By Jocelyn Perkins.
London: The Warham Guild, 1945.
‘I GET more furious every time I go to church! Why do most of our churches fail to create the right atmosphere, and why is it easier to worship anywhere than in the place that is specially set apart for that purpose? In short, for how much longer are we going to give the worst to God and to call that which is an expression of all that is unreal, untrue, and unlovely, “The House of God?” The Church and Art have been divorced long enough, and until they are once again united can there be any hope?’
‘Why do we never find artists in church? Because whichever way we look at it, it is impossible to worship; for either one is filled with a righteous indignation as soon, as one enters the church or we sing God’s praises whilst submitting to what we know to be false, and this is not worship but mockery. I just long to smash through the stained-glass windows, if only to make it possible for the brass birds to fly away and be seen no more, and to whitewash the stencilled roof and walls and remove the innumerable memorial tablets to beloved wives and husbands. And then, there are the inevitable hangings and [3/4] embroideries of “ecclesiastical” design. Oh! those few conventional devices—the cross and the crown, the fleurs-de-lis, etc., etc. Is there any meaning in them? Or rather did they mean anything to those who produced them? Look at the hassocks, we would not even have them in our houses, and the dilapidated hymn-books—the prayerbooks covered with imitation leather! In fact, look at everything! Can you find one thing that is an expression of joyous energy or the true spirit of worship, created by one who has as much to say—if you will only let him speak—as the preacher?’
This scathing indictment by Sir William Richmond was written a good many years ago. Were he still with us he would in all probability be the first to recognize that a nobler and more sincere spirit is at work in many quarters to-day; but even if we grant that there has been some measure of improvement during the last quarter of a century, who among us can deny that the interiors of scores of churches all over our land confirm his bitter, words to the very letter, while in the bringing about of this unending series of artistic tragedies, the erection of so-called memorials has played the major part?
Memorials and Travesties of Memorials
The word ‘memorial’ covers a field which is well-nigh without limit, indeed, it can be employed so as to include almost anything. The garish structure outside the Albert Hall, testifying to the virtues of the late Prince Consort, and the tiny inscription in a village church covering only a few square inches; the common-place statues which have effectually ruined the ancient pulpitum of Rochester Cathedral and the noble canopied Meynell-Ingram tomb [4/5] at Hoar Cross have been inspired by one and the same object. The graceful reminder that Henry Purcell has ‘gone to that blessed place where only his harmonies can be excelled,’ finds a counterpart, strange to say, in the turgid and humourless record of the manifold virtues of Ethelinda, Reverential Wife of Mr. Thomas Sapsea! Every one of them are ‘memorials.’
A Distorted Outlook
In church after church our eyes are assailed by the words, ‘To the glory of God and in memory of—— sometimes under circumstances bordering upon the grotesque. Look the thing fairly in the face—that is to say interrogatively, and ask what in the world did the donors mean? Were they really out to offer ‘glory’ or ‘greater glory’ to God, or did the familiar words represent no more than a trite phrase tacked on to some inscription with the object of imparting a conventional suggestion of piety to a less worthy object, the belauding the memory of some departed relative or friend? Or again, have these multitudinous donors always and everywhere sought to enhance the beauty of their parish church? Have they striven to bring their own preconceived ideas into genuine harmony with the spirit of the place, or have they, in order to gratify themselves, inflicted a cruel wound upon its fair beauty by thrusting upon it something unnecessary, something out of keeping, or worse? Alas! many a memorial, even one actuated by the highest possible motives, perhaps with the object of paying honour to men who have laid down their lives for God, King, and Country have in the end proved to be a permanent disfigurement of some grand old parish church! Could tragedy go further?
The True Ideal
 This vast subject must be approached from an angle wholly different to that which has too often prevailed in the past. In a word the actual memorial must be allowed to take precedence over the individual to be commemorated. Will it render the church more fair and comely than it was before? Is it really needed? Is it a worthy object in itself? Will it bring about some increase in the spirit of worship which should pervade the House of God? Will it harmonize with its surroundings, with the general ethos of the church? Will it help to make that church once more the centre of daily devotion, the house of prayer, the familiar meeting ground of the parish, its picture gallery and treasure house, its school and resting-place for young and old, haunted by silent worshippers and frequented as a common, home by rich and poor? These are fundamental questions and they must be asked. If the noble desire to honour the blessed dead be combined with ideals such as these the intrinsic beauty of the memorial will be for ever surrounded and enhanced by an atmosphere of grateful and affectionate thought. The name and record of the departed must, of course, be carefully recorded in some way which shall be reasonably secure against the inroads of time, either on or in close proximity to the actual memorial, but this much loyally accomplished, it cannot be too often repeated that it is the memorial itself rather than the individual, on which the major portion of our thought must be concentrated.
