Art & Photography

Top Five: Peter Marlow’s English Cathedrals

The Magnum photographer shot 42 Church of England cathedrals over four years – here’s his personal favourites

Few buildings are filled with as much history and atmosphere as churches – and if you go one size up, looking at cathedrals, you also get the volume and grandeur of these gigantic domes of Christianity. A believer or not, many people visit cathedrals all over the world for a moment of inner peace, or just as an admirer of what humans are able to build with their bare hands. Most of the cathedrals were of course erected long before modern machinery and they are truly constructions built through faith.

It was in that spirit that Magnum photographer Peter Marlow set out to document the Church of England’s 42 cathedrals over four years. Originally commissioned by the Royal Mail in 2008 to shoot six cathedrals, on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of the completion of St Paul’s Cathedral, Marlow continued the project on his own account once the stamp project had been completed.

Each cathedral is shot from the same position, looking East towards the altar and with the sun setting, giving last year’s book and the current Wapping Project exhibition both a sense of depth and a coherent visual language. For PORT, Marlow picked five of the most impressive cathedrals and his memorable encounters while shooting The English Cathedrals series…


ROCHESTER- Cathedral, Peter Marlow

Founded in 604, the Rochester cathedral is, together with Canterbury, one of the two medieval cathedrals in Kent. It very vividly shows an overlaying of history and architectural styles as we see the Gothic elements evolving from its original, very modest, Roman-esque form.

It has a special place for me in the project as I stood in the 12th century nave very early in the morning without the verger having turned the lights on: in the half darkness, the atmosphere was almost solid and tangible, and I realised that this is what I should try to capture. Continuing the project in that way I hoped to photograph these unique buildings in a way that was completely my own.


PETERBOROUGH-Cathedral, Peter Marlow

Again arriving before daylight, I entered the cathedral and found two men with air rifles shooting pigeons; they also wanted the cathedral to be empty.

Peterborough is on a very grand scale, and in the enormous late 12th century nave there’s a wonderful juxtaposition of a cross – hung almost magically in space – that was designed by George Pace in 1975. Covering this whole structure is an amazing 13th century painted ceiling, and I was fascinated looking at it and the intricate paintings of monsters, Kings and Queens, trying to work out how each panel were fixed in place.


COVENTRY-Cathedral, Peter Marlow

It is hard not to be impressed by the Coventry cathedral as it, unlike medieval cathedrals, was built over a relatively short period of six years in the late 1950s. It is architect Basil Spence’s masterpiece with an outstanding level of visual and physical co-ordination in terms of the art, fabric and materials used which feel so considered and right.

I arrived before morning prayers and was asked by the Dean to join with the few people attending. We sat in a circle and I remember thinking at what point do I ask him if it would be acceptable to turn the lights off on the huge 74 foot high Graham Sutherland tapestry, Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph, the largest tapestry in the world.

St. Paul’s

St Paul's Cathedral, Peter Marlow

The St. Paul’s cathedral seemed to me to be rather an odd man out in the series of the great medieval buildings I had photographed. Fitted out by architect Sir Christopher Michael Wren with just the essential necessities required by the Protestant Liturgy, it replaced the original cathedral gutted by the Great Fire of 1666.

It is a vast space, with a massive volume underneath the unique central dome. Like Coventry, this great cathedral of the early modern era was designed by a single architect, and it shows. The sheer size of the space presented a real problem for me and I went there many times previously to work out the best place to position my large format camera. I was finally given permission to have the lights turned off after a year and a half of asking; the first time the emergency lights had been off for a number of years. I was given only 20 minutes just as it became light at 5.30 am, with an exposure of over five minutes I think I was lucky there was enough light…


York Minister Cathedral, Peter Marlow

If buildings have memories, the vast York Minster certainly must have a huge reservoir. As alphabetically the last in my series of 42 English cathedrals, it is intimately linked to the earliest history of English Christianity, evolving from a basilica at the heart of a Roman fort in AD 306, remains of it were discovered in the late sixties in the foundations.

For such a huge enterprise the Minster has its own police force operating 24/7, and it was them who showed me the light switches when I arrived at 4.30 in the morning to have the cathedral to myself for some hours as the sun shone through the Great East Window, one of the largest expanses of medieval glass to survive in England. A memory that I will treasure.

Peter Marlow’s The English Cathedral is on display at the Wapping Project Bankside until August 24, 2013