DENNIS CREFFIELD, St Michael's Mount, 1990
Dennis Creffield was comfortably into his 50s, with over 30 years as an exhibiting artist under his belt, before he started receiving significant public attention. This was achieved largely through an Arts Council commission to draw every medieval cathedral in England (26 in total). The subsequent exhibition toured to 14 different public galleries across the country over a 2 year period, introducing his wonderful draughtsmanship to a huge new audience. The exhibition catalogue contained a foreword by the American artist R.B. Kitaj where he proclaimed: (Dennis Creffield) “is one of England’s closely guarded secret and it’s about time someone blew his cover…. Creffield’s great gift can’t be hidden away anymore.”
The significant critical success of the Cathedral show led to the artist embarking on a similar project to draw 11 of northern France’s great gothic cathedrals, and our present drawing of Le Mans cathedral comes from this series. The works were eventually shown at the Albemarle Gallery who produced a richly illustrated catalogue with introductory text by Richard Cork. Although less well known than the English works, the French cathedral drawings are every bit as impressive, often displaying a lighter touch and a greater emphasis on expressive mark making. The cathedrals appear to explode from the sheets of paper they are drawn on.
Le Mans Cathedral was a building that greatly intrigued Creffield, who described it as “a masterful nest of cunning complexity,” which he found almost impossible to draw. Our drawing is remarkable for a number of reasons. Very unusually, it is horizontal in format. Almost all of the other cathedral drawings are portrait format or almost square to emphasise the verticality of the subject. His drawing of Le Mans is not so concerned with the depiction of soaring towers or flying buttresses. It is more an evocation of Creffield’s own personal experience of the building. The format encourages the viewer to scan the image like a book from left to right. The vague outline of the transept to the left, at the periphery of one’s vision, segues to a bustling solid mass of lines as the cathedral choir hones into full view. It’s a kinetic viewing experience as opposed to the passive observation of a single aspect.
Creffield was extremely reactive to the environmental conditions in which a drawing was produced. If it was misty or foggy on the day he set up his easel, he would draw the fog before the cathedral. If it rained, the rain would splash and mark the sheet. These drawings are documents of a moment in time as much as a place.
Creffield’s weekend in Le Mans was not easy. He found himself constantly distracted by the noise from a nearby market and “the ceaseless whine of accelerating engines” – his visit coincided with the famous Le Mans 24 hour race. While thousands of spectators would be craning their necks and following the arc of a racing car through the apex of a corner, so, more quietly, Creffield was doing the same in front of this cathedral. Whilst the spectator’s visceral experience of the race will linger only in their memories, Creffield’s experience of the building is preserved perfectly in this drawing.