Britten at the BL

I have an ambivalent relationship with exhibitions. Not so much with art exhibitions, since all I ever expect to do with a painting is look at it. But exhibitions of books and manuscripts, like this excellent (and free) exhibition on Benjamin Britten by my British Library colleagues, feel fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. There is a fascination in the object, made sacred, as it were, by the touch of the great man’s hand; and I had not realised how many of Britten’s autograph scores the Library holds. There are also recordings here, of Britten himself in conversation with broadcasters, and also of Peter Pears.

The frustration comes from what one instinctively expects (as a scholar) to be able to do with a source, but cannot due to the inevitable clear glass box that separates viewer from viewed. I’ve seen and handled a good few of Britten’s letters in relation to his Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) in amongst the Walter Hussey papers, and so one instinctively wants to begin work on these manuscripts and other artefacts straight away; to turn the pages, and follow the thoughts that present themselves as one views.

That aside, there are many rewarding things on display. There are films, such as the Crown Film Unit production Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), for which the piece known as the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was written. Malcolm Sargent had a deserved reputation as a showman and populariser, but after nearly 70 years of media history he appears as from a quite different age, so stiff and didactic is his delivery. Also showing is Night Mail (1936), Britten’s collaboration with W.H. Auden for the GPO Film Unit.

There are items related to Britten’s sacred music as well, including the autograph short scores for both the War Requiem (Add. MS 60609) and the Hymn to St Cecilia, another collaboration with Auden. (Add. MS 60598).

I was also reminded of the connection between Britten and the Peace Pledge Union, set up before the war by Dick Sheppard, rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Britten signed the pledge, and was accompanied by Canon Stuart Morris, general secretary of the Union when he appeared before a tribunal as a conscientious objector in 1942, at which his Pacifist March was offered as evidence of his pacifism before the war. Shown here is a printed chorus part of Pacifist March, written for the PPU in 1936-7 with words by Ronnie Duncan. The Union disliked it (and a quick sing through it, sotto voce, shows why) and so it was withdrawn, and this is one of the few surviving copies. Britten’s Canticle I was later given its first performance at a memorial service for Sheppard in November 1947.

The exhibition continues at the Library’s St Pancras site until 15 September. If you’re in London and have a spare hour, I would heartily recommend it.

[Additional information from Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten. A biography (Faber, 1992)]

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.

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.)

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