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New exhibition: Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral

Rochester Cathedral hosts magnificent photographic ‘portraits’ of all 42 English Anglican Cathedrals by the late Magnum photographer Peter Marlow, from 19 March to 3 April.



Peter Marlow, Rochester Cathedral, 2010 © Peter Marlow Foundation/ Magnum Photos



Rochester Cathedral, UK, England’s second oldest cathedral and home to Britain’s second oldest door dating back to 1080, will host the next stage of an ambitious tour of works by the late Magnum photographer, Peter Marlow. Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral is a free and exceptional photographic exhibition chronicling all 42 naves of England’s Anglican cathedrals in natural light with all modern artificial light turned off and is on show from 19 March - 3 April 2024.


Organised by the Peter Marlow Foundation, the charity set up to continue Peter’s legacy, the aim is that this ethereal collection of images will exhibit at each of the 42 cathedrals he visited on his photographic pilgrimage across England. The exhibition at Rochester Cathedral will be on display in the South Transept during normal cathedral opening hours. The Cathedral website has details of when the site is closed for services and private events - www.rochestercathedral.org

Founded in 604 AD with the present building dating back to 1080, Rochester Cathedral has numerous points of historic interest. It was a major place of pilgrimage in the 13th Century, its worn ‘Pilgrim Steps’ paying testament to the countless visitors’ footsteps, and Charles Dickens’ very last, unfinished novel, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, featured a cathedral in a city called Cloisterham which many believe to be Rochester Cathedral as the writer lived nearby.


In hosting the exhibition, Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral, Rochester Cathedral invites its visitors to embark on a visual journey through the lens of Peter Marlow, capturing the essence of the Cathedral and its Gothic architecture in a play of natural light with all modern artificial lighting turned off. Peter’s portrayal of the cathedral evocatively transports the viewer back to the site’s medieval roots by inviting contemplation of its dramatic interior in the absence of artificial lighting.


The Very Reverend Dr Philip Hesketh, AKC DL Dean of Rochester, says of the exhibition, “It is wonderful to have all the Cathedrals together in one place, to speak, and see their full glory alongside one another. Worth a visit!”


As well as coinciding with Easter and Holy Week, Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral will also be on display alongside the Fenland Black Oak project - a spectacular 13 metre long table created from a 5000 year old Fenland Black Oak. On tour across the UK it acts as a unique ‘Table for the Nation’.


Peter Marlow (b. UK, 1952 - 2016) was commissioned in 2008 by Royal Mail on the 300th year anniversary of the completion of St Paul’s Cathedral to photograph six Anglican Cathedrals that were issued as commemorative stamps. So taken was he by these initial magnificent interiors that he set out to photograph all 42, guided over the next three years by a copy of English Cathedrals (1989) by Edwin Smith and Olive Cook and a pack of Anglican Cathedrals of England Top Trumps Cards.


“What I thought was going to be incredibly simple became intricate, complicated, and utterly absorbing. The journey was memorable and wonderfully hypnotic, a kind of reflective pilgrimage. My cathedral days involved hours of driving and thinking, with my reference Polaroids drying in the sun on the dashboard. England passed by.” Peter Marlow, The English Cathedral.


The images appear deceptively simple in their composition and technical set-up. It was after much experimentation that Peter developed the perfect strategy to document these huge interior spaces and to highlight the many varied architectural nuances between the buildings. Shooting on large format film using only natural light, he set up in the same position at all but one of the cathedrals - looking east towards the nave and altar as the dawn light streamed through the main window. By ensuring all artificial lighting was turned off, a rarity in many of these buildings whose lights remain on constantly, he captured the cathedrals emerging from the darkness as if suspended in time and removed from the modern age. This end result can be regarded as a contemporary update to the long tradition of church photography in England, namely Frederik Evans’ late 19th century imagery and Edwin Smith’s mid-20th century work.



Peter Marlow photogra phing St Edmunds bury Cathedral, Suffolk, by Peter’s assistant, Marcio Suster, 2012 © Peter Marlow Foundation/Magnum Photos



Peter’s remarkable photographs bring into sharp relief the full splendour of the interiors of some of England’s most magnificent buildings, great symbols of spiritual and architectural power.


“When immersed in Peter’s photographs we are metaphorically in some kind of contemplative enclosure, if not a sanctuary: one that confronts us with our own sense of being. The forms captured here are simultaneously concrete and abstract: containers of history, light and, above all, space. Despite of, and in parallel with, the undeniable structure of the architectural edifice, Peter captures the intangible essence of all form that is generated by creative force: the enduring mystery of space within space.” Martin Barnes, The English Cathedral.


A sold-out monograph of Peter Marlow’s The English Cathedral was published by Merrell in 2012 with a second edition in 2015. Featuring texts by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) London, and John Goodall, architectural editor of Country Life magazine, it also includes Peter’s own account of his ‘cathedral days’ as well as his technical commentary of how he achieved these intensely detailed images. The initiation of The English Cathedral tour was generously funded by the Victoria and Albert Museum and their Photographs Acquisition Group. A full set of the prints are held in the V&A’s permanent collection.


Following the exhibition at Rochester Cathedral, Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral will show in 2024 at the following cathedrals:

• Peterborough Cathedral, 14th May - 13th June 2024

• Derby Cathedral, 18th June - 14th July 2024

• Chester Cathedral, 10th September - 1st October 2024


Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral has previously been hosted by Coventry Cathedral in 2016; Ely Cathedral in 2017; Portsmouth and Blackburn in 2019; Carlisle, Winchester, Ripon, Southwell, Bradford, St Albans, and St Paul’s in 2022; Hereford, Newcastle; St Edmundsbury; Wakefield;Lincoln; and Wells in 2023; and Manchester Cathedral at the start of 2024. Many more of the cathedrals featured in the series are lined up for the years to come.


For more information about the Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral tour and the Peter Marlow Foundation contact: Sam Trenerry samtrenerry@yahoo.com/ +44 (0)7780 991 811

For more information on the programme at Rochester Cathedral contact:

Rebecca Peachey, Commercial and Marketing Manager, rebecca.peachey@rochestercathedral.org

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