The best collections of pre-Raphaelite art in the UK can be found at Tate Britain, the Victoria & Albert Museum and a church in Albion Street, Scarborough. The latter is perhaps something of a surprise, but step through the doors of St Martin-on-the-Hill and you will discover a dazzling array of religious art, including work by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Edward Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown and William Morris.
You will also find evocative new pieces by artist-in-residence Angela Chalmers, reflecting on the history and memory of Miss Mary Craven (1814–1889), who provided most of the money for the church to be built and was a driving force in its development as a religious ‘gallery’.
‘I always assumed that Victorian women were restrained, trapped almost by their own clothes and by society’s determination to keep them locked away, prisoners in their own homes,’ says Angela. ‘Mary Craven was not like that at all. She was powerful. She got things done.’
St Martin-on-the-Hill is a High Anglican Church, built in response to the rapid urban development of South Cliff in the mid-1800s, with the building of The Crown Hotel and Crown Terrace. By 1858, the area was criss-crossed with a network of roads and drains, and terraces and crescents were steadily rising as building plots were acquired and new houses built. People moving to or holidaying on South Cliff needed their own church, otherwise they had to walk across the Spa Bridge to St Mary’s near the castle. So, the Corporation of Scarborough and the directors of The South Cliff Company set up a committee to build a new place of worship.
The project got off to a good start. The owners of The Crown donated land they owned on Albion Road, worth £1,000, and 50 subscribers made donations of £1 to £50. By September 1859, the fund had reached £2,969. Unfortunately, this was far from the estimated £6,000 needed to build the church, and it began to look like the project might fail.
It was at this point that South Cliff resident Miss Mary Craven stepped in. She was one of four daughters of Robert Martin Craven, a wealthy Hull surgeon who had retired to a house on Esplanade, Scarborough, and who had died on 2nd January 1859. Mary had already donated £1,000 towards the building of the church, and now guaranteed to add the necessary money to cover the full £6,000. In the end, she spent well over £10,000 on the church, equivalent to about £500,000 today.
She saw the new church as a memorial to her father. The dedication to St Martin was chosen by her as his name-saint and, while she was ill and couldn’t attend the dedication herself, her words were read out at the ceremony: ‘If a sinner such as I very much am, may dare to utter the wish, may heaven bless this Church, and may it give help to the saving of souls. I have a strong affection for Scarborough; I had a deep love for my father, as was his life to me I trust, is now his memory and his example.’
She was also responsible for the appointment of the first vicar, the Reverend Robert Henning Parr, who her family had known in Hull, and it’s believed she may have been responsible for the selection of the architect, George Frederick Bodley, who was the son of a Hull physician.
Bodley employed the newly formed firm of Morris, Marshall, Faulkner and Company to complete the decoration and stained glass before the church was consecrated in July 1863. The magnificent stained glass windows include designs by William Morris, Sir Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Philip Webb and Ford Madox Brown, while the pulpit and east wall are decorated with paintings by Rossetti, Morris and Burne-Jones.
‘This was only the second church that Morris’s team worked on, so I imagine he would have come here to oversee the work,’ says Angela, who exhibits widely in the UK and across Europe. ‘I like to think that Mary Craven invited him to take tea with her and that he visited her at home on Esplanade.’
This has extra significance for Angela as she actually lives in the top floor apartment of what was once Mary Craven’s house – ‘she had the whole house but I live in what I suspect were the servants’ quarters’.
‘I know this area very well and can clearly picture what life must have been like for Mary, where she walked, who she visited,’ she continues. ‘We had to have a wall taken down recently in the hallway of the house. I was grumpy because of all the mess but then I saw that it had revealed a window that had probably been covered up for 100 years. I could see the space as it would have been in Mary’s time. It was magical.’
Mary had her own seat in the second row of the nave of the church from which she could easily observe the proceedings in the chancel, which remained unscreened until after her death. She was a generous, indomitable woman, but also, apparently, prone to the odd eccentricity. For example, the 1870 records of the Spaw Committee state that: ‘When Miss Mary Craven, a respected and substantial citizen of the South Cliff, who had provided most of the money to build St Martin’s Church, was caught “purloining flowers from the grounds” she was threatened with proceedings if there was any repetition.’
This incident is reflected in a key exhibit in Spiritual Gardening, Angela’s cyanotype collection on silk and paper that references Mary’s life through art. Standing in the far aisle of the church, not far from Mary’s pew, is the small, veiled figure of a woman in a blue dress decorated with the symbolism of the pre-Raphaelites and religious icons, in particular St Dorothea, patron saint of brides, florists and gardeners. She’s carrying dried flowers in her hands.
‘Who knows why she took the flowers,’ says Angela, who used some of her mum’s funeral flowers in the artwork, giving it an added dimension of significance, ‘but maybe she was taking them home for her own art project, to press them or use them to create her own photograms.’ She created the blue dress in 2015 as part of Coastival – Scarborough’s annual arts festival, which celebrated its 10th anniversary in February – and was invited to show it at St Martin’s.
‘I have always strongly felt that there is something of Mary Craven in that dress; her character, if you like,’ says Angela. ‘I had been aware of the church and the importance of its windows before, but it wasn’t until 2015 that I really took the time to explore it fully. I’m not a religious person, but I find it a very peaceful, almost meditative place. I’m not a church-goer but I am a Friend of this church.’
The Friends Group, formed in 2013 as part of the church’s 150th anniversary celebrations, supports St Martin’s by bringing together people with a personal or family connection to the church, visitors, and members of the public who want to contribute to the preservation of this nationally important building; helping visitors appreciate the significance of the art and craftsmanship, in its religious and historical context; and raising funds to help the Parochial Church Council cover the high cost of maintaining the building so it meets the needs of a 21st century congregation.
Angela became artist-in-residence ‘by accident’ after her first Coastival exhibition. She was entranced by the windows and internal artwork of the church and found herself drawn back again and again.
‘My practice is all about light [she specialises in the cyanotype photographic printing process], so the windows of the church prove endlessly fascinating to me,’ she says. ‘St Martin’s inspires me in so many ways, giving me so many ideas. I could dedicate the rest of my life to creating work inspired by this one building. It really satisfies me as an artist.’
No one has yet come across a photograph of Mary, despite the existence of Oliver Sarony’s famous photographic studios, which were built prior to the church on an adjacent plot of land. There is only a drawing of her by John Dinsdale in his book Sketches of Scarborough (1881), which shows her as an ‘imperious figure’.‘I’m not sure I actually want to know what she looked like,’ says Angela. ‘Not knowing allows me to be more creative in my own interpretations.’
Mary Craven died, aged 75, in March 1889. Her funeral was held at St Martin’s, but she was buried in the Craven Family Vault in the Church of Sculcoates. Her presence is still very strong in the Albion Street church though, in the incredible artworks she funded and inspired. She’s also a strong presence in Angela’s life.
‘A large part of my work now is finding ways to attract more people into St Martin’s to see the pre-Raphaelite treasures we have and experience the welcoming, peaceful atmosphere,’ says Angela. ‘I believe Mary Craven is guiding me – a gentle push here, a nudge there. Both at home and here, I feel a strong connection with this generous, determined woman.’