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Coventry Cathedral – a controversial building

Posted in Architecture, Arts and Crafts on Monday, 1 August 2011

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This edited article about Coventry Cathedral originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 1000 published on 9 May1981.

Coventry Cathedral, picture, image, illustration

Graham Sutherland and his tapestry for Coventry Cathedral (top); Basil Spence and his new cathedral at Coventry. Picture by John Keay

One November night, early in World War II, German bombs showered down on the city of Coventry, and the four fire-watchers who had been posted on Coventry Cathedral’s roof watched in horror as the night grew red with the flames of burning buildings.

When incendiary bombs began to fall on the cathedral itself, they doused them as best they could with buckets of sand and primitive stirrup pumps. But here and there in the ancient building, the fires began to take hold, while the weary fire-fighters toiled on, hoping desperately that the fire service would come to their aid.

They waited in vain, for many fire engines were busy elsewhere in the city, while others were unable to make their way along blocked roads. Within hours the cathedral was burning like a vast torch, and by dawn it was no more than a roofless, smoking shell.

Even during the grim days of the war it was decided that the cathedral would be rebuilt, but not until the war was over could anything be done about it. Then, in 1950, it was announced that a competition would be held for the best design of a new Coventry Cathedral. More than 200 entries were received and the winning design, judged anonymously as Entry No. 91, was that of Basil Spence, already a famous architect.

The judges saw the design as an outstanding achievement, but at the time the general public was less enthusiastic. They had imagined that the new cathedral would look at least something like the one that had been destroyed. But when the plans were published they realised that they were going to get something that was completely modern, with a flat roof and zig-zag walls. Angry letters were written, describing the new cathedral as “a modern horror” and worse.

Somehow Basil Spence and his supporters weathered the storm, and over the next few years he was to make literally hundreds of speeches, explaining what he planned to do. He felt that at a time when very few cathedrals were being built, it would be wrong to do no more than copy designs of the past. A great church should last many centuries, and should reflect the architecture of the age in which it was built.

The symbolism of his design and the way in which it incorporates the majestic ruins of the old cathedral have long since won over almost all critics, but at the time it created a sensation.

Not the least controversial feature was the tapestry that would take the place of the conventional great window behind the altar. The tapestry was to depict Christ in Glory, together with the beasts mentioned in the Book of Revelation.

On 1st June, 1959, the largest tapestry loom in the world was brought into use again for the making of the giant tapestry. It was to be 24 metres high and 12 metres wide – the largest work of its kind in the world.

The design was entrusted to the distinguished artist Graham Sutherland. Just as Spence was essentially a contemporary architect, Sutherland was a modern painter. So not surprisingly his preliminary sketches caused further discussion, although a traditional design would have looked out of place in a modern building. Spence was confident that the finished work would be exactly what was wanted, but he was faced with the major problem of finding someone who was capable of weaving a tapestry of such gigantic size.

The working drawing was quite small in the original, and this was photographed and enlarged up to the actual size. To create a tapestry, which consists of threads of woven wool, is an extraordinarily difficult and specialised craft, because the weavers, working at perhaps five threads per centimetre, have to interpret the subtle graduations of shade and colour that the artist has built up far more easily in paint.

At first Basil Spence entrusted the work to a Scottish firm, but they could only produce a finished tapestry of the required size by making it in 15 separate pieces which would eventually have to be stitched together. Both architect and artist felt that the tapestry should be woven in one piece, and so they approached the great French expert, Madame Cuttoli, who recommended the firm of Pinton Freres, of Felletin.

Felletin is near Aubusson, famous for centuries as the home of tapestries and carpets of the finest quality. Such a firm had craftsmen whose families had specialised in such work for generations, also had the advantage of the nearby River Creuse, whose water, being free of alkali, was ideal for fixing dyes that would have to retain their colours for hundreds of years. Pinton Freres also owned the mighty loom, on which would be woven the tapestry that would eventually weigh no less than one tonne.

Work on the cathedral and tapestry took 11 years, and when the building was consecrated in 1962 it was acknowledged as a major work of art. Visitors from all over the world visit Coventry to worship in the new cathedral, and walk in the quiet ruins nearby.

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