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Freya Gowrley's Catalogue Entry For Coventry: The Old Cathedral Spire


Catalogue Entry:

Dennis Creffield, Coventry: The Old Cathedral Spire (3), (1988)


Dennis Creffield’s charcoal drawing Coventry: The Old Cathedral Spire (3) is one of three depicting the cathedral by the artist in the University of Warwick’s art collection.1 Depicting the spire of Coventry’s medieval Cathedral, the remainder of which was destroyed during the Luftwaffe bombings of 1940, they constitute part of a much more extensive series of studies of English cathedrals made by Creffield for a commission from the Arts Council of England in 1987.2 Forming the basis of a South Bank Centre touring exhibition (English Cathedrals: Drawings by Dennis Creffield,1988-90), the series was exhibited at galleries across the country, including the Castlefield Gallery in Manchester, the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter and, most pertinently, at the Mead Gallery in the University of Warwick’s Arts Centre.

Yet the three images of Coventry Cathedral are conspicuously absent from the original South Bank Centre exhibition catalogue. Apart from the selection of works shown in the touring exhibition, these particular studies were in fact made specifically for the Mead Gallery showing, for whose audience the ruined spire of Coventry’s now-destroyed gothic Cathedral would have held great significance.3 The studies were subsequently acquired by the University in 1989, and currently hang in the foyer of its residential training and conference centre, Scarman House.

Upon acquiring a series of five drawings by Creffield depicting the crossing at Wells Cathedral into its permanent collection in 1985, the Arts Council discovered the artists’ ambition to draw the twenty-six extant medieval cathedrals of England, commissioning him to complete this ‘long-held and passionate project.4 Setting off in the February of 1987,5 Creffield spent the majority of that year on a neo-picturesque tour of the country’s cathedrals – an experience the artist has described as a ‘ pilgrimage of learning’.6

The artist’s memoirs of his journey (as included in the exhibition catalogue); aside from being intelligent and amusing, offer valuable insight into Creffield’s approach to the commission and the task of recording these magnificent edifices. In stating ‘No artist has ever before drawn all the English medieval cathedrals – not ever Turner’, Creffield posits himself (and by extension of this – the project) as rooted in a historic and decidedly British artistic tradition – that of romanticism.7 Continuing, the artist acknowledged his allegiance to this romantic idiom: ‘The English cathedrals are well known and are visited by thousands of tourists every year. But while generally acknowledged to be works of art, they exist for many people in that part of the aesthetic spectrum called picturesque – together with cream teas and thatched cottages’.8  The conception of Creffield’s cathedrals therefore owes much to his neo-Romantic forebears such as John Piper, whose own architectural studies reflected his embrace of British heritage and cultural history.

Creffield described his cathedral studies as ‘impressionist’ (‘an ‘impression’ is not a fleeting optical moment but a total response. A perception in which eye, body and imagination are all one...’)9 In doing so, the artist further betrays his romantic sensibilities, expounding the physical and emotional experience of the cathedral itself: architecture not merely as a tourist destination, but more an organic and powerful institution. As such, Creffield retains the cathedrals’ statuses as iconic cultural monuments, but does so in a manner that invigorates the audience, and avoids ‘the staleness that comes with over-familiarity’.10

In terms of formal characteristics, Creffield’s images of Coventry are similar to those in the rest of the series, executed in his characteristically expressionistic manner. Perhaps the best description of the qualities of Creffield’s cathedral drawings is that of Ian Gale in the Arts Review: ‘When I look at this artist’s drawings I am reminded of ragged net struggling to hold its contents. The net is the structure of the charcoal accents and shorthand stabs with which Creffield scaffolds his buildings. And the content is the swelling balloon of grey gas, the grubby smudging, the aura, into which these building sublime – subliming being the strange physical process by which a solid becomes gas without passing through a liquid phase.’11 As Gale notes, the actual form of Creffield’s cathedrals is often that of an indistinct and smudged mass, rendered recognisable via sharp charcoal buttressing. This is certainly the case in Coventry: The Old Cathedral Spire (3). The body of St. Michael’s iconic medieval spire strains to become legible from the stormy sky which surrounds it, whilst both its shape and architectural details are starkly delineated via Creffield’s use of highly intentional strokes of black charcoal and white highlight.

