Kent architecture

Explore Aylesford Priory Kent with its ceramics and cafe

Our very first issue, in June 1962, features a visit to Aylesford Priory. We thought it was time to pay it a return visit – one that focuses on its extraordinary collection of 20th century religious art.

Polish artist Adam Kossowski had been away from Russian labor camps for eight years when he first arrived at Aylesford Priory.

In 1950 fellow artist Philip Lindsey Clark brought it to the 13th century buildings, sitting on the River Medway as it curves north and west of Maidstone. At that time, the Priory had just readmitted its Carmelite community, banished more than 400 years earlier during the Reformation.

‘[Clark] said, “I’ll take you to Aylesford. You’ll meet Father Malachy, maybe you’ll get an order or two. Well, he had been here for 30 years.

This from Father Francis Kemsley, current Prior of Aylesford and guide to my visit, describing how the ebb and flow of time has shaped The Friars, as it is known.

“The art is very striking,” he continues. “The church in two thousand years has had a long tradition of commissioning art and I think it lifts our hearts to meet God.”

Father Malachy Lynch, the Prior of 1950, initiated an intense creative process for Kossowski which would see over a hundred of his works cover the walls, floors and windows of the Priory in a densely woven jacket of symbolism.

Kossowski drew on a long tradition of medieval Christian storytelling for his works. The Stations of the Cross in the Chapel of the Relic, for example, shows Jesus in a series of stylized ceramic tableaux that would be painfully familiar to a pilgrim visiting Aylesford in 1250: yet the simple, bold geometry and earthy colors come to us from the mid-century. 20th century, eight hundred years later.

The artist studied architecture and painting in Poland, and mural painting in Italy, before World War II, when the Russians arrested him and sent him to Siberia. Released in 1942, he eventually arrived in London as a refugee, to be adopted by the Guild of Catholic Artists and Craftsmen. Philip Lindsey Clark, whose woodcarvings are also in the chapels of The Friars, introduced him to Father Malachy.

More than seventy years later, the invitation to share Kossowski’s work, its beauty and its meaning is real. The chapels where the majority of Kossowski’s works stud the walls are open to the public, free of charge except a donation in the parking lot.

“It’s about making Aylesford a place of welcome and hospitality,” says Fr Francis. “The first prior, Father Malachy, called the place an open door in 1949.

“The great church, the institutional church, is people who go to mass, to the great sacraments: it is the organized church.” Aylesford Priory, or ‘The Friars’, is also “the little church. It’s not organized at all, but people feel comfortable coming”.

Father Francis invites people to visit and spend time with Kossowski’s works. One of the qualities of the Carmelite Order is silent contemplation. “When you look at a picture and come back to it, over and over and over again, I think you can see something new or something you haven’t seen before. We live in a really beautiful place. that’s why it’s important for us to share it.”

Kossowski highlights at The Friars

Prior’s Room: panels telling the story of the Carmelites, the hermits of Mount Carmel (the first landmark for medieval pilgrims and crusaders entering the port of Haifa in Israel), their arrival in England, the expulsion by the commissioners of ‘Henry VIII and their eventual return in 1949.

Way of the Rosary: series of 15 shrines

St. Anne’s Chapel: sgraffito murals, ceramic reliefs of angels and tiled floor fired at Aylesford pottery

Main sanctuary: tiles behind the central altarpiece fired at Aylesford pottery, ceramic angels, altar ceramics and candlesticks

The main sanctuary, celebrating the Assumption of Mary
– Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Chapel of Relics: Reliquary of St Simon Stock, with its huge black and white tiled ceramic tower, as well as ceramic reliefs depicting the Stations of the Cross

Chapel of the Holy Carmelites: depictions of major figures in Carmelite history, including the attractive figure of the Dutch martyr Titus Brandsma, who was killed at Dachau in 1942 and is due to be canonized in Rome in May this year.

Chapel of St. Joseph: amazing altar treatment with intricate tiled floor and walls depicting the world of faith.

Also to enjoy…
Feed the ducks, stroll through the Jardin de la Paix, enjoy a coffee or a light lunch – you can even spend the night in one of the Priory’s simple but comfortable rooms. Also on site is Aylesford Pottery, founded in 1954 by David Leach, whose father Bernard introduced the Japanese style of glassware to the UK. Members of the community originally worked in pottery, but nowadays it is one of the few commercial facilities in the Southeast, making a range of cast and handcrafted ceramics, as well as commissions of architecture. The pottery also runs a school for over 100 students, so if you’ve been inspired by the ceramics you’ve seen in the chapels, you can take a class here – or just take home a lovely cup or bowl for yourself. remember your visit.

Aylesford then and now

Interestingly, while our article today focuses on Kossowski’s ceramics, the June 1962 Kent Life article does not mention them at all – although they feature in at least one of the photographs. As the artist’s relationship with Aylesford continued until 1972 (and indeed he is buried there) it is likely that this was a “work in progress” – and the anonymous author of the 1962 article refers to ”’…various chapels, some of which are still under construction. Two objects, however, hold his attention, “from the angle of art and craftsmanship”: two large carved figures, “One, about eight feet high carved in oak, of St Joseph… the other, a figure of the Virgin Mary, nine feet high, also well carved.” This second statue was carved by Michael Clark from Agaba wood in 1960 and stands in the main sanctuary of the Priory, dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin – its construction began in 1958, its re-inauguration having taken place in 1965.

Our 1962 author is also very impressed with the Priory’s common rooms: “…some of the most attractive rooms I have ever seen in a building. The refectories, with fine tables and simple but attractive ornaments.. .” – like the statues, these spaces are just as impressive today as they were in the early 1960s.