I’m lucky enough to live within easy striking distance of one of the greatest medieval English cathedrals – Ely Cathedral. It’s fondly called the ‘Ship of the Fens’ locally, as it can be seen rising impressively out of the flat farmland for miles around.
Yesterday was an unexpected holiday for my husband and me, so given that the weather forecast was appalling, we decided to go indoor sketching at the cathedral for a treat. This plan became not entirely straightforward. As luck would have it, Netflix were filming an episode of their new series ‘The Crown’ at the cathedral. It was as if the circus had rolled into town – I’ve never seen so many pantechnicons, lighting rigs and men standing round with coffees in one place. As a result, parts of the cathedral were out of bounds to visitors, but we still found an accessible corner from which to sketch.
I chose the view towards the altar, which was lit by a huge daylight lamp and looked spectacular, with the intricate fretwork of the wooden screen showing starkly in contrast, and the octagonal lantern tower above it.
The experienced sketcher will already know what happened next – as soon as I’d got my framework laid out, they turned off the lamp, so the view I’d hoped to capture had changed character completely. Next, the fire alarm went off, everyone was evacuated…and then, fortunately, readmitted. No fire, thankfully. So, once we’d got settled back in, some serious sketching was able to commence. About half an hour later the main lights were switched on, which did help us to see what we were doing a bit better, but changed the shadows yet again. Ha ha! They were certainly keeping us on our toes.
I’d chosen not to bring watercolours, thinking that they might be too much faff for the type of scene I’d be sketching. I ended up being very pleased that I’d chosen to use A4 grey cartridge paper and conte pastels instead – these gave me the perfect excuse to omit lots of detail (and believe me, there is a HUGE amount of detail in the interior of this cathedral) and focus on the bigger structural elements instead. I find it’s just impossible to get too fiddly with a conte pastel.
The net result is still quite a complex picture, despite my reductions and omissions. There are a number of areas where, architecturally and geometrically, this drawing doesn’t add up. However, I find that the overall effect does capture something of how the interior felt, and the sheer, overwhelming size and complexity of the building. As I’m reminded whenever I visit, those medieval architects knew a thing or two!