Over 40 photographs of the cathedrals of the Church of England by Magnum Photographer Peter Marlow, who died of cancer earlier this year, are to be exhibited inside The Chapel of Christ the Servant at Coventry Cathedral.
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.
This week, at the historic Coventry Cathedral, the work will be displayed for the first time in one of the spaces featured in the series, the first time the project has been exhibited outside of London.
Once the commission was complete, Marlow was inspired to continue the project and in the following four years shot all 42 of the cathedrals of the Church of England.
This endeavour can be viewed as a contemporary update to tradition of church photography in England, particularly the work of Frederick Evans and Edwin Smith.
‘”I began by photographing the aesthetic highlights of each building, but the images seemed to merge with one another,” Marlow said on completion of the series.
“In order to differentiate each place, I needed to find a more rigorous and systematic approach, so I adopted the simple strategy of photographing the naves looking along the central axis.”
Marlow developed the strategy of shooting a majority of the cathedrals from the same position: looking east towards the altar as the natural light of dawn broke through the main window.
Each shoot was devoid of artificial lighting, creating a representation of each cathedral removed from the modern age. This viewpoint and lighting adds depth to the visual experience of the building, and the discipline of this strict approach allowed the power of the spaces to unfold in the dark.
Each cathedral was shot on large format film, bringing into sharp relief the splendour of the architecture, regardless of the style.
Marlow’s photographs are accompanied by his commentary on the project, including sketches and preparatory shots; an introduction by V&A senior photography curator Martin Barnes on the tradition of church photography in England, and a concise summary of each cathedral interior by architectural historian John Goodall.
“The Chapel of Christ the Servant, with its forty two huge vertical window niches, is serendipitously perfect for the collection of the forty two English cathedrals I photographed,” he said. “In so many ways Sir Basil Spence’s architecture captured the spirit of a new age after the war, and I feel very honoured to be able to take over the whole chapel next summer in the company of the many artists Spence commissioned, who are now rightly seen as key practitioners of the British modern movement.
‘The photographs are an incredible record of the very particular space that cathedrals offer, as places for reflection and inspiration, through both their art and architecture, as well as their religious significance, and a fitting tribute to Peter’s passion for capturing the essence of his subject,” says John Witcombe, the Dean of Coventry.
“Coventry Cathedral, with its contemporary and ground-breaking art and architecture is the perfect space to introduce Peter’s work, and I am very pleased that he chose to bring the collection to us, especially at a time that we are re-establishing our programme of exhibitions in preparation for our cathedral centenary in 2018.
“It will make a lasting impression on those who visit, and encourage them to make their own pilgrimage to other cathedrals in the country in addition to providing a fitting legacy for Peter.”
Peter Marlow embarked on his professional photojournalistic career in 1975. He joined Magnum Photos in 1980, became a full member in 1986, and held the post of President of the agency for five years.
His major projects have been concerned with aspects of contemporary British life and 1993 he published Liverpool – Looking out to Sea (Jonathan Cape), the culmination of a six-year project photographing the city. In recent years, Marlow worked more extensively in colour and concentrated on his exploration of the physical and personal landscape. He sadly died this year after battling cancer.
Exhibitions include Point of Interest, London at Night and The English Cathedral at The Wapping Project Bankside, Magnum Contact Sheets (Magnum Agency London, and touring), No Such Thing as Society – Photography in Britain 1967-1987 from the British Council and Arts Council Collection, at Hayward Gallery which toured to Centre Pompidou, Paris, amongst other international venues.
His work is in numerous collections including the The Art’s Council of Great Britain, Qatar Museum’s Authority, Centre Pompidou, Harry Ransom Centre, Texas, Museum of New Zealand, Wellington, Archive of Birmingham City Library, and the Fuji Art Museum, Tokyo.
The English Cathedral by Peter Marlow will be exhibited from 29 April to 5 September 2016 at
Coventry Cathedral, Coventry, CV1 5AB