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Friday, 13 June 2014

Sabbatical art pilgrimage: St Matthew's Northampton

Arriving at St Matthew's Northampton is to arrive at the birthplace for the revival of contemporary art commissions in the UK.

The church is a large late Victorian gothic building built in 1893 for an affluent part of the town. Walter Hussey, the second Vicar of St Matthew's and son of the first, commissioned a Madonna and Child by Henry Moore in 1943 which began a revolution by reviving the tradition of the Church as patron of the visual arts and doing so with modern artists.

Prior to this commission, the primary use of a contemporary artist by the Church had been the surprising choice of Eric Gill as sculptor for the Stations of the Cross at Westminster Cathedral in 1913. As Gill's restrained and elegant Stations were criticised for being 'grotesque and undevotional', 'cold as the mind that produced them' and hideous, primitive and pagan, it is no surprise to find the commissioning of Moore thirty years later was similarly controversial. Negative comment included, ‘the Madonna has elephantiasis’, ‘she would make a good doorstop’ and ‘why is she wearing jackboots?’ That gap in time between the commissioning of one major contemporary artist by the Church and another, appears symptomatic of the disconnect that was felt at the time between the Church, the public, and the modern art avant-garde.

Figurative representation had been the main mode of art utilised by the Church in the West with the direction of travel having been towards mimetic representation and, in Britain in the Victorian period, towards a sentimentality within figurative representation. By comparison, modern art was red-raw expressive and entirely unconcerned with mimesis in its figuration, before then taking a significant turn in the direction of the abstract with the loss of the figure altogether. For all these reasons and more, many in Britain thought modern art unsuitable for churches, while some in the avant-garde saw modern art as a final decisive break with the patronage of the Church.

What Hussey did in a parish church in Northampton was therefore genuinely revolutionary for the Church in Britain and, as we have seen, attracted criticism. The work of Moore continued to attract criticism in a church context with his altar at St Stephen Walbrook, measuring 8ft across and weighing several tons, resulting in a court case as a result of objections which was eventually resolved by going to the highest ecclesiastical court of the land, the Court of Ecclesiastical Cases Reserved, where the judges ruled that the Moore altar was acceptable as an altar for the Church of England. Many of the key commissions of contemporary art in the Church of England - such as those at St Michael and All Angels Berwick and All Saints’ Tudeley - have faced some sort of challenge through the Diocesan Advisory Committee system. Hussey seems to have been particularly adept at guiding his commissions through these processes.

He added a further controversial commission in 1946 with Graham Sutherland's Crucifixion. Subsequently, a third commission has been added, Malcolm Pollard's Risen Christ completing the narrative of Christ's birth and death with his resurrection. It is this image which is first apparent on entering the church. The earlier commissions are hidden from view in the two transepts. The hanging of a Risen Christ or Christ in Glory above or from the chancel arch has become fashionable in church commissioned, with Peter Eugene Ball becoming a particular exponent of this image. Pollard's jetulong wood figure with its raised arms relates visually and theologically to the pre-existing Victorian ironwork cross which remains in place behind it.

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.’

It is fascinating to reflect that Moore and Sutherland were little known outside the company of those directly interested in art at the time they were commissioned by Hussey. In view of Sutherland’s landscape-based work Hussey suggested The Agony in the Garden as the subject of the work but Sutherland requested that instead he paint a crucifixion.

While this suggests a need on Sutherland’s part to move beyond the restrictions of his landscape-based reputation, it was nevertheless in landscape that he initially found inspiration for the form of his Crucifixion. Sutherland wrote, in an article for The Listener: ‘I started to notice thorn bushes, and the structure of thorns as they pierced the air. I made some drawings, and as I made them, a curious change developed. As the thorns rearranged themselves, they became whilst still retaining their own pricking space encompassing life, something else – a kind of stand-in for a Crucifixion and a crucified head.’

Sutherland combined this exploration with images of tortured bodies photographed in Nazi concentration camps which ‘looked like figures deposed from crosses’ and with the crucifixions painted by Matthais Grünewald.

Revd. Tom Devonshire Jones has described well the resulting work in Images of Christ: ‘All the elements worked out in the studies are present: the freely interpreted crown of thorns and the debilitated legs from the Concentration Camp photographs. But the real suffering is in the arms and hands. The fingers curl up in agony. The taut arms pull the ribcage away from the rest of the body, as if a dead stag was being torn apart. In this painting Christ is still in the process of dying. Herein lies its original and frightening power.’

The painting shows a bloody and haggard Christ whose body bears witness to the ‘continuing beastliness and cruelty of mankind.’ The expressionist forms and colours essential to the depiction of the agonized death inherent in crucifixion and to its representation as an icon of all who suffer through the inhumanity of human beings one to another, mean that it continues to retain its original and frightening power.

On arrival at St Matthew’s I was made very welcome by the two ladies on duty that Saturday, one of whom later confided that, ‘The Sutherland frightens me because it shows the anguish that Christ must have felt. Also the pain that Sutherland experienced going through the Second World War.’ This lady also shared that she sits where she can look through the first arch at a Crucifixion in stained glass so that when she loses focus in the service she looks up there and finds that it always brings her back to life. It is of interest that it is the less agonized image of the Crucifixion that has this effect for her.

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”:

“It was while he was Vicar of St Matthew's that Hussey decided to celebrate the church's 50th anniversary by organising a musical concert. Seizing the opportunity given by CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), the forerunner of the Arts Council, he invited the BBC Symphony Orchestra to play and commissioned 'Rejoice in the Lamb' from Benjamin Britten. Despite a great many obstacles and in the face of reactionary opposition his tenacity of vision enabled him to get his way. He went on to organise a concert by the great soprano Kirsten Flagsted, and commission Henry Moore's 'Madonna and Child' sculpture, which was unveiled in February 1944, a 'Litany and Anthem for St Matthew's Day' from W.H. Auden in 1945, Graham Sutherland's 'Crucifixion' in 1947 and in 1949 'The Outer Planet' from the poet Norman Nicholson.”

“He then became Dean of Chichester Cathedral, an appointment that may well have been influenced by the fact that the Bishop, Dr George Bell, was also a great patron of the arts, and obviously made the appointment with a view to preserving the artistic continuity. Bishop Bell retired in 1958, but Hussey remained as Dean until his retirement in 1977.”

Hussey 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.’ For his commissions at St Matthews and Chichester Cathedral, Kenneth Clark memorably described him as 'the last great patron of art in the Church of England.'


Benjamin Britten - Rejoice In The Lamb.

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