The Oblate

Duration 02:56:38
HD Video / Stereo
Custom-bound first edition of J-K Huysmans’ The Oblate (1903)

Towards the end of the nineteenth-century, the French writer Joris-Karl Huysmans — famous for his decadent novel A Rebours (1884) — became engaged in a process of religious conversion. This process was described in a series of novels, ending with L’Oblat (1903), in which his alter ego Durtal, like Huysmans before him, considers entering the Benedictine order at Solesmes.

The monks at Solesmes were forced to make a journey of their own at this time also; under the Law of Associations passed in France in 1901 all religious orders not deemed ‘productive’ were banned, and by September of that year the monks took up exile on the Isle of Wight, firstly at Appuldurcombe House, before moving into their new monastery, designed by one of the order, Dom Paul Bellot, at Quarr. Although the French monks returned to Solesmes in 1921, the ordination of Englishmen has allowed the continuation of the order to this day.

One of the most important working activities of the monks now is that of bookbinding, which has long been associated with monastic life. I have collaborated with Father Nicholas Spencer, head of the bindery and Oblate Master, on the binding of an early French edition of L’Oblat, a process documented in a film. The film is nearly three hours in duration, and contains no voice-over narration, and almost no speech, but rather just the quiet, concentrated sound of the monk’s activity. As such the film embodies the qualities that it records in the activities of others.

Commisioned by John Hansard Gallery for ArtSOUTH.