Tuesday 25 October 2022

Morbitorium: A Museum of the weird, wonderful and downright bizarre

Nestled in the rolling hills of the Ebbw Valley, in deepest darkest South Wales lies a truly fascinating, and I'm sure to many thoroughly unexpected Museum, in the shape of 'Morbitorium'. 
This slice of suburbia has hidden within it a highly unusual gem, which few neighborhoods can boast. A museum and shop packed to the rafters with an overwhelming collection morbid and macabre curiosities. 

The unassuming stone cottage, situated in a typical enough Welsh village, has been thoroughly transformed into an immediately outrageous, spooky, kooky landmark. As ghosts trussed up in the front yard billow and bluster with the savage winds rolling in from the mountains and a sign adorned with a skull creaks and groans, I have no doubt I have indeed found the Museum.

I am given a warm welcome to the museum by owner Dave and one of his cats Pickles. It appears that Pickles failed to get the message from every other member of their species that I am reviled by their kind, and now holds an interesting record of the only cat in my time on this Earth to show me nothing but interest and affection (despite my poorly masked terror waiting for the inevitable strike, which shockingly never came).
Dave gave me a brief run down of the museum, explaining he and his partner Angharad had moved to this sleepy little town 8 years ago, initially buying the adjoining cottage as their home, then later when the end building went on sale, it was purchased and transformed into the museum and shop we see today.

The building of the museum has been, like all the best things in life are, a thoroughly organic process. Starting out simply as a shelf, this collection of curios has grown to an impressive size, and contains many fascinating and noteworthy pieces.

From important artifacts from medical history to Masonic regalia and everything in between, the museum houses something for everyone (if you're as abnormal as myself!).
My personal highlights on display were the wonderful items concerning Aleister Crowley. Crowley has long fascinated me and I am always thrilled to see pieces and places relating to his life and works (some how I never got round to writing a blog on my visit to the Abbey of Thelema in Cefalu). So to see these wonderful items, including Crowley's Thoth Tarot, a piece of Crowley's home Boleskine House (famously later purchased by Jimmy Page) and my absolute favorite; Crowley's death mask. Incredible. A real privilege to see such fine and important items on show.

One of the most wonderful displays at the museum is that of haunted Ouija boards, all of which have been gifted to the museum by folk who have clearly decided not to dabble any further. Everywhere the eye strays there is something new and interesting to see which ultimately is bound to spark a different emotive response in every single visitor. I peered in interest and curiosity at the display on house protection and mummified cats, while others may find it repugnant, and I confess a wry smile met my lips at the sight of a Rolf Harris annual, where others may have viewed it in the highest distaste. However taste is merely subjective and is clearly something Dave and Angharad are challenging, and enjoying playing with here.

Frankly the entire place is a real credit to its proprietors who have obviously put so much time, dedication and love into creating this carefully curated space. Every surface is packed full with so much, and covering so many topics, one could easily get lost in this place all day ...
One recurring theme within both the museum and shop is taxidermy. Dave himself actually teaches taxidermy classes, but also sells many specimens at the museum, from grandiose Ravens to simple skulls and mounted antlers. This very multifaceted place has so much to offer on so many levels.

The Morbitorium is a true testament to Dave and Angharad's obvious passion for the unusual. Their use of this compact but well concieved space to share with others this amazing collection of oddities, but also, incite in others wonder, interest, curiosity and perhaps even a passion of their own in a specific subject is to be applauded and celebrated utterly. There are few times in this world people take the brave decision to be truly different and stand out in their community. But it is clearly something which has been whole-heartedly embraced with the 'Morbitorium', and I for one wish to see a whole lot more of it in this world!

To check out the Morbitorium yourself, support this venture or plan your visit check out their website here!

Alice Durose

Monday 26 September 2022

Kilpeck Church: A Romanesque Masterpiece

This year so far has been one entirely unlike any other in my life to date, as I finally became a home owner at the ripe age of 31. This systemic shift in circumstances means that life has changed in immeasurable ways in the last 6 months, and time has to be taken for things like renovating my Victorian cottage, and keeping my jungle of a garden under reasonable control (and not always succeeding entirely). But exploration and adventure are still my lifeblood, they’re just a little less frequent than in recent years.

One little adventure I was lucky enough to make time for this summer saw me travel to a land unknown to me, Herefordshire, for the first time. And while I was there I made sure to soak up as many sights as I could cram into a short trip.

One place I’ve always wanted to visit in the region is the church of Saint Mary and Saint David in Kilpeck. Anyone whose ever thumbed through a book on grotesques of England, or holds any interest in church architecture at all will doubtlessly have heard of Kilpeck and it’s many treasures. 
Over recent years I’ve had the name ‘Kilpeck’ haunt me repeatedly, in books researching tombs and memorials, in literature on green men, and most recently in online lockdown lectures given by the Churches Conservation Trust, particularly on ‘naughty bits’ on churches - namely the Sheela Na Gig. I decided this year it was finally time to visit this rich resource in the world of ecclesiastical carving and see just what all the fanfare was about for myself. 

After an initial false start from the satnav who actually took me to another church a stones throw away, I finally found the quaint, unassuming church just down the lane. 

Records date a church being on this site as far back as 650AD at least. Though conjecture suggests that the lie of the land, waterways and the unusual alignment of the building hint at a pre-christian past for this obviously important place. 
Much of the church we see today dates to around 1140, and ties in closely with the nearby Kilpeck Castle and its landed gentry. Thankfully unlike many ancient churches, Kilpeck has remained reasonably unspoiled by Victorian restoration, with many early features surviving, and in better condition than most.