War Memorials to Individuals
The following suggestions have been unanimously approved at a general meeting of the diocesan chancellors:—
Memorial Tablets.—That a memorial tablet to a private individual should not be permitted in a church unless it expressly commemorates some one whose life has been an example of devotion to God, or service to man, or both.
That donors should be encouraged, and when possible persuaded, to commemorate the dead by something which will be of use in the services, or add to the beauty of the church rather than by tablets.
That where a memorial does consist of an article of use or beauty, any tablet or plate accompanying it should be small and inconspicuously placed.
That war memorial tablets to individuals, should, as a rule, be discouraged; and common memorials to members of a parish or congregation who have fallen in war should be encouraged.
What Form shall a Memorial Take?
Here and there a level-headed incumbent is to be found who has had the good sense to place in some prominent position a list of the various ornamenta still required by his church together with the approximate cost of each article. Guidance of this description is perfectly invaluable. Over and over again, as a result of this comparatively slight amount of publicity, that which, was [7/8] at the outset but a faint aspiration has blossomed forth into something of permanent beauty.
It is unfortunate that such guidance is still relatively rare, especially as the majority of would be donors approach the subject with minds almost totally blank and powerless to rise above the inevitable and commonplace tablet. None the less the opportunities are unlimited, one might almost say legion.
The following list of possible memorials does not claim to be exhaustive by any manner of means. Obviously the objects therein set forth would not all of them be suitable for every church, though taken individually each one possesses a definite value of its own in the seemly rendering of divine worship. At any rate this list may possess the virtue of suggestiveness and will possibly succeed in imparting new ideas to those who have hitherto given but a small amount of thought to the subject.
A Few Suggestions
Book, Altar or Gospel
Chalice and Paten
Stalls for Clergy and Choir
Vestry-Presses and Fittings
Woodwork: viz. Benches and Panelling
Before entering into details there are certain general considerations which must be kept clearly in mind. If anything of a structural character be contemplated care must be taken that genuine old work be treated with the utmost reverence. No addition should be made to a building calculated even to modify, much less obscure or destroy, something which has descended to us surrounded with the glamour of former generations. Anything of an assertive character, which jars with its neighbours or with the general scheme and feeling of the church, should be ruled out absolutely. Nothing, again, should be accepted which does not possess a real artistic value and which has not been approved by some competent authority. A [9/10] church should not be an advertisement for artistic imbecility.
It is a real advantage when a memorial recalls the soil and circumstances from which it has sprung. The introduction of the flora of the county into carved woodwork, for instance, the use of local stone and other materials, the addition of heraldic devices and possibly actual scenes illustrating the history of the church and parish are examples of means by which this end can be attained and the interest of a memorial greatly enhanced.
The stained-glass window has over and over again been the fetish of the pious soul and with disastrous results. We are suffering to-day from the existence of goodness knows how many square miles of stained glass, bad in itself and inappropriate to its surroundings in which garish colouring and execrable drawing are running a neck and neck race to surpass each other.
The Third Report of the Central Council for the Care of Churches has tersely pointed out that much of our modern glass is tainted by one or more of the following faults:
(a) Lack of bright, clear, and definite colour.
(c) Over pictorial treatment, notably in backgrounds.
(d) Indifferent canopies.
(e) The filling of the entire window space with design.
At the same time there is something to be said on the other side. A stained-glass window is not necessarily a bad thing in itself, indeed some of our modern artists have during the past quarter of a century enriched our churches [10/11] with windows which are a veritable joy to behold. There is no reason why a memorial of this description should add one more to the already sufficiently lengthy list of failures. If only the following principles are carefully borne in mind a brilliant success might well result.
(i) The character of-the church and its architecture must be studied and, above all, the position destined for the new window. On the south side, for instance, the light is stronger than on the north, which fact must involve difference of treatment.
(ii) The character of the windows in the immediate neighbourhood must be carefully studied; The unrest produced by two adjoining windows totally different in character and perhaps even antagonistic in feeling to each other is painful to a degree. This fault is in evidence in church after church.
(iii) A window is intended to admit not to obscure or expel light. The dreary, dingy interior of Leeds Parish Church, the windows of which are filled—many of them—with glass so dark as to be almost opaque, is an admirable example of what to avoid. Conversely, the windows in the Lady Chapel at Rouen Cathedral, filled with pools of glorious colour surrounded by quantities of clear silvery glass, display an ideal after which to strive.
(iv) The subject should be most carefully thought out. It is well worth while searching for something original. Constant repetition of the same idea tends inevitably to weaken its appeal. Centuries ago, when the great majority of people were illiterate, stained-glass windows possessed a distinct educational value of their own, and this aspect of the subject ought not to be wholly ignored even in our own day when circumstances are so widely different.
(v) Heraldry can be employed with striking effect, but every care must be taken to ensure that the devices are correctly drawn and coloured, and that no shield be admitted unless it be possessed of real authority.
