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Sunday, 8 June 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: St Mary the Virgin, Downe



The post-war rebuilding of Britain resulted in a significant programme of new church builds with many providing opportunities for contemporary artists to gain commissions. It wasn't only new builds, however, which provided scope for the commissioning of modern art.

At St Mary the Virgin, Downe the East window was completely destroyed when in August 1944 a bomb landed on the opposite side of High Elms Road. After the war the Church applied to the War Damage Commission for funds to install a new East window and consulted with Robin Darwin, Principal of the Royal College of Art as to suitable artists to invite to submit designs. Darwin advised throughout the selection process, also garnering views from Sir Jasper Ridley, a trustee of the Tate Gallery. The result was the award of the commission to Evie Hone.

Evie Hone's masterpiece is generally thought to be her windows for Eton College Chapel of which Patrick Reyntiens wrote that it was, "a dramatic breakthrough ... Which may look historic now but when it was done it proved to be the herald of a new period of co-operation between the eye of the painter and the eye of the artist in stained glass." Apart from these windows and the window at Downe there is little opportunity to view her work in England, as she was, together with her friend Mainie Jellett, a pioneer of modern art in Ireland. Patrick Pollen wrote that Hone had "done much to bridge the gap here in Ireland between a slow moving public taste and the revolutionary ideas of the continental schools."

For two artists who were also committed Christians, this may seem an unusual or unlikely place to choose to be. As David Morgan has written, "Moving through the discourse of Modernism in art was a dominant conception of the sacred, one which distanced art from institutional religion, most importantly Christianity, in order to secure the freedom of art as an autonomous cultural force that was sacralized in its own right." However, despite this dominant narrative, some of the leading artists in France were also committed Christians exploring ways of reviving sacred art. It was to France that Hone and Jellett went in order to study art. Again this was unusual, as they were both at that time Church of Ireland (Hone later became a Roman Catholic) while Albert Gleizes, who became their tutor, was in the process of returning to the Catholicism of his youth.

Reflecting on time spent with Gleizes, Hone spoke of: "A direction to the spirit to contemplate the divine. Author of the rhythm and form of all created life by composition of form and colour, by a circular movement symbolic of eternity, by a sublimity of form, by simplicity and severity of colour - an idea almost rediscovered by the cubist painters."

Gleizes wrote of the three "discarding the subject," by which he means the reproduction using perspective of classical drawings and, by familiarity with the "laws that govern painting" creating images which are "skillfully blended from the different suggestions that arise in the linear organisation of a composition."

Bruce Arnold writes that, in her stained glass work, "Evie could be said to have passed from Gleizes to the rugged, emotional, representational style of [Georges] Rouault's painting." JamesWhite suggests that "it is possible to consider that Rouault's drawings and paintings were responsible for awakening in her the realisation that in stained glass lay the possibility of combining formal statements of religious art with the underlying abstract design she desired to incorporate in her work." C.P.Curran suggests that "To Gleizes vocabulary and method, she added a whole language and a less exclusive practice."

The Crucifixion at Downe is a bold and simple design with the crucified Christ on a red cross in the central light, his arms and those of the cross extend into the two side lights where Mary and John are located. Above, are an unusual choice of symbols relating to the Passion narrative. Blues predominate in the background with the red of the cross repeated in St John’s robe and greens used to further delineate St John and Mary.

Unlike other Irish stained glass artists of her time, such as Harry Clarke and Michael Healy, Hone relies on the essential brilliance of stained glass to create her effects without use of techniques – like aciding in pinpoints - to create irradiation. Within the simplicity of the design, her focus is on the essential components of harmonising bold colours and the linked rhythms of interlocking lead lines. As White suggests, the necessary data is ordered to the available space without irrelevant decoration distracting from her central powerful focus. As the brief from the Parish had stated that the design “should aim at simplicity, and there should be an avoidance of any mass of detail,” it is clear that they found the right artist for this commission.  

The impact is apparent on entry as the window dominates the interior. I arrived late and flustered after losing my way in torrential rain to be met by Sue King, a patient, understanding and very informative churchwarden. Her papers provided the background to the commission as well as reflections on Evie Hone’s work and legacy.

Sue pointed out Robin Darwin’s wry comment about artist expenses in his correspondence over the commission: “If all artists were paid by a grateful public for the cost of painting pictures, which they fail to sell, they would have a fine time, but the country would rapidly go bankrupt.” He recommended that the unsuccessful artists, including Leonard Evetts and Lawrence Lee, who had created designs for what was essentially an informal competition, were paid £2.00 in expenses. As one who tries to ensure, through my work with commission4mission, that artists are paid for design work, I was relieved to see that Darwin’s comment didn’t lead to these artists being completely out of pocket.  

Sue also highlighted other twentieth century glass found in the church; the work of Keith and Freda Coleborn, both well regarded artists, village residents and husband and wife. Freda’s panel is a copy of one in the Cathedral of Notre Dame at Dijon which has been placed in a window in the north wall while Keith has two original designs commemorating members of the Knox-Johnston family. His Tree of Jesse shows Jesse, the father of David, at the bottom of his family tree which leads up, through all the human ancestors of Christ to Him and His monogram at the top, while the other window commemorates the first solo round the world voyage under sail as undertaken by Robin Knox-Johnston in ‘Suhaili.’

There is clearly much more to see and explore in Downe, not least its connections with Charles Darwin, but today, after a late arrival and a schedule that takes me next to Tudeley and windows by Marc Chagall, there is only time for a quick meal in the Queen’s Head, opposite the churchyard, before moving on through the rain. I carry with me, in my mind’s eye, the image of Hone’s imposing, expressive Christ, light streaming into life through his loving sacrifice.


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