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Saturday, 22 April 2017

Sussex Modernism and the Church

In the first half of the 20th century Sussex was home to major artists and collectors namely the Catholic art and craft community in Ditchling (home of Eric Gill and David Jones), Charleston (home of the Bloomsbury Group), Farley Farm House, Chiddingly (home of Roland Penrose and Lee Miller) and West Dean (home to surrealist Edward James). In the communities they created, artistic innovation ran hand in-hand with political, sexual and domestic experimentation. Both are explored in Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion at Two Temple Place until 23 April 2017. Surprisingly in the context of modernism, links to churches is a thread running through this exhibition.

The beginning of the twentieth century saw the formation of many artist's colonies and communities.
The most successful of these was probably at Gödöllő in Hungary, which was based on the writings on John Ruskin and William Morris. Its closest equivalent in Britain was Ditchling in Sussex where the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was formed.

Eric Gill, later followed by Edward Johnston and Hilary Pepler, moved to Ditchling, in 1907 seeking the advantages of country living, and this move led directly to the formation of the Guild in 1920. Earlier, in 1914, the three men issued their first edition of 'The Game', an occasional magazine which was to become the main forum for the views of the Guild. The arrival in 1917 of Fr. Vincent McNabb, prior of the Dominicans at Hawkesyard in Staffordshire, became the catalyst for the transition from three friends living and working close by to the formation of the Guild. On 29 July 1918 Pepler, Gill, his wife Mary and his apprentice Desmond Chute joined the Third Order of the Dominicans.

The Guild was set up to be a revolutionary community of artists and craftspeople living, working and worshipping as Dominican Tertiaries. The January 1918 edition of 'The Game' stated 'The object of the Revolution is to replace the worship of Mammon by the worship of God. We adhere to the principle of human freedom, which we believe to be possible only by obedience to God and by recognising the institutions which are of God.' Johnston was unable to follow in their ardent Catholicism and did not join, although he continued to live in Ditchling. David Jones joined the community in 1921 and then, in 1924, moved with Gill to Caldey in Wales as part of an attempt to establish a similar Guild there.

As Fiona MacCarthy has noted: ‘Gill was revolutionary in his attitude to making, a pioneer in reviving the medieval practice of "direct carving" … For Gill, direct carving was part of a whole philosophy of life, a campaign against coyness and adulteration wherever he found it … He developed what became a religion of explicitness, "the making out of stone things seen in the mind".’ Gill also went on a ‘long and sometimes agonising quest to reconcile the sexual and the spiritual.’ However, he eventually became ‘a Catholic artist in a primarily Anglican country, working almost exclusively for Catholic clients’; the Guild likewise.

Timothy Elphick describes much of the Guild's work as being devotional: 'Wood engravings of religious subjects were cut in profusion by Gill and Chute and the newly arrived David Jones, many for use as illustrations in THE GAME. Pepler's St Dominic's Press was printing Mass-sheets, ordination cards and music for psalms and canticles, as well as books and pamphlets written by guild members and their friends. One such book, a translation in 1923 of Jacques Maritain's Art et Scholastique, was to be of the greatest importance'.['Eric Gill and the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic', Hove Museum and Art Gallery, 1990]

As a result, the specifically Christian modernism of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was part of The Third Spring, a flowering of Roman Catholicism among artists and intellectuals which had G.K. Chesterton and Jacques Maritain as its guiding lights and which saw a flourishing of sacred art societies, similar to that at Ditchling, across Europe.

A similar flowering of Anglicanism among artists and intellectuals also occurred in Britain, primarily as a result of the ministries of George Bell and Walter Hussey. On 27th June 1929, the day he became Bishop of Chichester, Bell expressed, in his enthronement address, his commitment to a much closer relationship between the Anglican Church and the arts:

‘Whether it be music or painting or drama, sculpture or architecture or any other form of art, there is an instinctive sympathy between all of these and the worship of God. Nor should the church be afraid to thank the artists for their help, or to offer its blessing to the works so pure and lovely in which they seek to express the Eternal Spirit. Therefore I earnestly hope that in this diocese (and in others) we may seek ways and means for a reconciliation of the Artist and the Church—learning from him as well as giving to him and considering with his help our conception alike of the character of Christian worship and of the forms in which the Christian teaching may be proclaimed.’

Bell had been intent on re-establishing the link between the Church and the arts from his early days as Dean of Canterbury where he had begun with religious drama, commissioning in 1928 a new play for the cathedral from John Masefield; an event which in large part led to the establishing of a series of Canterbury plays, including Murder in the Cathedral by T.S. Eliot. He went on to commission drama, music and visual art, put structures in place (e.g. the Sussex Churches Art Council and its ‘Pictures in Churches Loan Scheme’) to support a wider commissioning of artists, placed his trust in the vision of artists when they encountered opposition and he was called on to adjudicate on commissions and strongly supported the appointment of Walter Hussey as Dean of Chichester Cathedral to take forward the commissioning programme he had initiated there.

