A Sigh Made of Stone

IT HANGS LIKE a fading memory, like a fragment of a dream, in the dim and dark and dust. It is a painting made of four paintings. Together, they show loose folds of white cloth. The paintings do not quite touch, and the space between them forms, in shadow, a cross.

This work of art is called Still and is by the painter Alison Watt.

Still has been part of Old Saint Paul’s, Edinburgh, since 2004. I almost wrote that the painting had been ‘on display’ since then, but that would be the wrong way to put it. Is a shaft of light in an empty room on display? Is a guttering candle? Still is a large work – twelve feet square – that commands attention but does not crave it.

‘There she is,’ said Richard Holloway, leading the way into the chapel, when I met him at Old Saint Paul’s one cold morning in November.

Holloway, a former Bishop of Edinburgh, is an old man – ‘My departure has been long delayed. I’ll be eighty-seven in two weeks’ time. Ridiculous . . .’ – who has retained the urgent forward momentum of youth. Strikingly tall and slender, he gives the impression of being italicised, leaning into life. He has that particular air of wisdom which emanates from people who have learned to be satisfied with questions not answers.

It is not so strange that he would refer to Still as she – he associates it with Alison Watt, his dear friend, and feels for the painting and for this church a familiar and passionate love. He has been coming here for decades. He first visited while on holiday from Kelham Hall, a seminary in Nottinghamshire. ‘I was sixteen years old. During the Easter vacation of 1950, I travelled up on the train with a young man called Aeneas MacIntosh – great name, only a Highlander would have that name. We got off the train at Waverley, we had an hour to wait for connections, and he said, “There’s an interesting church up here . . .”’

Passing beneath the great arch of the Scotsman bridge, what they would have found on Jeffrey Street is much as one finds now. Old Saint Paul’s is a black arrow of soot-dark stone. A sign explains that it is part of the Scottish Episcopal Church: ‘Founded in 1689, Old Saint Paul’s has been an 18th-century refuge for Jacobites, a 19th-century home for Anglo-Catholic revival, a 20th-century centre of spirituality and action, a 21st-century community of prayer and service.’ Hung on the front is a wooden Crucifixion, Christ gazing across the valley of the railway station to St Andrew’s House, the art deco seat of the government, and the Balmoral Hotel – the great clock of which is kept three minutes fast, the better to hurry commuters towards their trains.

On either side of the church is a close, the word used in Edinburgh for the steep, narrow passages that run like ribs from the spine of the Royal Mile. North Gray’s Close is strewn with rubbish, jungled with buddleia, and features the world’s least effective blue plaque: a tribute to Albert Ernest Laurie, who was rector of the church between 1897 and 1937. The plaque is more or less hidden from public view and Laurie’s name has been obscured with black spray paint. Carruber’s Close, on the other side of the church, is gaudy with graffiti and smells like a toilet. One day, no doubt, the passageways will be cleaned up and restored, but for the moment Old Saint Paul’s sits in the midst of squalor, a contrast Richard Holloway enjoys. When he first visited the church, seventy years before, he came in through the side entrance off Carruber’s Close, and, even now, remembers the experience vividly: ‘You open this inauspicious little door and you walk into mystery.’

On that day in 1950, he had arrived in time for morning Mass, which was being held in the Lady Chapel. He had never been in Old Saint Paul’s before, but, ‘It felt like a strange kind of homecoming. Especially going into the chapel, which sits like a wee lifeboat above the nave. I can’t explain it. I’ve always had a kind of mystical feeling for place. Some places are sacred, powerful, giving places, and this was immediately one of them.’

Old Saint Paul’s is a dark space. More than that, it feels dark and full of shadows. Photos show the gold of the reredos, the colours of the stained glass, but the impression when you are inside is of a palette of grey and black. I have never known a church with a greater weight of melancholy. If it is an unburdening place to visit then that is not because you leave feeling cheered up. It’s more like when you are sad and listen to sad songs – to sense one’s emotions being mirrored by another consciousness, whether an old church or an old crooner, brings comfort.

