What is Cirencester's Project Blackjack?
- Credit: projectblackjack.org.uk
For 58 years, the stone niches on Cirencester’s Parish Church have remained empty. Where once the figures of the Virgin Mary and St John had looked down on the good people of the town, empty spaces have been a reminder of their absence. But all that is about to change...
I meet with sculptor Rodney Munday as he’s about to scale the side of Cirencester’s Parish Church in a cherry picker. This is not, you understand, something he does for kicks; no, there’s a much higher purpose to his ecclesiastical adventures.
Following a national competition to replace the missing statues of the Virgin Mary and St John the Baptist on the church’s 15th-century tower, the Hertfordshire artist’s designs were chosen from all the entries. The statues, that stood in their niches looking out over the people of Cirencester, were removed in 1963, and it’s not until now that the funds - and the right individuals with the energy to make things happen - have been in place to commission new ones.
‘It must have been towards the end of 2019 that I saw the advert in What’s On in Oxford,’ Rodney says as we sit, socially distanced, on pews in the Parish Church, while the soaring voices of the choir practice a little way off. ‘It was pure chance that I saw it.
‘I presented to them my initial ideas and then, when I went for the interview, I produced the maquettes - which weren’t really required at that stage...but I think it’s much better if people have an idea of what they’re going to see. In a sense, most of the work has been done once you’ve made the maquettes; thinking is the most important part of a commission.’
Every commission, though, is a long process; ideas come and go, initial sketches are built on, some are thrown out altogether, and inspiration can come from many sources.
‘Before I produced the maquettes,’ continues Rodney, ‘I did come up to have a look around the church and talk with the vicar. The original idea I had for St John wasn’t the one you see now. Originally, it was John with a cross - that he’s often presented with - leaning out, brandishing it. But I couldn’t relate to that Old Testament figure properly, and I said to the vicar, ‘I’ve got a problem with it.’ He then said that he’d seen a picture of St John with piercing eyes, that looked right through you, and he believed that the important thing was that John was an intermediary, as a vicar should be. And so I thought that if I could convey that, it would be marvellous.
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‘Then, when I was looking round the church, someone showed me this stained-glass John the Baptist window, where he’s holding a lamb. And so, I thought the idea of him holding the Lamb of God out over the town, and looking down on them at the same time, could be quite impressive.’
Impressive, yes, and also hugely appropriate, with Cirencester’s importance as a wool town.
Then, as serendipity would have it, we need to decamp from the church as Midday Prayer begins, and go to the nearby Fleece. On the short walk, I consider Rodney’s depiction of John, and have to agree; the symbolism of the humility of John offering up the Lamb of God to the people of Cirencester, and the important link with the town’s wool trade, gives the sculpture added resonance.
‘Yes, tying things in with the current community is always a good thing,’ he says, as we sit down for coffee at the Fleece. ‘My last commission in Plymouth featured St Andrew; as the town’s a fishing port, it seemed fitting.’
Rodney’s astonishing statue at St Andrew’s Minster, Plymouth, is definitely worth checking out. Andrew stands on one pillar at the entrance to the church, and casts his net over to the opposite pillar, making both the Christian fish symbol and the St Andrew’s cross, while also creating a sweeping archway for the congregation to walk under.
‘One of the lovely things about that one,’ he says, ‘is that you see it from all the way round, and you can get so much movement into it. One of the unfortunate things about the niches is that you can’t see their backs... and I love backs!’ he laughs.
One of the wonderful things the team behind Project Blackjack have done, however, is to take photographs from the niches, so that we can envisage exactly what Rodney’s sculptures will ‘see’ as they look down on the community. St John looks down from the north-west face of the tower over Black Jack Street, while the Virgin and Child over the Market Place, and so, when you gaze up at the figures, you can imagine that they’re looking over the good people of Cirencester, seeing the day-to-day activities, and taking in the changes that will take place over the coming years.
‘One of the things I like to do,’ Rodney continues, ‘though it may not be possible this time, is to give talks and demonstrations in schools, because it is to the children that these things belong in the end. When you get children involved in actually making something, that can be lovely. I gave demonstrations in three schools in Plymouth, and after the main sculpture was installed, the maquette was handed round different schools. At the time, one of the heads said to them, ‘You may be the children now, but you will have children of your own, and will be able to say to them that you were there when it went up.’
