Church Recording

Mary Lister

(First published in 1985 in volume 1, pp. 73-75, of the third series of The Bradford Antiquary, the journal of the Bradford Historical and Antiquarian Society.)

Church Recording

Saturdays have taken on a new meaning since I first encountered the mysterious initials NADFAS at a meeting in Bradford Cathedral in the late autumn of 1981.

Since then my Saturdays, and some other days too, have been devoted to church recording, for along with a number of friends I have become a member of a Recording Group attached to the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies - NADFAS.

Before the work begins a Recorder must first take: a pair of binoculars, weight scales, a magnifying glass, a number of note books, several pens, a tape measure (the longer the better), a collection of reference books and, last but not least, a good supply of food and drink. This is the officially recommended short-list, but as old churches can be incredibly dirty, experience has shown that dusters and washing materials are also needed.

But what does our well-equipped Recorder do? Before answering that question I should explain that a Recorder is one of a group of ten or twelve people forming a special branch of a Decorative and Fine Arts Society. Other branches are responsible for such things as repairing old books and manuscripts and for restoring well-worn pieces of needlework. These societies are to be found in many parts of the country and members attend courses to enable them to keep abreast of developments in their special fields. The local societies are administered by the NADFAS central office in London.

In 1971, when NADFAS organised an exhibition of Victorian Church Art in London, it discovered that many of the clergy who loaned items for display were quite unaware of either their artistic quality or intrinsic value. In some cases they did not even know their churches possessed such treasures until they were actually being prepared for the exhibition. This state of affairs led to the formation of a special branch of NADFAS - Church Recorders, the inspiration of Miss Helen Lowenthal, the Vice-President.

All incumbents are required to keep an inventory, or 'stock book', but these terriers, as they are called, often supply incomplete and inaccurate details of a church's furnishings. Merely to note the existence of a bundle of seventeenth-century papers, a silver communion cup or a green altar frontal is of little help to the police or church officials if any article is stolen or damaged, and the church's earthly possessions are very vulnerable. At the same time there is an obvious need for a degree of confidentiality. A handlist of church contents would be a useful guide to thieves, indicating where they might profitably break through and steal.

Recorders provide churches with a more detailed account of their furnishings. Ideally they operate in pairs in order to ensure that nothing is missed or incorrectly set down, although this principle does not always work out in practice. People work at different speeds and visits cannot always be synchronised, so one Recorder is sometimes ahead of the rest. Weekly visits are desirable if a task is to be completed before the initial enthusiasm has waned. Obviously the amount of work varies from one place to another. An ancient church may have sixty or more memorial tablets, whereas a more recent one may have only a few.

Furnishings are divided into nine sections: Memorials, Stonework, Woodwork, Metalwork, Textiles, Paintings, Library, Windows and Miscellany, Stonework and Miscellany, being small sections, are often combined with larger ones. As relatively few churches contain more than one or two paintings this section includes Heraldry (a fascinating study), photographs, and any kind of notice. Guiseley church, for example, has a number of boards giving the dates of building operations and of various dedications. In addition to books, Library includes documents and plans relating to the church.

Each object must be described by the Recorder as fully as possible, measured, weighed (if it is silver), and any inscription carefully copied. Things which are difficult to describe may be photographed or sketched, and even the poorest artists among us have developed hidden talents. Memory fails, or plays tricks on us, and a sketch, however rough, is a great help when the final accounts are being written up. It often saves the day and makes a return journey to the church unnecessary.

Once a description has been recorded the research begins - to find the date of manufacture and the names of the maker or designer and the donor. Sometimes these details are to be found on the object itself. Sculptors often sign a memorial plaque and some craftsmen have trademarks. The stained glass windows made by C.E. Kempe can be distinguished by a gold wheatsheaf and those of his nephew by a tower superimposed on a wheatsheaf, as in the Cass and Perowne windows in Bradford Cathedral. Some churches keep records of gifts, or have a verger who can supply the information, but in many cases there is no alternative but to write 'Not known'. Reading through old parish magazines is one way of obtaining facts, but it is very time-consuming and there is always a danger of being led astray by some interesting tit-bit quite irrelevant to the Recorder's purpose.

Earlier I mentioned the need for washing materials. In Bradford Cathedral and at Guiseley we found stained glass which had been removed from windows and stored away - that at the Cathedral in a cellar - collecting dust. The pieces have to be put together and recorded, but first of all they must be cleaned. Tracery is often damaged during removal, and to reassemble the window is like doing an enormous jig-saw puzzle where the pieces never quite fit. Occasionally we come across an old photograph which helps, or we simply have to guess, and when the job is fmished two Recorders are ready for a bath.

Some tasks are very tedious. Nothing can be taken for granted and every bible, prayer book and hymn book must be opened so as not to miss a donor's name or a memorial inscription, and this must all be done during one visit. Books kept in pews have a habit of moving about and unless they are all counted and inspected on the same day mistakes may occur.

Ingenuity is called for too, and this is where each group needs at least one young, agile member willing and able to climb ladders in order to measure objects high upon the walls, a favourite resting place for some of the older memorials. In the Bradford group these feats of daring are performed by the Society's Librarian, Mr Frank Metcalfe, who recently improvised a method of measuring the Cathedral's west window by lowering a piece of string from a trap door in the ringing chamber to a colleague waiting on the roof of the tower screen. This suggests the need for surveying equipment in the NADFAS list. A visitor to Bingley church was considerably surprised to find Mr Metcalfe, high on a ladder, cleaning a memorial with a duster draped round the end of a broken umbrella. Recorders are insured.

When the work in a church is finished, our notes, having been typed by kind friends and helpers (another essential part of a team), are sent off to NADF AS headquarters together with any photographs and negatives. There all the material is photocopied and made into a 'book', copies of which are sent to the church concerned, the Diocesan Registry, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Council for the Care of Churches. Thus we have made a record which will be of practical use to the incumbent, especially for insurance purposes, and of real value to historians and research workers.

Some people are perhaps reluctant to embark on a venture of this kind because they know nothing about silver, or architecture or woodwork, but no one need worry. There is plenty of guidance for Recorders in Church Furnishings, provided by NADF AS, and by the time a member of a team has worked on one church he is well on the way to becoming an expert in his particular section. Recorders are merely asked to record, not to act as antique dealers. As there is no Decorative and Fine Arts Society in Bradford we register as Associate Members of NADF AS, for insurance purposes.

So far we have recorded Bradford Cathedral, St. James's Church, Bolton Road, All Saints' Church, Bingley and St. Oswald's Church, Guiseley, and are now working in St. Wilfrid's Church, Calverley. Meanwhile other vicars have 'joined the queue', and there is plenty of work for the rest of the century in Bradford Diocese alone, apart from all the Free Church buildings.

To anyone who wants a fascinating and rewarding way of putting spare time to good use, we say, 'Why not join us?'