Melanie Barber MBE (1943-2012)

In November I was privileged to be among the many family, friends and former colleagues who gathered at Lambeth Palace to remember Melanie Barber, former Deputy Librarian and Archivist of Lambeth Palace Library, who passed away in June. Melanie was on the staff of the Library for more than thirty years, retiring in 2002.

Until the service, I had not quite registered that Melanie must just have retired when she and I first met, in the reading room at Lambeth. I was making my first trip to the Library, whilst in the midst of what was to become a permanent migration in academic interest from the seventeenth to the twentieth centuries. It was the papers of George Bell I had come to see, and Melanie, having prepared the catalogue, took time and some obvious pleasure in pointing me towards the volumes on Bell’s artistic patronage. I often saw Melanie at Lambeth over the following years, and it was she who took me aside to look at an exchange of letters between William Temple and Dorothy L. Sayers, in which Temple offered Sayers the honorary Lambeth degree of Doctor of Divinity. Melanie had an abiding interest in the history of the Lambeth degrees, one of which she herself received, and she left behind the seeds of a fascinating study of the subject which it would be splendid to see someone nurture. My interest in the letters was piqued by the light they shed on the relationship between the church and the arts; and the resulting edition now forms part of the Church of England Record Society miscellany volume to which Melanie gave form and direction, even if it fell to Stephen Taylor and Gabriel Sewell to complete it in her last years of illness.

Melanie was also one of the leading lights and a Trustee of the George Bell Institute, of which in more recent years I myself have become a Fellow. At Melanie’s funeral earlier in the year I learned of her longstanding voluntary efforts in fostering the work of young scholars of Quakerism. These two things together, added to her own published historical work, point up that which I shall most remember Melanie for: a modelling of an important but neglected interconnection of faith, life and scholarship. Remembering Melanie, it is difficult if not impossible to see where the lines might be drawn that separated employment and vocation; service to others and a life lived towards God; the pursuit of truth for its own sake and the meaning of that pursuit in the created order. I can’t claim to have known her well, but her example was and will continue to be an inspiration. She will be sorely missed.

Walter Hussey, patron of art

[I first starting investigating the career of Walter Hussey some nine years ago. He has appeared in several of my articles so far, but the book I always intended has been put back. Now, though, a proposal for that book has been accepted is currently under consideration by a publisher. Here’s what it is about.]

Walter Hussey is known for an extraordinary sequence of commissions of contemporary art and music, for the church of St Matthew Northampton from 1943 and, from 1955 to 1977, for Chichester Cathedral. The names read as a roll-call of post-war artistic and musical life: Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Marc Chagall in the visual arts; Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett, William Walton in music.

Hussey became something of a grandee: an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an honorary Doctor of Letters of the young University of Sussex. Kenneth Lord Clark, critic, broadcaster, and sometime director of the National Gallery, described Hussey as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. As interest in the relations between theology and the arts has grown, so has Hussey’s reputation as the most significant patron of art for the English church of the twentieth century. Countless recording sleeve notes and exhibition catalogues record Hussey’s role in glowing terms, and the art historical literature has accorded him a corner niche in the pantheon of the great individual patrons. For one commentator, Hussey single-handedly ‘turned the tide against Anglican neglect of modern art’.

Missing in all this is any extended critical study of Hussey’s life and work as a whole. The musicological and art-historical literature confines him to a walk-on part, while church historians have paid greater attention to the other major figure in Anglican artistic patronage, George Bell, bishop of Chichester.

Why, then, study Walter Hussey ? Most obviously, the Hussey Papers are a rich source for studying the commissioning of the contemporary arts, giving a vivid picture of the relationship between one exceptional clergyman and his commissionees. Almost none of this material has ever been integrated into the existing literature.

Within the contemporary Church of England with its cathedrals now crammed with contemporary art, Hussey has been seen as a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for a rediscovery of a contemporary language for the Church’s message. This story of dogged effort in the face of philistinism and ignorance is the nearest we have to a meta-narrative of the churches and the arts. But it is a story established by dint of omission, since the integration of the religious arts into the study of recent British religious history is in its infancy. To document Hussey’s patronage is to provide key signposts in this terra incognita.

Hussey is also a case-study in the unspoken assumptions of catholic Anglicans about the arts, the church, and the place of creativity in national life.  The social and economic crises of the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s prompted intense debate over the nature of ‘national religion’, and its connection with the mainstream in national culture. The church could not hope to regain the attention of ‘Modern Man’ without speaking through the art in which he was already expressing himself. Hussey stands as one of the most active and well self-documented case studies of this theological current in action.

Hussey’s career saw revolutionary change between the churches and the people. Church attendance and affiliation collapsed dramatically, as did the church’s confidence in its own ability to communicate and minister effectively. Part of the crisis was of religious language, and its ability to communicate in a manner meaningful to Modern Man.  Some sought new means of mission, and the contemporary arts were seized upon as a means to that end. If words were no longer securely meaningful, then perhaps the arts provided an alternative language. If the 1960s saw the discursive death of Christian Britain, as Callum Brown has suggested, then Hussey made an attempt at resuscitation.

The means by which taste was shaped and determined also changed in the ‘long 1960s’. The vision of a beneficent establishment raising the horizons of the people through the BBC and other channels was overturned by a quite new emphasis on the entitlement to ‘do one’s own thing’. Hussey’s mode of patronage depended on a discerning patron, authoritative critic and notable artist working in tandem, disseminating new art downwards to a grateful if uncomprehending public. This way of working, successful in the 1940s, was by the 1970s no longer fit for purpose.

