The first of a series of regularly updated Viewing Rooms highlighting particular series of works from Dennis Creffield’s career.
‘The best things of their kind since Mondrian’s church facades’
In 1987, the South Bank Board under the direction of Michael Harrison
commissioned Dennis Creffield to draw all 26 of England’s medieval
cathedrals. He set out on Valentine’s Day morning, and for six months
travelled some 10,000 miles around the country in his campervan. He would
set up his easel in front of his subjects from 4am in the morning (to avoid the
tourists) and work until dusk.
‘No artist has ever before drawn all the English medieval cathedrals – not even Turner’
Creffield's love of these buildings took root early. ‘No artist has ever before drawn all the English medieval cathedrals - not even Turner', he wrote. '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.’ It was, as R.B. Kitaj pointed out, a ‘brilliant’ commission – a dream come true for the artist, who gladly adopted the role of latter-day pilgrim; his companions across the country were the 14th-century ascetic Mother Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s Culture and Value.
‘“Architecture is a gesture”, says Wittgenstein. Each cathedral is a gesture – I respond with my gesture and the drawing is a mutual embrace’
‘One of the most significant achievements of English draughtsmanship, indeed of English art’
— Peter Fuller
Creffield was not only interested in the spiritual nature of these cathedrals. Peter Fuller, the critic and founder of the journal Modern Painters, wrote that ‘Creffield knew his cathedrals the way older people know Shakespeare’ – and was keen to point out the similarities of the churches and the plays. ‘The ebullience, the cosmoslike vastness!’ – Creffield appreciated these buildings, at one and the same time, on a divine and intimately human scale. Their quirks of character and style were a revelation at once of divine nature, and of the personalities of those anonymous medieval builders with whom Creffield felt a deep affinity; the artist wrote about each cathedral’s eccentrities in his detailed notes for the exhibition catalogue.
‘Ely is queer [...] In the evening light it sometimes looked like some great Leviathan spewed up out of the fens’
‘The terrifying cathedral. Even from a distance it rages like a bonfire on its hill’
‘One of the lesser known cathedrals and one of my favourites. The most theatrical of them all with its great west front like the biggest stage set in the world’
‘His cathedrals tremble like lovers; his lovers are as mysterious in their nakedness as cathedrals’
— Howard Jacobson
Sleeping in their shadows – allowing ‘their shapes to fill my dreams’ – Creffield came to understand the cathedrals as living organisms. That he succeeded in showing them as such, communicating his own profoundly familiar relationship with these monumental structures, is what gives his charcoals their distinct place in the history of art. Sometimes the towers appear to ‘stoop’, as the critic Alexandra Harris has written, ‘like tall men entering a homely room’; Creffield himself noted that the steeples of Canterbury might be ‘licked like Angel Delight’. Above all, he described the act of drawing these cathedrals as a ‘mutual embrace’. Fusing the spiritual and physical worlds, these works represent perhaps the clearest expression of the force that animated Creffield throughout his career: at once divine fervour, and what the novelist Harold Jacobson has called ‘the exhilaration of the carnal.’
‘Creffield is one of England’s closely guarded secrets and it’s about time someone blew his cover…’
— R.B. Kitaj
After Creffield’s six-month marathon, the works themselves were sent on a tour of England, with the South Bank’s exhibition beginning in the cathedral town of Winchester in 1988 and ending at Camden Arts Centre in 1990. The display was hugely successful, bringing Creffield firmly into the public eye. Henri Cartier-Bresson was so taken with them that he invited the artist to meet him in Paris. This success brought in its wake further architectural commissions, from the cathedrals of France to a request from the National Trust to draw the atomic facilities at Orford Ness. More recently, a solo exhibition of the cathedral drawings took place at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, in 2014. Today, the cathedral drawings are represented in the collections of public institutions worldwide, from the Tate (which has six) to LACMA.
Unlike many artists, Creffield held painting and drawing in like esteem, so perhaps it is apt that, of all the series from the artist’s long and multifaceted career, it is a suite of drawings for which he remains best known. As the curator Lynda Morris reflected, ‘I learnt from [Creffield] that drawing is a desperately profound business.’
The Invisible Recorder – clip
Courtesy Malachite Art Films
- Creffield, Dennis, with foreword by R.B. Kitaj, English Cathedrals, (exh. cat., South Bank Centre, 1987)
- Fuller, Peter, Modern Painters: Reflections on British Art, vol 1., 1988
- Harris, Alexandra, ‘Dennis Creffield’, in Dennis Creffield: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (Waterhouse & Dodd, 2018)
- Jacobson, Howard, ‘Foreword’, in Dennis Creffield: A Retrospective, exh. cat. (Flowers East, 2005)