PETER EUGENE BALL delights in putting his work into ancient spaces, where he describes his figures as “settling in”. That perfectly describes the presence of his Madonnas, angels, pilgrims, wayfarers, and fools in the Chapter House at Southwell Minster, where they people the stone niches of the octagon as though it was their rightful place to be.
In a hushed and holy late-afternoon moment with no one else present, I felt they had the potential to come alive in the manner of Robert William Buss’s painting Dickens’s Dream, which famously depicts the writer surrounded by the living characters of his imagination. Ball’s work is permanently represented at Southwell by the glorious Christus Rex, commissioned in 1987, that hangs over the nave. He last exhibited here in 1999.
His figures are formed mostly from found objects, predominantly wood, often partly covered in copper or pewter and embellished with gold and silver leaf. The lidded eyes and set faces are arresting. Stillness and contemplation mark many of the figures, but others are wild and mischievous. Salome is carved from a smooth lump of wood that makes for a flouncing body thrust forward in provocation. One leg is raised behind in the dance, and her face, with slightly jutting lower lip, shouts defiance. Harlequin playfully balances on one hand, legs waving wildly in the air, fez tassel swinging.
Pilgrimage is a recurring theme in stooping figures with staffs, bells, and the floppy-brimmed hat of the wanderer. Madonnas predominate: the arresting Southwell Madonna is a rich creation hung with bells, flanked with candles, smudged with gold, and, unusually for Ball, with an open-eyed and far-seeing infant Christ. Virgin Adrift has a solitary Mary perched on a rock edge, her baby papoose-like in a stone hollow.
The centrepiece is the stunning Oxford Madonna, which has been bought by Christ Church, Oxford. The child between her knees is held tall and straight, his feet dangling just above his mother’s shoes. Her gown is blue, and the five-petalled metal flowers have gold carpels. She exudes serenity. The five small figures exhibited around her include Angel, whose knobbly knots of wings look as though they might unfurl to great width, and Nijinsky.
The rounded shape of the knees protruding beneath the draped garment of the Black Madonna is curiously moving. A hole at the centre of the wood suggests the empty womb from which the child has come.
In L’élévation de la Vierge, Mary is proudly thick-waisted and broad-hipped, her high-folded arms creating a natural hollow of a cradle. She is a mechanical toy in russet and gold, with a suggestion of a key in her back and a primitive hydraulic attached for her elevation.
There is a quirkiness in this as in many of the other pieces: a cat seated in the front of a tumbril looks up at its six standing occupants; a Mad Hatter sits in a bucket. Sixty-two pieces are on exhibition, and religious and secular pieces stand side by side in testimony to the great breadth of this artist’s work.
”Southwell Revisited: An Exhibition of Sculpture” by Peter Eugene Ball is in the Chapter House of Southwell Cathedral until 8 September.