Death and Alabaster

It is hot July in England. The dusty scent of harvesting and the silent dancing of brown butterflies amongst the tired grass informs my senses of where we are in the universal round. Quiet lanes take me deep into the Norfolk countryside to a place I discovered many years ago and then lost the knowledge of where to find it again. A recent interest in photographing the churches of the County led me back to the small church at Stratton Strawless; lying somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

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This unexceptional country church holds a true treasure inside its musty, cool interior. Along the southeast wall are two very creepy, tombs….or are they beautiful, poignant memorials to the great landowners of the parish?

The first that you see at the end of an aisle of secondhand books is the memorial to Thomas Marsham who died in 1638.

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He struggles to rise in his shroud and this, according to my research, is the first time the resurrection was portrayed on a memorial. His high position in the heirarchy of Freemasonry is carved below and a hideous collection of bones and dried hands seemingly press against a grill at the base of the memorial, creating a feeling of claustrophobia as I imagine myself thus imprisoned with the dead.

There are many memorials to the Marshams down the ages in this church but the only one to match that of Thomas is the tomb and memorial to the family of Henry Marsham. I feel instantly and extremely sad as I view the pale family praying to a God whose plan and will Henry presumably accepted as his family was destroyed one by one.

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The first of his family to die is Henry’s daughter Margaret at the age of one year. The dead, wrapped child stands like some weird pupa beside her mother. Henry’s wife Anne dies in childbirth with an unborn son in the June of 1678 and his son Henry junior follows at the age of twelve, being taken in the November of the same year. Henry dies in 1692.

I am unable to find out who the creators of these memorials were. Their work is highly skilled and accomplished, rendering in perfect realism the subjects. This I admire greatly and admiration begins to overcome what were feelings of revulsion mixed with fascination and sadness. These works are from an age so different from ours, telling us of their beliefs, their fears and imaginings, their story and perhaps of the requirement to be remembered in a way appropriate to the position they held in society.

The sculpted material is Alabaster, not marble as I had previously supposed. Alabaster is softer and easier to carve. It has a beautiful transluscency unlike marble but can be very carefully heated in boiling water to reduce this quality to produce a fake marble called Marmo di Castellino. Alabaster is porous and can be easily dyed to give it a more marble-like appearance, such as we see with these memorials. The memorials were restored in 2007 after the iron supports had rusted away and threatened to break up the Alabaster.

To the amateur historian and geneaologist of England’s past the Marsham memorials are a treasure. The necessity for great artistry to be used in order that the memorials were spectacular and would be beautiful to behold in ages to come means that they are undoubtedly works of art and ‘beautiful stuff’. However, one should never forget that within them lie what remains of people who lived and so can properly be used as a focus for a one-way communication with them. Is that not the true purpose of a memorial?

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Thomas Marsham resurrecting

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The Masonic symbols on Thomas Marsham’s memorial

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The sculpted skulls and bones on the Thomas Marsham memorial

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Henry Marsham junior’s epitaph

Discarded Hollywood Glamour

Neighbours moved away yesterday. They must have dropped a picture and left it on the street. Familiar faces catch my eye; one in particular always gets me thinking.

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I separate the damp poster from its smashed frame and lay it on the pavement. The photo is at once charming and amusing; it was taken at the premier of “How to marry a millionaire” in 1953. I love the interactive snap-shot-moment of these three stars.

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Lauren Bacall seems to be admiring – and tolerating with good humour – her husband, Humphrey Bogart, who is clearly admiring something else. I imagine that he has just wise-cracked something risqué to Marilyn about some juicy titbit that he has eaten and the need to wipe his fingers afterwards. And then of course, there’s Marilyn, the greatest female icon ever, just lapping up all the attention.

Everyone would know that smile. Not everyone would know of her courageous stand and work for women in the male-dominated Hollywood of the day. Few would know that after her death, investigators’ photos of her lying in her bed were published. Worse still, mortuary photos of her awaiting a post-mortem examination were likewise published. I know of no other celebrity whose person has suffered this particular violation of privacy nor been the subject of such a gross breach of medical ethics. I find it sad that such a bright star should die with such indignity.

The Lonely Planet at Terre Blanche

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Terre Blanche Golf Resort describes itself as a “Land of Inspiration in Provence.” In my mind, a reasonable claim. Even though it’s the French equivalent of Saint Andrews, I’m not only here for the golf. The club house and elegant surroundings are crammed with stylish contemporary sculpture. And big names too. However, despite the best efforts of the helpful staff, nobody can tell me the provenance of something that really captures my attention: a huge silver-steel-shiney orb sitting among some stunted oak trees that line the path down to the first tee. It is entirely out of place and all the more intriguing as a result.