Those with an instinct for the melancholic, as Richard Holloway has, those who bear into this place their own sadnesses, may find that they fall in love with the church. They may find it a sigh made of stone.

Old Saint Paul’s, being so near Edinburgh’s rail terminus, is a good place to sit for a while before catching the train home. It acts as an airlock between the day’s work and the evening’s rest. One needn’t be a believer to find consolation here. One need never attend a service. Indeed, the spirit of Old Saint Paul’s may be at its most potent when the church is empty and there is nothing going on.

‘It seems to me that churches – at least, the kind of churches I like – are not theatres where you go just for an event,’ Holloway said when I asked about this. ‘Churches that are kept open, especially if they have this kind of mystical Catholic tradition, are places of solace. You see people in corners crying, saying their prayers, or just passing the time.

‘This church listens, it discloses, it withholds, it comforts, it challenges. It’s a place to bring the complexity of a human life, which is why I’m always sad when places like this have to shut. They are a kind of resource for needy people, and we’re all needy in all sorts of ways. And I like that it’s dim. Who was the poet that said places that are dark are best for prayer? I think it was John Donne. You come in as if in hiding and you can bring your sorrow, your penitence, all of that.’

We had walked up the Calvary Stair from the street. This is the name given to the thirty-three stone steps – one for every year of the life of Christ. As rector of Old Saint Paul’s for twelve years, Holloway led many a funeral procession down those steps and out to the waiting hearse. It has been a privilege and a sorrow to have lived so much of his life with a coffin at his back.

Holloway is an ‘unbelieving Christian’ – an admirer of Jesus who is not sure about God and heaven and all of that. By the time he became priest at Old Saint Paul’s in 1968, his faith was already weak but this Edinburgh church seemed to suit that weakness. It was a building which, in its sadness, seemed to speak more eloquently of doubt than conviction. ‘I knew I had an unquiet heart,’ Holloway wrote in his memoir, Leaving Alexandria, and Old Saint Paul’s seems to keep the same broken beat.

We sat in the Memorial Chapel on two wooden chairs, and looked at Still. Two figures in dark clothes seated before this pale ghost. Cold light from a side window spilled across the names of the dead.

They are written on the walls, those names. One hundred and forty-six men and one woman: Sybil Lewis, a doctor who served in Serbia and Macedonia during the First World War, spending four months as a prisoner-of-war in Hungary, and dying from an illness in 1918; her ashes are buried in the church. The chapel, which remembers those from the parish who died during the world wars, is a small austere space. It was consecrated in 1926, but, some feel, was not truly complete until Still was hung in 2004.

At that time, Alison Watt was an acclaimed and accomplished artist in her late thirties, with a solo exhibition at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art behind her. She had long harboured an idea of making a painting for a non-secular space. But where? It was Richard Holloway who introduced her to Old Saint Paul’s.

‘The first thing I remember was the smell,’ she told me. ‘I was brought up as a Catholic so I’m very aware of that smell of incense and old wood and candles. All of that immediately hit me. I stood at the back for a while and allowed my eyes to become accustomed. Then, as soon as I walked into the Memorial Chapel, I just knew that I was going to make work for that space. I wanted to describe in some way how I felt.’

And how was that? The answer is complex. She felt safe, she felt embraced, ‘But the overwhelming feeling was sadness. I find it impossible to look at those names on the walls and not immediately conjure in my head who those people might have been. Making the painting was a way of articulating something that’s hard for me to say in words.’

Watt has no religious faith, but the imagery of her upbringing has stayed with her and infused her work. ‘Robert Mapplethorpe said something I love: “If you are brought up as Catholic, everything you make will be an altar.”’

