Get to know The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral this month

The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral

The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral - Credit: Archant

Get to know The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral this month thanks to a free art exhibition featuring paintings, sculptures, textiles, photography, prints, film, willow work and ceramics.

Glazier by Caroline Forward

Glazier by Caroline Forward - Credit: Archant

Featuring major works by 19 members of the OuseLife group of artists, the exhibition showcases over 80 specially created art works celebrating the cathedral and the people who care for it.

Organisers say ‘OuseLife has had unprecedented access to the people and buildings of the cathedral. Through these connections artists have had the opportunity to glimpse behind the scenes of cathedral life, past and present.

‘The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral includes a variety of styles and media, reflecting the diversity of the OuseLife artists.

‘Along with site specific artworks, this collaboration has inspired a wealth of portraits of people involved in the day to day life of the Cathedral’.

The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral

The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral - Credit: Archant

A number of the artworks will be available for sale, with commission on sales going to Ely Cathedral.

The exhibition, which is free to enter, through the south west transept, runs until Monday May 2.

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Normal charges apply to view site specific pieces throughout the cathedral.

For more information visit or contact or

Making space to create art

Artists have worked in different ways and spaces during this project. Here are some of their stories.

People involved in all levels of the daily life of the cathedral, including office staff and the works force were intrigued by the developing work. An early comment was ‘I didn’t realise it was going to be such a big project and so long term.’

Jane Frost has been working in collaboration with the Cathedral Flower Guild to make vessels that will be integrated with flower arrangements during the exhibition. They will be placed at entrances to the Cathedral and under the Octagon.

Cary Outis laid a 133 x 313cm sheet of paper in the main Nave aisle to draw the building, attracting many admiring comments. He enjoyed people stopping to talk to him about what he was doing.

Other artists, aware of time restraints in people’s busy lives, used their cameras to record people at work or drew their sitters in their chosen places so that they could work on the paintings in their own studios. Brian Wimble, inspired by Prior Crauden’s Chapel and its Medieval floor depicting Adam and Eve, employed artist models to work from in his creation of a life size contemporary Adam and Eve.

Ricki Outis spent many hours accessing the historic Cathedral archives in the Cambridge University Library before returning to her studio to dye and print her stunning banners and scarves.

The challenges of site specific artworks

Several artists have made site specific pieces for the exhibition. Here are three of their stories.

One of the OuseLife artists, Cary Outis, gave himself the most difficult task he could think of, embarking on a five metre high sculpture in steel, to explore and express how it might feel to build something impossibly big... like a Cathedral. Teetering on a stepladder he’d had to make specially, he bolted the piece together from seven sections (transportation being another challenge!). Unfortunately, as you’ll recall, we’ve had some strong winds recently, and the whole thing went over. There followed a number of adjustments until finally a stable and dizzying tower successfully blocked the driveway outside his workshop. It will be sited in the Nave of Ely Cathedral during the exhibition.

Kimberley Allen decided to create a panel over the Prior’s Door to show how the Christ in Majesty Tympanum may have looked in Medieval times. She enlisted the help of Pete Hotine, the Cathedral carpenter, to trim her wood panel but the astonishing lack of symmetry in the archway meant that getting a snug fit turned out to be hours of work. Pete had to go up and down a ladder countless times with a heavy piece of plywood and after each new measurement, rest it on a pew to cut and refine the shape using traditional hand tools. As if this was not enough, once Kimberley had completed her painting, she brought it back to check it all fitted and once again Pete was up and down that ladder. Fortunately, despite the farcical nature of the task, Pete remained remarkably good humoured. The fit was great and the painting looks as if it really belongs there!

Jane Frost wanted to create a large mobile made of willow trees with the bark stripped off which makes them almost white and suspend it in the Octagon of the Cathedral to show the movement of air in the Cathedral. Much to her delight, Chapter approved her proposal which left Jane with the challenge of being able to realise it! This has been achieved with support from the Cathedral’s very helpful Director of Works, Vicki Roulinson, and Director of Operations and Sacrist, Chris Flatman, together with Tim Frost and Andrew Jones who have the skills to solve the engineering problems. The final design and all the problems were solved after six months of conversations, technical drawings and meetings that included measuring, weighing, hauling and balancing long stripped willow trees in the Octagon and in the Bishop’s garden. The choreography of installing and raising the mobile will take place and everyone will be able to see the movement of air in Ely Cathedral.

Up the scaffolding on Ely Cathedral

Caroline Forward shares her story:

For many months while we were working on The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral, the cathedral was shrouded in scaffolding poles while stained glass windows were taken out and returned sparkling clean and full of dazzling colour. The lines of the scaffolding externally cloaked the fabric of the building with a geometric maze of lines and shadows, through which the stonemasons, glaziers and conservators wound their way up and down in their hi-vis jackets. They were laboriously and meticulously cleaning the stone by hand, drilling the old stone out with a pneumatic drill to make way for the new ready moulded stone awaiting its place and cementing in the new windows. Internally the scaffolding poles were less closely packed, presenting strong lines with an almost abstract quality of the scaffolding poles against the cathedral’s own geometric shapes.

