Chagall in Chichester

[It is forty years this month since the unveiling of a stained glass window in Chichester cathedral, designed by Marc Chagall. This edited extract from my book on Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester, who commissioned it, tells the story of its making.]

Hussey had begun to think more or less immediately, on his arrival at Chichester in 1955, of new stained glass for the cathedral. However, it was only after his retirement in 1977 that he achieved his goal, in between which he had commissioned work from Graham Sutherland, John Piper and many others.

The Chagall window is located in a curiously obscure area of the building. Geoffrey Clarke’s pulpit in aluminium faces out into the nave; Sutherland’s Noli me tangere is visible from the full length of the south aisle; the colours of Piper’s tapestry frame the high altar, the focus of the central liturgical work of the cathedral, and are visible from the west end. By contrast, the Chagall window is tucked away in the wall of the north quire aisle, and so the visitor to the cathedral must venture deep into the building to find it. As Robert Holtby, Hussey’s successor as dean, noted in his sermon at the service of dedication, it is also all but invisible from the outside. Inside, it is the frame or backdrop to no liturgical action, being connected to none of the chapels and their altars. As such, of all the artistic work in the building, it is most like a painting in a gallery: an object for personal viewing and contemplation, not a companion to the collective action of the congregation as the Body of Christ as it worships.

The Chagall window in Chichester cathedral

In one sense, this more detached position suits the work itself, a work of art in a church on the theme of the arts in the Church. The theme of the 150th psalm was suggested by Hussey, the common property of Hussey and of Chagall the Jew. But the subtitle – ‘The arts to the glory of God’ – suggests that the project was also a gloss on Hussey’s life’s work, which took on a valedictory quality as retirement approached. ‘True artists of all sorts, as creators of some of the most worthwhile of man’s work, are well adapted to express man’s worship of God’ he wrote to Chagall. ‘I can imagine a window showing a variety of these artistic activities all caught up in a great act of worship – Psalm 150….. it has been the great enthusiasm of my life and work to commission for the Church the very best artists I could, in painting, in sculpture, in architecture, in music and in literature.’

In the early 1950s, Chagall, after decades in Russia, Germany, France and the USA, had returned to France where he would stay for the rest of his life. This late period in the artist’s work, which was to extend for three decades, was marked both by a return to the Biblical subjects of Chagall’s Russian childhood, and a move into new media: in particular, stained glass. In 1959 he received his first commission for new glass for a church building: the cathedral at Metz. Several other such commissions were to follow; particularly notable were the twelve windows for the synagogue of the medical centre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, completed in 1961. These windows formed the basis of a record-breaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, preceded by a similar show at the Louvre in the summer of 1961.

Hussey visited Paris to see the Louvre exhibition, and was impressed by Chagall’s handling of colour. This impression was shared by ‘sensitive and expert friends’, one of which may well have been John Piper, who had been impressed by the only other Chagall windows in an English church, at Tudeley in Kent. The other such friend may have been Robert Potter, cathedral architect, since it was Hussey who had recommended Potter as architect to Lady d’Avigdor Goldschmid, in the memory of whose daughter the Tudeley windows were made.

Others were less sure. In 1970, Hussey sought the advice of Edwin Mullins, art critic of the Sunday Telegraph, who thought rather too much attention was being paid to both Piper and Chagall and suggested several other names, including Ceri Richards, Patrick Heron, Bridget Riley and Richard Smith. But by this time, Hussey had approached Chagall; by October 1969, he understood that Chagall was considering the idea seriously with his maker of all his glass, Charles Marq, after a visit to Chichester, possibly in connection with the unveiling of the first Tudeley glass in 1967.

Hussey was accustomed to waiting for his schemes to come to fruition, but the six-year silence that then ensued must have tried even his patience. In 1975, he wrote again, stressing that time was now short, as he was to retire in 1977. Marq and his wife Brigitte then came to Chichester in April 1976, met with cathedral staff and inspected the site. Chagall was fit and active, and his wife was keen for him to take on the commission, but there would be a further delay. Chagall, it turned out, was having difficulty getting started; would Hussey go to see him?

Hussey described his difficulties in getting to France in December 1976, and in finding the Chagall’s home: a sorry tale of flight delays, linguistic incomprehension and wrong directions on a rainy night. Once there, he and Chagall conversed over a full-size drawing of the window, with Madame Chagall interpreting, and in the company of the Marqs. Chagall asked how Hussey imagined the window; Hussey ventured the idea of an array of figures representing the various arts, arranged around a central figure. It should also have the ‘rich and luscious colours’ that Hussey had been so impressed by in the Louvre. Chagall seemed to like the idea, and indeed the final design was along these lines.

This meeting seems to have released Chagall’s thinking, and the sketches were begun in January, and a maquette had been made by March. Marq sent a colour photograph of the maquette, stating that the glass work could not be finished until the summer, and possibly rather later, as a particular kind of red glass was only produced by the manufacturers at St Just twice a year. Now clear that the window would not be installed before he retired, Hussey resolved to move the matter as far on as it could be. The design was accepted by the cathedral chapter on the basis of the photograph, apparently without dissent. Both Potter and the Clerk of the Works, Eric Brooks approved the design: ‘happiness and satisfaction all round’. Even then, the window was not to be installed for over a year; it was unveiled by the Duchess of Kent in October 1978.

One critic has described the Chagall window as Hussey’s ‘crowning achievement’, which ‘immeasurably enriched the Cathedral’. Kenneth Clark thought it a ‘triumph’. How significant is the Chagall window in the history of patronage and of religious art in England? On the one hand, it is one of only two Chagall works in English churches, and the only one in a cathedral. On the other, the twelve window scheme at Tudeley is on a much larger scale, and was commissioned earlier (although the whole sequence unfolded over several years, between 1967 and 1985). Neither was particularly early in Chagall’s work in glass.

The Chagall commission shows the limits of Hussey’s engagement with the very contemporary in art as he had grown older. The commissions of Henry Moore and Sutherland at Northampton were of relatively unknown young artists by a young provincial priest, which provoked scandalised reactions amongst press and public. The Chagall commission is by one old man of an even older man, who was still producing fine work, but who had long since ceased to be in critical favour. The window provoked no particularly adverse reaction: there was little to fear from Chagall in 1978.

Chagall was also now a very expensive man to hire; the eventual cost of the commission was in excess of £20,000, not including fees and expenses for Chagall and Marq. For previous commissions, Hussey had been supported financially by either a collecting box, as at Northampton, or by the private funds of a donor connected with the church (as with Moore at Northampton, and Cecil Collins at Chichester). The Friends of the cathedral had also funded the Sutherland painting, copes from Ceri Richards, and the Piper tapestry. In the case of Chagall, Hussey had assured the Chapter that he would not be calling on Chapter funds. Not only that, but he had also undertaken not to approach any Chichester people who had not yet contributed to the restoration appeal for the cathedral fabric, or any trusts and charities that might support it. Hussey was thus obliged to seek the aid of trusts that specialised in art, with or without any particular connection with the churches. The target was met, with a significant contribution from Hussey himself (£4,000), as well as public funds from the Arts Council. In this, Hussey moved some way from his earlier model of funding, in which a local church community commissioned a work of art and covered the costs in its own strength. Both models of patronage have survived him.

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