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Monday, August 18, 2008

Funky Font Makes Big Splash in Salisbury

Note: saw this story in the Telegraph UK.

At first I though, "No way! Not it staid old Briton!" Then I remembered that the dean of the cathedral is a woman - June Osborne - one of the best preachers in UK and one who is rumored to be among the first appointed to the episcopacy (when that finally happens).

Here. Enjoy!

by Michael Wright
Last Updated: 12:01am BST 16/08/2008

In cathedrals, time passes slowly; change is anathema. It is not just the bishop's sermon that can seem to last for eternity. Words echo. Light travels more sedately, filtered through stained glass.

Our great churches themselves, many of which took hundreds of years to build, are symbols of permanence and stability. They can be dustily remote places, too, where faith has fossilised and visitors gawp, clutching their guide books with a kind of disconnected awe.

Hats off, then, to Salisbury Cathedral, which is about to witness one of the most radical alterations in its 750-year history, with the introduction of the largest working font - and arguably the largest permanent art installation - in any British cathedral.

More than this, when the Archbishop of Canterbury baptises the first Christians in it on September 28, Salisbury's new font will also be the only one that flows with "living" water. In other words, instead of being a static basin, the new font - designed by Britain's most distinguished water sculptor, William Pye - will be a gushing, splashing attention-seeker in its own right.

"This is a font, not a water feature," insists June Osborne, the Dean of Salisbury, who has nurtured the project from the start. "It's not just something pleasing and aesthetic to have around. It's an invitation to all our visitors, whether they're Christians or not; a statement, as they come in through the door, of the Christian conviction of life after death. The font is a reminder that they have entered not just a historic building but a sacred space. They're on holy ground."

Osborne observes that water is a "hugely important" symbol for Christians, with baptism the gateway to membership of the church. So it is perhaps surprising that, for at least the past 200 years, Salisbury Cathedral has not had its own permanent font. Instead, a small Victorian object - neo-gothic and portable - has been kept in a side chapel and wheeled out for baptisms.

The need for a new font was, therefore, glaring. An easy fix would have been to have some faux-medieval object carved in stone, with one of those forbidding metal lids on top, as seen in most large parish churches in Britain. Instead, thanks to the determined inspiration of both Osborne and Pye, a historic opportunity to create something new and daringly beautiful for the cathedral has been seized.

Pye's creation is unlike any other font, anywhere in the world. Cruciform in shape, the 10ft wide vessel, filled to its very brim with water, will stand on a massive square base clad in Purbeck freestone, to match the dark Purbeck marble of the cathedrals's slender columns. From a spout at each of its four corners, water will smoothly and continuously overflow in perfect cords or filaments, through gleaming bronze gratings in the stone floor.

While some may argue that Salisbury's new font is a vigorous demonstration of the church's energy and willingness to move with the times, others are not so happy. Indeed, as David Barke, 67, a surveyor and self-professed "old fogey" who has been a member of the congregation for more than 40 years, observes: "Many of us who love this place are wary of change for change's sake. Even the repainting of the organ pipes a few years ago caused a frightful rumpus."

Nevertheless, gentle persuasion has triumphed over fierce principles. It helps that the £180,000 cost of the project has been entirely funded by donations. It helps, too, that the final design, to be installed in a few weeks, represents the culmination of an ongoing 10-year project through which, little by little, Salisbury's parishioners have gently been introduced to the idea of a new and permanent font in their midst.

Every few years, a different water sculpture by Pye has been set, temporarily, in the nave: to test the water, so to speak, and - in so doing - to pour oil on troubled ones. Never can Nimbys have been so nimbly thwarted.

"I would say 90 per cent are in happy anticipation, five per cent are nervously expectant and five per cent are probably apoplectic," says Pye. "It would be very boring if it was just ignored. This happens with a lot of public art; after the fuss, people don't notice it any more." There seems little danger of this at Salisbury, where the new font will be a large and unmissable feature at the north porch crossing, its four spouts silently running with a ceaseless supply of gleaming water.

"Some people will use it, like the Trevi fountain, and throw coins in it," says Osborne, with a smile. "And others will see it, and they will cry, because it will remind them of God's unconditional love for them." Whatever the case, there is every chance that this spectacular new creation will be part of the fabric of Salisbury Cathedral for at least the next three or four hundred years. "It's there forever," says Pye, quietly. In cathedrals, time passes slowly; change is anathema, after all.

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Lindy said...

I have given you an award on account of your great insight and right-on blog posts. You can pick it up over at my place whenever you take a notion to.

Brian R said...

Thanks for this. As a senior person who has problems in that area, I hope it is really silent. The continuous sound of running water can have many people running out for relief. :-)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Wow, Lindy, what an honor. Even my sainted mother, who was a kick-ass-and-take-names-later kinda gal, would be proud of me.

Brian r - well, darlin', all I can say is that you've got friends in low places - including moi. I'm of an age that I never miss an opportunity to make that 'special visit to that special seat'.

JCF said...

Pye's creation is unlike any other font, anywhere in the world.

Eye of the beholder, but this seems a bit of a stretch. Roman Catholics have been building "running water fonts" (in various shapes and sizes) for some time now (I assume other traditions have them, too, but the ones I'm familiar with are RC)

That said: it's lovely.

Fran said...

I loved reading this, ever interested in the intersection of change, of old meets new and what comes forth.

Plus it just looks really cool!

I am also reminded of a visit to Salisbury in 1984 and my awe at visiting the Cathedral.

Alas, these many years later in 2008, I find myself in that same position as you, Brian R and others, now that we have reached a certain level of life experience! Or age!

P.S. You are very kick ass-y.

Lapinbizarre said...

Nice addition. At 10' wide, will there be the option of total immersion for adults, or will the practice still be confined to ConEvo's?

Salisbury has had the bad luck to be stripped of ornaments twice, not counting the Reformation - once in the 1790's by the architect Wyatt, who cleared out a great deal of the remaining mediaeval "debris", including a 300'+ bell tower! (according to Wiki, Salisbury still has no bells), and again in the 1960's, when it was stripped of what the Victorians has added in their attempt to make good on Wyatt's house-cleaning.

Which rambling leads to the point that there's lots of space at Salisbury, and a need, in what is now an internally all-too-bare cathedral - for projects like this.

June Butler said...

I love the font. It's beautiful.

Never can Nimbys have been so nimbly thwarted.

I love that sentence, Michael Wright.

JCF said...

I was there in 1980, Fran (to date me---please? ;-) ---the trip was my high school graduation present).

I think it was mid-week. We (parents and I) arrived in the early afternoon, to find---Oh joy!---there was a concert in the Cathedral that evening.

Of all the places to hear Beethoven's Fifth, there are much worse places than Salisbury Cathedral, I can tell you...