Saturday, 1 June 2013

Bank Holidays: Chagall and St Cedd

It must be a record: two May Bank Holiday Mondays in a row of perfect late spring/early summer weather. On the second, which I'll get round to eventually, we headed out along the river Medway from Tonbridge to the church of All  Saints Tudeley, with its twelve Chagall windows, which we only got to hear about during our Chichester Easter weekend (there's another in the cathedral, as that entry shows). On the first May Monday, we badgered our friends Daisy, Fran├žois and Garance to excurt from their cottage fastness in the grounds of Layer Marney, the Tudor church and towers of which I briefly extolled back in 2007 and intend to revisit later on the blog,

and drive to the remote Saxon chapel of St Peter-on-the-Wall at Bradwell-juxta-Mare (no Latinophobic 'On Sea', if you please) on the south bank of the Blackwater estuary. Our plan had originally been to do a big hike around the Dengie peninsula back in March, which would have involved complicated train and bus connections; but an icy east wind put us off and we settled for an Ingatestone circuit instead. And here we hardly laboured at all, since it's a short walk from car park to chapel; and then, having planned to do a big loop via Tillingham, we succumbed to the summery laziness of a picnic and a nap on the shelly shingle of the mudflats. Picnic snaps, though fun, would ruin the higher purpose of this entry and the privacy of our dear friends, so I'll leave it at shells and channels. Someone may have strewn the cracked mud in the first picture, but I didn't and I like to think it's natural.

Some time in the third century AD Carausius, renegade Count of the Saxon Shore, built a nominally Roman fort here. There's hardly anything of it to see now, compared to Richborough and Pevensey which were probably also Carausius's doing, but the bricks of Othona - as it has been putatively identified, and the name lives on in the discreetly tree-ringed Christian community close by - went into the construction of the chapel and monastery by Cedd, one of Iona-based Aidan's 12 English missionaries, in 654 AD. That makes it the oldest substantial church in England.

I say 'substantial', but the church has lost its rounded chancel or apse and two side chapels. They were demolished when it was turned into a barn in the 17th century; it had remained in use as a chapel-of-ease to Bradwell as late as the 16th century. As my pious guidebook notes, 'St Peter's, which for a thousand years had served man's spirit, came to serve his bodily needs, until the time came when Essex remembered her past.' That happened when the chapel was reconsecrated in 1920 and restored. It's now a centre of pilgrimage and a place of daily worship for the Othona community. The inside has a few simple modern touches like the incorporation of stones from Lindisfarne, Iona and Lastingham, where Bishop Cedd died of the plague in 664 AD.

The only false note is the vestry building close by, 'a major visual crime' as Pevsner rightly observes. Looking out towards the North Sea from the south wall blots that out.

And from the saltmarsh, only the church can be seen.

After our lazy two hours, we did at least manage a very brief walk to the north, looking over the Blackwater Estuary to Mersea past the ruins of World War Two defences.

Looping round gave us other perspectives on St Peter and the first of the rape fields which, whatever you think of them, give a special yellow May colouring to the flat landscape.

We had a close encounter with those ubiquitous, hay-fever inducing fields on our Kent expedition, which could more properly be described as a hike. 40 minutes after leaving Charing Cross, we were making our way through Tonbridge - an unprepossessing high street, until you hit the castle and the Medway- and took a slightly circuitous route around the suburbs to the north of the river until we found the path we should have taken in the first place. Within minutes we were in deepest country- and river-side, with only the odd kayakers and dog-walkers punctuating the birdsong.

I don't know if you quite get the proper sense of spring lushness and bright buttercup meadows from this, but the perfect May afternoon it certainly was.

We consumed our hastily assembled picnic on a bend of the river with a food-curious swan lurking just beneath us. I'm afraid I have to be in this photo to give a sense of the idyll; the ones of J take in more of the landscape, but of course he permits no close facials here.

Crossing the first bridge, our route then took us through what seemed like an endless field of rape, with the right of way barely distinguishable after a while,


and orchards with some of the apple blossom still hanging on (we're told the late spring will yield bumper crops in the autumn).

The landscape began to undulate as we came closer to Tudeley, in the foothills (if such they can be called) of the High Weald. Copses of spring beauty punctuated the fields on route to the church.

Then we crossed the graveyard of All Saints to reach the wonders within this historically unprepossessing but neat and beautifully situated church.

Chagall, who only turned to glass design late in life (we saw some splendid specimens in Nice), received the commission for the east window in 1968. It commemorates the death in a sailing accident of Sarah d'Avigdor-Goldsmid, daughter of a Tonbridge worthy who like Chagall was Jewish by birth (his wife was, if I remember right, French Catholic).

The window carries the legend of death and resurrection. In the lower third the girl lies in the sea, observed by a grieving figure (the Virgin?).

There's a fluidity about all the design rather unusual for stained glass; Pevsner observes that Chagall uses the medium 'as if he were working in water-colours'. Centrally placed are the mother with her two daughters, the dead one wraith-like, and you can just see the bottom half of the red horse accompanying her to the ladder

that leads upwards to the crucified Christ.

 Over the next 15 years, with further funding from the d'Avigdor-Goldsmids, Chagall designed 11 more windows to cover the entire church. For the artist, 'the Bible is a synonym for Nature', so birds, beasts and natural settings are important. In the first window, west in the south transept, is Eve offering Adam the forbidden fruit.

while animals predominate in what I think must be the fifth window,

and deep blue governs the four jewelled side windows of the chancel.

