How many visitors to Britain’s parish churches have gazed at architraves and stained glass but let the poor old kneelers, hanging in pews and lined up along altar rails, go unnoticed? Next time you enter a church or cathedral, suppress the urge to look up, and look down – to just around the knee height, to be precise. There, you will invariably see the colourful cushions, known as kneelers, and possibly learn more about the parish you are in.
Elizabeth Bingham, the widow of the former Senior Law Lord, Lord Bingham of Cornhill, KG, is on a crusade to bring kneelers out of the shadows. “Parish-designed kneelers are perhaps the most widespread form of folk art, and the finer examples form a document of parish life, quite unlike any other”, she says. “I went to Cornwall a few years ago, and noticed that although the churches were all so different, the kneelers were the same. The churches had evidently used the same companies, which supply kits, but it is so much more interesting if the kneelers are unique to their particular church”.
Lady Bingham set up a website (www.parishkneelers.co.uk) with a view to encouraging people to design and make their own, and asks people around the country to send in photographs of the kneelers in their local church. Some of the best examples can be found in St Edmund Church in Southwold, which has more than 300 colourful kneelers, and St Andrews, Much Hadam, Hertfordshire, which has an extensive collection that is regularly visited by the National Association of Decorative and Fine Arts Societies tours.
The kneelers at St. Bartholomew, Chipping, Lancashire, provide a unique record of life in an agricultural community: beside traditional designs of lambs and crosses, there are memorial kneelers, and ones depicting notable village buildings. The millennium is marked as is the eclipse in 1999, and the death of Princess Diana.
Thanks to Country Life for allowing us to reproduce the text by Tessa Waugh & photo by John Miller.