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Residency Day 7

Back in the Chapel on an unseasonably warm February day. My plan is to spend three hours working in charcoal on a larger format, 65 x 50 cms.

I am not used to working on site, so haven’t really thought through the practicality of production. I wanted to replicate how most worshippers see the building, so I am on my knees looking up. Tavener is playing and I am trying to suppress the nausea that comes from constantly looking up and down. This is laced with the dank smell from proximity to the floor, plus the unsettling sound emanating from the abandoned floor heating grill. The knees and back plead for forgiveness.

My view from the floor.

The resultant image has a softness, a femininity that I hadn’t expected. Clearly drawn by a female hand, but is the life of Cornelia Connelly feeding through from my reading?

I consider a more sustainable approach and select the draped table in front of the main altar, my paper perched on my art case. I am drawn to the bronze work deep in the shadows.

The bronze barely visible beneath the altar.

The bronze in close up.

Charcoal on paper 65 x 50 cms.

I am drawn to the suffering, the mother’s response, to the feminine. I will be revisiting this image in charcoal and other mediums.

Next week I plan to return to the subject of suffering.


Residency Day 5 & 6

A nasty chest infection has coincided with my intention to learn more about the building and the people, but first an interesting question from a reader. What does looking at the charcoal drawings I produced on my last visit invoke in me, in particular the second drawing?

This was the drawing where I introduced music, which I felt blurred the desire to replicate. I can sense ghosts and torment in the detail, housed in a structure that transcends. I can see the layering of years and emotion. I can see this medium is a perfect way for me to explore, perhaps on a larger scale.

Cornelia Connelly 18091879

My writing in this and future research blogs is not intended as an academic work, but merely as background. My two sources for this post are Flaxman’s book and the Society’s own biography of Cornelia.

My quest is to make connections with the building. It is not to retell the life story of its principal occupant. However, a brief summary of key points will help focus historical context and also help clarify personal connections.

When I started this journey I was at a loss to understand how I, a non believer from the 21st century would have any connection with a 19th century Catholic nun. How wrong was I!

A cropped image of Cornelia from the cover of A Woman Styled Bold by Radegunde Flaxman, 1991.

Cornelia was the founding mother of the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, founded on the belief that working class girls needed to be educated, a path chosen for her by God. Indeed Pope Gregory XVI’s declaration to her that she was called to do great work in God’s Church, changed her view of the world.

The journey that led to this decision was quite extraordinary. Born in Philadelphia, we join her at the age of 22 in 1831, just married to Pierce, an Episcopalian minister, they travelled West by stagecoach for nearly six days along rutted tracks to Pittsburg, where they boarded a steamboat for the 1700 mile journey to Natchez in the Deep South.

They bought a small house and by 1835 they had two children and Pierce was gaining recognition for his work. When passed over for promotion and increasingly drawn to the unpopular Catholic Church, he resigns and seeks introductions in St Louis via his Catholic influence. By November the young couple with a 3 year old and baby leave for St Louis, Pierce with thoughts of becoming a priest, Cornelia increasingly influenced by the Catholic religion.

By January 1836 they were on their way to Rome. It became increasingly obvious that Pierce was fiercely ambitious seeking introductions that ultimately led to an audience with the Pope. Pierce was befriended by the Earl of Shrewsbury and spent the summer on his estate at Alton Towers, where he met Augustus Welby Pugin, who would later design the Chapel at St Leonards.

It became apparent to Cornelia that Pierce was prepared to sacrifice his marriage for this ambition. Cornelia turned to God.

In 1837 their third child, John Henry was born while they were touring Northern Europe. A downturn in the US financial market prompted their return to Natchez and financial ruin. Pierce took a Jesuit teaching post in Grand Coteau, Louisiana. In the summer of 1839 at the age of 6 weeks, their fourth child, Mary Magdalene died. The couple attended a spiritual retreat at the end of 1839, after which Cornelia declared she belonged entirely to God, and Pierce was reawakened to join the Catholic priesthood.

In 1840 John Henry was knocked into a vat of boiling sugar by the family dog. Cornelia nursed him for 43 hours before he died, connecting her experience with the mother of Jesus, to help her find solace. By the autumn she was pregnant with their fifth child. On the 13 October Pierce confirmed his priesthood intention, a decision that required her permission and a vow of perpetual chastity. Years later she would state that the Society if the Holy Child Jesus was founded that day, on a breaking heart.

