The arts in evangelical history

I’m very pleased to be able to say that I have agreed to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming Ashgate Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism. This is to be one of the first volumes in a new series, Ashgate Studies in Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.

Some of my publications in the past have touched on evangelicals and the arts in twentieth century Britain, most directly in relation to worship music, but also in relation to the theatre and the visual arts. This project will require a much wider perspective, taking in the whole of evangelical history from the early eighteenth century onwards, and across the world.

I’d thus be very pleased to hear of particular issues that readers think I should be addressing, and secondary literature I should be reading, within these broad themes:

(i) evangelical use (or disuse) of the various arts in public, private and domestic worship;

(ii) the use of the arts as means of evangelism;

(iii) evangelical theologies of the created work of art itself, and its right performance, realisation and reception;

(iv) evangelical involvement in the creation, performance and consumption of the arts in situations not associated with worship or evangelism, such as the secular theatre;

(v) evangelical challenge to works of art and/or their performance, on grounds of either their content (subject matter), or their style, or on grounds of their likely effects on performer and/or viewer or listener.

(vi) more generally, all of these matters are intimately connected with evangelical theologies of culture, and the relationship of the church, the individual Christian and “the world”, however defined.

I’m particularly keen to hear of particular matters of note before c.1850, or from outside Europe and North America at any point between about 1730 and the almost-present.

What did modern theology look like in the Sixties ?

What did modern theology look like ? An odd question perhaps; but I’d like to look at some of the cover designs of books of theology aimed at a popular readership between 1963 and 1970. This is no exhaustive study (being based mostly on the books on my own shelves), but it would seem that at least some of those responsible for publicising the ‘Death of God’ theology thought there was a connection between it and modern art.HonestToGod-cover-blog

Undoubtedly the most famous such book of the period was John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, published by the SCM Press in 1963, in its series of cheap pocket paperbacks. Its cover is a minor masterpiece of cover design, showing a young man deep in thought, wrestling perhaps with precisely the kind of radical rethinking of his religion that Robinson was proposing. Image and message seem to be in perfect interplay. Interestingly, the image is of a rather older work, and from a different context. ‘Seated Youth’ (1918) is by the German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and Lehmbruck’s experience of working in a wartime field hospital is translated between nations and over time to become a symbol of a more spiritual crisis.Lloyd-Ferment in the Church - cover 1964 - blog

After Honest to God, ‘Seated Youth’ seems to have become iconic of Robinson’s book, such that it appears again on a follow-up book from Roger Lloyd, The Ferment in the Church, published in 1964, also by SCM. This time the sculpture is overlaid on a background of Winchester Cathedral, signifying the clash of old and new.

Ramsey - Resurrection of Christ - fourth imp 1966 - blog

I must stress again that this post captures an impression, and is not based on a systematic study. As such, there isn’t much in the way of a control group – of works of more mainstream theology published for a mass market, for which the economics of a cover design with an image added up. But there were some, such as Michael Ramsey’s The Resurrection of Christ, first published in 1945 but reissued by Collins in the Fontana imprint. The impression here is the fourth, from 1966, and whilst it too uses a work of art, Collins’ designer opted for an unidentified work in a much older style. This perhaps matched Ramsey’s work, which was by no means conservative in the broader scheme of things, but looked to be so when set against Robinson.

Newbigin - Honest Religion for Secular Man 1966 - cover - blog

There was one artist who seemed to appear often, and that was Jacob Epstein. Lesslie Newbigin’s Honest Religion for Secular Man (SCM, 1966) featured ‘Risen Christ’, a work made between 1917-19 and, like ‘Seated Youth’, an imaginative product of the First World War. A sepulchral Christ shows the viewer his wounds, against the backdrop of the type of multi-storey office building in vogue at the time, although the particular building is not identified. Modern Man needed to work out the appropriate response to the call of God in a secular, “technological” environment.

