I park, I arrive, I look around. I smell a farmyard. I hear sheep bleating. Am I in the right place?
Quintessential London. Fortuitous diversity, but not coherently planned. An area where diverse things become part of a slightly eccentric whole. And just the thing I love about London. An assortment of difference which gives the locality a sense of place. Unrelated things built to become cheek by jowl, to become something peculiar and particular. They reside in their own entirety, unaware of the other thing. But they are all growing and developing and existing in a sort of hotchpotch of concrete, green and water. From the green beans on stakes growing up to meet the sky in Surrey Docks farm, to the mural in the church at Holy Trinity, to the old Victorian school in the graveyard of the church, to the vertical modernity in the buildings on the Thames horizon, to the muddy mire, and the lapping water of the river, to the smell of farmyard and the noise of the ewes. This is London. Or to be exact this is Rotherhithe. What is it that draws me to this unplanned diversity gathering in a hard and barren world of flats and houses on the riverside, to summer growth and grass, not to compete, but to provide something else beyond? Quirky things of interest in a rarely seen corner in a pocket of land by the Thames. And then the church – an image of longevity from a turbulent history, destroyed and fragile, but keeping up with modern change.
There is something about this incongruity between church, graveyard, farm, water and modern buildings that brings a big big heart to this place. This unlikely place in London. But which shows us all human life in its most imaginative range.
And all the while people come and go – to the farm, to look at the water and the buildings on the shore beyond. There are few boats and vessels on the water now, when once, in the 19th century, so full was the river that one could tread from one board on one boat to another on another boat. So the area is marked by the passage and path of feet – finding their way from one side to the other, since bridges were not necessary. But unlike the 19th century, there are no boats coming and going, except for those taking eager tourists from one Thames bus stop to another. So instead we can watch the people glide along the Thames Path, curious, captive to the Thames, its reaches and its less than perceptible delights.
As a mural artist in Westminster said, ‘None of us knew that fresco painting required not only fresh plaster on which to work, but fresh air to preserve the work when done… The Thames was the main sewer of vast London and … was charged with foul and most destructive gases… whilst coal gas was pouring its destructive powers both day and night.’
From Bond, Works of Art in the House of Lords, 1980 p. 34
The word Rotherhithe is all watery too. It may have stemmed from two Saxon words – redhra or rothra meaning mariner and hyth meaning haven. And looking, the A to Z reveals a patch of the water that rises in a steep arc, upon which are many named wharves, reminiscent of the important Docks area that I was soon to learn about from chats with engaging, friendly and most knowledgeable vicars.
And as Dickens recalls in Our Mutual Friend, the area embodies the great, exhilarating diversity found with people – he writes of Eugene Wrayburn finding humanity washed from higher ground and taken down by sewage. The imagery here is all body and water, body and filth and body and poverty. And then the critical disease of all, but so much for the poor – the cholera.
The Father of Holy Trinity, as he referred to himself opened the church for me. My timing was good enough. The football had just finished. He sat, leaning against a table while I looked.
And so to our artistic hero – Hans Feibusch, the principal reason for my visit to Rotherhithe and the most majestic mural I have yet seen by him. This mural was painted in 1960, and the artist had been in England for nearly 30 years, his talent recognised. He tells me that he knew parishioners who, having since died, said that the artist, whom they watched working on the mural, was a quiet, but affable man. How did he reconcile his Jewish faith with painting a monumental image of Christ at the Cross, but significantly here without the obvious additions of his mother Mary or John the Evangelist. With the confident painting he displays, there is no sense that this was an artist who doubted. Harkening back to the terracotta and ochres of the Italian Renaissance, his figures, despite being painted in light-touch colours have vim and vitality. And just behind the cross and close to the foreground, he paints a substantial view of Jerusalem imagined, I presume, in his own eyes. As seen before, the bodies and the gestures are graceful but theatrical, energetic, but also subdued, some surprising, some really muscular and masculine.
The Father told me:
1. Many of the parishioners of the church were dock-workers.
2. The church was originally Victorian and was built to house 1,500 people. The church was bombed in the Blitz (on 7 September, 1940) and was the first London church to be so. A map made in 1947 refers to the church by the word ruin. There is a photograph of the bombed out church with its 19th-century Gothic arch at the chancel end. The church is now a 1950s church and has that cool, modernist aesthetic that I am beginning to appreciate in post-war church architecture.
3. He shows me a tiny Crucifix, now in a glass case which was found in the ruins of the bombed out church. The object was saved by a parishioner. This must be work of art category, just for its historical resonance.
4. The church had a school right beside it. A building which is now the Church hall. He showed me a watercolour painted by an artist of people walking towards the church which also shows the school. There is a tall man in a tall black hat, who I thought could be the school teacher passing by talking to his pupils, or the vicar in his formal dress, talking to his congregants.
5. He told me how the church cherishes the Feibusch. Although there are some who detest it. Now it has weathered, it looks a little less modernist than it did. I also read that Feibush completed over 40 church murals. My journey with him is only just beginning.
