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Art review: The Leaves of the Trees by Peter Walker (Southwell)

21 May 2021

An installation at Southwell is timely, says Pat Ashworth

Peter Walker Sculptor @pwalkersculptor  

SOUTHWELL MINSTER was always scheduled to host Peter Walker’s installation at this point in a UK cathedrals tour. It visited Exeter, Lichfield, and Sheffield in the latter half of 2020, inviting reflection on a pandemic that, however terrible, appeared to be in retreat.

No one could have known how very apt it would be after such an unforeseen length of time and at this present stage of recovery.

The Leaves of the Trees comprises 5000 sycamore leaves, cut from 1mm mild steel and individually carved with the word “Hope”. Sycamore is remarkable for its resilience and strength, and the leaves are slowly and naturally changing from steel to rusted tones over the period of the tour, as autumn leaves do in the cycle of the seasons.

Symbolising both the past and the hope for a better future, they appear as though blown in and massed together by a strong gust of wind — as though you might wade through them or sweep them with a broom. The installation is in the sanctuary, where leaves catching the light from the east window appear to cascade down the steps like water.

It was originally envisaged for the nave, to be visible through an open west door. The logistics of the cathedral under restrictions moved it to this area, which the Dean, the Very Revd Nicola Sullivan, believes has better enabled the reflection on the pandemic which the work invites. This is a part of the building where people are instinctively attentive, she suggests.

The fact that it isn’t the focus of worship at present and that the Minster is quieter than in normal times instils a feeling that is both powerful and poignant. It feels a little like walking into an abandoned church building where the doors have long since been removed — a place where something devastating has happened that makes you stand and take stock.

Sunlight through the stained glass illuminates the silver leaves, in particular, among the amber and the rust. They look randomly scattered, some escaping the cluster and blown into crevices. It provokes thought as the artist intended: a visitor who had been shielding for 14 months and had experienced the grief of a death during that time nevertheless reflected: “We don’t want to forget what it has been about.”

Conversation among visitors in the first few days of opening had centred on hope for the future, the Dean said. How would things be different? What would come out of all this? Hope in its many manifestations, the artist suggests, “is even more visible to us through kindness, faith, science and family”.


The installation is open for viewing between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. each day until 6 June. www.southwellminster.org

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