Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral

Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral

4 December 2023 – 14 January 2024

Approaching its 850th anniversary, Wells Cathedral, UK, situated at the heart of England’s smallest city and the earliest English Cathedral to be built in the Gothic style, will host the next stage of an ambitious tour of works by the late Magnum photographer, Peter Marlow. This free and exceptional photographic exhibition chronicling all 42 naves of England’s Anglican cathedrals, Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral, will be on show from 4 December 2023 – 14 January 2024.

Organised by the Peter Marlow Foundation, the charity set up to continue Peter’s legacy, the aim is that this ethereal collection of images will exhibit at each of the 42 cathedrals he visited on his photographic pilgrimage across England. The exhibition will be on display in the South Cloister of Wells Cathedral during normal cathedral visiting hours (7.00 a.m. to 6.00 p.m.).

Image: GB. England. Wells Cathedral (St Andrew)
From ‘The English Cathedral’, a Book published by Merrell in October 2012. Between 2010 and 2012 Peter Marlow photographed the Nave’s of all forty two of England’s Anglican cathedrals using only natural light at dawn. Marlow’s photographs are accompanied by his commentary on the project, including sketches and preparatory shots; an introduction by V&A senior photography curator Martin Barnes on the tradition of church photography in England, and a concise summary of each cathedral interior by architectural historian John Goodall. 2012

Lying at the southern tip of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, Wells Cathedral stands as a testament to the enduring legacy of English cathedrals, with its rich history and architectural marvels. The eponymous wells of the city have made it a sacred site from at least Roman times. In Peter’s photographic portrait of Wells echoes of history reverberate through the intricately carved capitals, the soaring vaulted ceilings, and the iconic scissor arches in the nave. These, along with the dramatic pointed arches and classic ribbed vaulting, reflect the Gothic style seen throughout the present building which was built from c. 1175.

“Cathedral churches such as ours are increasingly regarded as places of pilgrimage, homes of holiness with stillness and a sense of the divine welcoming all.”

“With spectacular art and architecture brought together on one heritage site to celebrate the God worshipped in these awe-inspiring surroundings, Cathedrals offer so much to a wide range of visitors who come for a diversity of reasons, whether they see themselves as pilgrims or tourists or something other.”

“Peter’s own story of how his journey developed in pictures invites both wonder at such creativity throughout the generations in each Cathedral and how the artist has chosen to represent them, and also curiosity about our own journeys and what special places might mean to each of us.”

“It is a great delight to welcome Peter’s exhibition here to Wells Cathedral at a time of year when there is so much going on in our Church in the Advent and Christmas seasons and we look forward to welcoming many, many visitors.”

— The Reverend Canon Dr Megan Daffern, Chancellor of Wells

In hosting the exhibition, Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral, Wells Cathedral invites its visitors to embark on a visual journey through the lens of Peter Marlow, capturing the essence of Wells Cathedral in a play of natural light. Peter’s portrayal of the Cathedral evocatively transports the viewer back to the site’s medieval roots by inviting contemplation of its dramatic interior in the absence of artificial lighting.

The exhibition comes to Wells during the seasons of Advent and Christmas, which are focal points of the new liturgical year. Visitors to the exhibition can, concordantly, enjoy a plethora of events and services taking place to mark these seasons in the Cathedral. Full details can be found via the Cathedral website at

Peter Marlow (b. UK, 1952 – 2016) was commissioned in 2008 by Royal Mail on the 300th year anniversary of the completion of St Paul’s Cathedral to photograph six Anglican Cathedrals that were issued as commemorative stamps. So taken was he by these initial magnificent interiors that he set out to photograph all 42, guided over the next three years by a copy of English Cathedrals (1989) by Edwin Smith and Olive Cook and a pack of Anglican Cathedrals of England Top Trumps Cards.

“What I thought was going to be incredibly simple became intricate, complicated, and utterly absorbing. The journey was memorable and wonderfully hypnotic, a kind of reflective pilgrimage. My cathedral days involved hours of driving and thinking, with my reference Polaroids drying in the sun on the dashboard. England passed by.”