‘It’s so good if you feel that the piece has a real relationship with the place,’ continues Rodney.
Last year, during the Covid-19 lockdown, Rodney was at his home in France and was able to join the Parish Church’s livestreams, listening to Canon Graham Morris’s sermons.
‘I’ve found it important, with all the work I’ve done,’ he says, ‘to have a relationship with the community, and, although here the services have been a one-way thing, coronavirus has actually been a help. I’ve been able to listen in to Canon Graham’s mid-week talks, which have been beautifully informal. It would be nice, at least toward the end, if it could become a two-way experience, though.’
Communication is a hugely important part of what artists do, and for Rodney Munday it’s central to what he’s trying to achieve.
‘It seems to me that, with all the arts, they should be about communication. I mean, there’s no point in doing them otherwise; if you were only doing it for yourself, it would be absolutely pointless. The collaborative process is very important to me. I believe it was one of the Desert Fathers who said, ‘The human soul is like a wood shaving, coiled around its inner emptiness...’ You need input from outside, otherwise you wallow in daydreams.’
The unveiling of the two sculptures is scheduled for September 5, so he’s hopeful that he will be able to give more talks by that stage, though there are, of course, no guarantees.
Originally, it was planned that the new statues would be 2m in height - which is the height of the originals - but the canopies have deteriorated over the years, so they’re now going to be closer to 2.2m, in an attempt to mask the decay.
To create the sense that they are reaching out to the community, both figures lean out of their niches, which must have created a few logistical problems.
‘I know a company called Artful Logistics,’ he says, ‘which I’ve used in the past and who installed the Plymouth work, and they are really excellent. I’ve been in touch with them from the start, and they will also be talking to the architect to discuss how they will make it work.’
As well as the figures standing on metal plates, there will also be a rod from the back of each which will attach into the stonework. All fascinating practical engineering problems - taking in the weight, angle of sculpture and other head-scratching issues - which the viewer should be completely unaware of once in situ. But it does show the importance of an artist knowing when to listen to the experts, even if it means tweaking a design.
‘I remember being told by the foundry I use,’ Rodney says, ‘of a sculptor who created this bronze of a figure holding a hat in two fingers. They said to him, ‘If you have it like that, it will get broken off,’ and the sculptor replied, ‘I am the artist, you will do what I want!’ Within two days, the hat had gone.’
The sculpture of the Virgin and Child, which is to sit on the Market Place side of the church, is a wonderfully playful piece. While in one respect, with Jesus’ arms outstretched, it brings to mind the crucifixion, a more engaging aspect is that of a child - while being held protectively by his mother - being given the freedom to fly.
‘There always seemed to me a problem with the Virgin and Child. We’ve moved a long way from the Catholic tradition of the Queen of Heaven, which you do see occasionally, but it seems to me a little outdated. But then I thought, well, if you don’t have something like that, you could have an image that is sentimentalised, and so I had the idea of him being held in the position of the crucifixion and, because he is up so high, he has the curiosity of a child wanting to look out over things while the mother holds on.’
Very little is known about the original figures, which were removed in 1963. The statue of St John - which was taken down from its plinth because it was believed to be a danger to passers-by - has certainly suffered the ravages of time. As well as the stone work having deteriorated, he also has black grime on his face from atmospheric pollution, which it’s believed led to Cirencester’s famous Black Jack Street being given its name.
The figure of the Virgin Mary on the south-west corner of the tower became so badly worn away, it was unrecognisable. A local newspaper clipping of the time describes how workmen Fred Monteith and David Gowan were lowered 100ft from the top of the tower in order to fasten steel cable around the statues and ease them safely to the ground. If only they’d had a cherry picker.
As Meg Blumsom of Project Blackjack says: ‘The first mention of ‘Black Jack’ is in 1822. The street was originally called Temple Street, and then it became known as St John’s Street. Colloquially, we know that the figure on the church was referred to as ‘Black Jack’, but there’s no record, so we can’t say definitively whether this is how the street got its name. It might also be that that was the street used by blacksmiths,’ she considers.
What we do know, however, is that, as bronze lasts indefinitely, the new sculptures will be there for many, many generations to come.
Find out more about Project Blackjack, including details of the unveiling of the new statues, at projectblackjack.org.uk