The period was also one of general cultural fracture, during which the classical in all the arts was shifted further and further from the centre of artistic life; a movement which posed difficulties for those in the churches and outside who wished to place Anglican patronage in the centre of the mainstream of national cultural life. By the end of Hussey’s career it was less than clear where that centre might be.

The career of Walter Hussey thus affords the historian a unique opportunity to examine one sphere in which the church met, resisted, negotiated with or capitulated to forces of change in the society in which it was located.

The Church and Humanity: the life and work of George Bell

There is no pleasure quite like receiving a pristine copy of a new book through one’s door; and it is doubled when the book includes some of one’s own work. So I was delighted to find a couple of weeks ago my copy of this new collection, edited by Andrew Chandler, which includes my own article on the making of John Masefield’s play The Coming of Christ, for Canterbury Cathedral in 1928. It is not every day that one’s work appears between the same covers as that of the archbishop of Canterbury; something to tell the grandchildren perhaps.

As it happens, the artistic element of Bell’s work is a relatively minor feature of this volume. There is much here as well for scholars of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century. Charlotte Methuen writes on Bell’s early ecumenical work to 1929;  Jaakko Rusama on his efforts in promoting Anglican-Lutheran relations; and Gerhard Besier on the friendship with Willem Visser t’Hooft and on the World Council of Churches.

There is also much here for scholars interested in the politics of the period and the Anglican church’s reactions to and interventions in them. Charmian Brinson writes on internment in 1940; Tom Lawson provides a ‘moral history’ of the trial of German war criminals; Dianne Kirby reflects on Bell and the Cold War;  and Andrew Chandler on Bell and the politics of resistance in Nazi Germany. Philip Coupland also provides a chapter on Bell and the cause of European unity.

It is published by Ashgate in a handsome hardback; and is available to order online. My paper, as first published in Humanitas in 2009, is available online.

The visual arts in the Church of England, 1935-56

I’m very pleased to be able to say that my article for Studies in Church History 44 (2008) on this topic is now available online in SAS-Space. It tried to catch some of the energy of a small group of critics, artists and clergy who saw a need for renewal in religous art, and thought they knew how to make it happen. Reading it again, five years after first beginning to write it, I’m still quite pleased with it (which one doesn’t always find.) As well as my regular subjects George Bell and Walter Hussey, there are appearances for Henry Moore, John Betjeman and Kenneth Clark, amongst others.

Romantic Moderns

I note several reviews of this recent book by Alexandra Harris: amongst others, Kathryn Hughes in the Guardian, Simon Heffer in the Spectator and Boyd Tonkin in the Independent.

I’ve yet to read the book, but her tracing of another strand to the usual ‘conservative English/modernist continentals’ opposition is of some importance in relation to what some within the churches were attempting at the time. The murals at Berwick,, associated with George Bell, are explicitly mentioned by Daisy Hay.

Harris is on the English staff at the University of Liverpool.

War memorials and the Church of England

I’m delighted to be able to say that my article on the Church of England and war memorials after 1945 is available to read in SAS-Space. It appeared in the Forum for Modern Language Studies in 2008, but is now available on an open-access basis. It explores the debates concerning the relationship between beauty, utility and the notion of “Christian civilisation”, particularly with regard to the reconstruction of bombed churches.

Rowan Williams on George Bell

Rather belatedly, I find the text of the Archbishop’s lecture on Bell, given last year at Chichester as part of the anniversary events. It strikes me as a most useful and important piece, relating Bell’s concern with the arts with his stance on ecumenism and international relations. It also makes specific mention of the Canterbury plays, in one of which I am myself particularly interested (see earlier post on John Masefield.)

John Masefield’s ‘The Coming of Christ’

I am bound to note the appearance, on the School of Advanced Study’s institutional repository SAS-Space, a post-print text of my article on this play by John Masefield. Commissioned by George Bell for performance in Canterbury Cathedral in 1928 (one of Bell’s last acts as Dean before his appointment as Bishop of Chichester), it is often (incorrectly) described as the first play to be staged in an English cathedral since the Reformation. The article explores what precedents there were for such a performance; examines the controversy provoked by the play, on theological, moral and aesthetic grounds; and locates it in the development of Bell’s own thinking with regard to the relationship between the Church of England and the arts.

The article is to be published in Humanitas. The Journal of the George Bell Institute later this year. I am extremely grateful to the Editor for permission to publish this version at this time. It was originally given at a conference under the auspices of the Institute last year.

The visual arts in the Church of England, 1935-56

I’m bound to draw attention to a new article of mine in the new Studies in Church History (volume 44, 2008). It examines the attempts made by an informal but determined coalition of clergy, artists and critics to revive the connection between church patronage and the contemporary arts. The two most prominent clergy were George Bell (Bishop of Chichester), and Walter Hussey,(St Matthew Northampton and Dean of Chichester.)

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester

2008 sees the fiftieth anniverary of Bell’s death, and there are two strands of academic events dealing with his legacy, which includes his work as patron of the arts. Chichester Cathedral are to hold a series of lectures, including one by Sir Christopher Frayling on the arts.
There is also to be a major conference in June, also in Chichester, organised by the George Bell Institute and the University of Chichester. I myself will be speaking at that event, on Bell’s work in religious drama, and in particular on The Coming of Christ, the 1928 play that Bell commissioned from John Masefield for Canterbury Cathedral.