— Peter Marlow, The English Cathedral

The images appear deceptively simple in their composition and technical set-up. It was after much experimentation that Peter developed the perfect strategy to document these huge interior spaces and to highlight the many varied architectural nuances between the buildings. Shooting on large format film using only natural light, he set up in the same position at all but one of the cathedrals—looking east towards the nave and altar as the dawn light streamed through the main window. By ensuring all artificial lighting was turned off, a rarity in many of these buildings whose lights remain on constantly, he captured the cathedrals emerging from the darkness as if suspended in time and removed from the modern age. This end result can be regarded as a contemporary update to the long tradition of church photography in England, namely Frederik Evans’ late 19th century imagery and Edwin Smith’s mid-20th century work.

Peter’s remarkable photographs bring into sharp relief the full splendour of the interiors of some of England’s most magnificent buildings, great symbols of spiritual and architectural power.

“When immersed in Peter’s photographs we are metaphorically in some kind of contemplative enclosure, if not a sanctuary: one that confronts us with our own sense of being. The forms captured here are simultaneously concrete and abstract: containers of history, light and, above all, space. Despite of, and in parallel with, the undeniable structure of the architectural edifice, Peter captures the intangible essence of all form that is generated by creative force: the enduring mystery of space within space.”

— Martin Barnes, The English Cathedral

As part of the touring exhibition, Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral, the Peter Marlow Foundation has sought to take the visitor’s experience one step further by placing them in the role of photographer to take their own photographic ‘portraits’ of the exhibition at Hereford Cathedral. When he photographed the 42 Anglican cathedrals for the series, Peter took extensive time and preparation prior to and during the process in capturing the final photograph displayed here in the exhibition. Part of this process was the use of Fujifilm FP 100 Instant film to test the view and the exposure of each shot. In recognition of this Fujifilm has supplied instax cameras and film at the exhibitions on the tour. Visitors are asked to take photographs of the exhibition in-situ and the visitors it attracts, utilising the example photographs by some of Peter’s fellow Magnum photographers, Elliott Erwitt, David Seymour (Chim), Chris Steele-Perkins, Stuart Franklin and David Hurn.

These instant photographs will create an interactive ever changing display that will be shared as part of the exhibition but also on the social media channels and websites of Magnum Photos, Wells Cathedral, and the Peter Marlow Foundation, to create a contemporary public response to the works. Having these instant images allowed for an immediate assessment of the composition as well as creating an additional accompanying set of photographs. For each hosting cathedral, Peter Marlow Foundation will choose a winner. This person will be awarded an Estate Stamped Fine Print of a cathedral photograph of their choice.

A sold-out monograph of Peter Marlow’s The English Cathedral was published by Merrell in 2012 with a second edition in 2015. Featuring texts by Martin Barnes, Senior Curator of Photographs at the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) London, and John Goodall, architectural editor of Country Life magazine, it also includes Peter’s own account of his ‘cathedral days’ as well as his technical commentary of how he achieved these intensely detailed images. A full set of the prints are held in the V&A’s permanent collection.

Following the exhibition at Wells Cathedral, Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral will show in 2024 at the following cathedrals:

  • Manchester Cathedral, 23rd January – 10th March 2024
  • Rochester Cathedral, 19th March – 7th April 2024
  • Peterborough Cathedral, 14th May – 13th June 2024
  • Derby Cathedral, 18th June – 14th July 2024
  • Chester Cathedral, 10th September – 1st October 2024

Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral has previously been hosted by Coventry Cathedral in 2016; Ely Cathedral in 2017; Portsmouth and Blackburn in 2019; Carlisle, Winchester, Ripon, Southwell, Bradford, St Albans, and St Paul’s in 2022; and Hereford, Newcastle; St Edmundsbury; Wakefield; and Lincoln in 2023. Many more of the cathedrals featured in the series are lined up for the years to come.

For more information about  the Peter Marlow: The English Cathedral tour and the Peter Marlow Foundation contact:  Sam Trenerry +44 (0)7780 991 811

Listen to our Music