New Music at the Cathedral for City of Culture

Jonathan Rathbone.

A new musical work has been commissioned by the Friends of Coventry Cathedral as a contribution to Coventry’s year as the UK City of Culture. 

The commission is of new canticles (Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis) that will be sung in the Cathedral at Choral Evensong on Sunday 16th May 2021.   That date was selected a long time ago, and it is quite by chance that it falls in the launch weekend of the City’s Year.   Coventry plays a big part in this initiative, providing not only the venue but also the composer and the singers.

The composer, Jonathan Rathbone, was taught and sang as a chorister in the Cathedral Choir under David Lepine, the new Cathedral’s first Director of Music.   Both his father and grandfather sang in the Cathedral Choir before him.   Jonathan went on to sing with the Swingle Singers before being appointed their music director for some ten years.   He now leads five choirs (when the virus allows!) and works as a composer

Coventry Cathedral Choir truly belongs to the city.   The choristers are recruited from schools and diverse communities right across Coventry.    There is no private and exclusive choir school in Coventry as exists in many other Cathedral cities, and membership of the choir is open to all young people who demonstrate commitment and a desire to sing well.

The arrangements for the premiere performance depend on the Covid-19 restrictions operating at the time.  The effect of socially-distanced seating in the Cathedral is to reduce the capacity from 2,000 to 200!  

Coventry Society – Annual Report 2021

Over the past year the Coventry Society has had to adapt, very rapidly, to new ways of working. Covid requirements have resulted in all meetings being held online. These meetings included committee meetings, general meetings, meetings with City Councillors and Council officers and one of our Members of Parliament together with other groups and organisations with which we regularly liaise.

We were also forced to cancel our usual program of visits. We more than compensated for this by arranging a set of wide ranging and fascinating talks presented, online, by experts who really added to our knowledge and understanding of the impressive heritage of our City and the contributions made to the arts, engineering, architecture, innovation and literature.

The list of contributors included:

  • James Rose, the Charterhouse Mural
  • Chris Patrick, Conserving Birmingham’s heritage.
  • Dan Taylor, Government changes to the planning system in England.
  • Paul Henderson and Paul Nolan, Life and works of Frederick Lanchester.
  • Dr. Mark Webb, Drapers Hall.
  • Sebastian Hicks, The Coventry University MA architecture course.
  • James Knight, Computer simulation of old Coventry rebuilt.
  • Dr. Cathy Hunt, the Centenary of Women Councillors in Coventry City Council.
  • Trish Willets, the Bid (Business Improvement District).
  • Matt Willemson, Designs for the Coventry Retail market.
  • Peter Walters and Trevor Cornfoot, Celebrating the history of the War Memorial Park.
  • Dr. Geraldine Hammersley, Murphy and King, Coventry Silversmiths.
  • Chenine Bhathena, City of Culture 2021

As the Covid epidemic took hold of the city, the committee published a discussion paper encouraging the development of a new vision for the city that took account of the changes that the epidemic would bring about. Trevor Cornfoot and other committee members took this paper to various public discussion forums. The paper was well received, but it would be fair to say that we haven’t yet seen the public agencies come to terms with the changes that we are all going to have to face.

Our Social media is now reaching many more people regularly reaching over 7500 people per month. This is thanks to John Payne and Nicola Norman who are continually posting relevant news. Nicola also added to our credibility with a much younger demographic by turning over our social media to a group of young Coventry people for Civic Day in 2020. This also gained us valuable positive media coverage. Additionally, our membership has increased during the lock down. This can be attributed to our social media offering and also to the impressive program of talks during the year

Unfortunately, our committee has lost two valuable members this year – Les Fawcett who kept a diligent eye on planning proposals and John Purcell who feels that he can contribute more by concentrating upon the heritage group. I thank them both for their significant contributions to the Society.

Our invaluable Treasurer Colin Walker is still wishing to stand down but has continued to support the committee until a replacement is found.

We are now looking for a treasurer and to welcome new active members to our committee. We are also looking to nominate our next Chair. 

For the first time one of our Members of Parliament has met with The Society. We asked for a meeting and Zarah Sultana MP was pleased to attend. The main topic was the absence of affordable housing as part of the City Centre south proposed development plans. She was most receptive to our comments and, I am sure, found us a valuable and reliable source of information, expertise and feedback.

City Centre South dominated our year

We also raised the subject of Student accommodation and reinforced our feelings that we have no antipathy towards students but we are finding it difficult to discover how much more accommodation is required for the future in addition to the 15,000 units already built. We are finding a lack of transparency from Coventry University we asked for her help.

Student housing is beginning to dominate the city centre.

