Salisbury Cathedral font – part icon, part water sculpture

For more than 150 years, Salisbury Cathedral had no permanent font. Instead, there was a small gothic-style Victorian basin that was wheeled out for baptisms from a side chapel.

Enter then Canon Treasurer and now Dean of Salisbury, the Very Reverend June Osborne, who set in motion the commission for a new permanent font. Rather than take the easy route of installing a neo-gothic clone of many other fonts, Osborne argued strenuously for a new work of art – something that would show Salisbury cathedral as looking forward rather than being constrained by its history. Osborne commissioned prominent British water sculptor William Pye.

Conscious that the church is renowned for its conservatism, Pye developed a series of designs which were placed in the cathedral to test the reaction of the parishioners – starting in 2001 – with the final design being approved in 2007. The result was gradual acceptance of a reflecting water surface as a font and a remarkable artistic achievement combining stillness and movement in the cruciform font – the largest in any UK cathedral.

Salisbury Cathedral font

Salisbury Cathedral font

The font measures 3m across (10 feet) with the vessel itself made from bronze, set onto a purbeck marble square base. The font is shaped to channel water into four spouts at the corners which pour into bronze drains set into the floor.

The surface is so smooth that visitors have been known to place bags and cameras on what they think is a hard shiny surface, only to see their belongings disappear into the water.

As the previous post here has noted, the font provides an excellent opportunity for some spectacular reflections of the stained glass windows.

Consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury on 28 September 2008, the font is a daring and great addition to the cathedral, and is admired by the many thousands of local and international visitors as well as the local congregation.

The photo was taken from the balcony over the West Front, during the start of the Tower tour – which will be the subject of a subsequent post 🙂


Turner was there – or close by…

Visiting the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum just adjacent to Salisbury Cathedral (review in a later post) we saw a lovely view of the cathedral painted by JWM Turner around 1828-29 – so it just predates the John Constable views. But this was special as it was a view from Old Sarum – the ancient hill fort just to the north of Salisbury. Naturally we had to set off to see if we could find it 🙂

Old Sarum is actually a fascinating place – used and re-used over the centuries, it began around 400BC as a late Iron Age hill fort, though some evidence points to possibly early Roman period, and later – following the Norman defeat of Harold in 1066 – the Normans built a castle on top to command the local countryside.

Turner’s watercolour painting appears to have been painted from one of the low ridges around the outer ditch earthworks of the ancient site. We climbed to the top and I took a couple of photos from the embankment above where Turner was painting – I think we came fairly close to his spot, and anyhow it was a fun quest to see if we could find the view, and see what it looks like today.

You can be the judge of how close we came. Here is Turner’s version:

A Distant View of Salisbury Cathedral form Old Sarum by JWM Turner - source: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum
A Distant View of Salisbury Cathedral from Old Sarum by JWM Turner – source: Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum

And here is my version:

A view of Salisbury Cathedral form Old Sarum

A view of Salisbury Cathedral from Old Sarum

Old Sarum is well worth a visit – it is a fascinating place with around 5000 years of history. But first, don’t forget to visit the Salisbury and South Wiltshire Museum – they have some great artworks and artefacts – many from nearby Stonehenge and from Old Sarum.

As you might guess from this – photo quests and challenges are a fun way to begin really looking at a place 🙂


Salisbury Cathedral – then and now

Salisbury Cathedral has been painted by several artists, including Turner and Constable. On finding a postcard of Constable’s painting “Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows” we thought it might be fun to try to find the same angle and photograph it – noting what may have changed in the intervening period since 1831 when he painted it one year after the death of his wife. The painting now hangs in the UK National Gallery in London.

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows - John Constable

Salisbury Cathedral from the Meadows – John Constable (Image credit: Wikipedia.com)

The water meadows are still around, but have moved a little further over. And the water is now mostly underground. In fact there is a small capstone in the cathedral beneath the tower where they lower a dipstick each day to measure the water level – which is only 27 inches beneath. So the water depicted in Constable’s painting is still there, as are the water meadows.

Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury Cathedral

Today the farmer’s dray is replaced by a white van, and green lawn and autumn leaves mark the path of the water course.

The building is amazing today – but imagine how it must have appeared to visitors in the middle ages, living in wooden houses and cramped conditions. It is simply breathtaking – there are more posts to come on this one!