6. I wonder why Mary is absent, even though this is part Crucifixion and part the Trinity. Or the Resurrection as the church notes tell me. Is nobody really sure? I note a man emerging from a cave, who the vicar refers to as a ‘dead person, coming alive.’ I assume therefore it could be Lazarus. And thus we see the bitter irony, as now Christ is dead on the cross, and not yet risen, but Lazarus is alive in a scene where normally we do not see him.
7. The vicinity of the church was a very poor area. Dead bodies were piled one on top of the other. Given the proximity of the graveyard to the water at the Thames, the bodies were a sort of filter for the water as it drained down and then moved back upwards. As this caused dreadful choleric outbreaks, the church had to close. In the graveyard he showed me the headstone of what must have been a pauper’s grave, as it was not made of stone, but of wood.
This list illustrates just how much historical and artistic information one church can offer; but how, too, the vicars and clergy of the church are themselves instructive un-sung guides. And that was the case with the vicar at the next port of call.
I telephoned him prior to visiting the church he looks after – St. Mary the Virgin, a nearly sea-borne church, by the Thames bank at Rotherhithe, as I was intending to visit towards 6pm, the hour of his Evening Prayer. He offered to let me park in his car-park. I expressed gushing gratitude, to which his response was, ‘Well of course I am going to do this, I am a good Christian!’ I was amused, but also enchanted by his quip. And when I arrived at the doorway to what is now an elegant brick-faced 18th-century church, surrounded by effulgent greenery, I saw the tallest vicar I have ever seen. In his long, swishing black over-tunic, he was going about snuffing candles. He handed me the tallest church information leaflet giving service times that I have ever seen too. I have just measured its length and it comes to 45 cm. It is not really something to place comfortably into the pocket. The church was filled with that hard to describe late afternoon misty light, a bewitching time, that in-between the clear light of the high- sun afternoon and the descent towards the end of the day, when a church interior, can be magically filled with an extra light that altogether appears to have come from nowhere. It might be that the windows provide the changing light from the outside which is intensified in the darker space of the church. Here the pooled light is caught into the evening quiet, in an interior, also stewing with the smell of incense. Here is a church with a vista there, a glittering structure there, a sight here and a gaze over there. An interior, as heir to how the church has always created and consumed and exuded a desire to please and pacify as well as ponder how best to reach back to Christianity, touching on our deepest needs to sense the tactile, light, colour, form and shape to try and make real the invisible. Christianity is about seeing and believing as well as about reading and persuading.
I see a memorial to one parishioner, who fell victim to the cholera. While we are now by the water, Rotherhithe was once an island, which means that if the tide was in, victims of the disease could be land-locked and so allowing for further contamination.
The tall vicar points out some paintings that are rather well copied by a female artist, whose name I wish I could remember, particularly as he asked me if I had ever heard of her.
He shows me something that I would not have noticed if he had not pointed it out. To the left are two chairs. They are somewhat diminished from what they once belonged to. This was a vessel that was diminished by its last mournful move up the Thames to stop at Rotherhithe on its final journey after the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). The event was marked in a painting that made Turner so famous – The Fighting Temeraire (1839). Picture
The timbers that made up the ship are now some of the timbers made into these two chairs for a Bishop – utilitarian objects, hardly visible in the dark chamber of the church. And in the painting, we see the beginnings of his indistinct, blurred, misty, formless style that was to make him the champion British Impressionist of the mid-19th century. He takes a historical subject for eulogy, but also for elegy and renders it into something that breaks the bounds of all history painting where form and line, volume and shape have absolute clarity, driven by a compulsion to record in what was thought to be the most accurate way possible. But for Turner, there was another way. And that was through indistinctness, through the power of setting a sun in a sky that has no definition. His desire was to create mood and for Turner, the image of the ship drifting silently and solemnly up the Thames was an opportunity to paint in the modernist, atmospheric aesthetic where a lack of form soon becomes a ‘form’ of subject matter. Imagine the broken ship, destined for the fiery pit, broken up into bits, some of which end up in a church so close to the river where its wet timbers had lashed the stormy sea and then scaled the lapping tide of the river, a far less dangerous journey than its earlier passage through battle and strife. And here that final passing takes place while the sun is setting, the mood is dipping, the day of glory is going down. The chair provides a meager substitute here at Rotherhithe, but somehow my inadvertent arrival at the church at the end of day was fitting to be reminded of Turner’s sublime work. The vicar pointed things out and then, like the Temeraire, became invisible. I was left alone in the church, trying to imagine this as another church full of about 1,000 people at a service.
Then I looked above, an upturned look alike ship’s timbers aside the arabesque type angles and which complete the elaborate line of vision. We see here an excess of display in this church. It arouses our ability to look there, here and hither, our looking is stuck as if like a human giant in a honeyed bee-like web, our eyes rest so closely on the same thing that we fail to see anymore. The experience of looking is not always that easy.
A great swell of land at the bulging curve of the Thames divides the two churches I visit today. One is like a grandiose old dame of a ship that has moored permanently, while the other, a lovingly made rowing boat that has been turned out onto the river for a little gentle row at the moldering edge of a water channel that has seen and known so much.
A shy corner of a graveyard