Bell viewed his drive to re-associate the Church and the Arts as being ‘an effective protection against barbarism, whether the barbarism was Nazism, materialism or any other threat to civilization.’ Murals commissioned from Duncan Grant, Vanessa and Quentin Bell in 1941 for the Sussex Church of St Michael & All Angels Berwick represented a fulfilment of his vision to be a catalyst for promoting the relationship between the Arts and the Church. As Sir Kenneth Clark wrote in 1941: ‘...with a little judicious publicity it might have the effect of encouraging other dioceses to do the same. If once such a movement got under way, it would have incalculable influence for the good on English Art.’

At Berwick, for the first time a modern artist of national standing, Duncan Grant, undertook ‘a complete decorative scheme for an historic rural church’. ‘Duncan Grant was the lead artist for the murals and put forward the initial proposals. He had moved with Vanessa Bell and her husband, Clive, to Charleston Farmhouse at the foot of the Downs, three miles to the west of Berwick Church, in 1916. Quentin Bell, the son of Vanessa and Clive, undertook all the paintings within the Chancel as well as ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ at the end of the north aisle.’

They ‘had in view a ‘decorative scheme’ which, rather than simply being a series of individual paintings within frames, would create an environment with its own particular feeling and aesthetic.’ A study for one of the six larger works in the scheme, Christ in Glory, can be seen in the exhibition.

Grant’s work was ‘influenced by his travels in Italy where, as an art student, he had seen the mosaics at Ravenna and copied the frescoes of Piero della Francesca (1420-1492) at Arezzo. Then in Paris he had copied works by Chardin (1699-1779) portraying scenes from everyday life, ordinary people in work or recreation. At the same time he studied the work of the Impressionists and was later greatly influenced by the Post-Impressionists such as Cezanne, Seurat, and others …

The murals at Berwick exhibit influences from all these traditions, but also something of the artists’ focus on the intimacy of the home and personal relationships and their love of the beauty and simplicity of the Downland landscape.’

The murals themselves looked back in terms of style to the grand ‘tradition of ecclesiastical art’ while their content was nostalgic for a past picture of rural England which was rapidly being lost. Both factors meant that the scheme at Berwick did not serve as a model for Church patronage of modern art as had been the hope of Bell and Clarke. Although the artists at Berwick were considered ‘avant garde’ in their day what they actually produced for the church was a scheme which looked back to earlier traditions of ecclesiastical art, rather than one which looked forward.

Bell’s colleague Walter Hussey wrote, in preparation for his final commission that it had been the great enthusiasm of his life and work ‘to commission for the Church the very best artists I could, in painting, in sculpture, in music and in literature.’ He was guided by the principle that, ‘Whenever anything new was required in the first seven hundred years of the history of the cathedral, it was put in the contemporary style.’ Like Bell, Hussey believed that ‘True artists of all sorts, as creators of some of the most worthwhile of man’s work, are well adapted to express man’s worship of God.’ When this is done consciously, he suggested, ‘the beauty and strength of their work can draw others to share to some extent their vision.’

Hussey, as noted in his Pallant House biography, “was responsible for commissioning some iconic works of twentieth century music and visual art, first as Vicar of St Matthew's Church Northampton and subsequently as Dean of Chichester Cathedral, from likes of William Albright, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and William Walton”:
Kenneth Clark spoke at the unveiling in 1961 of Graham Sutherland's Noli Me Tangere, another Hussey commission, this time at Chichester Cathedral, and reflected on the situation when Hussey first began to commission contemporary artists: ‘... when in 1944, a small body of artists and amateurs made a bomb-stricken journey to Northampton for the unveiling of Henry Moore's Virgin and Child, Canon Hussey had lit a candle, which is still very far from being a blaze ... The artists commissioned by Canon Hussey were ... little known outside the company of those directly interested in art. I think that even then collectors - both private and public - were shy of their work, and to put it in a church was a wonderful act of vision, courage and persuasive skill.’
Bell and Hussey made a major contribution to reinvigorating the Church’s patronage of the Arts, as evidenced in this exhibition by works from Hans Feibusch and Graham Sutherland related to commissions for Chichester Cathedral. The inspiration they provided for modernist commissions by churches continues in the permanent commissions, temporary installations and exhibitions undertaken by many British churches and Cathedrals today. This is a revolution, stemming initially from Gill’s 1915 Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral, to which Sussex modernists made major contributions.


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