Photographing at the Pont du Gard

As Sharon has pointed out in her blog post – I didn’t mention where we were driving in France – well one of the places was indeed the Pont du Gard – a UNESCO World Heritage site comprising a rather impressive Roman aquaduct crossing the River Gardon. Why did the water cross the River? Because the Romans wanted to use it at Nimes to drive some large industrial flour mills and of course to supply water to the Roman town.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Drawing it – as Sharon has noted – presents quite the challenge. So, once she found her her location I scrambled around looking for some photographic opportunities. Photography is not a passive occupation and it often involves a lot of walking, sometimes climbing and in this case very close to wading…

At this point I have a confession to make – I did attempt to take a number of photos last time we were here – but made a classic and dreadful mistake which has made me very careful for the future – namely, I took some photos in the shadows first and set the camera on ISO 1600. I then came out into the sun completely forgetting I had changed the sensitivity and blazed away at the Pont du Gard itself. It was a dazzlingly bright day – I couldn’t see the settings in the screen, no matter how much I shaded it – the result? about 30 completely blown out images. I vowed then that if we returned I would be more careful… Fast forward to today…

As a subject it is actually quite difficult to photograph such an immense structure. If you use a standard lens you can get the whole thing in, but only by walking way off into the distance, and then the aqueduct is just a thin line near the horizon. So the first thing is to take along a wide angle lens. I used a 10-24mm Tamron lens and it is great for getting large things in without having to go too far away. These lenses do give quite a bit of distortion, so the perspective can look a little strange. The key thing is how you frame up the subject.

In this case I was looking to get the whole thing in with a sense of it heading off into the distance, while retaining a sense of its height (50m) and length (490m). I took a few shots to try to get a nice angle and to get the sense of scale.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Next I thought about framing and went in closer on one of the arches as I saw in the distance a beautiful medieval town on the next hill down the valley. I got down near the waters edge for this and lined up a tower-like structure. I pushed the aperture to about f/11 to get both the bridge and the distant town in focus, framed by the arch.

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

Finally I decided to try for a nice reflection shot – getting the aqueduct reflected in the river below. I must have walked about 200m on each side of the aqueduct to find a spot where most of the aqueduct was reflected in the water. On one side some rocks near the surface meant the water was too choppy, so I tried the other side and seriously considered wading in and setting up the tripod in the shallow part of the river. But then I spotted a rocky outcrop in about the right place so only one leg of the tripod went into the water. That’s the beauty of carbon fibre tripods – they don’t rust! Mine is a Chinese Beike – which is actually a great tripod – especially when mated to a good quality head, like the manfrotto.

There were still some wind ripples to deal with. There is one easy way to do this kind of shot is to use a neutral density filter to cut down the light, then use a longer exposure. You wind up with glassy smooth water as the image is an average of all the ripples and it adds up to a smooth surface. You will need an exposure of about 3 seconds. At that point I realised I had left my filter back at the apartment in Arles, so I did the next best thing. I lowered the ISO to around 100, squeezed down the aperture to f/32 and that gave me an exposure of about 1/3 of a second. Not great, but it is better than nothing if you’re trying to lengthen the exposure – it works great for fountains too!

Pont du Gard

Pont du Gard

So all up I was quite happy with the shoot and deepened my appreciation for how the Romans built such a structure without mortar or cement – just well fitted stone up stone that has stood the test of time – including major floods in the 1600s and in 2003. The aqueduct has been painted by Turner and may other artists over the years – and sketched by Sharon.

There is a delightful legend about its construction. Once upon a time the townsfolk decided to build a bridge over the Gardon. But each time a master mason tried to build one, a flood came and washed the bridge away. In despair he said It’s time to sell my soul to the devil to get this built. The devil appeared and and said he would build the bridge for him, and the river will never destroy it. The price? not much, just the first person to cross the bridge. The mason agreed and the devil built it in one night. The mason went home and told his wife. His wife had an idea… The following morning the devil lay in wait. Earlier, a dog had caught a live hare and they had kept it. The devil smiled when he saw the mason approach carrying a bag. As he was about to step on the bridge he threw the bag with the hare in front of him and the hare raced across the bridge into the hands of the devil who was enraged by being tricked into taking an animal soul and turned the hare into stone where he can be seen to this day on the side of the bridge. And thus it is said that women have cheated the devil 🙂

There is a great visitor’s centre and museum, including a coffee shop and bistro and of course souvenirs. It is well worth a visit.