Explore the rich history of Aylesford Priory

F20J89 The Friars (Aylesford Priory) on River Medway, Aylesford, Kent, England, United Kingdom, Euro

Aylesford Priory - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Our very first issue, back in June 1962, features a visit to Aylesford Priory. We thought it was about time we paid it a return visit - one that focuses on its extraordinary collection of 20th-century religious art

Polish artist Adam Kossowski was eight years out of the Russian labour camps when he first came to Aylesford Priory.

In 1950 fellow artist Philip Lindsey Clark brought him to the 13th-century buildings, sitting on the River Medway as it curves north and west away from Maidstone. At that time the Priory had only just readmitted its Carmelite community, banished more than 400 years earlier at the Reformation.

‘[Clark] said: “I’ll take you down to Aylesford. You’ll meet Father Malachy, you might get one or two commissions.” Well, he was here for 30 years.’

This from Father Francis Kemsley, current Prior of Aylesford and the guide on my visit, describing how the back and forth of time has shaped The Friars, as it’s known. 

"The art is very striking,’" he continues. "The church in two thousand years has had a long tradition of commissioning art and I think it’s lifting up our hearts to encounter God." 

Father Malachy Lynch, the Prior of 1950, launched an intense, creative process for Kossowski that would see more than a hundred of his works cover the walls, floors and windows of the Priory in a densely-woven jacket of symbolism. 

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Kossowski drew on a long tradition of medieval Christian story-telling for his works. The Relic Chapel’s Stations of the Cross, for example, show Jesus in a series of stylised ceramic tableaux that would be achingly familiar to a pilgrim visiting Aylesford in 1250: yet the bold, simple geometry and the earthy colours come to us from the mid-20th century, eight hundred years later.

The artist studied architecture and painting in Poland, and mural painting in Italy, before the Second World War, when the Russians arrested him and sent him to Siberia. Released in 1942, he eventually arrived in London as a refugee, to be embraced by the Guild of Catholic Artists and Craftsmen. Philip Lindsey Clark, whose wood carvings also stand in the chapels at The Friars, introduced him to Father Malachy. 

More than seventy years later, the invitation to share in Kossowski's work, its  beauty and meaning is real. The chapels where the majority of Kossowski’s works stud the walls are open to the public, for no fee save a donation to the car park. 

"It’s about creating Aylesford as a place of welcome and hospitality," says Father Francis. "The first Prior, Father Malachy, called the place an open door in 1949.

"The big church, the institutional church, is about people who go to mass, the major sacraments: it’s the organised church." Aylesford Priory, or ‘The Friars’, is also about "the little church. It’s not organised at all, but people feel comfortable to come".

Father Francis invites people to visit and to spend time with the Kossowski works. One of the qualities of the Carmelite Order is silent contemplation. "When you look at an image and you come back to it, again and again and again, I think you can see something new or something you didn’t see before. We live in a very beautiful place. That’s why it’s important for us to share it."

Kossowski highlights at The Friars

Prior’s Hall: panels telling the story of the Carmelites, from the hermits on Mount Carmel (first landmark for medieval pilgrims and crusaders coming into the Port of Haifa in Israel), their arrival in England, the expulsion by Henry VIII’s commissioners and their eventual return in 1949.

Rosary Way: series of 15 shrines 

St Anne’s Chapel: sgraffiti murals, ceramic reliefs of angels and tiled floor fired at the Aylesford Pottery

Main Shrine: tiles behind central altarpiece fired at Aylesford Pottery, ceramic angels, altar ceramics and candlesticks

DD78DY Maidstone, Kent, England, UK. Aylesford Priory (founded 1242) The Main Shrine (celebrating th

The Main Shrine, celebrating the Assumption of Mary - Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Relic Chapel: Reliquary of St Simon Stock, with its huge black and white tiled ceramic tower, plus ceramic reliefs depicting Stations of the Cross 

Chapel of the Carmelite Saints: depictions of the major characters in Carmelite history, including the appealing figure of Dutch martyr Titus Brandsma, who was killed in Dachau in 1942 and is due to be canonised in Rome in May this year.

St Joseph’s Chapel: astonishing altar treatment with intricate tiled floor and walls depicting the world of faith.

Also to enjoy...
Feed the ducks, wander the Peace Garden, enjoy coffee or a light lunch - you can even spend the night in one of the Priory's simple furnished but comfortable guest rooms. Also on site is Aylesford Pottery, founded in 1954 by David Leach, whose father Bernard introduced the Japanese style of glass into the UK. Members of the community originally worked n the pottery, but these days it's one of the southeast's few surviving commercial setups, making a range of handmade thrown and hand-built ceramics, plus architectural commissions. The pottery also runs a school for over 100 students, so if you've been inspired by the ceramics you've seen in the chapels, you could take a course here - or just take home a beautiful mug or bowl to remind you of your visit. 


Aylesford then and now

Interestingly, while our feature today concentrates on Kossowski's ceramics, Kent Life's article of June 1962 doesn't mention them at all - although they feature in at least one of the photographs. As the artist's relationship with Aylesford continued until 1972 (and indeed he is buried there), it's likely that his was very much 'work in progress' - and the unnamed author of the 1962 article refers to, '''...various chapels, including some still in the process of being built. Two objects do catch his eye, however," from the artistic and craftmanship angle":  two great carved figures, "One, approximately eight feet high carved in oak, of St Joseph...the other, a figure of the Virgin Mary, nine feet high, equally well carved." This second statue was carved by Michael Clark from Agaba wood in 1960, and stands in the Priory's Main Shrine, dedicated to the Assumption of The Virgin - building on it began in 1958, with its re-dedication taking place in 1965.

Our 1962 author is also very impressed by the Priory's communal rooms: "...some of the most attractive rooms that I have ever seen in any building. The refectories, with beautiful tables and plain but attractive ornaments..." - like the statues, these space are every bit as impressive today as they were in the early 1960s.