2. Metal Work
Possibly some donor may be contemplating the [11/12] offering of a lectern or an altar ornament. In this case a strong word of caution must be uttered regarding the use of brass which is for such purposes a singularly intractable material. All over Europe most beautiful and effective ornaments of brass are to be found, it is true; but on the other hand we in England are only too familiar with the brazen horrors of modern manufacture which mar the beauty of so many of our churches: the scores of eagle lecterns cast from a mould out of which many another identical design can be and has been produced, the cold glittering crosses, candlesticks, and vases of commonplace design, and the positively outrageous book-desks which even surpass them in ugliness. What a swollen catalogue of calamities do they not make!
Processional Crosses present us with another lengthy tale of opportunities thrown away. Over and over again has the choice been made of some cross predominantly of brass, which proves downright ineffective and in the long run worthless, simply because those responsible have failed to realize that in a processional cross the first consideration should be proportion, the second workmanship, and the material last of all.
Silver is a costly material, but it might well be used for altar ornaments with greater frequency than has hitherto been the case, and the same remark also applies to bronze.
It is a thousand pities that the use of wood as a medium has been so comparatively rare in our country in the case of processional crosses, lecterns, and altar ornaments for it lends itself to perfectly charming effects, especially if painting or gilding be judiciously applied! We have much to learn in this connection from the [12/13] Scandinavian countries. A ramble among the churches of Denmark, for instance, will reveal the existence of any number of wooden candlesticks fully equalling in sumptuousness the most costly of the metal productions of our own country. In the case of an eagle lectern (should such be desired) the artist has an opportunity of giving to the world something of real individuality.
Rood Screens, Parclose Screens, Pulpits, Panelling, and other large scale objects will inevitably demand no small amount both of thought, and of money if they are to maintain the ancient English tradition. One of the most priceless of all the legacies handed down to us from the Middle Ages are the glorious stalls and other specimens of woodwork, an art which attained its zenith in the fifteenth century. Memorials such as these obviously demand not mere copyists, but craftsmen of acknowledged skill; imbued with the spirit of our forefathers, and also not afraid to impress their own individuality upon their work.
Many people will hesitate before selecting such things as vestments, frontals, and other hangings as memorials on the ground of their relative lack of permanence. There is some force in this objection, though it can be pressed much too far. In the great Inventory drawn up at the time of the dissolution of the old Westminster Monastery in 1540 quite a large number of fabrics are recorded which also find a place in an earlier document dating from the distant reign of Richard II, that is to say one hundred and fifty years before. A century and a half is, after all, a good long spell of time in which to preserve the memory of some particular individual. Few of us are deserving of a longer innings than this. Hence we might do worse [13/14] than select some object of this description. The Pre-Reformation Inventories of our greater churches many of which are still extant, show conclusively that this practice was wide-spread during former centuries.
At the same time it must ever be remembered that really good embroidery is costly. There is no getting away from the fact. Second-rate articles, of which there are enough and to spare, invariably give a shoddy effect. An indifferent altar frontal has over and over again ruined an otherwise comely east end. On the other hand, perfectly charming results can be produced by the judicious and carefully thought out combination of some of the coloured brocades which are supplied to-day in great variety by the Warham Guild.
5. Funeral Furniture
It is a remarkable thing that so very few memorials have taken the form of Funeral Furniture down to the present time. There is abundant scope for improvement in this direction. We are only too familiar with the indescribable furniture provided by the local undertaker; the piece of black or purple velvet thrown over the coffin, or worse still the horrible wood and polished brass fittings of a coffin left revoltingly bare, the brass funeral candlesticks and the cheap looking bier.
In olden times most, if not all, of our parish churches possessed a Herse Cloth in which the coffin was draped, bright and cheerful in colour. Some wonderful specimens still survive in the City of London, for instance, in the halls of the Merchant Taylors and the Sadlers Companies. A few of our greater churches, notably Westminster Abbey and the Cathedrals of Chester and Rochester, have during recent years, endeavoured to follow the laudable [14/15] custom of our forefathers and are now equipped with magnificent Herse Cloths of their own, brilliant with colour and heraldry.
Obviously ornaments such as these are debarred to the majority of our churches by reason of expense, but a combination of brocades will produce a really effective, and beautiful Herse Cloth at a relatively small cost. A memorial could hardly take a more suitable form than this, and (let it be emphasized once more) the need is great.
To sum up, whether the memorial is intended to cost a few pounds only or some large sum of indefinite amount, it is the design which is. of primary importance, and this involves the employment of some really competent artist. Should such an one be hot readily available, the Warham Guild can be relied upon to meet the need, for one of the main purposes of its existence is to bring together artists, craftsmen, and donors. Guidance such as this was lacking during the nineteenth century and with disastrous results. We may hope that when history comes to be written, its successor will be found to tell a very different tale.