Lally MacBeth makes a case for the humble church kneeler as folk-art object, and shares some favourite examples from her archive.
Church kneelers, also known as Hassocks, are something almost everyone in England has encountered at some point; whether it be kneeling to take prayers, or staring at the pew in front whilst impatiently sitting through a Christingle service as a child. For the rest of the time, they get largely ignored, gathering dust on shelves or piled into corners.
Last year I visited Breage Church down in the depths of Cornwall. I was there to see the incredible frescoes of giant saints but what actually caught my eye was a pile of kneelers, stacked from floor to ceiling in the prayer chapel. I was mesmerised by the vibrancy of them against the stone.
I posted the image to my Instagram account The Folk Archive and was genuinely amazed by the response. They seemed to raise in people a deep sense of nostalgia and this got me thinking about kneelers as objects.
For years, I have absentmindedly snapped pictures of these miniature canvases without giving much thought to their wider social and cultural importance — but I’ve recently begun to see them as pieces of largely unrecorded folk art.
The kneelers so often record fascinating pieces of local folklore, place names or strange occurrences associated with the villages they inhabit. Sometimes they have one theme — Pershore Abbey has an incredible selection of allotment-themed kneelers — and sometimes they have multiple — St Buryan is a feast of Cornish Legends, Saints and even stone circles (Christianised of course!). What they all have in common, though, is that they give a sense of community, of place and, probably most importantly, of the people that live in the villages and towns of Britain.
It occurred to me that no one was really recording kneelers in any concerted way and that it was probably quite important that someone began this enormous task.
Through the wider project of The Folk Archive I try to bring attention to the recording and preservation of customs, folklore or indeed objects that are in danger of going unrecorded or getting forgotten. I collect folk costumes, books, photos, anything that is going to otherwise get lost. As well as archiving these items I also use the research and images I collate for The Folk Archive both creatively myself and also as a way of (hopefully!) inspiring others to produce new work inspired by folk, whether that be illustrators, musicians, writers or so on. I aim through The Folk Archive to get people thinking more generally about the folk artefacts and customs we do so often take for granted: things like pub signs, model villages, corn dollies and indeed kneelers.
The Church Kneeler Archive came out of all these discussions, thoughts and of course visits to churches that I had with people over the last year. An offshoot of the larger work of The Folk Archive, it is a place to record and preserve kneelers for the future that is hopefully amusing and interesting at the same time.
Below are some of my favourite kneelers especially selected for Caught by the River: