There are few experiences more uplifting and humbling than standing in the nave of a cathedral. With the symmetry of columns soaring into arches, and the fine tracery of windows allowing an ethereal light to enter, the effect – as Goethe once described architecture – is like frozen music. These are spaces filled with centuries of human aspiration after the divine; in them, spiritual yearning is made palpable through stone.

Cathedrals also tell of human power, pride, frailty and failings: in the monuments to knights, aristocrats, poets and clergy asking not to be forgotten; and the signs of ecclesiastical reformation in the fragments of paintings that once brightly decorated the walls, or the defaced sculptures of saints.

Birmingham Cathedral (St Philip’s).
Birmingham Cathedral.

Architectural styles come and go, from the round arches and solid columns of the Norman or Romanesque through the pointed, attenuated gothic to the cool, mathematical proportions of the classical, the ornamented swagger of baroque and the stark cleanliness of modernism. The majority of English cathedrals are predominantly gothic, but an accretion of styles can commonly be seen in the same building. Part of the joy of visually reading an English cathedral is in unpicking its divergent architectural heritage, fathoming the puzzle of the dates in its phases of construction and seeing how one style or proportion greets the next, whether in slightly uneasy counterpoint or in harmony. In this way, the building can be witnessed as a preserved monument and also a living and growing organism.

Carlisle Cathedral (Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity).
Carlisle Cathedral.

In just over three years, Peter Marlow, who died in 2016, photographed the interior of each of the 42 Anglican cathedrals in England. The result is not only a magisterial comparative inventory caught in a specific time frame, but also a subtle interpretation of the inner bodies of these awe-inspiring buildings. Although this project began in 2009, the seed of the idea, and the skills to realise it so deftly, began growing for Marlow at the very beginning of his engagement with photography at the age of 19.

In 1971, on a trip to Boston during his first year at university as a student of psychology, Marlow visited the Museum of Fine Arts and saw an exhibition of photographs by Walker Evans (1903–1975), curated by John Szarkowski. Alongside his famous portraits of the rural poor during the Great Depression, Evans’s characteristically precise and intelligent photographic sensibility was often applied to depicting the modern American vernacular: farmhouse interiors, factories, shop signs, roadside warehouses, housing and churches. Evans avoided the overt stylistic gestures of authorship prevalent in fine-art photography of the time. Instead, approached with steady and factual clarity, his subjects are allowed to project their own poetry. Inspired by this encounter with Evans, Marlow purchased a Graflex Speed Graphic camera on his return home, and his career in photography began.

St Paul’s Cathedral, London.
St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

Obtaining a job as a photographer on a cruise liner allowed Marlow to save enough money to spend two months in Haiti, where, on his first foreign project, he photographed the people and places in the black-and-white documentary manner of Evans. As his photographic career took off, he secured commissions from the Sunday Times Magazine as a photojournalist. He was taken on by Sygma, a picture agency with a hard-nosed reputation, and in 1980 joined the Magnum Photos cooperative, with its legendary roster of photojournalists.

St Albans Cathedral.
St Albans Cathedral.

The impetus to start photographing cathedrals was the result of a commission from the Royal Mail in 2007 for use on a set of commemorative stamps. Once the commission was complete, however, Marlow was inspired to continue in a similar vein from his own interest, and by the end of 2010 he had photographed 32 cathedrals.

Marlow applied to the Dean and Chapter of each cathedral to gain permission to enter in the early hours of the morning. In nearly all cases he was allowed to turn lights off, leaving the interiors to be illuminated naturally, just after sunrise. The effect of natural light modulated the spaces and brought out the luminosity of the stone, and – especially when Marlow was photographing west to east (as in most cases) – the gathering daylight emerged from behind the altar and highlighted the ceiling of the choir.

Portsmouth Cathedral. (St Thomas [of Canterbury]’s).
Portsmouth Cathedral.

This method of working required the images to be made between late spring and early November. Marlow adopted a kind of ritual, rising as early as 3am to drive to each cathedral and begin working at 6am. In these precious hours, a short window of opportunity, he watched the cathedral interior emerge from darkness and come to life. Few of us are privileged to witness the interior of a cathedral by being left alone in the magnitude of its spaces at dawn. Marlow’s photographs make this personal, contemplative encounter powerfully accessible and pass the magic on to us.

  • The English Cathedral by Peter Marlow (with texts by Martin Barnes and John Goodall) is published by Merrell (£24.95). An exhibition of the photographs travels next to St Albans Cathedral (1 Nov-1 Dec) then St Paul’s (6 Dec-26 Jan) and Hereford (31 Jan-2 March). More venues, dates and details here

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