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Art in the City - Coventry Cathedral

Presented by Alexandra Epps

8th November 2022

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Art in the City - an unassuming title for a fast paced, fact-packed gloriously colourful lecture by Alexandra Epps given to The Arts Society Alton on 08/11/22.

Alexandra reminded us that Coventry was the only British city to lose its Cathedral in World War 2. On the fateful night of 14/11/1940 such terror rained down that nothing, but shell-shocked walls and open sky remained.  Famously two charred pieces of wood fallen in the shape of a cross inspired the long process of rebuilding.

219 architectural practices submitted designs, but it was Basil Spence who won. On hearing the news, he passed out with shock.  His vision of “a plain jewel casket with many jewels” actually became a reality, a rare thing in architectural design. This casket slowly evolved over a period of 10 years with the building being consecrated in 1962 after 70 miles of scaffolding eventually came down. When asked why there was an 80ft radio mast in place of a conventional spire, helicoptered into place by the RAF and topped with a modernist cross by Geoffrey Clarke, Spence is reported to have replied “To better receive the message from Heaven”. Spence chose the finest of British 20th century craftsmen, some old, some unheard of, some misunderstood but all to become national treasures.


Jacob Epstein, whose massive St Michael vanquishing the Devil with a 25 ft spear took inspiration from swan wings to achieve the right sense of aerodynamic movement hovers over the main entrance. Elisabeth Frink, then unknown, created the brooding and craggy eagle lectern.  John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens started at the top of the 198 lights in the dazzling baptistry window as they didn’t know how it was going to work. They thought their mistakes would be hidden so high up and they would know what they were doing by the time they got lower.


Graham Sutherland designed and oversaw the vibrant green Christ in Glory tapestry at the East End woven on a 500-year-old loom to the size of a tennis court.


John Hutton, a New Zealand glass engraver, spent 8 years engraving 31 saints and 35 angels on clear glass for the West End. The wings this time were modelled on owl’s wings.  Each 8 feet tall they formed the visual bridge between old and new cathedrals “looking at the past through the lens of the present” flooding the Cathedral with light.  They also caused structural engineer Ove Arup a lot of anxiety because of the weight involved which is hard to believe when standing looking at the delicacy of the wings and slender trumpets.


No detail was too small to be thought about with Lucien Freud making the 10 bronze doorhandles of the West doors cast in the shape of his daughter Annabelle’s face.  Spence commissioned Lawrence Lee, a tutor at the Royal Academy, to work with two of his students, Keith New and Geoffrey Clarke, to produce the magnificent God side and Man side nave windows. A bold decision that the skill and vison of these young glass artists more than repaid adding bold shades when looking west down the nave.


If you have never been to Coventry. – make haste to see these jewels.

Lucy Picton-Turbervill

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A member of The Arts Society
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