Tuesday 22 November 2011

Durham night and day

Or, if you prefer, come rain, come shine. The rain fell not last week but on Durham’s first LUMIERE festival two years ago; the biggest brolly in Matthew Andrews's top picture belongs to the diplo-mate and gives a good plug to the European Commission which made a substantial contribution to feature European artists (this year, 30 of them from nine member states plus two from elsewhere). The sun shone, on the other hand, on the day this year’s jamboree officially began, giving us the perfect autumn take on the cathedral from the surrounding, wooded banks of the River Wear.

I’ve written about Artichoke’s inspired advocacy of a great civic-pride event that turned out some fine art too over on The Arts Desk, so this is a chance just to rhapsodise intemperately about one of England’s most perfect small cities, and certainly its most imposing, awe-inspiring – though not necessarily its most beautiful – cathedral. I hadn’t returned since the early 1980s, when I was part of a group of Edinburgh fellow-students who travelled down to hear friend Ruthie’s brother Patrick Addinall play the Haydn Trumpet Concerto in the cathedral with his then orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic. We then all drove off – in a minivan, can memory serve me correctly on that one? - to spend a night at the Addinall homestead in Carperby, Wensleydale.

I’d been to Durham for the first time a few years before that, to audition and be auditioned by the university town through the UCCA process. It was second on my list; Oxford, the first, I’d flunked in fifth-term entrance attempt. York wouldn’t consider being third, but it was the fourth – Edinburgh – which I'd already seen a month earlier and loved at first sight. Durham had charm but much as I enjoyed my weekend jaunt, staying with my ma’s goddaughter who was studying there, I couldn’t really envisage being walled up with only the occasional excursion to Newcastle for the Big Arts. Edinburgh had two orchestras and an opera company – that was vital at the time. And I’ve never regretted a moment.

Still, I wonder what being in such a beautiful place as Durham for so long does to your psyche. Certainly I’d never thought of it as more like an Italian walled city, and the cathedral towers as not so much grim-grey – Walter Scott’s description of the 'mixed and massive piles', as inscribed on the Prebends Bridge – as the sandstone colour they really are.

The enchanting walk along the forested riverside – all a perfect nature reserve thanks to cathedral ownership – allows 280 degree perspectives around the building. Actually the towers are later than I thought, 1500s rather than Norman like the bulk of the building – but all is so massy in intent that it seems pure Romanesque in feeling if not in reality.

And so we moved on past the west façade of the cathedral, accompanied by autumnal rowers

And dazzling beechscapes.

I couldn’t resist a peek into the church on the left bank, as it were, in the district named Elvet or ‘Swan Island’. St Oswald’s was opened for us by a nice chap from Leeds up to earn a bit of cash from festival stewarding – ‘the organeer’s in there practising, I’m sure he won’t mind if I let you in’. The church is most interesting, perhaps, for its dedication to the Northumbrian king who founded Lindisfarne. He ties in with two other local saintly worthies – Hild of Whitby, whose day it happened to be, and Aidan – and his head was brought to Durham in the coffin of the man who made Durham rich through pilgrimage obeisance, St Cuthbert. Ford Madox Brown’s window executed by William Morris & Co. shows Oswald felled at the Battle of Maserfield.

Other than that, the church seems to have been much loved and tended since the mid-19th century, when vicar Dr Dykes of hymn-composing fame imbued it with the spirit of the Oxford Movement. I liked the feel of the place, and especially the late 16th century chancel screen and the 15th century poppyhead bench ends in the choir.

Then round the head of the Wear’s horseshoe and across the Arup bridge which had looked so wonderful by night with Canadian artist Peter Lewis’s Splash tumbling from it (another photo by Matthew Andrews, much better than mine).

Heading up to the porch, we met Artichoke press officer Anna Vinegrad, who said how amazed she was by the daylight appearance of Cedric Le Borgne’s Voyageurs lining the South Bailey that winds down to the river around the cathedral. So we had to take a look, and she was right. By day

and by night (didn’t get to see these in the dress rehearsal, alas).

I especially liked the wraith-like figure on a garden wall, barely decipherable in the autumn morning sunshine (though I put up a clearer image from the side in the TAD piece).

Equal to the splendour of the Lindisfarne Gospel projection on to the cathedral in the nocturnal Crown of Light by Ross Ashton with its dynamic soundscape from John Del’Nero and Robert Ziegler were the rising and falling of medieval glass

though little remains inside the cathedral itself. What there is has been fabulously arranged in the Galilee (Lady) Chapel at the west end where the Venerable Bede is buried, my favourite part of the building with its imposing chevroned arches.

Alas, no guide tells us what’s what in the glass, but could this be Oswald?

And the trumpeting angel is splendid

along with the surreal arrangement of fragments.

By day, the suspended miners’ vests of Compagnie Carabosse’s installation detracted a bit from the massy space; nothing can outshine those massive incised pillars.

But the ball of fire in the central tower was a good addition

and by night, you can see how magical the illuminations looked both in the nave

and in the cloister.

I must say the cathedral’s been a bit tackified by most of its own more recent art; by all means inject a living contemporary presence, but make sure the craftsmanship is at least partly equal to what’s gone before. Anyway, the evensong I attended – choir-wise disappointing after recent Hereford and Christ Church Oxford experiences, for an all-girl treble section just doesn’t make the same sound – incorporated thanksgiving for the Cathedral Broderers, who were all trooping off to the Gothic Nine Chapels behind the altar for the extension of the service. I discreetly slipped out at that point, but I’d be happy to spend more hours in and around this most extraordinary of edifices.

Nightshots of LUMIERE all copyright Matthew Andrews except the last, from the plinth of Jacques Rival's tongue-in-cheek snow-shaker ridiculing of the pompous Marquess of Londonderry statue in the Market Square; that and the rest of the photos (interior ones all sans flash, please note) are mine.


David Damant said...

I have always thought that the dark ages could not have been very dark if the Venerable Bede was achieving what he did around 700 - and he was in touch with Rome so presumably many people were, though rather more slowly without emails. I have heard that in fact scholars currently rather reject the term, except possibly for the hundred years after the withdrawl of Rome

David said...

Well, what's in a label? A similar debate went on over at Prufrock's Dilemma about defining 'classical' and 'contemporary'.

The main thing is to get history out of the clutches of the pundits and see it through individual lives at any given point. And horrid old Starkey with his 'standard British history' should be the first to be put in the stocks and pelted with rotten fruit.

Susan Scheid said...

Glad I checked in here before closing out for the night. Such beautiful photographs, day and night. The spectacular natural light, on the one hand, then the fascinating light-art on the other. Though very different, somehow I am reminded of sans façon's project, Limelight: Saturday night. Ever run across it?

David said...

No - where? How? I suspect you'll now be off for Thanksgiving as advised, but do tell in good time...

Roger Neill said...

Lovely city. Thought about doing my PhD there, but came to same conclusion as you, David.

Susan Scheid said...

I see that once again I have a LOT to catch up on over here, but first things first, here are two links for Sans façon's Limelight:Saturday Night.



(I really like the stills. Major time sink can be yours!)

Hmmm. . . so long as this doesn't remind you unduly of certain scenes in The Red Shoes . . .