Ever single-minded, Pierce sold the house they bought the year before, took Mercer to boarding school in England, and travelled to Rome, leaving Cornelia, Ady and the newborn Frank with the Religious of the Sacred Heart convent. Cornelia was required to give her permission in person in Rome, so Pierce summoned her and she arrived with the children in December 1843. He petitioned for ordination in March 1844, when they signed a decree of separation. At no time had Cornelia’s wishes been taken into consideration. At this point in history women and possessions belonged to the man!

While in Rome Pierce continued to visit Cornelia and the children weekly, but once she moved to Derby, under the sponsorship of Bishop Wiseman, to start her Society, everything changed. The children were sent to boarding school and Pierce was not permitted to visit. It slowly dawned on Pierce that Cornelia was no longer his property.

As a mother of six (including three stepchildren), who has also lost a young child and one through tragic circumstances, it is impossible for me not to connect to her pain of motherhood. We took opposing paths but our decisions could so easily have been otherwise. Cornelia founded the Society on a breaking heart, while I find myself undertaking this residency in similar circumstances.

Residency Day 4

Following a drawing day at Charterhouse yesterday exploring response to the architecture, I wanted to continue with the charcoal work here today.  My aim is capture my emotional response.  Charcoal is an expressive, forgiving medium.

Using the side of a finger sized piece of willow charcoal I describe the form of my chosen corner.  I am attracted by the sunshine pouring in through the dark recess, by the majestic pillars framing the view.



The drawing is 16 x 12 inches on paper.

I wanted to see whether having music playing while I draw made a difference to how I produce the work.  I found myself more lost in the second work, seeing but not seeing, somehow feeling my way into the piece, less concerned with likeness.


16 x 12 inches on paper.

A complex view, too much detail would have distracted from my objective.

My initial attraction had been to the red chairs, but as with much of my work, I got sidetracked.


That said, I have recently sold a painting called The Red Chair, so these chairs may well make it into a painting in the future, as I do seem to be drawn to them.


The Red Chair, 60 x 60 cms, Watercolour on canvas.

In the afternoon I was joined by a fellow artist, as I wanted to be able  to discuss ideas with someone who has experienced the space.  She also happens to be a Catholic, so it was interesting to see how she engaged with the building from a religious perspective.  So very different.  Whereas I am drawn to colour and form, she focused on the layout of the building and the holy elements, spotting elements that I hadn’t even noticed.

The next couple of weeks I plan to research the history of the building.  In particular I want to know more about the Holy Child Jesus Order and also the background to the building.  Why is it here in St Leonards?  Is this the original layout?  What is the timeline for the development?







Residency Day 3

Another beautiful morning, with the sunlight casting colourful images. Today I am focusing on patterns, shapes, forms, repetitions. By observing, absorbing, I am enabling the fabric of the building to seep into my unconscious. At this stage I have no intention for the work. I am just being.

I am not alone, I have managed to download Sir John Tavener’s work. The Hidden Face, my first experience of John’s work, and favourite, fills the space and my engagement is transformed. This is a majestic building but somehow not tall enough for when the piece reaches its crescendo. The music unifies the space, where in silence the interior feels lacking. The arches feel more purposeful, lifting my thoughts and spirits heavenward as the power of the music grows. Hypnotic, wordless, releasing, transforming, hauntingly beautiful. An absolute privilege to have known the man, to have been witness to his creative genius.

There is power in repetition of form, of musical phrasing, in building on what went before.

I record the forms that beckon me. I notice the inscription and record the stained glass, the murals, the altars. Who would have thought that the Latin learnt years ago would come in useful.

A random dog, who I later learn is called Target, wanders in for second time and hovers by the same spot near the altar. Who knows what lurks beneath.

I am reminded to take the charcoal rubbings on tissue of the grill that so fascinates Target. I also take a rubbing of an altar motif and one from a bench end.

Refreshed and warmed by a comfort lunch and sunshine, I return to silence and icy stillness.

Why did the music make such a difference to how the space is experienced? How could that difference be conveyed?

Seated on a pew I am aware of how they are designed to make you look down. To look forward or, worse still, upwards, causes severe back pain. The kneeling step also promotes the looking down. In this enforced bowed position there is little distraction save the muted mural and the backs of other worshippers. The delights of the building, the ornate structures, the glorious embellishments, the streaming sunlight, happen out of eyeline, as if to catch a glimpse is to be distracted from your rightful purpose, your worshipful purpose, to not be reverential. It is only on entering and leaving that you become aware of the majestic jewel like nature of the interior. Know your place.

Residency Day 2

Today is cooler and cloudy. The huge entrance door is shut to retain what little warmth there is.

Wrapped in my duvet coat I sit before the alter, a magestic structure honouring Jesus the boy and the man.