She, like most people, refers to the Memorial Chapel. Richard Holloway prefers to use its older name – the Warriors’ Chapel: ‘To me, these were warriors,’ he said, gesturing towards the names. ‘I admire soldiers. I rarely admire the men in panelled offices who send them to die, but I admire the men and women who go.’

His preference is shaped, perhaps, by the fact that he has experience of war and its consequences. Born in Glasgow in 1933, he moved to the town of Alexandria, in the Vale of Leven, when he was seven. ‘My father took me out into the street one night in March 1941 to look at the red sky above Clydebank.’ This was the industrial town being burned by the Luftwaffe. Of 12,000 homes, 4,000 were completely destroyed; 528 people were killed and 627 seriously injured. The Holloways observed this inferno from ten miles to the west. ‘He took me and my wee sister Helen out and told us not to forget.’ The following day, Holloway’s father, Arthur, encountered a family of bombed-out refugees – a husband, wife and daughter – and brought them home to live with them. Here was an early lesson in good and evil.

Meanwhile, just across the Clyde at Port Glasgow, Stanley Spencer was at work on his shipbuilding paintings – rendering in oil the sanctifying fire of a welder’s torch. Art could make war work look noble, and perhaps it was, but there was nothing noble about the aftermath of the Clydebank Blitz. The Glasgow Herald of 18 March 1941 reported on the burial of unidentified casualties, children among them, in a common grave: ‘The bodies, wrapped in white shrouds covered with Union Jacks, were transported in five large vans to the cemetery, where policemen acted as pall-bearers.’

The chapel in Old Saint Paul’s, which is used daily for morning Mass, was built with two purposes in mind: to remember the lost lives of the Great War and to have a place in the church where the dead could rest on the night before the funeral. It is a small and sombre space, the grey walls ensanguined, when I visited just after Remembrance Sunday, with gashes of red – poppies dividing the columns of names. The chapel was the vision of Albert Ernest Laurie, the priest with whom Old Saint Paul’s is closely associated. ‘He was an extraordinary man,’ Holloway said. His Edinburgh parish, which he joined first as a lay reader in the late nineteenth century, was a slum, and he became known for his pragmatic compassion toward the poor and vulnerable. There are stories of him going out in the freezing darkness to light fires and make tea for those on their sick-beds before opening the church in the morning.

When the war broke out in 1914, a great many young men from the parish went off to fight. Laurie, who was in his late forties, volunteered to become a chaplain. He was awarded the Military Cross twice – the first for his actions during the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. ‘He worked all day in helping the wounded back from the front line trenches under heavy fire,’ the citation reads. ‘When his brigade was withdrawn he remained and continued collecting wounded for two days and two nights under heavy fire, showing an utter disregard of personal danger.’ His second medal came a year later for similar actions during the Battle of Broodseinde.

Both citations mention ‘gallantry and devotion to duty’ but Laurie seems not to have found much gallant about war. In the year before his death, he reflected upon his first experience of the battlefield – 6 July 1915 – when the 1st East Lancashire Regiment attacked the Pilckem Ridge on the Ypres Salient. He wrote in the Old Saint Paul’s magazine that he had been emotionally and psychologically unprepared for what he encountered:

Up to this time ghastly wounds, frightful agonies of death had been alleviated by the kindly humanities possible even in a Field Hospital, but how difficult it was to refrain from tears, how one’s whole being quivered with indignation, or sickened with shameful horror as one went from one writhing figure to another, with the consciousness of such feeble helplessness! Words that seemed utterly futile, trivial efforts at relief that mocked the agonies of the torn and battered, muddy and bloody figures, so many of whom I had preached to and communicated but a few hours before. The tenderness of their dying messages, the heroic endurance of their misery, were almost beyond bearing. I can remember in a tempest of indignant grief, catching the arm of the cool young surgeon who was with me, with the cry, ‘How is it possible that such things can be?’

