Following the success of his book The Angel Roofs of East Anglia last year, we decided to catch up with author Michael Rimmer, to learn more about his passions, background and forthcoming projects!
1. What inspired you to write The Angel Roofs of East Anglia?
I wanted to bring the beauty and craftsmanship of these very inaccessible medieval artworks to a wider audience. The fact that angel roofs are high up and hard to get at protected them from Reformation image destroyers (unlike most other Medieval religious images) but has also caused them to be almost entirely neglected by art historians and scholars of medieval sculpture – despite the fact that collectively they contain the largest surviving body of pre-Reformation sculpture in England.
If these artworks were detachable and could be exhibited in museums, they’d be far better known and highly celebrated. I set out first to photograph every angel roof in East Anglia, so that I could show them to people, and then to explain how they were made, why, and by whom.
2. We understand from your author questionnaire that you studied Classics at university. How do you think this has shaped your writing career?
Trying to decipher the past – to understand what people believed, what motivated them, and the art they created – has always fascinated me.
3. Could you provide us with a brief explanation of ‘Angel Roofs’, and why they specifically occur in East Anglia?
Angel roofs are an overwhelmingly East Anglian phenomenon (almost 70% of the national total is in Suffolk, Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, and they are not found outside the UK). They were erected mainly in the C15th, predominantly in parish churches. They’re both astonishingly accomplished pieces of timber architecture and repositories of exquisite medieval figure sculpture.
(See http://www.angelroofs.com/2689956-video-audio for a visual tour).
In the late Middle Ages East Anglia was one of the most prosperous and populous parts of England. Angel roofs are an expression of the desire of the wealthy to show their status by endowing their local churches, and also of genuine piety.
Various theories had previously been advanced to explain why they are mainly found in East Anglia, none of them I think very convincing. The book puts forward a new theory. I wont pre-empt it here.
4. What does your writing process consist of?
Writing isn’t my day job. I’m an investment manager by day, and so my writing tends to get done in evenings and weekends. For The Angel Roofs of East Anglia, I’d already spent four years photographing and researching the angel roofs so by the time I sat down to write the book I had a very clear idea of its shape and content.
5. Which writers / academics do you think have had the greatest impact on you and why?
I came to the medieval period as a complete beginner – I’d been a classicist, and so I had to start from scratch. I’m greatly indebted to many writers and academics whose work helped me get to grips with the subject. I’ll name a few. In medieval sculpture, Phillip Lindley at University of Leicester; for medieval craftsmen and carpenters, John Harvey; for the image destruction of the Reformation, Eamon Duffy; and I’m extremely grateful to Sandy Heslop, John Onians and many others at the University of East Anglia for their guidance and encouragement.
6. Is photography something that you have long been interested in?
Yes. I have photographed for years, but have always been drawn to art and artefacts. Previous exhibitions have been on very different subjects such as 1950s American cars in Cuba – another time capsule.
7. Who are your favourite authors?
Virgil, Homer, WG Sebald, Constantine Cavafis. And I love LJ Carr’s A Month in the Country as it’s – in part – about a lost, unknown medieval craftsman, like the nameless masters who made East Anglia’s angel roofs.
8. We understand that you are an author of variety as your first book explored quite a different subject matter, with ‘Five Minute Pasta Sauces ’back in 1993. We wonder if you could tell us about this transition. (And indeed, whether this is where you first met Loyd Grossman in preparation for the foreword!)
The pasta book was a bit of a fluke – a sideline to my day job in investment management.
I’ve always loved cooking, especially Italian food, and I’d cooked socially for a publisher who had an established “Five Minute” series. They asked if I’d like to have a go at writing the next title, which was on quick pasta sauces.
I met Loyd in 2014 when he was Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust and the CCT was restoring the angel roof at St Nicholas Kings Lynn. It’s the earliest dateable angel roof in East Anglia (c. 1405) and Loyd kindly enabled me to photograph the roof from the scaffolding while it was being restored. That’s the only time I’ve seen roof angels eye to eye. I photographed every angel roof in the book from the ground, using very long lenses.
9. From your author questionnaire, you detail giving regular lectures on the Angel Roofs of East Anglia. Could you tell us about these? Indeed, do you have any coming up?
I lecture a lot on angel roofs now – I love doing it but I have been surprised by just how much interest there is. I have 19 lectures in the diary for this year, and bookings out to December 2017.
Future lectures are on my website at www.angelroofs.com/lectures-new
10. On this note, would you say that your book has an application as a text or reference book?
It’s the first published photographic/historical study of angel roofs, so I hope it will encourage people to visit the angel roof churches and that it will be useful as a starting point to others for further study in the field.
11. Which medieval angel roofs are your favourite?
If I’m pushed to make a choice, St Mary’s Bury St Edmunds, St Nicholas Kings Lynn, St Agnes Cawston, Holy Trinity Blythburgh, St Mary Gissing, Wymondham Abbey. There’s a list of 12 of the best on my website at www.angelroofs.com.
12. Alongside having taking a diverse interest in the world of academia, we would be interested to hear about any hobbies or projects you have coming up!
I’m taking lessons to improve my Italian, and have a couple of photographic projects lined up in Venice and London. I’m also working on the photography and research for another book, which is about other under-known and inaccessible medieval artworks. Like The Angel Roofs of East Anglia, it will combine photography and history.
“… astonishing …”
Christopher Howse, The Daily Telegraph
“Look at this book and give thanks that these angelic hosts were beyond the reach of the destroyers. Here for the first time they are rightly celebrated as a precious legacy from late medieval England.”
Sir Roy Strong, art historian and former director of the National Portrait Gallery and V&A Museum
Michael Rimmer studied Classics at Oxford University before becoming an investment manager and photographer. In 2010 he set out to create the first comprehensive photographic record of every angel roof in East Anglia. He lives in Norfolk and lectures regularly on angel roofs.
For more information on angel roofs, Michael Rimmer’s lectures or enquiries, please visit his website.