former chair of the Friends of Coventry Cathedral and a volunteer in the Cathedral Archives with his wife Shirley. John has been ill for some time and three weeks ago asked Martin Williams to take over the organising of the exhibition. It is still hoped he will be able to leave hospital to see the exhibition after it opens to the public, and let’s hope he can.
* There will be more about the exhibition in a future Friday art column in the Coventry Telegraph.

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