30 June 2015

Anglo-Saxon treasures, Victorian
tiles and a very English composer

Looking into the Cathedral Shop in Lichfield from the garden in Vicars’ Close, behind Erasmus Darwin House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

Patrick Comerford

With a more relaxed attitude on Ryanair to hand baggage, it is becoming more difficult to resist good book bargains in good bookshops, particularly in English cathedrals.

The shop in Lichfield Cathedral is closed at present, because of works needed for the lighting and rewiring project. But the Cathedral Shop at No. 9 in the Cathedral Close is open every day (Monday to Saturday 9.30 to 17.00; Sunday 12.00 to 17.00), with its eclectic second-hand corner and a wide range of books of theological and local history interest.

Last week, I spent some time browsing in the shop and ended up with three books that I had missed when they were first published.

Stephen Pollington’s Tamworth: The Ancient Capital of Mercia was published by Tamworth Borough Council in 2011 to mark Tamworth’s part in the story of the Staffordshire Hoard of gold, jewellery and silver, found in near Wall, outside Lichfield, in July 2009. The find included more than 3,000 pieces, and some it went on exhibition in Tamworth Castle for three weeks in 2011.

Stephen Pollington is a celebrated Anglo-Saxon historian, lecturer and author. This 64-page illustrated book was commissioned by Tamworth Borough Council and looks at the history of Tamworth.

Tamworth was the capital of Mercia for many centuries and its wealth and power were widely known across northern Europe in the 7th to 10th centuries.

Pollington charts the historical significance of this part of England, from the Roman settlements along Watling Street, including Letocetum (Wall), and the collapse of Roman society with the arrival of the Angles. He follows the rise and fall of Mercia, the military and economic power that could have brought the Staffordshire Hoard together, and he looks for clues as to why it was buried in the ground near Wall, outside Lichfield.

If Tamworth was the political capital of Mercia, then Lichfield was its ecclesiastical capital. So it is surprising that this finds little reference in this book ... Lichfield gets as much mention as Dublin, and is named on none of the maps.

Herbert Minton tiles in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

After visiting Lichfield Cathedral and Christ Church in Leamonsley, with their tiles by Herbert Minton, I wondered why I had never bought Church Tiles of the Nineteenth Century by Kenneth Beaulah and Hans van Lemmen (Oxford: Shire Album, 2001).

This book describes how the 19th century Gothic Revival in architecture encouraged the development of decorative encaustic tiles, inspired by mediaeval church tiles, tells how they were made, looks at the stories of the designers and manufacturers, and provides a helpful if limited list of places to visit.

Kenneth Beaulah had a life-long interest in decorative tiles, particularly mediaeval tiles and Victorian encaustic tiles. He was a founder member of the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society. This book was first published in 1987, and died in 1994. Hans van Lemmen, an established author on the history of tiles, revised this book in 2001, and the edition I bought last week is a 2012 reprint.

More than half the churches in Britain are paved at least in part with 19th century decorative encaustic tiles and there are also churches with striking pictorial tile panels. Apart from the windows, they are often the most notable features in a church, yet are rarely mentioned in guidebooks.

This small but delightful book describes how they are derived from mediaeval church tiles, how they were made and who designed and manufactured them. It deals with their place in the Gothic Revival, how to identify and date them, and lists some of the cathedrals and churches where interesting examples can be found.

There are many illustrations of the wide variety of designs that were used and the many different arrangements in which they were laid.

A useful two-page “genealogical” chart (pp 20-21) traces the link between the main manufacturers and partnerships involved in producing Victorian church tiles, including Wright, Minton, Hollins, Chamberlain, Campbell, Taylor, Maw, Godwin, Hewitt and Craven.

The list of places to visit – understandably in a book of this size – is not exhaustive. For example, the list for Staffordshire is short, considering the work of Pugin and Minton throughout the county. Between 1844 and 1854, Herbert Minton presented encaustic floor tiles to a total of 46 churches and vicarages in Staffordshire, and over 150 churches in the Diocese of Lichfield were supplied with Minton pavements by 1859, including Lichfield Cathedral, which is mentioned in the book, and Christ Church, Leamonsley, which is not.

The list might also have been helpful if it extended to Ireland. Christ Church Cathedral Dubin has an interesting arrangement of tiles by Craven Dunnill, and the churches with Minton tiles include Saint Aidan’s Cathedral, Enniscorthy, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Killarney, and Saint Mary’s Church, Tagoat.

