I spent some wonderful hours on Sunday at Gloucester Cathedral, taking in the Crucible2 exhibition which is on display there until October 31st. As well as a veritable who’s who of contemporary British sculpture, it’s also a fascinating study in how art and the spaces which contain art interact – the hundred sculptures are located quite carefully throughout the cathedral’s buildings and grounds, and that makes for some really interesting juxtapositions. It was exciting both to see such artwork in the wild (Damien Hirst’s Fallen Angel, for instance, has not previously been exhibited in public), but also to see so ancient a venue energised and re-contextualised in this way.
On the other hand, one of the effects of the statues is to direct visitors’ attentions back to the cathedral itself: as you inspect the walls and the floors for pieces of art (some are fairly squirrelled away in apses and chapels), you see again the fabric of the building itself, and it was great to see people inspecting the monuments and windows of the cathedral with as much interest as they took in a Chadwick or a Lucas.
For instance, my eye was drawn to the mortuary monument of three-time early modern mayor of Gloucester, Thomas Machen. Graduating from the position of Sheriff (which his father Henry had also held), Machen was mayor in 1579, 1588 and 1601. He is depicted in the monument wearing his mayoral robes and accompanied by his wife and thirteen children. What was interesting about this monument was the way in which the family were depicted: all were in pious poses and dressed in black, the colour of choice of the godly, those hotter kinds of Protestant posterity knows most popularly as the Puritans. Indeed, along with his son-in-law, Thomas Rich (who succeeded Machen as mayor), he was the leader of Gloucester’s godly faction: for instance, during the election for James I’s first parliament in 1604, Machen and Rich were arrayed against another alderman, John Jones, whom was described by Rich as being “dependent upon the bishop” – a sorry state of affairs for any self-respecting Puritan.
Machen was a merchant dealing in wheat and malt, and Puritans have long been seen as associated with the burgeoning ranks of the ‘middling sort’ in this period. He was, however, conspiciously successful: his trade was so good that he maintained a farm at Crickley (where UoG students can today enjoy a walk in the country park), purchased the substantial manor of Condicote, not far from Stow-on-the-Wold in 1599 – and had a yearly income of £400, with between £5000 and £10,000 in assets. Perhaps this explains the detail of the monument that most struck me: his family’s elaborate ruffs. These fashionable neck decorations were often condemned by godly preachers as a sign of vanity, and in my own work I consider how popular prophets and so-called ‘monstrous births’ alike were often interpreted as offering evidence of divine disfavour for the frilly fashions of the day.
So: what was a good, godly merchant like Machen doing wearing a ruff for all eternity on his sober and pious monument? We might reflect that even godly factions had their spectrums of belief and practice, or that allegiance in the period wasn’t so easy to unpick (after all, Machen was an pro-corporation candidate for the 1604 Parliament, and an anti-corporation candidate in 1614!). These are some of the themes of my third-year module on Puritanism which is set to start in the next few weeks. Such, then, are the thoughts that can come to us about the past even when we’re only a little down the road from home.
I can really recommend a visit to Gloucester in the next few months – visit the statues, and Henry Machen!