One year on: back to St. Martin’s, Bilborough

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERALast time I wrote about the ‘Hidden Treasures ‘of St. Martin, in November 2013, it was all about plans to bring this medieval gem of a church out of its cocoon and put it back on to the map of Nottingham’s cultural treasures. Well, something amazing happened and an application for Heritage Lottery Funding was successful, and work has started at St. Martin’s in earnest. So, I went back both to have another look and explore ways in which maybe I and my students at the University of Nottingham can play a part in making the many treasures of St. Martin’s more accessible. I should make it clear that when I say treasures I don’t mean literally treasures in heaps of gold and precious stones, but rather historical treasures; the value of St. Martin is not one that can be measured in monetary terms but in intangible but infinitely more pervasive terms of ‘impact’. Because where St. Martin stands now has been a settlement for at least 1200 years, and around St. Martin’s has revolved the life of a community, waxing and waning in significance until really,recently,the community had almost outgrown it’s little church and had almost forgotten about it. But not quite…. Concealed under a truly hideous and spectacularly insensitive extension, in itself a sign of its decade (in this case the Seventies), lies a one- aisle medieval church, extended and refashioned by a Victorian patron, and decorated in 1946  with an extraordinary fresco by the painter Evelyn Gibbs. The 1972 extension enveloped, as in a time capsule, Gibbs’ frescoes (possibly the only remaining work by her that remains in situ) and also protected the medieval heart of the church. The building therefore  retains memories of key moments in the history of the church and the community that surrounds it, and the Heritage Lottery Funding awarded the church now offers the amazing opportunity of removing the additions that have hitherto hidden St. Martin’s treasures, allowing art historians, archaeologists and historians to get to work on this fascinating little church. Well, I hope there wont be too many of those descending on St. Martin- there is only so much space on the scaffolding after all!- but it really is enormously exciting to see how much has been achived in the past year, and how far the project has come.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt this point, much of the work has focused on re-establishing the dimensions of the old church, with stripping away the 1970s additions, and restoring the East-West Axis between the nave and the bell tower. The aesthetic impact on the speace has been dramatic,and there is already a real sense again of an organic interior space with its own character, despite the floor being up, wires trailing everywhere and all the pews removed! At the moment, much of the work is focussing on restoration and repair, and also damp proofing in order to safeguard St. Martin’s against future damage. So inside the floor has been taken up to put underfloor heating in, and outside a team of  workers are busy repointing the stonework.

But what about Gibbs’ frescoes? Well, at the moment the 1970s suspended ceiling that has concealed Gibbs’ murals for the past 40 years remains for the moment, but not for much longer: work on the murals and the blocked up East Window is scheduled to commence in the autumn, and this new access to the work will allow for new work to be carried out on the murals, which remain too little known. Gibbs and her assistant Claude Price painted an ‘Annunciation’. but one that takes the Virgin Mary firmly out of her little house in Bethlehem and places her within the context of Nottingham, with glimpses of the Old Bilborough Village and Wollaton Hall

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA(easily visible from the vantage point of St. Martin’s fifteenth- century bell tower) behind the figures of Mary and Gabriel, so the recognisably local setting of this particular ‘Annunciation’ seems to suggest a message of hope and new beginning for the little community of Bilborough after the conclusion of WWII, the occupation of the village by French Canadian troops, the heavy losses of soldiers sustained by this Community in both World Wars. The fresco has not been studied, and I for one am itching to get at it.

This blog will undoubtedly return to St. Martin’s regularly over the next few years, so have a look at how the restoration unfolds and come and have a look as the doors are opening  – my first set of images, taken in July 2014, are posted here

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