The Middle Ages were the age of unquestioning faith reinforced by a synthesis of philosophy, theological speculation, architecture and applied art that embodied a Christian civilisation. At the beginning of the 13th century, when Chartres and Notre Dame were being built, the university emerged which replaced the monastery as the centre of medieval learning. Students flocked to the university of Paris, where the writings of Aristotle on natural science soon became the core of the curriculum taught by masters who belonged to the preaching orders of the Franciscans and the Dominicans. Aristotle placed vision at the top of the hierarchy of the five human senses, and emphasised that knowledge could only be obtained through the perception of the visible world. For an Aristotelian like Roger Bacon (c1214-c1292), who studied at Oxford and Paris, "the whole truth of things in the world lies in the literal sense . . . because nothing is fully intelligible unless it is it is presented before our eyes".
What has this to do with Frederick Landseer Griggs (1876-1938), and who is Griggs anyway? Griggs was the finest architectural etcher, and one of the most widely respected artists of his generation who was a pivot in British Romantic art and whose work links that of Turner, Blake and Samuel Palmer with the neoRomantics Graham Sutherland and John Piper. In 1912 Griggs, aged 35. was received after a period of atheism into the Church at St Catharine's, Chipping Camden, in Gloucestershire, and took the baptismal name of Maur, after the patron saint of the learned French Benedictine Congregation of Saint-Maur. He believed that the Benedictines embodied the highest Christian culture.
Griggs combined a sense of history with a passion for Gothic architecture and the appeal of Catholicism was that it touched more closely than any other faith his love for English Gothic buildings. The parish churches and cathedrals, despite the Reformation, still testified to the inspiration of Catholicism as the mother of the Gothic arts. No black and white illustrator had brought the Gothic past so romantically to life as Griggs. His perception of the visual world brought him to faith and his drawings and etchings record a vision of the English countryside and vernacular architecture threatened by industry and greed. For him medievalism and Catholicism were one.
Griggs was born in the market town of Hitchin in Hertfordshire, the son of a Baptist baker. He trained as an architect with Walter Millard, also of Hitchin, who taught him to draw in the manner which was to become his distinctive style, and later with Charles Mallows, of Bedford. The end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries were a golden age of perspectives. Millard and Mallows believed that a drawing is as important as the building it represents. Griggs' style of drawing was firm, strong and detailed and his illustrations to Macmillan's Highways and Byways series, an indispensable aid to Edwardian travellers, did much to stimulate interest in the beauties of the countryside and ancient villages. In his architectural drawings, with their skilful
hatching, he found ways to render textures as if they were the substance of his art.
Griggs moved to Chipping Camden in 1903 where scrupulously he worked on the restorations of Cotswolds buildings on the principles of William Morris's Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, work which is as important as his occupation as an etcher. There he became involved with CR Ashbee's Guild of Handicraft which brought together young craftsmen of diverse skills from the East End of London to ply their trade in a rural idyll. Chipping Camden is one of the most beautiful towns in England, with mullioned and gabled stone houses, of every conceivable style, and a great perpendicular church tower. Griggs thought "he had found a place to match his dreams". There he married his wife, Nina, raised a family and built Dovers House, their home.
One of the mysteries of conversion is that it often enables latent, Godgiven talents to come to fulfilment. It is part of the consecration of being on the bedrock of faith. Catholicism made Griggs an etcher and at his baptism he recorded in his diary: "The so-long reluctant sun shone in my eyes the whole time."
Griggs took up the etching needle and set his art on the path he had always desired. Fifteen years later he wrote: "The dream of devoting my best years and work to this recording of what England had been (and could be and really now is in her soul) was an early one, and lasted. It was because of it that I deliberately held my hand for so many years. Looking back, I think I restarted at the right moment."
Griggs was not only a topographical artist whose work brought out the grain and essence of Gothic structure; he also wanted to build the heavenly Jerusalem. This was summed up in his most virtuosic etching, The Almonry, made in 1925, which marked the peak and watershed of his career. It represents his ultimate image of English Gothic building as the metaphor of heaven and earth. In the courtyard, two singers raise their voices with the instruments of old English waits, as a small family departs with food and alms for body and spirit. They cross over a masonry footbridge and against it the wooden ladders and scaffold police reach up from the bottom of the plate ambiguously referring to repair and dissolution. Griggs's biographer, Jerrold Northrop Moore, described it as "a true outpost of the heavenly city, built with an English vision on English earth".
The modern world was painful for Griggs, he hated the erosion of the countryside and its old way of life, the chasm created by the Great War, progress and the attrition of beauty. Society's ills could be resolved by the spiritual and corporal works of mercy. Griggs's etchings have a heart-rending beauty that embodied a dream which "imbue their paper with mystic energy and intensity".
His art retains the fierce integrity of his vision in a century that cruelly betrayed his ideas.