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ST. peter’s church, chippenham ‘the harvesting of light’: the art and design of frank roper


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ST. PETER’S CHURCH, CHIPPENHAM

THE HARVESTING OF LIGHT’: THE ART AND DESIGN OF FRANK ROPER





We have come through a shocking period of art – full of sentimental naturalism. We have to break back into profound realism. We have to show this awful journey to the Cross as something true and vital’. Frank Roper, ARCA, ARBS, OBE



ST PETER’S CHURCH: BACKGROUND

St Peter’s Church, Lordsmead was built in the late 1960s. It replaced an earlier church built in 1886 which proved to be inadequate as the population of Chippenham expanded and the focus of the church moved westwards. The architects were Messrs Kenneth Nealan, Tanner and Partners and the builders Dudley Coles Long. The cost of the church was £70,000 which was met from the Bishop’s appeal for new Churches and War Damage claims for bombed churches in the diocese which had become redundant and not been rebuilt. However the cost of the following elements was provided from the proceeds of a local bequest;



  • The Stations of the Cross stained glass windows – the only coloured glass in the church;

  • Candle holders for the main altar and Lady Chapel

  • Sanctuary Lamp Holder in the Lady Chapel

  • Flower bowls

  • Crucifix; and

  • A purpose built Nicholson organ.

The church is built of brick and reconstituted stone. It originally had a copper roof and fibreglass spire. The latter, originally hailed as a ‘discovery of the age’, leaked badly and similar problems affected the roof. Ultimately attempts to rectify the situation proved fruitless and they were replaced by a steel spire and a tiled roof. The church is six sided with no internal supports. The woodwork –including the pews which have since been removed to create a much more functional and adaptable space – is American ash. The metal work is of polystyrene cast aluminium.

In the mid 1990s a new church hall was added to the complex and this now provides a constantly used community hub for a wide range of local people and groups: young peoples dance, drama and music groups; the Lordsmead Play group; Guiding; the Tom Metcalfe Centre (a daycentre for adults with special needs); Wiltshire Wildlife Trust; and a local Parish Council.

Since the day of its construction St Peter’s has contained a ticking ‘time bomb’ in its very fabric: ‘concrete cancer’. The water penetration it has experienced has created stresses in the reinforced concrete which then breaks away. That process has now reached a stage where fundamental measures need to be taken to protect the church’s structure, and also its significant artistic and design heritage in the works of Frank Roper. These designs, in a variety of mediums, embellish the church both within and without and are now directly threatened by that continuing structural deterioration.

FRANK ROPER ARCA, ARBS, (1914-2000)

Background

Frank Roper was a distinguished artist and sculptor who studied at the Royal College of Art, was pupil and admirer of Henry Moore and vice Principal of Cardiff College of Art. He was one of the most prolific post-War artists and produced many important church commissions, including the lettered panel for the tomb of Bede in Durham Cathedral, the Lady Chapel Screen in St David’s Cathedral, the Crucifixion at Peterborough cathedral and figures at Wells cathedral. His best known work is probably his collaboration with Epstein and John Piper on the war damaged Llandaff Cathedral in Cardiff. There are many other examples of his work in churches throughout Wales. He also exhibited at the Royal Academy and collaborated with the controversial German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen on a series of twelve zodiac musical sculptures. He was the subject of two BBC documentaries: Mind into Metal (1964) and a programme in the ‘Look,Stranger’ series 12 years later. He was awarded an OBE in 1991 for his services to art.

Born in Haworth, Yorkshire, Frank Roper came from a family of stonemasons. He attended Keighley School of Art where, in 1933, he met his future wife and collaborator, Nora Ellison. Together they went on to study at the Royal College of Art in London where Roper was a student of Henry Moore. During the war Roper helped design tanks and minesweepers. In 1947, after appointments to art colleges in Lincoln and Sheffield, he became vice-principal at Cardiff Art School (later the College of Art and now Cardiff School of Art and Design). Though he thought of teaching as ‘a temporary measure’, he stayed on until 1973 and remained a tireless practitioner. He retired to be ‘free to play my own games’. His long term associate Maurice Carey recalled that even in his 80s, Roper was unstoppable in his ‘passion to make’.