We have held meetings with David Butler, head of Planning Policy and Environment, Chris Styles, Head of Conservation and Design for Coventry City Council and after a three year wait, the new Conservation Officer, Charlotte Stranks. We were keen to raise a number of issues which had been on hold since the last Conservation Officer left to join Birmingham City as their Head of Conservation. However as all three had only recently joined the City Council, very few answers were forthcoming.

We have had a number of meetings with Tim Weatherhill to find ways of supporting the tree planting initiatives within the City.

We have responded to three important consultations during the year. In October we published a detailed response to the Government’s proposals to seriously weaken the planning system in England. In February we commented on the Council’s Urban Forestry Strategy and this last month we responded to a Council consultation on the draft Statement of Community Involvement. We feel that the council’s plans for future consultation lack ambition. 

The Planning White Paper will change planning for ever

We have published our views about City Centre South and with the help of Nicola and Civic Voice we have published a consultation survey to obtain wider public views on the City Centre South proposed development. We are awaiting its completion and will publish the results as soon as we have them.

We have maintained our monitoring of planning issues and requests and regularly publish the most important or controversial of these and bring them to the attention of our members and to the wider public in a simplified as way as possible including links directly to the plans involved. This is a valuable service produced by the Coventry Society.

We have expressed concerns and opinions on a number of issues during the year. The virus has significantly and possibly permanently changed the shopping habits of the population. It has speeded up the already growing trend towards on line shopping, so we have to also change our vision of the City Centre. Debenhams is closed, Ikea has gone BHS is still empty and with the possibility of student numbers also dropping we could also be faced with empty student accommodation blocks in the City Centre too. It is therefore important that the City Centre South development, the largest development since the 1950s, is subjected to proper consultation and scrutiny, with 1500 dwellings proposed this is more residential than retail and entertainment. We have always campaigned for more residential in the Centre but the current plan does not include provision for affordable housing either for sale or rent. Some of the buildings are much taller than those in the area and we have a number of important and valuable artworks that are not properly accounted for in their current plans.

We are concerned that a Grade Two listing has seemed to offer no protection from inappropriate additions requiring damage to St Mary’s Guild Hall and the virtual destruction of the Architects building and courtyard also developments attempting to encroach upon Conservation Areas such as that which requires the demolition of the former Paris cinema.

Spot Civic Centre II?

Increasingly, we are being asked to give our opinion on projects within the City, most recently being invited to attend meetings regarding the design and finished appearance of the Station.

Our Blue plaque scheme is a valuable resource as it is a reminder that Coventry had, and still has, many talented and famous citizens and that they are all ‘one of us’. They are a useful guide to the City heritage for students and other visitors to Coventry. We have a number of requests and suggestions for new plaques which will be considered as soon as Covid and our budget permit.

The care of our public art continues to be of concern. It cannot be the case that decisions regarding display are left up to developers. As far as twentieth century public art is concerned The Twentieth Century Society has the advantage of being a statuary consultee and I have been liaising with them regarding the artworks which will be involved in the City Centre South project. Nevertheless, art which is kept in a warehouse is no longer public art and we are continually seeking answers to when many of our ‘stored’ artworks can be displayed again.

Vince Hammersley, Chair

April 2021

My Carbon Family

As part of City of Culture, the City Council is commissioning new public artwork intended to address climate change issues. My Carbon Family is a ‘family’ of sculptures commissioned to work as a 3-D sculptural bar chart – an innovative multimedia project to help people to better understand the unseen carbon emissions from materials we all use.

Every one of us causes a vast amount of energy-intensive materials to be used every year, with high CO2 emissions to match.

BBC News will make five digital videos and a World TV documentary / iplayer examining the production and use of the materials whilst also documenting the artists whilst they create their individual pieces. The making of the sculptures will provide a visual narrative to the broadcast materials.

The idea was first proposed by BBC journalist Roger Harrabin and Artist Simon Bingle and the project will be widely covered by the BBC, including a BBC World documentary. Creative Giants have been brought on-board to manage this project of which the outcome will be a public artwork – My Carbon Family. It will encourage a dialogue with Coventry residents and visitors regarding their own carbon footprint and a wider discussion of the Climate Crisis.

The artworks will consist of a group of five sculptural forms to be installed together in a central city outdoor location. Each artwork will be created by a different artist with Coventry and Midlands artists and makers particularly sought, although other UK artists are also encouraged to apply.

The artworks themselves will each be made using one specific material, cement, steel, aluminium, plastic and paper/card. These represent the five main materials contributing to climate change due to the amount of carbon-intensive energy used in their manufacture.

These forms will be based on human size, loosely anthropomorphic in form and non-gendered. The size of each figure will roughly correspond to the amount of carbon produced on behalf of every UK citizen per year. Once installed, each of these artworks will have a digital element embedded within or next to them. The audience will then be able to interact with the artwork and be prompted to raise questions about their own carbon footprint data and wider climate issues.