Angels are everywhere here, the one to the north tumbling towards Chagall's signature

and the one on the south bearing under the left wing the inscription VAVA, Chagall's pet name for his wife.

Light was most suffusing the golden 'joy and hope' windows on the south side of the nave

where the detail is more impressionistic, other than the smaller angel swimming in light yellows.

At what cost was this unity of vision achieved? Well, many parishioners weren't too happy about the removal of the old windows - do I catch a whiff of antisemitism? - but were partly appeased when these were placed in the vestry with a light box behind them. A sample shows they were rather charming in their own right.

And so, after this long examination of an art gallery more precious than I could have imagined, we completed our loop by passing through the hamlet known as the Postern, with its scattering of farm buildings and handsome Georgian houses. The oaks were all in glorious early leaf

and mixing with the hawthorn flowers in the hedgerows

We'd done the whole circuit in an afternoon, and arrived back in town with time for me to go straight to the LSO's free-for-all Berlioz concert conducted by Gergiev in Trafalgar Square, which I've written about with great enthusiasm for the circumstances on The Arts Desk. Just three snaps on a beautiful evening then (marred only by the roars of the English Defence League dregs-of-the-dregs). Elmgreen and Dragset's rocking-horse boy on the Fourth Plinth looked more ironical than ever seen from below, where I was sitting.

Eventually I moved centre-stage for the Witches' Sabbath of the Symphonie fantastique and discovered the hard core all attentive there. Didn't snap during the main performance, of course, only the encore, the Rakoczy March from The Damnation of Faust.

I ended the TAD piece with a little eulogy for the fire-breathing tuba-man at Embankment station. He really was playing the notes when the fire came out.

Ultimate busker class, that, and a delightful end to a second, equally perfect Bank Holiday Monday.


Willym said...

Those Chagall's take the breath away - and you captured them beautifully in word and photo. On a wet, chilly Ottawa afternoon your travels bring some warmth and even more joy. I do love travelling with you.

David said...

Yes, I felt very lucky - and the luck held out today: almost perfect at Glyndebourne - huge fun with the talk, excellent picnic bench along new-mown paths above the lake, warm and sunny into the late evening - and, last but not least, an Ariadne which I had suspected was going to be much better than many had said, and it was; I sympathised and wept along with much of it. More on that anon.

And, of course, I enjoyed travelling with you to Salzburg and Munich. We'll be swanning in Dresden and Berlin ere long, so hope to return the compliment.

Susan Scheid said...

Chagall stained glass in an English church. Who would have thought it? Aren't you the best for bringing this to light (so to speak). How I envy your clement weather, given our continued unbearable heat here (though it promises, finally, to break tomorrow). I know I've said this many times before, but there is no place for walking known to me that's better than England, as you so beautifully depict with your photos here.

David said...

I was saying only yesterday, from our bench looking down on the Glyndebourne lake, that the Hudson Valley has equal beauties. I suppose the difference, as we've discussed before, is our network of footpaths covering the whole country, while in America right of way is linked mainly to national parks (cf Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust).

You seem to have gone from fitful spring to heatwave...

David Damant said...

Many years ago I stayed at Princeton (they had bottles of the actual wine in the wine shops ! In London it was difficult then to see the difference between a wine merchant and a picture gallery - there were pictures and a glass of sherry in both). On the Friday evening my hostess turned off the heating. On the Monday morning she turned on the air conditioning. " That, David" she said " was the American Spring.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful travel journal! The photos are glorious, and thank you for posing, especially (supposing that's still you?) walking through the rape field. Seeing someone in the path gives the scene human scale and communicates the essence of the place - one feels quite drawn in! More of this, please!

David said...

Well, David, the extremes have gotten freakish, haven't they? Last year, at least.

More of this, newleafsite, I promise - Glyndebourne is the cue again in the latest entry - but also more of that and the other too. With more Sicilian art still to negotiate, the flowers may take a back bed for a while.

David Damant said...

There is another splendid Saxon Church, to be found in Bradford - upon - Avon near Bath ( a lovely village/small town definitely vaux le voyage)- a bit younger than the one you report, David, but more complete and beautiful.. Both it and the Mother Church ( or perhaps one should say daughter church) next door are beautifully kept, all the lawns mowed, the graveyard absolutely neat etc etc - BUT according to a recent BBC report we should NOT cut all lawns and verges so regularly, but leave the grass and weeds to grow and lead to seeds and new growth, and provide a home for insects. And another church at B-u-A, up the hill , has a graveyard just like that - I thought it overgrown and not loved until I heard the BBC report. Not sure what to think now.

David said...

We will be sure to visit Bradford-upon-Avon at last on our next stay with beloved Van der Beeks in Lacock.

The meadow mentality is returning, I'm so pleased to say - and very evident at Glyndebourne under the latest garden regime. I mention above the charm of paths mown through longer grass, one of my favourite things. Those at Gbne are a little wide, perhaps, but still preserve pockets of wilder nature. And bring back cornflowers, say I.

David Damant said...

As a Rothschild said, even the smallest garden should have at least two acres of wilderness

Piala said...

Many thanks as well for the Chagalls, David, they're beautiful:-)