Like all of the studies in his English Cathedrals series, Creffield’s charcoal sketches of Coventry are rendered in the ‘impressionistic’ style as ascribed to above. In reality, these works are more expressionistic than ‘impressionistic’ in the traditional sense of the term, and no doubt reflect the influence of the artist David Bomberg (under whom Creffield studied at Borough Polytechnic from 1948-51) upon Creffield’s work. Whilst at the Slade School of Art (1957-61) Creffield received the Tonks Prize for Life Drawing and the Steer Medal for Landscape Painting, no doubt due to the influence of Bomberg, whose work was dominated by figures and landscapes drawn from life during the period of Creffield’s tutelage.12 Correspondingly, during the inter- and post-war period (at a time when his influence upon Creffield was paramount) Bomberg’s work became increasingly expressionistic, and the similarities between his work and Creffield’s English Cathedrals series may clearly be seen in Bomberg’s Self Portrait of 1931. In the exhibition’s catalogue, Creffield describes the importance of Bomberg in the germination of his dream to draw England’s cathedrals: ‘I’ve dreamed of doing so since I was 17 when as a student of David Bomberg I drew and painted in the cloisters of Westminster Abbey’.13 Given this early source of inspiration for the project, it is therefore entirely appropriate that Creffield should adopt this ‘Bombergian’ idiom to create his cathedral studies.

The drawings are also striking in Creffield’s economic use of line, which subscribes to Ludwig Wittgenstein’s idea of architecture as a gesture. Creffield explains: ‘By gesture (I mean) the significant stance that characterises and identifies people and things. Van Gogh remarks that we can identify an acquaintance from a great distance because we recognise their stance. We recognise familiar trees and animals in the same way...Each cathedral is a gesture – I respond with my gesture and the drawing is a mutual embrace.’14 This tendency to employ merely the salient details of a building to describe an architectural whole – his ‘gesture’ of a structure – permeates the entire English Cathedrals series. The selection of Coventry Cathedral’s great spire as the salient element of the cathedral (as one of the few remaining parts of the medieval building after the infamous ‘ Coventry Blitz’) is of great poignancy, serving both as a record of what remains, and as an insinuation to what has been lost.

Some time after drawing Coventry Cathedral, Creffield related his drawings back to the occasion of the medieval building’s destruction: ‘The spire and empty shell of the old cathedral church of Coventry is closely surrounded by tall trees, it is also in a secluded but busy part of the city centre. These two conditions dictated that I drew either in the winter or early spring at dawn or in the evening. I returned a number of times but the final drawings were made on the evening/morning of 23rd/24thMarch 1988. There was an angry, fitful, buffeting, equinoctial gale blowing and it was only later when looking at the drawings – I don't look at the drawings while drawing, I simply smell, listen and respond to them – that I recognised a visual emotional connection in them with that terrible night in 1940 when the cathedral was gutted by fire bombs.’15 That, as Creffield notes, he did not visualise the bombing of the cathedral whilst executing the images, but only later upon their completion, suggests there is something of ‘that terrible night’ in the very fabric, the ‘gesture’, of the cathedral, that Creffield could not help but capture. Accordingly, Creffield continues: ‘These occasions of unconscious sympathetic imagination (epiphanies) are the most revealing results of drawing for me. True discoveries without prior design – found passages through the wall of the past.'16 Of the three images, Coventry: The Old Cathedral Spire (3) is the most evocative of that storm, with the violent highlights of its dramatic tempest acting as metaphor for the Cathedral’s wartime fate.

The significance of these apparently simple charcoal sketches within the context of the artist’s oeuvre is their capacity to demonstrate consistent themes that reappear throughout his body of work. They reflect the continuing legacy of Bomberg as an influence in Creffield’s work, positing him clearly as a powerful force working in the Bombergian expressionist tradition. Further to this, many of the drawings featured in his English Cathedrals series are moving aesthetic achievements, showcasing Creffield’s remarkable descriptive faculties and innate ability to capture the essence of the cathedrals with as few marks as possible across the page. Images like The North Cloister at Gloucester Cathedral strike the perfect balance between creating an object of great aesthetic beauty, and one that captures the very essence of the scene it was attempting to replicate, brilliantly describing the cloister’s delicate fan vaulting with a minimum of linear elements.

Primarily though, Creffield’s images of Coventry represent the artist’s fascination with the past and heritage as present in many of his subsequent commissions. In 1990, for example, Creffield was awarded a prestigious series of commissions from the National Trust Foundation for Art, which were followed by his 1992 exhibition of Paintings and Drawings of London 1960-90 at London’s Barbican Gallery. More recently Creffield’s Impressions of Castles exhibition (2002), held at the Globe Gallery in Hay-on-Wye, continued the artist’s long-held interest in British history.17 When Creffield bemoans the appearance of a cathedral (as he does with that of Chester) it is only because it has been stripped of its history.18 As much as any other drawings in his English Cathedrals series, Creffield’s images of Coventry Cathedral express the importance of historicity to the artist’s work, but, in a manner reflecting the building’s tragic demise, in more evocative, immediate terms. In Coventry: The Old Cathedral Spire (3) Creffield loads the Cathedral’s spire with great emotional intensity, and as such, presents it as the very embodiment of the building’s tortuous history. Thanks to this remarkable strength of feeling, this sketch is amongst the most successful of Creffield’s cathedral studies – constituting one of his most raw and energetic responses to any of the cathedrals encountered by the artist.