Religious Art

Frank Roper began his church work in the 1950s. He carved ‘St Martin and the Beggar in wood for St Martin’s, Roath. In 1964 he developed a new metal sculpture technique in aluminium for the Stations of the Cross at St Martin’s and St Saviour’s Splott, Cardiff establishing a foundry on the ground floor of his home in Penarth and relegating his family to the upstairs rooms. This method involved encasing a polystyrene model in sand. Molten aluminium was then poured in, so vaporising the plastic and forming an identical casting. This allowed Roper to work on a larger scale as the metal’s lightness and strength permitting the construction of more complicated structures. The lower cost of aluminium compared to bronze also made it possible to use sculpture where normally there would not have been sufficient money available.) His work was noticed by the architect George Pace and Roper became, like Jacob Epstein and John Piper, one of the artists helping him to adorn Llandaff Cathedral after its wartime destruction.

He then worked, both with Pace and independently, in churches and cathedrals throughout England and Wales for over two decades. His collaboration with his wife Nora was especially fruitful in the area of etched and stained glass, where she was particularly influential in the choice of colour. In 2012, sculptures by Frank Roper were displayed at Victoria Methodist Church, Bristol, courtesy of the Methodist Church Collection of Modern, where there are plans to develop an arts ministry.

A modest man, Frank Roper is still little known, despite the range, depth and geographic extent of his superb mastery of wood, bronze, aluminium, glass and ceramics. Once described as a ‘self-effacing master, this perhaps reflects his humility in placing the function of devotion above the expression of the artist’s own personality. Like many artists in the 1950s and 60s he benefited indirectly from the bomb damage wreaked on churches by World War Two. The thirst for artistic language expressive of the post-war optimism also enabled him to use new materials and idioms, but traditional church-goers, as well as church authorities, sometimes found Roper’s work too challenging. Although his emotive and expressive sculptures showed his debt to mediaeval art, aluminium, for example, did not have traditional ecclesiastical associations and his work was direct in its expression of pain, compassion and grief. Commenting on the mixed feelings his Stations of the Cross for St Martin’s Church, Cardiff aroused, Roper said:

Many people have declared that my realism has inspired and excited them. But others have criticised my approach. For instance some people have complained that I have made Christ’s figure too emaciated, with elongated limbs and gaunt joints. But I feel that only in this way could I convey my idea of his emotional and physical suffering.’

His Stations of the Cross at St Saviour’s, Cardiff evoked similar criticism, some parishioners being quoted as saying that they were ‘coarse, weird and ugly’ and ‘much too modern and strange. Roper said at the time;

We have come through a shocking period of art – full of sentimental naturalism. We have to break back into profound realism. We have to show this awful journey to the Cross as something true and vital’.

His gilt aluminium reredos of the Last supper at St Martin-le-Grand, York was thought too avant-garde and relegated to the west end of the building. Church authorities were his one abiding horror.

At St. Peter’s Church in Chippenham, described as ‘one of the finest modern church buildings in Britain’, he and his wife Nora were commissioned to provide a comprehensive scheme to which he brought again his trade mark uncompromising realism dramatically displayed in a variety of mediums

ST PETER’S CHURCH AND THE ROPER DESIGN AND ARTISTIC LEGACY

A map identifying Roper’s work around England and Wales shows St Peter’s as possessing only etched glass, furnishings and sculpture. In fact the church is blessed with stained glass too in its Stations of the Cross, making it possibly one of the most comprehensive venues for the display of not only Roper’s wide range of artistic talents, but also that of his wife Nora.







The Peter Window

Entering the Church there is an immediate sense spaciousness and proportion. The main feature is the ‘Peter Window’ which floods the building with light. This depicts the church’s patron, St Peter in three forms: as fisherman, disciple and apostle. The smaller sections of the window illustrate some of his experiences. The keys, often the symbol of St Peter, suggest the Keys of the Kingdom of God (Matthew 16:19). The chains remind us that Peter was freed from prison and the chains that bound him by an angel (Acts 12:7). Simon was his name before Jesus called him to discipleship but Jesus soon began to call him Peter or Simon-Peter and later tells him ‘On this rock I will build my church’ (Matthew 16:18). Peter is from the Greek ‘petra’, meaning ‘rock’.


