A report on the Icon Painting Course at Turvey Abbey, 30 April – 5 May
Turvey Abbey is a Grade II listed Jacobean style house, located in the village of Turvey in Bedfordshire. The house is dated 1605 on the north facade and 1608 on the south facade. The building is stone, with a tiled roof. Historically, it was a country house and family home but, since 1981, it has been home to the ‘Priory of Our Lady of Peace’, a Roman Catholic community of Sisters living according to the Rule of Saint Benedict and affiliated to the Olivetan family of Benedictines, (https://www.turveyabbey.org.uk/).
The separate ‘Monastery of Christ our Saviour’ is housed in adjacent buildings in the grounds. The Monastery and the Priory share worship services. Turvey Abbey is not open to the public, but the chapel is open and the community welcomes guests. One of the Sisters, Sr Esther, is a founder member and currently President of the British Association of Iconographers. She leads a number of icon-centred workshops and retreats at Turvey every year.
On 30 April four friends and fellow parishioners of St Paul’s RC Church in Cantley, Doncaster, Annette, Gill, Bernie and Trish, all travelled down together from Doncaster to Turvey Abbey. The four are all members of the St Paul’s Icon Painting Group, who meet regularly on Thursday mornings in Trish’s house, together with other parishioners. They all felt the need to have formal instruction to refine and improve their icon painting techniques. Trish had previously been to an icon painting course held by Sr Esther in Turvey Abbey and had found it to be extremely valuable; she had recommended it to her colleagues, so they had signed up for a five-day residential icon painting course at Turvey Abbey, led by Sr Esther.
They travelled down together in one car, arriving in Turvey at 2:15pm. Sr Esther greeted them and showed them to their accommodation in the building known as Bec House. The accommodation was comfortable. There were single rooms with shared shower facilities and one twin room with en-suite shower. There is a small and well-equipped kitchen and a sitting area at the foot of the stairs. Next to this is the workroom where the icon painting was to be undertaken.
Upon arrival, there was time for tea and biscuits and then they were shown to their rooms to unpack. Then it was down to work. They met in the ground floor workroom in Bec House to start working on the icon that they were each going to write: an icon of St Mary Magdalene.
As per instructions by Sr Esther, they had all brought their own materials. These included: a hard pencil, rubber, ruler or set square, clear tracing paper and a palette or mixing tray. They also needed pure sable or squirrel brushes, to include numbers 00, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6.
They had all brought pure coloured pigment, including cobalt blue, cadmium red, cobalt green, titanium white, medium yellow and yellow ochre. Each one also had a ready-prepared Gesso board.
The first session was followed at 5.45pm by Vespers in the chapel. Then there was supper in the refectory. At 7:30pm there was Compline in the chapel. Then it was time to return to Bec House for some quiet time; it is expected that participants in the icons painting course should endeavour to maintain a ‘monastic silence’ during this time.
Over the next four days, strict discipline was observed. If a participant so wished, they could attend the Office of Readings at 6.10am, before breakfast. Breakfast was served in the refectory in the adjacent building, Brand House, between 7-8.20am. Then there was Lauds – the Office of Praise, followed by a meditation session led by Sr Esther for the iconographers in the small chapel. Icon painting then commenced in the workroom in Bec House until 11.30am, when there was a break for coffee. Midday Office of Prayer was said in the chapel at 11.40am, followed by Mass at noon. This is followed by quiet time before lunch at 1pm.
Icon Painting then restarted at 2.15pm with a break for tea, as appropriate. Painting then continued until it was time to go to Vespers at 5.45pm. Supper in the refectory was at 6pm. Then there was Compline, followed by free, quiet time to read or to go for a walk in the extensive grounds of Turvey Abbey, or around the pretty village of Turvey, before retiring for bed.
The icon painting sessions in the workroom in Bec House were similarly disciplined. Sr Esther was an excellent teacher, demonstrating icon painting techniques which were new to the participants. She ensured that the sessions were conducted in a contemplative, prayerful way, with time for discussion of the religious aspects of the icon painting and contemplation of the meanings of images and symbols within the icons. There was an atmosphere of deep concentration and mutual support.
Gradually over the next four days the icons took shape and, despite times when one or two of the participants felt that they were not making any progress, the icons gradually took shape and assumed their own individual beauty. Surprisingly, despite the fact that all four participants were painting icons based on exactly the same template, each one demonstrated the individual skills and attributes of its painter.
At the end of the week, on Sunday, 5 May, after the Sunday Mass, the iconographers all met, together with their completed icons, in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament for the Blessing of the Icons. Sr Esther was there, and also Sr Lucy and Br Herbert. Br John conducted the blessing and then photographs were taken to celebrate and to mark the end of a very successful and inspiring five days.
The iconographers are extremely grateful to Sr Esther for sharing her wisdom and expertise and for being so patient and such a wonderful teacher.
Thanks are due to Sr Judith for ensuring that we were comfortably housed and extremely well fed with most appetising and plentiful food.
And thanks to Br John for blessing the icons and to all the nuns and brothers for letting us share in the divine offices and allowing us a glimpse of the life of the two religious communities for the few days that we were there as their guests.
Dr Emyr Wyn Jones