Tideswell Church: Hidden gems and untold treasures

The interior of Tideswell Church (© Bernard O’Sullivan)

The interior of Tideswell Church (© Bernard O’Sullivan) - Credit: Archant

The expertise of photographer Bernard O’Sullivan has revealed untold treasures in Tideswell Church

Carving of ordination (©Bernard O’Sullivan)

Carving of ordination (©Bernard O’Sullivan) - Credit: Archant

It is easy to appreciate why Tideswell’s Church of St John the Baptist is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Peak’. The perfect proportions and wonderful unity of the building, which was constructed in its entirety in the 14th century, are there for all to see, along with the delicacy of its multi-pinnacled tower, the exuberance of its carvings and the grandeur of its light-flooded chancel. Now, thanks to a project carried out by photographer Bernard O’Sullivan, it has become clear that there is even more fascination in this magnificent building than that which meets the eye.

Bernard runs a multiple award-winning business that provides photographs for commercial, industrial and architectural clients. Although much of his work is based in the Manchester area, he and his wife, a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, decided recently to relocate from the city to a cottage in Tideswell: a move prompted by their wish to give Bernard’s 90-year-old father-in-law, who lives with the couple, the experience of returning to his roots.

When I met Bernard at his Tideswell cottage, he said, ‘Soon after moving here, I decided that I would put my photographic skills to use for the benefit of the village and also as a means of introducing myself to my new neighbours. My first aim was to create a single photograph that could be employed to illustrate the intricate beauty of the church as clearly as possible.’

Bernard O'Sullivan (left) and Paul Black (photo: Mike Smith)

Bernard O'Sullivan (left) and Paul Black (photo: Mike Smith) - Credit: Archant

Using powerful flash lights and suspending a camera on a boom half-way between the floor and the ceiling, Bernard took multiple shots of the interior, all from the same position but in various states of illumination. By combining the images, he was able to make a photograph that is clear in every detail.

When it became obvious to Bernard that his photograph had revealed carvings and other details that are not easily apparent to the naked eye, he decided that he would extend his project by taking a series of close-up photographs 7.2 times closer than standard of each of these hidden gems. Slides of his images were exhibited in the church during Wakes Week in a performance that included contextual music and readings by local people. The presentation was scripted by churchwarden Paul Black, a retired headteacher, who had supplemented his own research into the church’s history by tapping the considerable expertise of Alan Thornton and Dennis Ibbotson.

Giving me a preview of their presentation, Bernard and Paul took me along to the church, where they began by directing my attention to the base of the tower. One of Bernard’s photographs reveals that the names of the churchwardens in 1812 are inscribed on the underside of a trap door in the ringing chamber, whereas another close-up shot highlights a mirror-written script on a shield in the stone vaulting. One can’t help but wonder why the letters are written in this strange way.

Carving of a serpent (© Bernard O'Sullivan)

Carving of a serpent (© Bernard O'Sullivan) - Credit: Archant

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Moving on to the nave, Bernard showed me images of a series of wooden carvings hidden among the roof timbers. One photograph shows an odd Humpty Dumpty-like figure. Another picture reveals the presence of a wooden pulley: a device that Paul thinks could have been used to lift or lower a chandelier. However, Bernard speculates that it could have been employed to suspend a metal vessel for holding incense.

The beauty of the nave is surpassed by the high and wide chancel, which is illuminated by light that floods in from large square-headed windows. Blinded by this overall effect, visitors often fail to spot the carvings of wooden angels on the ceiling. As Bernard’s pictures show, these carvings are painted in bright colours and resemble the well-known images of angels found in chancels in East Anglia.

Whereas the paint on the carved angels has faded over time, the stained glass windows in the church have retained most of their colour. Explaining how he had captured the full glory of the windows, Bernard said, ‘I used a camera suspended on a boom in order to avoid the distortion of images that always arises whenever stained-glass windows are viewed from below.’

Detail of the organ case (©Bernard O’Sullivan)

Detail of the organ case (©Bernard O’Sullivan) - Credit: Archant

Commenting on Bernard’s pictures of a window that was designed as a memorial to the mothers of Rev. Fletcher and his wife Mary, Paul said: ‘Rev. Fletcher was the vicar of Tideswell from 1900 to 1906. To my eyes, the style of the memorial window reflects the lingering influence of the Pre-Raphaelites, who had been so active in the previous century.’

Diverting my attention from the stained-glass windows to the organ case and the screen that divides it from the Lady Chapel, Paul pointed out the well-known carvings that were made by several generations of the Hunstone family. Bernard added: ‘Although many of these carvings have details that are reasonably clear to the naked eye, some are quite difficult to decipher because they are permanently in shade. I wanted to illustrate all the Hunstone carvings in the best possible light because they contain such a profusion of images.’

Depictions of local buildings and churches are interspersed with representations of a vast menagerie of creatures, including crocodiles, serpents, camels and various birds. In addition to all this, there are figures of saints and local personalities. One carving represents Canon Andrew, the priest who was responsible for persuading Advent Hunstone to turn his hand from stone-masonry to wood-carving when the new organ was installed in 1895.

Bernard has also photographed another wonderful set of Hunstone carvings which are to be found on the pew ends. These represent various functions of the clergy, such as baptism, confirmation, ordination and visiting the sick. Many are particularly tender and moving.

The photographic presentation put together for Wakes Week by Bernard and Paul draws attention to several other carvings in the church that are often overlooked. These include various depictions of ‘Green Men’, a carving of a small heraldic winged lion and examples of graffiti featuring the letters A.M. These are said to represent Ave Maria and were carved to invoke the protection of the Virgin Mary.

A memorial to George Oldfield on a pillar in the south aisle is of particular interest because it was carved in Ashford marble by White Watson, the geologist and the author of Strata of Derbyshire. Another memorial is dedicated to Bishop Pursglove, the founder of Tideswell Grammar School. Explaining why the Bishop is depicted in pre-Reformation vestments, Paul said, ‘He was described in his lifetime as being “stiff in papistry” and was deprived of his position as Suffragan Bishop of Hull because he refused to acknowledge the monarch as head of the church.’

There is no doubt that the photographic expertise of Bernard O’Sullivan has not only exposed many hidden gems in the Cathedral of the Peak but has also brought them vividly to life.