Walter Hussey and the Arts: a review

The first review is now in of my book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts. It comes from David Stancliffe, now retired as bishop of Salisbury and formerly provost of Portsmouth cathedral, only a short distance from Hussey’s Chichester. It is published in Art and Christianity, 93 (spring 2018), the bulletin of Art and Christianity Enquiry, to which body Stancliffe is an adviser.

Hussey in the late 1940s. Image from West Sussex Record Office, all rights reserved.

Since the review is an extended one, it gives Dr Stancliffe space to reflect at length on Hussey’s legacy as reflected in the book. As well as praising the book’s perceptiveness, he comments that ‘Webster has done a really brave job in making the most of Hussey’s achievement without glossing over the major difficulties’, and it is on these difficulties that he expands, elaborating and largely confirming my own argument.

But rather like the new Coventry Cathedral of the early 1960s, Hussey seems to have viewed commissions in isolation rather than as part of a coherent whole. It was Coventry’s architect, Spence, who described the building as a jewel-case for the series of commissions it contained, and in a way this is rather what Hussey’s commissions feel like. There were some notable works of art, and some remarkable juxtapositions, like the Sutherland Crucifixion opposite the Henry Moore Madonna and Child in Northampton: but was there a theological – let alone a liturgical – rationale for placing these two striking works of art where they could speak to each other across the space? Certainly nothing in Hussey’s writings articulated this, and the contexts of his musical commissions reveal no lasting sense of the place of music within the developing liturgical life of the church.

On my noting of Hussey’s lack of interest in architecture:

For me, this gap is a major failing, as it deprives Hussey’s commissions of their key raison d’être. At a time when the timid post-war reconstructions had a stylistic cross-roads before them, to have been unaware of the liturgical and architectural implications of decisions about what and how to build seems more serious than a ‘lacuna’ to me. It has reduced Hussey’s influence from what might have been a major force in the liturgical and artistic development of the church in the second half of the 20th Century to an interesting but essentially amateur patronage of a series of disconnected objets d’art.

He also takes up the question I raise (and others have raised) about the depth of Hussey’s vocation as a priest:

This raises the question as to how far was Hussey a convinced apologist for the Christian faith, with a deep sense of priestly vocation at his core, and [conversely] how far did the offices he held within the Church of England [simply, or incidentally] allow this talented patron of the arts the opportunities he craved to fulfil his vocation as a patron of the arts?… Certainly the Church of England and its cultural life would have been the poorer without his ministry, yet there is curiously little either in his writings or in the way the commissions present any kind of coherent theological or spiritual statement that suggests a deeper sense of vocation, or indeed much sense of Hussey’s own spiritual insight.

Would, in other words, Hussey still have been a private patron even had he not followed his father and elder brother into the ‘family business’? It is an intriguing question, but an impossible one to answer. But I should not like to dismiss the possibility out of hand: Hussey had private means, although not to the same degree that the Church and other donors provided, and so it would have been possible. We should be careful not to dismiss Hussey’s piety, which he took seriously enough, but the question mark remains. Had he taken up some other profession and become a private patron, we might have been discussing a different question: does art commissioned by private individuals, rather than the Church, still meet the definition of ‘sacred art’? Must there be something more than the intention of either or both patron and artist to meet that definition? Must sacred art in fact be housed in a church, or some other shared space of a worshipping community?

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