Back in 2019, I was approached by author Michael Hodges and architect Anthony Delarue with an interesting challenge: photographing all the saints on the Rood Screens of East Anglia for a 320-page art book The Golden Legend
A what screen?
For those that don’t know, a Rood Screen is the panel that separates the nave from the chancel of the church, you can see me photographing one here:
In East Anglia, many of these screens have paintings on the lower panels, often depicting Saints. The paintings date (for the most part) between 1400 and the first third of the 1500s. The Reformation put a stop to such decoration, and many of these paintings show damage from this time (such as scratches across the faces, whole figures scraped away or in some cases painted over). 
“The English rood screen panels represent the most extraordinary and forgotten canon of art. Apart from a cursory awareness, they are little known or appreciated beyond a very narrow world of antiquarians and elderly Churchmen. These saintly images can (literally) hold their heads high amongst any decorative art in Europe of the same period.” Anthony M J Lombardo Delarue, Architect (from the preface of the book).

Some of the 1200 images taken in this project. These paintings were in a range of styles, with some showing Reformation damage (often to the face). Left to right: Filby, Middleton, Barton Turf and Thornham Parva.

Paintings from Wiggenhall (left) and the Sparham corpse panels.

I was given a list of 121 churches to photograph across East Anglia, with a typical screen containing 10 saints. So overall 1200 individual panels would need to be recorded. A Google Pin map was created, with much plotting and scheming to find the most effective way to get around all the sites.
The aim of the new book
Author Michael Hodges explains his involvement in the project:
"I spent the spring of 2018 looking at as many medieval rood screens in East Anglia as I could manage. I fairly rapidly concluded that the task of photographing the large numbers of panels required would be physically too much for me i.e. the need to get level on the floor with the screens. The National Churches Trust recommended we consider using a firm called Push Creativity based in Market Rasen in Lincolnshire. This company entered into the spirit of the project with enormous enthusiasm although the subject was totally unfamiliar to it. This book is not intended as an academic work, hence the lack of footnotes etc. It has also not been a matter of original research. Whatever I am, I am not an art historian. I hope others, with the complete photographic record of painted panels now available, may be able to do more detailed work."
So, the photographic challenge was to accurately record all the paintings digitally, in high resolution, and illustrate a large format art book to let people enjoy the panels from the comfort of their armchairs.
The book would also give art historians an invaluable resource to base future research on. Crucially, and in a break with tradition, the saints would be presented individually, not grouped by Rood Screen. This would make it easy to compare the many depictions of, say, Saint Cecilia, with them all being on one page:

From the finished book: a page of paintings of St Cecilia

Also, should a screen be damaged or lost in the future, this photographic archive would offer a detailed record of its appearance at the start of the 21st century.
Trial and error and the Queen's policeman
The trial run on the Rood screen photography was in February 2019, with support from colleague Angela Montague. It was thick, frozen fog on the way down from Lincolnshire to Norfolk (we nearly turned back) but after 45 minutes the fog lifted and we saw some sunshine and blue skies.
Our first church was Wolferton church on the Sandringham Estate, where we spent at least an hour testing out our techniques.

The trial run at Sandringham's Wolferton

This resulted in a visit from the Queen's policeman during the session, who was perfectly polite but clearly wondering why we were parked on the estate for so long and what we were up to in the church. Our camera gear and much pointing at the Rood Screen soon assured him we were not trouble causers!
Techniques that worked best
Initial experiments with flash photography showed this was not the route to take, the flash reflecting on any traces of varnish. Long exposure was the way forward. We soon found out that in some churches, with dark interiors, small windows and no electric lighting, these exposures could last over a minute to fully capture the painting.
Another key part of the process was setting the white balance for each church, so that colour representation across all 1200+ images would be accurate, in all light conditions: bright sunlight, halogen, LED or no lighting. All these conditions give a different colour cast, and sometimes even bring a mix of colours to an image, so have to be balanced out.
After that trial run, the first batch of images were sent off to Michael and Anthony, and approved. I was then trusted to manage the project quite independently (in terms of when and where I would do the work, and the technical side of things) so long as batches of images kept coming through.

