Ann George joins her brother in the search for a sewing Madonna
“Now you must promise to do exactly what poor Fred tells you to do, and never leave his side for an instant.” I looked at my brother’s long legs and decided that I was going to have my work cut out to keep up with him. I must have been about 7 years old and had been promised a treat: a day out in the City of London, where my biggest brother worked, and Fred, my second oldest brother, was going to show me round. Thus started a constant feature of our holidays together: the church crawl.
That expedition was one of my first true memories, with Fred using long, unusual words to explain what we were seeing, and I, looking around amazed at the strange and sometimes inexplicable bits of rubble which had once been glorious architecture before the Second World War smashed them to bits, tried to make sense of what I was seeing and hearing. I remember my small, gloved hand held firmly by my big brother as I leant forward perilously to look down into a huge crater in the middle of an enormous space of ribbed stonework: it has been suggested that the church I remember was St Clement Danes, now rebuilt in all its former glory.
So many years later, when Fred decided that he wanted to come back to Britain from the Gambia in order to serve as a parish priest, he was delighted to be offered a group of parishes on the Suffolk border with Norfolk, called the Wainford Benefice. There were 5 churches: Ringsfield, where the vicarage was, Ilketshall St Andrew, Redisham, and Barsham with Shipmeadow: his own special church crawl! Fred loved all his churches and made sure they were open, had regular services and that he was visible to all his parishioners. He used to cycle through the country lanes (stopping to pass the time of day with gardeners or field workers) to say matins in one church and evening prayer in another, a mass daily somewhere, and ensured that the mass was celebrated at all his churches on Sundays. Luckily, there were quite a few retired priests around, ready to help out. Big brother Bill and I visited him quite early on and were met at the station by Fred in his latest acquisition: a superannuated post office van; I was given the seat beside the driver, but Bill had to clamber into the back to lie supine among the luggage. That van had a severe problem: there was no reverse, so the narrow country roads were rather hazardous. I well remember Fred leaning out of the window and jovially greeting oncoming traffic, including farm vehicles and enormous lorries, with “Sorry, mate; no reverse!”
Of all his churches, perhaps Barsham was the prize. Not only is it an architectural gem with unique features, but it also has historical connections with the Oxford Movement. The Suckling family, which had the right of patronage until the late 20th Century, were committed Anglo-Catholics and Reverend Mackonochie, one of the giants of the movement, spent a while in retirement at Barsham vicarage some years before his tragic death. Barsham church is also full of interesting furniture and paintings, and Fred, with his interest in Italian art, was in his element. There was one picture, of the Madonna sewing with attendant angels, which really intrigued him, and he spent hours researching a possible artist, or other paintings on the same subject. He found out that Guido Reni had painted several canvases on this theme, and every time we went to Italy we were off on church crawls or visiting tiny galleries in obscure Tuscan towns, hoping for a sighting of a sewing Madonna
Sadly, the last trip that Fred and I took to Italy in 2017 was cut short in Arrezo because he was taken ill. A good friend had arranged for us to go to the Quirinale in Rome where there is a sewing Madonna by Reni in their collection, but in the end Fred never did see another sewing Madonna. But habit dies hard, and I still, on my church crawls, look out for one. You never know where one might turn up!
In 1995 I was offered a post at the international school in Jerusalem, and set off on my travels again. It was not much later that Fred broke the news to me in a letter that he was planning to go to the island of St Helena where they needed someone to be the Vicar of Jamestown. It would be his last post before retirement. However, before that, he wanted to come out to Jerusalem to visit me and to see the Holy City: plenty of opportunities there for fine church crawls!
Ann George is a member of the editorial board of New Directions