The English Cathedral
Having been chastised a little for a practice that has been perceived as little more than cataloguing, I have researched other contemporary studies… a little problematic having set out to photograph stained glass windows on account of the fact that it is a practice that is, well, unpractised. However, Peter Marlow’s exquisite work does come to bear.
In 2008, Marlow was commissioned by Royal Mail, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the completion of St Paul’s Cathedral, to photograph six cathedrals. The resulting images of Lichfield, Belfast, Gloucester, St David’s, Westminster, and St Magnus in Orkney were issued as a set of six commemorative stamps.
Marlow was inspired to continue the project and in the following four years shot all 42 of the cathedrals of the Church of England. Published by Merrell in 2012, this work is considered a contemporary update to the tradition of church photography in England, particularly the work of Frederick Evans and Edwin Smith.
It seemed appropriate to purchase this publication as it could prove an invaluable source of reference. However, as something of a bibliophile and a consummate collector, I could not manage to buy the sensibly priced publication, so find myself the proud owner of the Collector’s Edition which includes a signed, hand-finished print. What a magnificent publication: Marlow, P. (2012) The English Cathedral. London: Merrell Publishers, Ltd.
With buildings of such scale, Marlow shot each cathedral on large format film and the majority from the same position: looking east towards the altar as the natural light of dawn broke through the main window.
Over recent months I have often referenced the importance of light within places of worship and have commented routinely on the significance of soft white lighting in my practice. The light of dawn will fill these spaces with the illumination for which the spaces were originally designed and the absence of artificial light provides a timelessness to the scene.
Magnificent thought Marlow’s work is, it illustrates so perfectly my observations about stained glass window photography and the reason behind my wish to photograph such objects well. To the worshiper, the stained glass is as important as the building itself. Indeed it could be argued that the buildings are there as galleries for the stained glass. So how sad it is that even a photographer of Marlow’s calibre is forced to allow the magnificence of glass such as Carlisle Cathedral’s east window to be bleached out in order to accommodate the contrasting relative darkness of the building. While you do get a feel for the majesty and size of the building, thanks to a beautifully composed image, a member of the congregation would be spellbound by the rich colours and beauty of the glasswork, in addition to the rest of the building. Sadly (and by way of confirmation for the lack of such photographs), I am unable to provide an appropriate representation of the window as a detailed and prolonged image search has proved fruitless in finding the whole window portrayed as it actually looks to the human eye.
Marlow’s exquisite work does more than compensate for this understandable and unavoidable fallibility. I am reassured that if it is acceptable for a Magnum photographer to ‘catalogue’ cathedrals, then my own practice should be tolerated – not least because it sets out in attempting to rectify the specific shortcoming demonstrated by the work of Marlow and others.