Laymans Church - 1963 - cover - blog

All three SCM titles I’ve discussed so far were in the same series; but other publishers were not slow to see the connection, and at about the same time. In the same year as Honest to God, the Lutterworth Press published Layman’s Church, a collection of essays introduced by Timothy (later Lord) Beaumont, and including essays from several of the figures associated with ‘South Bank religion’, including Robinson. Its cover features Epstein’s ‘Christ in Majesty’, made for Llandaff cathedral in 1954-5. The new Coventry cathedral has on the exterior of its porch Epstein’s ‘St Michael and the Devil’ (1956-8), featured on Stephen Verney’s Fire in Coventry (Hodder, 1963).
Verney - Fire at Coventry - 1963 - blog
So it would seem that publishers of popular theology in the early Sixties thought there was a connection between the kind of modern theology that seemed to be leading the market and the kind of modern sculpture (and it is mostly sculpture) that was finding its way into churches. Or, at the very least, those publishers thought that their likely readers would find the designs meaningful. I doubt I will have the time to pursue this idea any more systematically; but there’s a great Ph.D. subject in here for someone.

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 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.

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.

Ruth Duckworth

I note a recent obituary of the sculptor Ruth Duckworth, in the Guardian. There is some useful biographical and catalogue information here.

Of most interest for this blog are her Stations of the Cross, for St. Joseph’s Church, New Malden (R.C.). There is a very full set of photos at the church’s own site.

A scary crucifix

The Church Times reports a West Sussex church removing a crucifix figure from above the church door, partly because the figure has been scaring children, and partly because of a perceived inappropriateness of a crucifix as opposed to an empty cross. I feel sure that there is more to the issue than this, not least questions of style; the figure is by Edward Bainbridge Copnall, and dates from 1963.

Ralph Beyer

I note an obituary of Ralph Beyer, the inscription carver whose work features in Coventry Cathedral. Basil Spence, the architect of the cathedral, praised Beyer’s work very fulsomely in his Phoenix at Coventry.

Being the son of a German art historian, and coming to England at the age of 16, he is another of the surprisingly large number of ‘refugee artists’ who made significant contributions to church art in the years after the war. Another name that springs to mind is Hans Feibusch. For more see the exhibition catalogue Art and Migration, edited by Jennifer Powell and Jutta Vinzent (George Bell Institute, Humanitas subsidia series, 2, 2005).
There has of course also been some recent general interest in the influence of migrants on a receiving culture: see Daniel Snowman, The Hitler Emigres, and, more recently, Lesley Chamberlain’s The Philosophy Steamer.

Henry Moore’s mothers and children at Kew

Have recently been to the excellent exhibition of Henry Moore outdoor works at Kew Gardens, and was struck by the preponderance of the Mother and Child in his work. He described it as one of his ‘inexhaustible subjects’ and there are two examples on show at Kew, both from the 1980s, and splendidly documented in the catalogue. I was reminded of his most explicit piece of religious art, the ‘Madonna and Child’ for Walter Hussey at St. Matthew’s Northampton (1943-4) and a later piece for the church at Claydon in Suffolk.

My thoughts have come to this interaction between ‘secular’ mother-and-child figures and Christianised representations of Christ and Mary whilst preparing an article on war memorials after 1945. Jay Winter usefully pointed out the use of the mother weeping over a fallen (adult) son in memorials after 1918, and the Claydon figure was explicitly glossed at the time (by Hussey) as being a memorial figure. There is also an Epstein mother and son figure, made for the TUC Congress House HQ in London.

Part of my ongoing project on memorials ought probably to look for other examples, as perhaps the very ambiguity of the mother/Madonna relationship made it the most accessible of all the ‘big’ Christian themes for an artist on the fringes of the church to take up. As Moore put it (to Hussey): ‘I think it is only through our art that we artists can come to understand your theology.’ (Hussey, Patron of Art p.24.)

Should anyone be interested, the war memorials article should appear next year in the Forum for Modern Language Studies. Some of Moore’s own thoughts on the difference between a religious and secular mother and child were printed in Wilkinson (ed.), Henry Moore. Writings and Conversations 213, 267-8

Eric Gill at Ditchling

There is a very interesting exhibition at the Ditchling Museum in Sussex, on the time Gill spent in this small (and rather idyllic) Sussex village. It includes various pieces of Gill’s work, sketches, models and letters, as well as exploring Ditchling connections with others including David Jones and the engraver Joseph Cribb. The exhibition itself is not huge, but when viewed alongside the museum’s permanent exhibits relating to the subject, it is well worth a visit. There is, I understand, a catalogue in production, which should be ready in the autumn.