From Sacred Place to Outer Space: The Kneelers of Guildford Cathedral

By Will Barnes

About this time last year, my placement-based dissertation project at Guildford Cathedral began, and a year on, I could not have foreseen the impact it has had on my career trajectory, my University experience, the Cathedral community and myself personally. Initially, thoughts for the project centred on the Buy a Brick Campaign for the neo-gothic 20th century structure – the charitable community initiative that secured the building’s completion and its subsequent epithet ‘The People’s Cathedral’. However, following a meeting with key individuals of all things Guildford Cathedral, it became apparent that there was a strong community adoration for – and distinct lack of work on – the kneelers.

Guildford Cathedral. Photo: Will Barnes

For those unfamiliar with the Cathedral’s collection, first impressions of the topic are often accompanied by expressions of quizzical curiosity, familiar only with those made with plain leather or pre-bought kits. Yet one would only need to wander down the aisle of Guildford’s nave as I did on my first visit to be captivated by the diverse mixture of embroidered images. Displays of the SS. Oriana in dock hang alongside the golden yellow stitching that shape the winged lion of Saint Mark the Evangelist. Vast arrays of secular depictions dot the patchwork of sacred iconographies; resembling the interests, institutions, professions, internationally scattered locations and – most predominantly – the Christian faith of the Cathedral’s founding community.

One of the kneelers portraying the winged lion of Saint Mark, along with the crest of the Guildford Diocese and the Pentecostal flame.
Photo: Will Barnes

The excitable attention I received following the community’s awareness of this research proposal spoke of the social and cultural importance of the kneelers for the people of Guildford Cathedral. However, it wasn’t long before the energy behind the project became confounded by the knowledge that there were 1460 of these unorganized cushions of confession. Not only had I already agreed to archiving each and every kneeler, but this number was found to be 144 short of the actual total. Talk about making work for myself!

The vastness of this undertaking hit me like a wall of kneelers when I came across exactly that – a wall of kneelers – in the gallery of the transept. Nevertheless, it was a drop in the ocean in comparison to the undertaking of their creation as I’m sure you can already imagine. This treasured textile collection of 1604 kneelers required 33 years of organization, involved 709 volunteers, and took an estimated 240,600 hours of stitching to be completed!

Some of the kneelers stored in the one of the transept’s galleries.
Photo: Will Barnes

This grand endeavour was collaboratively curated by the architect of the Cathedral – Sir Edward Maufe – and his wife, Lady Prudence, who took charge of the helm whilst her husband was preoccupied with the building’s construction. It was their shared vision that founded the collection’s uniqueness, seeing their creation as not necessary only for the act of praying, but as also an opportunity to incorporate into their embroidery the ‘history of their own time’. As the archives tell, such an idea was embraced by all involved, seeing the entirety of the kneeler collection become the manifestation of the community’s values and ideas, both sacred and secular.

As a result of its popularity, the total number of kneelers has become so great that the vergers have to store them all over the Cathedral; something that the constant reshuffling of the construction works has only made worse. Consequentially, a whole horde of them had been relocated to the loft of Loseley House, fortunately requiring a day trip to the estate and an escape from the portacabin that the National Lottery Funded renovation had confined the project team to.

Loseley House. Photo: Will Barnes

With each being 16×10” in size, one can only begin to appreciate the sheer physical size of the collection. Yet with the guidance of a 1980’s scrapbook of film photographs and biro notes and with the helping hand of an exclusive team which included the professional photographer and friend Rhiannon Black and my own mum, 1604 kneelers were visually documented and Excel organized in 3 days. Well, this a lie. Throughout the months that followed the vergers and the Cathedral guides continued to find stray kneelers; each accepted with a smile through gritted teeth (I’m set to go back for an Open Day presentation on the 8th July and I’m sure there will be more waiting for me).

Rhi Black photographing a kneeler about photography. Photo: Will Barnes

A page of Jo Gray’s scrapbook of the kneelers. Photo: Will Barnes

Nevertheless, our Fordist assembly line of photography was a success, achieving in a few intense days (with the help of technology’s efficiency and organization) what Jo Gray – the author of the scrapbook – took the entirety of her retirement to complete. Rhi’s high-tech equipment and Photoshop skills have produced photographs that capture every single thread of every single kneeler, creating a digital archive that has permitted us to navigate a once impossibly vast collection and find specific kneelers – whether it be the famous portrayal of Sputnik in space or a personal one made by a relative.

One of the two famous Sputnik Kneelers. Photo: Will Barnes

Though an important public source of the establishment’s history (soon to be accessible on a touchscreen within the Cathedral), this documentation process was the foundation of my dissertation work, allowing me to conceive the once inconceivable and consider the unique embroidery of each piece within the context of the wider collection. It is difficult to express to you the true insights gained from their analysis without regurgitating the 57 pages of my dissertation write-up. Luckily for you, there is a possibility it may be written into a journal article, so you can read it anyway!

To spare you from such an ordeal, I’ll try and summarize it for you. The textile collection is a visual archive, representing the subjectivities of the founding community of the Cathedral. From this perspective, topics such as aviation, the navy/shipping, infrastructure, industry, agriculture and hobbies reflect a people caught within the accelerated change of 1950’s Britain as some looked back to tradition whilst others turned their gaze to the possibilities of modernity. The place of the Cathedral itself is also bound up within an assortment of other designs as the process of their creation enrolled the building into a relationship with spaces, times, things, people and events. Founded within the rules laid down by the Maufes as well as the creativity of the individual, the kneelers became part of the building’s dedication to the Holy Spirit and the location of the Cathedral within both religious and profane geographies and histories of the area and site. Bound within the stitching of the fabric remains a contemporary yet captivating social history.

Doing this work has been an amazing experience and it continues to open doors for me and my desire to pursue a career in research and writing, whether academic or not. Writing this post has also refreshed my mind, readying me for the next step of taking this research further! If you have any questions, feel free to contact me – my email address is William.Barnes.2014@live.rhul.ac.uk and my Twitter handle is willbarnesx. Thank you for reading!

For more on The People’s Cathedral Project at Guildford, please see their blog: https://peoplescathedral.wordpress.com/

To read my blogs from my placement last year, please see:
https://rhulgeogplacements.wordpress.com/author/wrcbarnes/

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