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The object’s surface is covered with randomly spaced indentations of varying size; they are clearly meant to recall craters. It reminds of the first time I used a high powered telescope to look at the moon the surface of which is entirely covered by evidence of asteroid impacts. I read once about the “impact events” that have affected planet earth. Apparently, every 500,000 years an asteroid of more than 1km collides with earth; one of over 10 kilometres hits us every 20 million years (and extinguishes most life forms.) The reason that these craters are less obvious on earth as compared with the moon and other planets is simply because of water; many hit the sea and the signs of those that have had a terrestrial impact are slowly ground down by atmospheric erosion and plant life.

Fascinated, I wander around this lonely planet. I lay on a hand; the brilliant surface is smooth and very cold. On touching it with the tip of my nose, I detect a faint but definite metallic odour. I tap this beautiful sphere with my knuckles and am treated to a deep and distant resonant clang; it’s not a forest noise. Finding this sculpture here, completely discordant with it’s earthly surroundings, augments the other-worldly feel it gives out. Form and placement together result in an immensely satisfying piece of work. Does anyone know whose work it is? Or did it fall from the sky?

Herring Boats in Overstrand

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I imagine Overstrand in England’s late 19th century. It is winter. The grey North Sea can be heard crashing its rollers on the beach below the cliffs. The cry of gulls on the gale add but more wildness to the day. In the cottages here on the remote coast of North Norfolk, candlelight illuminates the dish of herring that form the evening meal of the population. This is a horsedrawn world, quiet, non-electric, non-digital, with time to think and ponder your life. Your heroes are the sailors who bring home these silver fishes for your dishes, the seamen, your relatives and friends, who brave the storms in their sailing boats – and latterly powered by steam engines – in order to harvest the great North Sea of its bounty. Death is always near; if not from drowning, he visits with disease and injury in a time long before our National Health Service. Such a different life from ours today!

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My imaginings were prompted by what I had just discovered on a hot, Summer’s afternoon whilst walking past an old cottage atop Overstrand’s cliffs. My eye had caught the exquisite rendering of herring boats – “drifters” – carved into the brickwork of the cottage wall. Each boat sails upon a sea of cement below the brick. The gaff-rigged sails, steam chimney and upward angled prow of the vessel speak of a deep knowledge of the subject.

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I feel a connection to a person now dead who took the time to scratch these important images of their life into the bricks. What was the purpose? Was it simply a love of the boats? Was it hero worship or some deeper, spiritual ceremony to bring luck or success in the hunt for the elusive shoals? All I have to work with is this evidence on the cottage wall. The rest is conjecture but nevertheless, I am in a culture now past. I gulp and a tear rolls. I am deeply moved.

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Here’s to you! Fishing here was your life; all consuming, necessary and endless. You were born, you fished and you died. Occasionally you would carve another boat on that cottage wall. Did you do it for me? Were you seeking some form of immortality? Whatever your reasons – thank you.

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Ben Wilson: “Chewing Gum Man”

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I have little left of my day in London. I hurry past the Black Friar pub and find the north end the pedestrian-only Millennium bridge. It is busy. Like everyone else, I am determined to get to the Tate Modern that beckons from the south side of the river. I want to see The Clock.

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In the middle of the bridge there’s guy lying down next to an open tool box. His clothes are daubed with paint of every colour. I say hello. He’s very friendly. I ask his name. “Ben Wilson.” He replies with a broad smile. “But people call me ‘chewing gum man’!”

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Ben is relaxed and chats to anyone who stops. He’s not obviously chewing gum. I ask him what he’s doing. It’s clear he’s been asked this a thousand times. “I’m painting the chewing gum!” I gawp. I look down around my feet and along the shiny aluminium walking surface. I see there are thousands of stuck-hard pieces of discarded chewing. The penny drops. Ben’s canvas is the chewing gum! “It’s a great day for painting.” he says. “It rained last night so the gum’s clean!”

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Using acrylic and enamel paints he has created hundreds of beautiful little fantasy designs scattered along the full span of the bridge. They include humanoid, animaloid and all sorts of -oids. Each is unique and intriguing. Some bear the names of visitors. I crouch to take photos. People trip over me; Tate-goers are too polite to curse me. Ben cheers me on.

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Ben is an exhibited painter and sculptor. This work, for which he is apparently well-known in London, was inspired by his distaste for any kind of rubbish on the streets. It is a truly imaginative initiative. However, he has generated controversy. Is this vandalism? He was once dragged down to the local police station for painting public property. Clever lawyers argued that he is not defacing private property but merely painting rubbish and therefore is breaking no law.

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Ben’s project requires an extraordinary dedication. It is as original and unexpected as it is opportunistic. I am totally uplifted. This has made my day. I skip down the steps to the Tate Modern where, I’m sure, the surface of the bridge will one day be exhibited.

Take a look at more of Bens work.