From the finished book: these photographs were taken in many locations, we used white balance and long exposure to record the most accurate images

I soon realised that photographing Rood Screens meant a lot of kneeling, so I employed church chairs and literal kneelers to help ease the pain. I also quickly abandoned my walking boots with their unhelpful ankle support.
We also took photographs of the left and right-hand screens as a whole, and the full screen, to give Michael a reference of where the saint was in the overall order, so as well as the 1200+ individual figures, we took a few hundred more shots to give them context.

Screens were photographed as a whole to provide crucial reference information

Flexible baseball boots, chairs and church kneelers helped save my knees and ankles

When light is the enemy
Some churches placed the paintings behind glass to protect them, meaning we had to deploy a large black sheet with a small hole in the centre that the camera lens poked through, to minimise the reflections the lens would pick up. On a sunny day, we had to employ further blankets to dull the bright light cascading from windows and bouncing up from the floor, to give the consistent, flat light the long exposure needed to work best.

Tackling bright light and reflective glass at Binham Priory

On one occasion, we struggled with reflections from the glass front of a painting for some ten minutes before noticing the small catch that let us open the glass frame like a door...
Frustrations included churches advertised as unlocked on several websites, but clearly locked when we arrived, triggering a wild goose chase to find the keyholder. Anyone involved in ‘church crawling’ knows this story well!

Church keys were often fascinating heritage items in themselves

We also arrived at some churches with dozens of chairs stacked up against the panels, which we needed to remove and then carefully return to where we found them, and on more than one occasion the panels were obscured by heavy objects we could not shift, so I took photographs of those at an angle and corrected this, as much as I could, when editing.

An immovable stone stair meant photographing these paintings at an angle, to later correct when editing

Look close to see me squeezing my tripod under a heavy oak table (that's also chained to the wall)

The Indiana Jones moment
We met a range of church custodians and heritage professionals, including some incredibly helpful and enthusiastic individuals.
One churchwarden swore blind that the painting we wanted to photograph was not in his church, leading us to email him a copy of it (that existed online) to make sure, as all our research said it was! He took a printout of the image into his church and called us back to confirm, with a laugh, that the painting was in the church he’d just not noticed it before, despite being involved in caring for that church for many years.
And then there was a real stroke of luck when we were visiting Norfolk Museum Store in Gressenhall to photograph panels stored there from Lessingham church. Out of the corner of her eye, Angela saw another panel that looked very Rood Screenesque (you get quite an eye for them after a while). This happened to be the 'faded panels of St Barbara and St John the Baptist' from St Gregory’s in Norwich, on our list but our research had not been able to locate them, so we had resigned ourselves to not capturing them. But there they were! For a minute, we did feel a bit like Indiana Jones.

Norfolk Museum Store, a fascinating warehouse of history

Budge: the Norwich Cathedral cat

We visited a few of the charming round-tower churches of the area. We met Budge the cat at Norwich Cathedral. We had lots of car picnics with some stunning churchyard views and managed to take some photographs for pleasure too.

Not resisting the urge to take a photo of a church on a sunny day

And a few months ago we were rewarded with this visually stunning (and very heavy) book, full of my images, with fascinating details provided by Michael to give everything much more context.
I am delighted that this work is helping people enjoy these artefacts (with no knee strain) and has created a detailed visual record of them for future academics and enthusiasts to turn to.

The book has garnered some very appreciative comments across social media:
With thanks to Michael Murray (then CEO of the National Churches Trust) for putting the name Push Creativity in front of Michael Hodges, a kind gesture that led to this very memorable experience (and, of course, income).

Find out more about the book:
The Golden Legend: The Saints as represented on the Rood Screens of East Anglia. Michael Hodges (author). ISBN: 9781912945290
Order a copy and see sample pages here:
Also available at the Slipper Chapel Shop in Walsingham:

Find out more about my heritage photography:

Ashley Taylor is a heritage and landscape photographer based in Lincolnshire.
email him

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