Creffield’s images of Coventry Cathedral were also an immensely appropriate acquirement for the University of Warwick’s art collection. Aside from the campus’ geographical proximity to the Cathedral itself, in 1987 (just one year prior to the South Bank Centre touring exhibition) the Mead Gallery held the exhibition To Build a Cathedral: Coventry Cathedral 1945-62, which detailed the post-war history of the Cathedral, from the architectural competition announced following its destruction, to its subsequent rebuilding under the auspices of the winning architect, Sir Basil Spence. The accompanying exhibition catalogue was edited by Dr. Louise Campbell, a member of the University of Warwick’s History of Art department, and a specialist on the recent history of Coventry Cathedral. Hence, Creffield’s hauntingly beautiful drawings of Coventry Cathedral are not merely valuable as images featured in an interesting exhibition of English Cathedrals, or as aesthetic objects in their own right, but are instead representative of Warwick’s continuous relationship with, and thriving research culture into, the history of an iconic local monument: Coventry Cathedral.


Adam, R. ‘Drawing lessons: English cathedrals drawn by Dennis Creffield’, The Architect’s Journal, Vol. 12 (No. 81, 1988), p. 81
Buckham, D. Artists in Britain Since 1945, 1stedn. (Art Dictionaries, Ltd. London, 1988)
Cork, R. The Listener, (11 January, 1990)
Creffield, D. Artists’ Correspondence, University of Warwick Art Collection
Creffield, D., Jacobson, H. & Morris, L. Dennis Creffield - a retrospective: 11 March-3 April 2005, 1stedn. (Flowers East, London, 2005)
Drawings by Dennis Creffield: English CathedralsSouth Bank Centre, 1stedn. (South Bank Centre Publications, London, 1988)
Gale, I. Arts Review, (22 February, 1991)
Spalding, F. & Collins, J. Dictionary of British Art, Volume 6: 20thCentury Painters and Sculptors, 1stedn. (Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd. London, 1977)

1 Creffield’s other drawings of Coventry Cathedral are entitled Coventry: The Old Cathedral Spire (1) & (2), respectively.

2J. Drew & M. Harrison, ‘ Preface’, in Drawings by Dennis Creffield: English Cathedrals–< /font> South Bank Centre, 1stedn. (South Bank Centre Publications, London, 1988), p. 2
3 The relationship between the location of the galleries in which the exhibition was shown and the cathedrals depicted as part of the show is also emphasised in the exhibition catalogue. As the Arts Council’s then Director of Exhibitions, Joanna Drew notes, ‘happily, during the next two years, the exhibition will, in many instances, retrace the artists’ route and be seen in the cathedral cities themselves.’ Drew & Harrison, (1988), p. 2 R. B. Kitaj also highlights this association in his foreword ‘Like many beautiful places, you must make a special to see both cathedrals and Creffield’s exemplary work...’R. B. Kitaj, ‘Foreword’, in Drawings by Dennis Creffield: English CathedralsSouth Bank Centre, 1st edn. (South Bank Centre Publications, London, 1988), p. 3

4Drew & Harrison, (1988), p. 2

5D. Creffield, ‘The Project’ in Drawings by Dennis Creffield: English CathedralsSouth Bank Centre, 1stedn. (South Bank Centre Publications, London, 1988), p. 5

6Creffield, (1988), p. 5

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Creffield, (1988), p. 7

10 Creffield, (1988), p. 5

11 I. Gale, Arts Review, (22nd February, 1991), p. 98

12 D. Buckham, Artists in Britain Since 1945, 1stedn. (Art Dictionaries, Ltd., London, 1988), p. 350

13 Creffield, (1988), p. 5

14 Creffield, (1988), p. 8

15 D. Creffield, Artist’s Correspondence, University of Warwick Art Collection

16 Ibid.

17 Buckham, (1988), p. 350

18 Creffield states: ‘...poor Chester. It’s appalling – it must be the biggest ever sponsored act of vandalism against a cathedral in this country. Scott has managed to make a genuine medieval cathedral look like a municipal waterworks pretending to be one’. Creffield, (1988), p. 20