A group of artists have spent more than a year enjoying unprecedented access to Ely Cathedral, built in the 7th century and once a Benedictine abbey. Caroline Forward explains how they found hidden gems, corners and stories
“For many months while we were working on The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral, the cathedral was shrouded in scaffolding poles while stained glass windows were taken out, returned sparkling clean and full of dazzling colour. The lines of the scaffolding externally cloaked the fabric of the building with a geometric maze of lines and shadows, through which the stonemasons, glaziers and conservators wound their way up and down in their hi-vis jackets.
© Gill Forsbrook
They were laboriously and meticulously cleaning the stone by hand, drilling the old stone out with a pneumatic drill to make way for the newly-ready moulded stone, awaiting its place and cementing in the new windows. Internally the scaffolding poles were less closely packed, presenting strong lines with the almost abstract quality of the scaffolding poles against the cathedral’s own geometric shapes.
I was privileged to be allowed to don a hard hat and a hi-vis jacket and follow Ian Crothers, a stonemason who has worked on the cathedral since he was a teenager, up the scaffolding. Outside the views were amazing. The conservation work was fascinating.
© Kimberley Allen
Inside, as we climbed higher we could look close up at the newly discovered fragments of medieval painting way up high on the north transept wall. At the top I actually touched the ceiling of this wonderful building. It was an awesome moment.
The people who work to keep this cathedral in good order and able to stand proud for many years talk about it with affection and pride. It must be quite something to know that your work will endure, usually unseen, so that the cathedral can continue to give pleasure and solace to many people for years into the future.
© Caroline Forward
One of the artists, Cary Outis, gave himself the most difficult task he could think of, embarking on a five metre high sculpture in steel, to explore and express how it might feel to build something impossibly big like a Cathedral. Teetering on a stepladder he'd had to make specially, he bolted the piece together from seven sections. Transportation was another challenge.
Unfortunately we've had some strong winds recently, and the whole thing went over. There followed a number of adjustments until finally a stable and dizzying tower successfully blocked the driveway outside his workshop. You'll be able to see it trying to block the Nave of the cathedral.
© Tom Jones
Kimberley Allen decided to create a panel over the Prior’s Door to show how the Christ in Majesty Tympanum may have looked in medieval times. She enlisted the help of Pete Hotine, the cathedral carpenter, to trim her wood panel, but the astonishing lack of symmetry in the archway meant that getting a snug fit turned out to be hours of work.
Pete had to go up and down a ladder countless times with a heavy piece of plywood and, after each new measurement, rest it on a pew to cut and refine the shape using traditional hand tools. Once Kimberley had completed her painting she brought it back to check it all fitted. Once again Pete was up and down that ladder.
© Steven Bramble
Pete remained remarkably good humoured despite the farcical nature of the task. The fit was great and the painting looks as if it really belongs there.
Jane Frost wanted to create a large mobile made of willow trees with the bark stripped off, which makes them almost white, and suspend it in the octagon of the cathedral to show the movement of air in the Cathedral.
© Cary Outis
The final design and all the problems were solved after six months of conversations, technical drawings and meetings. Early in 2015, when the exhibition was being discussed, Jane had made enquiries about using the Victorian greenhouse in the garden of the Bishop’s house as a workshop, which has a workbench and a high sloping roof. Jane works with willow and other natural materials, so it is an ideal setting.
Bishop Stephen agreed as it is unused almost all year round. She is possibly the first person to use the greenhouse regularly for about 20 years. Jane has enjoyed working in the shadow of the cathedral in this very quiet and secret space at the centre of Ely. In the last few months before the exhibition launch, the space became almost too full of her creations for her to continue working there.
© David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Steven Bramble wanted to connect with the life of the Cathedral by painting in the building, setting up his easel in the aisles, and capturing through his oil paintings a sense of the space, peace, activity and flow of life in the Cathedral.
Cary Outis laid a 133 x 313cm sheet of paper in the main Nave aisle to draw the building, attracting many admiring comments. He enjoyed people stopping to talk to him about what he was doing.
© David Iliff. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
Other artists, aware of time restraints in people’s busy lives, used their cameras to record people at work or drew their sitters in their chosen places so that they could work on the paintings in their own studios. Brian Wimble, inspired by Prior Crauden’s Chapel and its medieval floor depicting Adam and Eve, employed artist models to create a life size contemporary Adam and Eve.
One freezing cold March morning, when the heaters had given up completely, Barbara McGowan, the Cathedral Guides Co-ordinator, took a group of us around the cathedral. Her enthusiasm, knowledge and ability to tell us about the history and people involved in the building was such that after several hours we reached saturation point - and possibly frostbite - and had to schedule another time to finish the tour. Barbara brought the daily routines of the monks and the monastic buildings to life and showed us carvings of animals and heads that often remain unseen.
Brian Parsley’s interest lies in the Prior Crauden’s Chapel, a short walk away from the main building. Here, under a protective carpet, lies a medieval tiled floor showing Adam and Eve with a serpent, among other beautiful animals and plants. Mark Bradford took us on a high level tour of the Cathedral. His special interest is the graffiti in the Cathedral and he pointed out many moving examples of names, dates and messages inscribed into the fabric of the building.
We saw the rows and rows of blocks of stone from the cathedral carefully packed and labelled in the Triforium, next to the statue of Joseph and his sheep, awaiting their next Christmas outing. We looked down from the dizzying height of the Octagon tower into the choir stalls.
We scrambled in the dark above and along the nave ceiling and on into the belfry with its wonderful canopy of wooden beams crisscrossing the tower. The bell rang, displaying the workings of its mechanism, and we climbed up the stairs to get a closer look in this fascinating, little seen but regularly active part of the Cathedral.”
- Ouselife artists present The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral from April 6 – May 2 2016. Visit elycathedral.org.
What do you think? Leave a comment below.
More Artist Statements from Culture24
Recreating the fish guts, scales and blood of the women who drove Britain's herring industry
Timorous Beasties' Alistair McAuley on creating a Bedsit in a gallery
Becky Dodman on psychedelic contemporary knitting and the 90s dance and rave scene