The Council wants to engage Coventry residents with this project to ensure a sense of ownership and relevance. This will be done through a series of engagement activities as part of the making process.

The artworks will aim to be installed towards the end of 2021 to coincide with the United Nations Climate Change Conference (C.O.P) on the 1st November.

The sculptures will relate to one another in their scale and the proportion of their respective carbon foot-print.

Simon Bingle (Lead Artist) will be working with all the selected Artists as a team, to curate all the individual designs in a collaborative process. The sculptures will work together as a collection (or family) of artworks and will each be made primarily from one single material.

The sculptural forms are to be loosely anthropomorphic in nature but the commissioners are looking for more abstract pieces rather than direct human figures. “We are particularly keen to use recycled, repurposed or sustainable versions of these materials. This gives an exciting opportunity to work with new environmentally friendly and cutting edge materials.”

The project seeks to engage Coventry residents to ensure a sense of ownership and relevance. At least two of the commissions will be awarded to artists from the West Midlands or with connections to the area. All of the selected artists will be asked to propose engagement activities as part of the making or design process. Each of the commissions will work with a different group and be able to offer at least one workshop or activity.

Each of the 5 artworks will be allocated a budget in the region of £8,000 – £15,000 depending on the complexity, size and material costs of each design. This includes all design and artist fees, fabrication, material costs and expenses and excludes VAT. There is a separate budget for engagement, installation, haulage of artworks to site and professional fees, such as structural engineers.

The sculpture will have a lifespan of 5-10 years. Each of the sculptures must be made primarily from one material – Plastic, Steel, Aluminium, Paper/Card. The Concrete sculpture will be made by Lead Artist Simon Bingle.

The deadline for artists to submit their briefs for one of these commissions is 25th April.

Photo at top – Jason deCaires Taylor, The Rising Tide. The sculpture in the Thames is only visible at high tide.

Bishop Gate – the old and the new!

Historian and CovSoc member David Fry tells us about one of the city’s medieval gates.

A few coincidences have prompted this bit of research into one of Coventry’s lost gates:

In preparing a talk on the history of the Coventry Canal I had found that the canal basin was built in an area known as Bishopgate, named after one of the medieval town wall’s  gates. It was especially striking that it had only been demolished five years earlier than the opening of the canal basin in 1761, a symbolic moment in Coventry history when an icon of the medieval age gave way to the first step in Coventry’s industrial revolution.

Figure 1. Bishop Gate – inside town view

A search for an image of the gate proved unsuccessful until the recent launch of the invaluable new Coventry Atlas website and there was a sketch made in the eighteenth century of the inside of the gate (Fig.1). Sadly none seem to have survived of the outside of the gate; this would have been more impressive as appears to be the case for some of the other gates in the town wall that were on the major routes. It was named Bishop Gate because it marked the entry point of Bishops from Lichfield coming to the shared bishopric with Coventry. It was an important entry point and should have had a gate to suit.

Then in clearing the house of a keen student of Coventry history who had recently passed away I came across a few photocopied pages of the reminiscences of a Mr Richard Jelliffe written towards the end of his life in the mid nineteenth century. He had been born in Bishop Gate in September 1762! More particularly he wrote “in the tower of Bishop Gate”. As no tower can be seen in the sketch it might be concluded that the gate was configured like that of Gosford Gate with a rather grander turreted view to the outside of the wall and a rather plainer view on the inside (Fig 2 & 3).

Figure 2 – Gosford Gate – Outside view Figure 3 – Gosford Gate – Inside view

With the name Bishop Gate applied to the recently opened Coventry University owned student accommodation, the old building has got an impressive heir (Fig. 4). Its 725 rooms in various configurations make it an impressive landmark alongside where the old gate stood which was an equally impressive landmark in Bishop Street, but will the latest Bishop Gate also last for four hundred years?

Figure 4 – Bishopgate Student development – photo Barberry Developments

Beyer – A Man of Letters

In 2015 The Archers’ Lynda and Robert Snell are making a garden at Ambridge Hall as a memorial to the victims of the village’s floods that year. The garden’s centrepiece is a carved stone. While the stone is waiting to be placed into position old Joe Grundy puts on his glasses and has a good close look at it and says – “Hey, who has carved this? The letters, they are all different sizes and not even, all up and down, like it’s been done with a nail!” Lynda replies – “Joe, it’s called Beyer’s font and it was used in The Coventry Cathedral and yes it does have a certain organic, unregimented, pre-industrial feel to it, but that’s the whole point.” Joe – “Oh so it’s meant to look like that?” The word carved into the stone is Resurgam: I shall rise again.