I was privileged to be allowed to don a hard hat and a hi-vis jacket and follow Ian Crothers (a stonemason who has worked on the cathedral since he was a teenager), up the scaffolding both outside and in. Outside the views were amazing, and the conservation work fascinating. Inside, as we climbed higher we could look close up at the newly discovered fragments of medieval painting way up high on the North transept wall. At the top I actually touched the ceiling of this wonderful building. It was an awesome moment.

The people who work to keep this cathedral in good order and able to stand proud for many years to come talk about it with affection and pride. It must be quite something to know that your work will endure, usually unseen, so that the cathedral can continue to give pleasure and solace to many people for years into the future.

These oil paintings by Caroline Forward will be shown as part of the exhibition.

An artistic insight into the life of the Ely boy choristers

Tom Jones, one of the OuseLife artists, tells his story.

For my contribution to the Secret Life of Ely Cathedral exhibition, I was really interested in the Boy Choristers as a subject matter. Having seen them at rehearsals and performing at the Cathedral, I was struck by how mature and professional they were for their age. I was keen to see more of them outside of Cathedral hours to see how they behaved in a more relaxed environment. After meeting all of the extremely rigorous safeguarding requirements with the school, I was lucky enough to be allowed on site at the Choir House to spend some time with them

The house itself dates from the 14th century and doesn’t disappoint in its grandeur. What is more noticeable though, is how lived in and welcoming it feels. That in part, is definitely down to how at ease the boys are in their surroundings. When they’re not practising (which they do a lot, even back at the house) the boys are doing whatever any 7 to 12 year olds do, be it watching television or playing video games. The obvious advantage of boarding is that there are always several other boys to play with. This also makes for a fairly awe inspiring collection of Nerf Guns.

I didn’t paint onsite, but I had my camera with me for reference shots. I fully expected to be on the fringes taking the odd shot here or there but the boys were so unphased by the camera, that I was able to follow them all around the house. They were all exceptionally friendly and polite. I don’t think I’ve been called Mr Jones so much in such a short space of time! In fact, some of them even started taking photos for me whilst I was treated to a game of pool. Later they took me into the garden to watch them play rugby and have a bit of a kick about, all under the watchful gaze of the Cathedral.

Story quilt

Ely Cathedral is a focal point in the region; there are many stories about the journeys and the people who have travelled here. ‘Journeys and Yarns: Navigating and Narrating’ links with the metaphor of the Cathedral as Ship of the Fens and the heritage, culture and landscape of the Ouse Washes. As part of the exhibition Jane Frost has been awarded a Community Heritage Fund grant from Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership (OWLP) to support her work in coordinating a community project and the Ouse Washes and Fenland Story Quilt as a resource for the community. The Ouse Washes Landscape Partnership is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

To collect imagery for the quilt, family workshops and sharing of stories have taken place in a variety of places, including an animal hunt in the Cathedral when children made drawings of their favourite creatures. The Story Quilt is still a work in progress. During the exhibition Jane will be working two days a week in the Cathedral and visitors will be invited to contribute. There will be a story-telling session led by Marion Leeper on d Monday May 2 from 10am to 12 noon.

After the exhibition the Story Quilt will be used at local events and available from Adams Heritage Centre, Littleport as a community resource. If you would like to hire the Story Quilt for an event during OuseFest 2016 (Monday 18 - Sunday 31 July) please get in touch.

For more information about the Story Quilt project contact Jane Frost, email, tel 07967088348

Exploring behind the scenes at Ely Cathedral

OuseLife artists have had some fantastic opportunities to see some of the workings and hidden gems of the Cathedral. Notable experiences during our time here have been tours given by three very experienced and knowledgeable guides, Barbara McGowan, Mark Bradford and Brian Parsley, all with their own special interests in the cathedral which they pursue with impressive and inexhaustible passion and enthusiasm. We are deeply grateful to them for sharing with us their special places and infecting us with their deeply held love and respect for what they revealed.

One freezing cold March morning, when the heaters had given up completely, Barbara McGowan (Cathedral Guides Co-ordinator) took a group of us around the Cathedral. Such was her enthusiasm, knowledge and ability to tell us about the history and people involved in the building that after several hours we reached saturation point (and possibly frostbite) and had to schedule another time to finish the tour. Barbara brought the daily routines of the monks and the monastic buildings to life and showed us carvings of animals and heads that often remain unseen.

Brian Parsley’s interest lies in the Prior Crauden’s Chapel, a short walk away from the main building. Here, under a protective carpet lies a Medieval tiled floor showing Adam & Eve with a serpent, amongst other beautiful animals and plants.

Mark Bradford took us on a high level tour of the Cathedral. His special interest is the graffiti in the Cathedral and he pointed out many moving examples of names, dates and messages inscribed into the fabric of the building. We saw the rows and rows of blocks of stone from the Cathedral carefully packed and labelled in the Triforium, next to the statue of Joseph and his sheep, awaiting their next Christmas outing. We looked down from the dizzying height of the Octagon tower into the choir stalls. We scrambled in the dark above and along the Nave ceiling and on into the Belfry with its wonderful canopy of wooden beams crisscrossing the tower. The bell rang, displaying the workings of its mechanism and we climbed up the stairs to get a closer look in this fascinating, little seen but regularly active part of the Cathedral.

These tours were just the start of a year interpreting and creating new artworks that will be revealed in The Secret Life of Ely Cathedral.