Today I want to experience the feel of the chapel, rather than it’s visual qualities. I sit with eyes shut. The chill air presses against my face. The sensation is not unlike a face pack. There is a silent ringing in my ears. Real life is a distant hum. The air smells of oldness, containment.

The sun must have come out. The red and the blue of the southern window shine bright, but not for long.

I am intrigued by the ornate structure above the boy. It feels top heavy, as if it could fall forward at any moment. I am reminded of Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona (1882). I don’t profess to understand the symbolism of such structures. I need to focus on how it makes me feel and not how it appears, or it’s meaning.

Today I want to explore the ‘feel’ of the colours within the chapel that are much more subdued, than the stain glass. The wall panels, in various stages of decay, (ignoring the religious symbolism), faintly echo Virginia Woolf’s home, Charleston. The subdued red, green, ochre, and elsewhere the dominance of red, green and the muted beige palette of sandstone. The chairs grouped purposefully around the alter, the carpeted treads leading up to the boy Jesus, the kneeling cushion before the alter to Mary, the prayer chairs, the draped fabric, the embedded tableaux. The exception, and clearly a later addition, are the blue painted radiators that line the side walls, obscuring the lower panel.

I record the colours in watercolour. It is too cold to try to do more. I venture outside. The air is warmer, softer.

I would like to experience music in the chapel. I have downloaded some of John Tavener’s works in Spotify, but I am prevented by technology from listening today. I will try to unravel the mystery during the week and try again next week.

I return to contemplation, to the questions I need to formulate. I follow the tableaux of suffering that fill the space between the stain glass windows. The contrast of light and muted, of celebration and of sorrow, of grandeur and humble offering, the difference magnified by a burst of sunlight, that casts jewel-like patterns on the recesses of the windows, whilst casting the tableaux into further shadow.

My walk round the walls of suffering, round the edges of the building, the edges of life. Are the questions buried in the tableaux or floating in the chilled air, everywhere?

The light is starting to fade. I feel quite alone. No energy of former lives, no ghosts, just aloneness.

Residency Day 1

I have decided to work every Tuesday, at least through January.  I plan to arrive at 10am and leave around 4pm.

My first day was perfect.  The South facing entrance to the Chapel was bathed in sunlight on a crisp January day.  The sole key was used to open the imposing door and light flooded in.

My plan was to ‘just be’ in this historic building.  I came prepared with materials but did not expect to use them.

With no expectation, it is interesting how the mind fills the void.  My natural inclination is to plan, to anticipate, to expect the unexpected, yet here I was without direction.  A weird feeling.img_2394

I had expected to just sit in a meditative state and absorb the building, but I found this too difficult.  I needed to explore, so I did, with the aid of my ipad.

At first I photographed anything that caught my attention.  I was not short of subject matter.

Pattern, symbolism, light.


I systematically walked around the building recording my visit; a creative tourist, but as the day progressed and energised by comforting lunch, I became aware that the pictures were becoming more abstracted.


And whilst I already, possibly have the basis for a substantial series of abstract paintings (173 photos), this is a long term project which requires me to really evaluate my connection with this building, to dig deeper than perhaps I am prepared to venture.

I came away from the day with some questions.  The building felt cold.  Yes it was January!  But more than that, I didn’t warm to the building.  Why?  This is what I need to explore.


It is now over a year since I finished my MA and I am learning to impose structure to my work.  The Tread Softly series is nearing completion and my thoughts now turn to what to do next.  I had expected to start work on a series of images based on my parents love letters, but events have overtaken me and another exciting opportunity has presented itself.

I had the good fortune to meet the owner of the Pugin Chapel in St Leonards who was looking for community engagement with the Chapel.  I suggested a residency and yesterday I completed the checks necessary to work on a school site.  If all goes to plan I will start work in the Chapel in the New Year.

For some time I have been considering the possibility of working in a church.  As my work moves into a ‘softer’, reflective period, I have been wondering whether it would lend itself to responding to a spiritual building.  I am not religious but I have lived in a converted chapel and found the experience enriching.  I am hopeful that creatively exploring the Pugin Chapel will open a new direction for my work.

I should add that even asking for the residency is way beyond my comfort zone, but I have seen the results of other artists from such an experience and as I move purposefully towards the next stage of my life, I feel that now is the time for such a challenge.

Where to start?  I toured the Chapel yesterday with the director and explained that I will not be painting views of the building.  That my purpose is to paint the feelings the building arouses, which may be abstract or may include details that resonate with me.  I plan to spend a day a week for the first few weeks, just contemplating, observing and recording details.  Due to the way I work with many layers of very wet paint, on site painting will not be possible.  I will need to rethink how I approach this project.