This started me thinking about the wonderful lettering of Ralph Beyer. His work is a bit like Marmite: some love it, some hate it. As I am a Coventry Cathedral guide and I like talking about its art and architecture, I would like to talk about Ralph’s life, his artwork, his father’s influence and Basil Spence’s faith in him.

Ralph Alexander Beyer was a German letter-cutter, sculptor and teacher. His long career linked him to some of the pioneers of early 20th century lettering in Germany and Britain, but his own work was quite different from that of his contemporaries and provoked admiration and detraction in equal measure.

Ralph Beyer was born in Berlin in 1921. His father Oskar was a well-known art historian. When Beyer came to England in 1937 with the rise of Nazism, the family fled Germany. He became apprenticed to the sculptor and typeface designer Eric Gill for a few formative months. He studied at the Central School of Arts & Crafts and was taught by the sculptor Henry Moore at Chelsea School of Art.

On 7th March 1940 he married Anne Yvonne Poole (they were both 18) and that same year he was interned as an enemy alien and sent to Huyton Camp near Liverpool. During Beyer’s internment he met Kurt Jooss, a choreographer. He also befriended the historian and architect Nicholas Pevsner and discussed with him an early draft of his book An Outline of European Architecture. In turn Beyer was greatly influenced by Pevsner’s ideas on modern art and architecture. Much later, in 1956, it was Pevsner who introduced Beyer to Basil Spence, who was looking for an artist to carry out lettering work on the interior of the new Coventry Cathedral.

Ralph Beyer did not spend all his wartime in internment: he was drafted into the pioneer corps and later worked as an interpreter in Germany. Here he found his father, brother, and sister, ‘in a pitiful state’ just outside Berlin. Sadly his mother had not survived Auschwitz and had died in April 1945 after an ill-fated decision to return to Germany. Ralph remained in the army for six years then returned to England, where he attended art school and briefly taught at St Christopher’s School, Letchworth, before working in various building and carvers’ workshops. Following this he set up his own workshop.

Ralph’s father Oskar had been a writer on art and religion and the author of many books, including two important studies of the early Christian symbols and inscriptions in the Roman catacombs. Inspired by the books Ralph developed his own informal approach to carved lettering. He showed his father’s books to Basil Spence and was able to persuade him that the lettering for the eight ‘Tablets of the Word’ did not have to be standard formal lettering.

Beyer was influenced by his father’s books on early Christian symbolism

‘The Tablets of the Word’ are 8 nave inscriptions made in 1960/61 from Pink Hollington sandstone, each one measuring approximately 4.6 x 2 metres (15ft. x 6ft.). The inscriptions on them are Biblical quotes from St. Johns Gospel, carved by Bayer in a very basic, naive style with an early Christian influence. This is the job for which he is best known, a commission of huge and daunting importance. Lettering was envisaged in every part of the building, carved in stone or cut from metal and inlaid in the cathedral floor.

Beyer and his assistant Michael Watson worked in freezing temperatures in what was in effect a building site. This remains the most significant work of British public lettering of the 20th century. He also carved the scallop seashell shaped bowl into the Baptism Rock from Bethlehem. The Scallop Shell is used as a symbol of direction along the Camino, pointing pilgrims towards Santiago. Pilgrims also wear this symbol themselves which further enhances the camaraderie along this great walking trail. It is quite useful to assure yourself that you’re on the right track.

Beyer’s unique typography style, known as ‘Felt’ and locally known as the ‘Coventry Type’ was in effect a customised corporate font for the new cathedral. This typeface has been used for the past 59 years as the typeface on everything the Cathedral produces – publications, books, posters, signs, merchandise and it even appears on hymn books. While he was working in Coventry, Beyer married for a second time, to Hilary Stephenson Reynolds, a secretary at the BBC Library, his first marriage having ended in divorce. Throughout his life he practised as a sculptor, sometimes combining his work with lettering. His last home was in Teddington, near London.

Ralph Beyer died of a heart attack on 13th February 2008, aged 87.

A new book The Inscriptions of Ralph Beyer by John Neilson, who is himself a lettercarver and designer, was recently published by Lund Humphries, with a foreword by Edmund de Waal. It is profusely illustrated, with 125 B&W illustrations and 195 colour illustrations. The 176 page paperback is available from bookshops and online for £19.95. It places his inscriptions, and to a lesser extent his typeface design and sculpture, in context, in the process raising questions about hand lettering itself and what place the making of stone inscriptions may have in the modern world. It charts Beyer’s increasing sensitivity to words and their realisation in stone.

An online talk by the author in conversation with design historian Tanya Harrod and a contribution from Edmund de Waal can be seen here.

Paul Maddocks, Deputy Chair of CovSoc