The Quire Screens, on which stand 12 Carved Angels, were first planned in the 1860s. When Gilbert Scott carried out his massive re-ordering of the Abbey he included provision for screens between the tower piers behind the choir stalls. It was intended that these screens would continue eastwards behind the stalls in the presbytery (between the crossing and the sanctuary). Sadly these were never built. A century later, in the 1970s, there was a desire to install screens as we have now – their purpose being threefold:
To provide an architectural backdrop to the choir stalls, which otherwise stood in front of the void created by the transepts
To provide a better defined architectural space to act as a quire
To improve the acoustics in this part of the building, by reflecting the sound of the choir into the main part of the building and preventing sound from echoing round the transepts before reaching the nave and presbytery.
Alan Rome, the Abbey architect at the time, was asked to look out for suitable screens from a redundant church, but the idea came to nothing. Then, in 1996, the interior of the Abbey was being prepared for cleaning, and screens of scaffolding appeared between the tower piers behind the choir stalls – that on the south side to house an electronic organ while the new Klais organ was being built, and on the north side to house an iron staircase from floor to vault. It was then that Judge Mark Rutherford, the Chairman of the Friends of Bath Abbey asked me if this made a difference to the sound of the choir. I told him that they were a considerable help and Mark resolved that the Friends would fund proper screens when the Abbey was free of scaffolding. The result was firstly new, moveable and enlarged choir stalls, together with the magnificent brass candle lamps which adorn them. The screens themselves took a little longer.
Medieval churches provide an inspiring shell which each generation must order and furnish in the way that best suits it. At the dawn of the 21st Century it is flexibility which is foremost in our priorities; so it was decided that the screens must be open-able. This probably put back installation by about 3 years, but it has already many times proved itself to be the right decision. Finding a way of making open-able screens that were architecturally acceptable proved a daunting task. If the solution now looks obvious, it is because the people concerned got it right. Credit must go to the Abbey Architect Chris Romain for finding a way to engineer the screens, to David Graebe (who normally specializes in organ case design) for providing architectural detail, to Hugh Harrison who managed the project and to Brett Wright who carried out the carpentry.
When the screens were eventually installed in 2004 one detail remained to be decided – how to fill the coving at the top of the screens facing the choir stalls. Several ideas were played with and rejected as unacceptable: heraldic shields (worthy, but dull), angels holding heraldic shields (ditto), angels holding scrolls which together created a text (very dull), two dimensional angels playing musical instruments (not good enough). Eventually Hugh Harrison, tired of rejected conventional ideas, approached one of the country’s leading sculptors. Paul Fletcher produced drawings which were accepted immediately. It was clear that at last we had found the man who could give the screens the finishing touch they needed to bring them to life. Once funding was assured, thanks to The Friends of Bath Abbey, Paul made plaster maquettes of each angel. These were then taken to the studio of Laurence Beckford who reproduced each plaster maquette exactly in Lime wood. On completion the 12 angels were installed in October 2007 by Laurence and Brett.
When you stand between the Choir Stalls you will see that each side is different. There are 10 different musical instruments being played – they were modelled on The New Scorpion Band, a professional group of musicians specialising in English and Irish folk music. Every angel is an individual character – each adopts a different posture and flaps its wings in a different way, but on each side the 6 angels are designed in such a way that they form a continuous frieze. Their wings, for instance, overlap; at each end the angel faces inwards to the centre, with its outer wing forming a closing point to the design, and near the centre is a more upright centre piece – a Tuba on the South side and an Organist on the North. You may also notice that the angels face down at an angle of 45º. This is because they are designed to relate to the coving on the screen; their body posture and robes flow with that curve. Because the Abbey is wide in relation to the height of the screens, the angels face more downwards than out towards the centre of the building, thus inviting closer inspection. Do go closer, because your close inspection will be rewarded.
You will see that the angels’ robes remain uncoloured, in their natural lime wood; but the hems are decorated. Coloured, too, are the musical instruments, and the wings are a chalky white, high-lighted with gold. These magnificent wings break through the straight lines of the cornice moulding and, by means of hidden lighting, through wonderful shadows. You will also see how the angels rest their feet on the screen and some curl their toes round the moulding. There are other fascinating touches: the two Violinists on the south side are facing each other as if playing a duet, and the one on the left is using her wing to shield her ear from the Bagpipes next to her. Observant musicians will snigger when they observe that only one angel is looking at the Conductor in the north west corner: that is the Cellist next to him, and she has her eyes closed. The conducting angel was modelled on the Abbey’s present Director of Music; resident musicians may rcognise a familiar conductor’s gesture: it appears that Decani trebles are being encouraged to sing louder while Cantoris are being directed to show restraint.
Lastly there is a human touch relating to the sculptor’s creative process. He began with the bugler in the South West corner and progressed eastwards, then across to the North side with the Drummer and along the row to the Conductor in the corner by the pulpit. A close look will reveal that as work progressed, so caution was relaxed, enthusiasm took over, and the angels got minutely, but perceptibly, larger, giving the conductor bigger wings than anybody else.
Each generation will judge the Abbey’s fixtures and fittings differently, as fashions come and go. Some may relate the angels which we celebrate today to the famous stone angels on the West Front; others may see these angelic musicians as a heavenly counterpart to the efforts of the Abbey Choir in their stalls immediately beneath. Today it might seem that the carved angels form the most significant visual work of art to be installed since the magnificent Sir Thomas Jackson Organ Case nearly 100 years ago, in 1914. Let us thank God for those who supported their creation with sponsorship, and for those who, by their craftsmanship, have adorned this holy place.
The Angels were dedicated by the Bishop of Bath & Wells, the Right Revd Peter Price, at a specially devised service on Saturday 26th January 2008. The Abbey’s Choirs of Boys, Girls and Men sang music with texts relating to angels: Lift thine eyes – Felix Mendelssohn, Duo Seraphim – Francisco Guerrero, Let all mortal flesh keep silence – Sir Edward Bairstow, Den er hat seinen Engeln – Mendelssohn, Ecce ancilla Domini – Paul Drayton, Magnificat in G – Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, I saw the Lord – Sir John Stainer, and Faire is the heaven – Sir William Harris. The service was attended by members of the Friends of Bath Abbey, the Friends of Cathedral Music, the Prayer Book Society, the Abbey congregation and visitors.