As the advertising blurb for this short film points out there are more than 20,000 (Anglican) parish churches in England. It advocates that even on the shortest of journeys, whether by foot, cycle, car or train, the traveller could expect to pass at least one or two of them. An Artist Looks at Churches is presented by one of Britain’s greatest 20th century artists, John Piper (1903-92), who has selected a number of buildings given in roughly chronological order. He visits and describes them during this short British Transport Film made in 1959.
Nine churches, built over a period nine centuries are explored (see list at end of post). Piper begins with the Church of St. Mary & St. David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire constructed around 1140 and concludes with St. Bernadette's RC Church, Lancaster, Lancashire which was completed in 1958. At the time of the film it was brand new. At this latter church, the attractive free-standing tower has since been demolished.
During his investigations, Piper ‘reveals the beauty and riches of architecture, decoration, carving and sculpture aged in mellow stone and weathered glass; the art of the wood carver and the sculptor, and in doing so finds that through the centuries the portrayal of the human face and figure has been an unfailing source of inspiration to all who have brought their talents to the service of the Church.’
The music for this film was composed by Peter Racine Fricker (1920-1990) during 1958 and was recorded at the Beaconsfield Studios on May 6, 1959. The Sinfonia of London was conducted by the composer. The score features flute, oboe, trumpet, harp, 6 violins, 4 violas, 3 cellos, double bass. I understand that it remains in manuscript.
Other works by Fricker at this time included his Comedy Overture, op.32 (1958), the Toccata for piano and orchestra, op.33 (1959) and the Pastorale for organ (1959).
The film opens with no music, just birdsong and Piper’s footsteps: however after a few moments the chimes of various churches begin to ring. This is the cue for Fricker to introduce some bell-like figurations with a rough-hewn tune supported by dissonant harmonies. Sometimes, as the score develops the music becomes a little more contemplative, with hints of Ralph Vaughan Williams in his more acerbic mood. This is no pastoral fantasy, but does often have an intangible English feel to it. Fricker uses the string cantilena as one of his devices throughout this work, although this is hardly modal, is more chromatic, and does not echo RVWs pastoral symphony. If anything, it is more like the second subject of the opening movement of the Symphony No.4 in F minor. Sometimes, as at the section when Piper is reconnoitring Shottisbrooke, he pulls a hummable tune. Views of some fields in the landscape are accompanied by music reminiscent of Aaron Copland’s wide open prairies.
The mood changes, as John Piper explores East Budleigh Church (All Saints), in Devon where Fricker matches the grotesque, but often charming, carvings with rustic dance music tinged with something nautical or shanty-like. His style alters once again when providing the accompaniment to the visit to St. Mary's Church, Lydiard Tregoze, near Swindon in Wiltshire. Here he seems to recapture the mood of 1950s romantic films, but only for a very short time. This is pushed to one side by a passage of ‘splashy arpeggios’ underlining the effigy of Viscount Bolinbroke and his pages.
As Piper begins to examine churches from the nineteenth century Gothic Revival, Fricker turns his hand to some reflective woodwind writing which is almost idyllic in its effect. A brief visit to Sir Ninian Comper’s beautiful St. Phillips Church, Cosham, Portsmouth, Hampshire is accompanied by brass and strings.
The music that complements images of Graham Sutherland’s ‘Crucifixion’, at St. Matthew's Church, Northampton, features a harsh oboe melody. Finally, as the film concludes with a study of Henry Moore’s early sculpture Madonna and Child, Fricker uses a gorgeous string quartet passage before reprising the bell-like figurations of opening. The film concludes as it began with bells and birdsong.
An Artist Looks at Churches was reviewed in Monthly Film Bulletin (April 1961):
A documentary which looks briefly at church architecture in England from the middle Ages to the present day. A commentary, written and spoken by John Piper, points out the changes and developments which took place between each period, and gives something of the background which led to them.
This is a good subject, but unfortunately marred by having too little time to say anything significant. The rapid progression from one style of architecture to another in the film gives a good idea of development as a whole - from eighteenth century classical grace, for example, to the nineteenth century preoccupation with the Gothic as a sop to its own materialism. But there is only room for one church to represent each period, and often only for one or two features to represent each church. Consequently one comes away with an impression of certain trends (if, that is to say, so few examples can be truly representative) but also with a feeling of superficiality. John Piper's rather poetic, well-delivered commentary helps to mitigate this failing, as does some very sensitive photography of these works of art in their English settings.
The churches featured in the film include:-
Opening/Closing Credits: Ellesborough, Saints Peter and Paul
Church of St. Mary & St. David, Kilpeck, Herefordshire
St. Leonards Church, Grateley, Hampshire
Blessed Virgin Mary's Church, Isle Abbotts, Somerset
St. John the Baptist's Church, Shottesbrooke, Berkshire
East Budleigh Church (All Saints), Devon
St. Mary's Church, Lydiard Tregoze, Wiltshire
Parish Church of St. Peter, Gayhurst, Buckinghamshire
St. Phillips Church, Cosham, Portsmouth, Hampshire
St. Bernadette's RC Church, Lancaster, Lancashire
St. Matthew's Church, Northampton, Northamptonshire
'An Artist Looks at Churches' is available on The British Transport Film Collection Volume 5.