The church itself is on no grandiose scale, or exceptionally exuberant, but the details and decoration here are absolutely everything. On approach to the building, unusual corbels line the walls, with animals and men peering down with menacing glee. 
The huge beasts which flank the south-west face were really rather breathtaking. In all the hundreds of churches I've visited across the country I've never encountered anything like them. Colossal gaping mouths with great curling tongues erupting from a cornerstone of celtic interlacing. It can be easily imagined that these giant leviathans incited fear, and awe in all those who saw them.

The real jewel in the crown at Kilpeck is the South door, which is the main entrance into the church itself. This incredible archway is without a doubt the most detailed, and imaginative Romanesque doorway I've ever seen. Previous fine examples Ive been lucky enough to visit (Tutbury and Melbourne being some of the most impressive) generally feature a more repetitive pattern of beasts and celtic knotwork, however the lack of symmetry at Kilpeck, and its many, rather overwhelming different elements have a very different effect.

The senses are somewhat overwhelmed by the huge number of different beasts and creatures on every single inch of stone. Sinuous, writhing monsters edge the archway, with their gaping mouths devouring decorated knots connecting a whole host of beasts and birds, finished either side with a fierce Hellmouth like head.
Below these are a huge range of curious creatures, some devouring themselves, some devouring eachother, others with great serpents erupting from their mouths. It truly is a frenzied scene of fascination and sinister strangeness! The lone angel in among all this chaos seems almost out of place in the scheme, but is likely there to remind the viewer to choose salvation over sin and temptation (generally the most accepted idea of what these carvings represent, though we will never truly know).

The motifs continue down the columns either side of the door, with serpents intertwined snaking down towards the ground, surrounded by organic looking knotwork, more birds and beasts, and the unusual addition of figures. These figures are often considered to be warriors, but like so many other elements of this incredible carving its true meaning will be forever a mystery (which I rather like).

One of my absolute favourite parts of the entire church is this fantastic Green Man. His bulging eyes stare out to the path while vines flow vigorously from his mouth. He has such a wonderful feeling of folk horror I could have studied him all day. Stylistically he seems closest to the central pediment, which has a slightly more folk art feel than many other parts of the doorway. This distinction between different styles suggest multiple masons worked on the entrance way, each bringing their own unique style and interpretation to their carvings.

There are a great many wonderful corbels to be seen around the entire exterior of the church. Sadly the whole of the rear side of the church was covered with scaffold, meaning almost half of these men and beasts were impossible to view on this occasion, however, Kilpecks arguably most famous resident was thankfully on full view in all her glory. The Sheela-na-gig of Kilpeck is one of the most famous still in existence. I always feel a wry smile creep on my face when I see the image of a woman gleefully opening her vulva on the exterior of a church. The whole concept just feels so surreal and bizarre it never ceases to make me smile. 
There are many theories about the meaning of the Sheela-na-gig. The last remnants of a pagan fertility deity, Mother earth, a protection against evil (that one makes me smile most of all), a warning against sins of the flesh. The latter seems logically most likely given the mindset at the time of its creation. Female sexuality was hugely repressed during this period, and the idea of this image representing female lust as hideous and corrupting certainly falls in line with the chruches ideology of the time.

Kilpeck church is an absolutely fascinating insight into early Welsh church building, but also into the folklore, mythology and mindset of the time. This tantalising glimpse into a strange past gives us some small idea of the world these border people were living in at the time full of fantastical creatures, superstition and magic. The sense of mystery and wonder created by places like Kilpeck and their craftsmen, always make me ponder on the minds of these master masons. Their rude little in jokes, their cheeky little additions, their creative expression, and smile.

Sunday 10 July 2022

The Wicker Man: A Horror Homage

As a long time horror fanatic and film collector, the genre has long moulded and shaped me as a person, and artist. The aesthetics, stories and cult status of the movies I love so much have an awful lot to answer for!
My favourite film of all time; The Wicker Man (1973), says a lot about my connection to and enthusiasm for the folk horror genre in particular. But also my wider love of pre-80s British horror in particular (Hammer, Tigon, Amicus, British Lion).

As a homage to my favourite movie I have done a few small artworks recently themed around The Wicker Man. These pieces were simply designed to celebrate my love for my favourite film and it’s glorious uniqueness.

One pays tribute to one of my favourite scenes, in which Christopher Lee draws from the Walt Whitman poem 'Song of myself', with his dulcet tones declaring ‘I think I could turn and live with animals ...’. I always felt that seeing the footage of snails entwined while Heather deflowers young Ash Buchanan to be a stroke of cinematic genius, so wanted to express my adoration in the only way I know, through an artwork. I also feel the sentiment rings so true with me personally, as I seem to find myself often feeling I have much more in common with animals than humans, and increasingly so.

The second I created to celebrate May Day with the iconic Wicker Man sun face featured numerous times in the film. Initially I intended to create the piece as a dip pen work to practice my technique, however after discovering my remaining waterproof black ink had become a gloopy mass too thick to use I had to revert to using pigment liners (which in hindsight is probably the only way I could get the level of control and detail needed for the piece.)

I find creating these artworks, just for me and to express my passion and adoration for what I consider to be the pinnacle of British cinema, a near meditative practice. It is my own unique way to honour something that has become an integral part of me and shaped me for who I am from my first viewing almost 20 years ago. A heathen conceivably, but not I hope an unenlightened one ...