This week’s reading ... from the Cathedral Shop in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2015)

The third book on my desk bought in the Cathedral Shop in Lichfield last week is a 2013 reprint of Herbert Howells by Paul Spicer (Bridgend: Seren Books, 1998).

Paul Spicer lives in the Cathedral Close in Lichfield and with Tom Wright he wrote his Easter Oratorio when the two were neighbours – Tom Wright was then Dean of Lichfield and Paul Spicer was still the Artistic Director of the Lichfield International Arts Festival. The oratorio was conceived in 1998 to mark the 1,300th anniversary of the founding of Lichfield Cathedral.

Last year, I attended the launch of Paul Spicer’s biography of the composer Sir George Dyson in the Cathedral Shop. He began his musical training as a chorister at New College, Oxford, and he studied with Howells at the Royal College of Music in London.

Herbert Norman Howells (1892-1983) is a major figure in English music and he captures an essence of Englishness that has been achieved by few other composers apart from Vaughan Williams.

His three choral masterpieces, Hymnus Paradisi, Stabat Mater and Missa Sabrinesis are classic. He has made one of the greatest contributions to Anglican church music in the 20th century, and his church music, especially his Collegium Regale setting, is sung daily in Anglican cathedrals, churches and college chapels throughout these islands: on Sunday afternoon in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, we sang the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis from his Saint Paul’s Service (1951), one of his most celebrated settings of these texts, and a work in which Howells seems to be at his most confident and optimistic.

Howells was the son of an amateur organist in a Baptist chapel in the small town of Lydney in the Forest of Dean. He became an Anglican at the age of 11, and studied first at Gloucester Cathedral, alongside Ivor Novello and Ivor Gurney, before going on to the Royal College of Music, where he studied under Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Hubert Parry and Charles Wood.

He was the assistant organist at Salisbury Cathedral in 1917, and later the acting organist at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, during World War II. His potential in church music was identified at an early stage in his career. Eric Milner-White (1884-1963), Dean of King’s College, Cambridge, and one of the Church of England’s more visionary priests, heard an early performance of A Spotless Rose in the Chapel of King’s College in 1920 and immediately wrote to Howells encouraging him to do more for the liturgy of the Church of England.

As Dean of King’s College, Milner-White introduced the Service of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve 1918. This was first broadcast in 1928 and is now a major item in the BBC’s Christmas schedule. In the 1940s again, Milner-White sowed the seeds of the idea that bore fruit in his Collegium Regale settings written for King’s College.

In the 1920s and 1930s, Howells focussed mainly on orchestral and chamber music, including two piano concertos. He became increasingly identified with the composition of religious music, most notably his Hymnus Paradisi for chorus and orchestra, composed after his son’s death but not released until 1950 at the insistence of Vaughan Williams, who had been a close friend since 1910.

His large output of Anglican church music includes his Collegium Regale and his settings of the canticles Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis for the choirs of Saint John’s College, Cambridge, New College, Oxford, Westminster Abbey, Worcester Cathedral, Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and Gloucester Cathedral, and for the parish churches of Saint Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, and Saint Augustine, Edgbaston.

His very last piece was an organ Partita written in 1972 for his former student, Edward Heath, who became Prime Minister in 1970.

But behind a life of achievement, Howells experienced a difficult childhood, a life-threatening disease, the tragic death of his son Michael from polio at the age of nine, and a marriage that was constantly troubled by his serial infidelity.

This biography began as research for a film project and offers insights into the composer and his extraordinary life.

He looks at all of the main landmarks in Howells’s career, starting in the small town of Lydney, 20 miles south-west of Gloucester, and ending up in Barnes where he spent most of his adult life, as well as the Royal College of Music, Saint John’s College and King’s College, Cambridge, and Saint Paul’s Girls’ School, where he succeeded Gustav Holst as the Director of Music.

This is a very personal portrait that also introduces the reader to many of the great composers of the 20th Century, including Edward Elgar, Hubert Parry, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, Sir David Willcocks, Sir George Thalben-Ball, Sir Adrian Boult, John Birch and John Rutter.

Paul Spicer draws on unpublished material, including Howells’s diaries, and original interviews for this accessible, revealing and sympathetic account of the composer’s life and work, warts and all – which, in this case, include vanity, social climbing and an all-consuming attraction to women.

This book has since become the basis for the entries on Howells both on Wikipedia and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Spicer skilfully presents a great musician, a complex man, a devoted and devastated father, a loyal but unfaithful husband, a teacher, a writer and a great composer.

The composer Paul Spicer speaking at the launch of his biography of Sir George Dyson in the Cathedral Bookshop in Lichfield last year (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)