The chapel is a place of public remembrance that feels like an expression of private grief. There is something obsessive and intense about it. One could regard this as a post-traumatic building for a post-faith age; a chapel for those who had known hell and were, as a result, no longer as certain of heaven. ‘The story that moves me most is that Laurie used to come along here at night, when the church was shut, and remember the names,’ Holloway said. ‘I cry thinking about it.’ Stifling a sob, he continued. ‘He used to swing a little pot of incense and name the names. He would have known them all. There’s a real potency to the remembering he did in here. An extraordinary thing to have done.’

During his years as rector of Old Saint Paul’s, Holloway lived in Lauder House, Laurie’s former home, where in 1937 he had died. He made it his habit to sit at the fireside after evensong, reading his predecessor’s library of Trollope novels, each pencilled with Laurie’s signature. It is clear that he feels a strong personal identification with the priest, just as Laurie himself identified with the young men of his parish who had fought and died – a chain of empathy linking back through the decades, forged of faith and doubt and pain and love. The chapel, during all those decades, from the 1920s through another world war and into the new century, played its role in the life of the church. There was, though, an air of expectancy, of life lived in ellipses. ‘It was almost,’ Holloway thought, ‘as if it was waiting for something . . .’

Alison Watt spent almost a year making Still between 2003 and 2004, painting in Leith in a studio above a funeral parlour. She worked on it in four pieces at first, then as a single composition, which required the use of scaffolding. She went back and forth to Old Saint Paul’s several times a week, as if to a well: sitting in the chapel, filling herself with the spirit of the place, and bringing it back to the canvas. She made herself ill through exhaustion and obsession. She is a vocational painter, and there was no sense in which she was doing this work as a detached professional. ‘There’s an emotional cost to making work as well as a physical one,’ she told me. ‘The making of a painting is the creation of a private world and you end up inhabiting it.’

Still is not an explicitly religious work of art, and has no clear association with war and remembrance, but most who spend time pondering its meaning are likely to think of Christ’s shroud, and winding sheets in general. Those bodies of the Clydebank Blitz. It may also bring to mind the word ‘cenotaph’ – which means ‘empty tomb’ – and a line from R. S. Thomas: ‘this great absence that is like a presence’.

For Watt, the painting had two specific inspirations. First, a small black cross that hangs on the wall of the chapel. Known as the Martyr’s Cross, it is thought that from the sixteenth century it hung on a house in the Grassmarket, opposite the gallows. Tradition has it that this iron cross was the last thing seen by the condemned before death; eyes filled with fear rested on it for that final moment and, one feels, left the scorch mark of their gaze. It is, therefore, a powerful and unsettling object. The cruciform umbra formed by the four parts of Still is intended as a shadow of this Martyr’s Cross.

Watt also had a particular painting in mind: Francisco de Zurbarán’s The Martyrdom Of Saint Serapion, painted in 1628 for a monastery in Seville. ‘His martyrdom, in the twelfth century, was brutal,’ Watt said. ‘He was tied between two trees and tortured and decapitated. But in the painting the explicit details are not shown, and he seems to be almost suspended between life and death. His body is draped in these incredible white robes, each wrist is bound with rope, his head falls to one side, and he is utterly beautiful and magnificent.

‘The painting was made for a room where monks were laid out before burial. It seems that each fold in the robe that St Serapion is wearing has been pared down to the simple elements of light and shade. Initially, when you look at the painting, you are seduced by the apparent simplicity but Zurbarán’s genius is that he manages to elevate something humble – this simple white cloth – to an almost divine level. There’s this really powerful sense of the transformation of an object into an idea. Zurbarán’s fabric is to be touched, it’s to be listened to. It’s almost like a living Mass.’

In the documentary Alison Watt: A Painter’s Eye, Watt spoke about her almost obsessional connection with another Zurbarán painting, Saint Francis in Meditation, and said that if it had a sound it would be that of the saint’s breath. What, I asked her, would be the sound of Still?

‘Perhaps,’ she said, ‘a sigh.’