The ‘Peter Window’

and one of its constituent panels:

Feed my lambs’


‘Lovest thou me’ is the question Jesus asked Peter and his answer confirmed his allegiance resulting in the instruction to ‘Feed my lambs’ and ‘Feed my sheep’, giving him the responsibility to continue to spread the gospel.

The Cockerell reminds us that Peter denied Jesus three times (Mattew 26:69) ‘before the cock crowed’, as Jesus had foretold.

The third figure of Peter, as apostle and head of the church, shows him dressed in the robes of Pope.

A final small panel depicts the new church itself and thus the continuation of Peter’s gospel mission.



Details from the ‘Peter Window’: Apostle, Disciple and Fisherman

Other Church decoration

On each side of the entrance to the church are depicted various objects connected with Christ’s passion: the scourge, the cloak without seams, the dice etc.

The Crucifix dominates the western wall of the church and the altar. It is of special note because it again presents a realistic, unsentimental picture of the sacrifice and death on the cross.

Below it, on the altar, are examples of Roper’s caste aluminium technique in the shape of candlesticks. Their thorn like form is repeated throughout the church, even in the light fittings and the surround to the Nicholson organ. Writing of his work in Llandaff Cathedral Roper relates that Pace suggested that he:


The screen to the Lady Chapel The Crucifixion
seek inspiration by putting my head into a thorn bush, a painful operation intended to prevent my formalising or inflicting my conventions on the subject’.



Christ on the Cross

Further fine, but disturbing, images of Christ and Peter in etched glass crown the Narthex and Lady Chapel exits from the church together with sybols of the passion.

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Various etched glass elements reflecting Christ’s passion and Peter the disciple.

The Lady Chapel

The entrance from the church to the Lady Chapel is a decorative freize again using Roper’s trademark cast aluminium. It contains a fish motif, the first Christian symbol, together with the Paschal Lamb and the dove representing the Holy Spirit.



Details from the Lady Chapel entrace freize are shown above depicting the Christian symbol of the fish and reminding us of peter the fisherman; the Paschal Lamb bearing the banner ‘Ego Lux’ – ‘I am the Light’ - and the Dove representing the Holy Spirit – an appropriate symbol both of the incarnation and of the spread of Christianity after Pentecost.

The Lady Chapel is dedicated to the Blessed Virgin. The main decoration is the etched glass window of Mary presenting the Son of God to the sons of men. The publication: The Religious Works of Frank Roper: An Introduction (2003), notes that it creates ‘with the crystalline purity of its engraved glass a haunting example of his skill in the harvesting of light’.





The Lady Chapel Window with detailing

The Atrium

In the long corridor to the church rooms and hall can be found the superb stained glass fourteen Stations of the Cross.



Jesus condemned to be crucified Jesus taking up the cross Jesus falls for the first time



Jesus meets his mother Simon of Cyrene bears the cross A woman wipes the face of Jesus



Jesus falls a second time Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem Jesus falls a third time



Jesus stripped of his clothes The crucifixion Jesus dies on the cross



Jesus’ body is taken down The entombment Heritage recognised

A Heritage Site Now and For the Future

These notable ecclesiastical artistic and design achievements have been recognised by the selection of St Peter’s church, in 2006, as one of the Wiltshire sites for the National Heritage Open Days scheme, and was supported by the town’s Civic Society. The Three Crowns Diocesan News said that:

Those who know it need no convincing of the merits of this six sided church, with its interior strikingly embellished by the metalwork, stained and engraved glass of the renowned sculptor and artist Frank Roper.’

The Wiltshire Gazette and Herald described St. Peter’s as:

Tucked away in a quiet backwater, the church is reckoned to be one of the finest modern buildings in the UK. It is also an active and flourishing church...notable for its impressive interior most of which is the work of eminent church artist and sculptor Frank Roper. ...the interior contains spectacular stained glass, sculptures and fitments.’

This is the artistic and design heritage that we want to protect, now and for future generations through the further development of our church facilities. We want this building not simply to ‘harvest the light’ as Frank Roper intended, through the crystalline clarity of his etched glass, but also to ‘shine as a light’ across our local community: a source of both inspiration and practical support.

Ego Lux’: ‘I Am The Light’


Apostle & Bishop Disciple Fisherman The Peter Window by Night




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