Still was not intended as a permanent part of Old Saint Paul’s. It was installed as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival in 2004, the idea being that it might be shown for a maximum of three months. ‘But then,’ Watt recalled, ‘an extraordinary thing happened: the congregation asked me if it could stay. It’s the only painting I’ve ever made that has actually been blessed.’

The blessing was by Bishop Brian Smith. The painting was lit by candles as he spoke: ‘Light of Christ, shine through this image, and be reflected in the hearts and minds of all who look at it.’

Alison Watt had spoken to the congregation. ‘Thank you,’ she said, ‘because this church has changed my life.’

What did she mean by that, I asked.

‘Old Saint Paul’s has become part of my life,’ she explained. ‘It’s in my heart. It’s a place that I go to seek solace. It’s a place that I go to and sit on my own. I’ve cried there, I’ve been comforted there. For me it’s a real place of reflection and contemplation. It’s a space that allows you to just be.’

She does not often attend the services, preferring to visit the church – and her painting – alone.

‘It’s hard to explain, to try to put a feeling into words, but a few years ago I wanted to go there not long after my mother died. I needed to. I arrived just before an evening service in the middle of the week. Apart from the young woman priest preparing to say Mass, I was the only person in the church. Before she began, she asked me to join her at the altar as it was just the two of us. So I sat next to her, where one of the choristers might sit. It was extraordinary. The meaning of the liturgy seemed to change as we shared the experience. I sat and wept silently throughout. Even now, I find it hard to think of it without crying. It was profoundly moving. When the service was over, the young priest moved towards me and put her arms around me.

‘This may sound strange, but I felt completely loved. I’ll never forget it.’

Still hangs above the altar in the chapel. Something I had never noticed until Watt pointed it out: the painting is suspended by chains from the ceiling rather than being attached to the back wall. ‘That’s deliberate and important,’ she said, ‘because I wanted it to have a feeling of looming forwards.’

Often, when she paints a picture, it is bought by a private collector and she never sees it again. There is a sense of loss. Other works make their way into museum and gallery collections; whenever she sees those paintings it is in public view and can feel like a performance: The Artist Contemplating Her Genius. Still is different. There is a sense of collective ownership. It is hers, but also belongs to the congregation, and each of them projects on to it – into it – whatever they need in that moment.

The title seems important. Still meaning unmoving. Still meaning a thing that endures. The focal point of the painting is a teardrop loop of cloth almost black at its deepest point. During the long months of lockdown, when the Scottish capital was eerie in its emptiness, the silent darkness at the centre of the picture seemed to spill out and spread across the city. Edinburgh, enshrouded.

Artists, Richard Holloway believes, are often better than theologians at expressing the intricacies of the human soul. Still certainly does so. ‘Oh, yes,’ he said. ‘It expresses longing, hope, doubt – all of the stuff that humans do. I mean, we’re thrust into this universe, we don’t know where we came from or where we’re going. We get, if we’re lucky, ninety years and then we’re over. And I’m getting close to the exit gate.’

Holloway has a taste for the elegiac – ‘It’s been one of my lifelong addictions’ – and it is no surprise to learn that he has planned his own funeral. It will, of course, take place in Old Saint Paul’s, amid that smell of wax and dust and stone, and will be ‘Humanist-Christian’ in character. There will be hymns and poems; music and, no doubt, some laughter.

After the service, before the cremation, before his ashes are scattered on Scald Law, the highest hill of the Pentlands, his body will be carried down the Calvary Stair and out on to the street. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘those steps are important to me. Those thirty-three steps, then out under the Scotsman bridge and away . . .’

His coffin will spend the night before in Old Saint Paul’s. It will be his final visit. He would love to lie, he told me, in the Warriors’ Chapel – on the stone catafalque where so many of the parish have lain before. There, as Alison Watt’s painting looms above, his unquiet heart will, at last, be still.

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