Walter Hussey, the liturgy and the Eucharist

[A short talk given to a symposium on Visual Communion, organised by Art and Christianity and held at the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester on Saturday 2nd March. On the panel with me were Frances Spalding, art historian and biographer of John Piper, and Simon Martin, director of Pallant House Gallery, where Walter Hussey’s private art collection is kept and shown. The theme was Hussey’s commissions for Chichester, and the 1966 tapestry by John Piper in particular. What follows is derived from my recent book on Hussey.]

Today I want to put Walter Hussey in theological context, and (since our theme is Visual Communion) to look in particular at his own liturgical and Eucharistic sense. In general I think that Walter Hussey is the most significant individual patron of the arts in the 20th century Church of England. Today, however, I want to suggest that Hussey was not very theologically driven, and almost entirely unliturgical, at least in relation to the visual arts.

Hussey was an instinctive patron: he knew what he liked, and went out to get it. A regular visitor to London galleries while at his first parish in Northampton, and from Chichester when dean of the cathedral, his interest in the London artistic scene was first developed when a curate in Kensington in the 1930s. He was also an assidous seeker of expert advice. His network of connections grew as he commissioned art, music and poetry for Northampton in the 1940s, which he used both as a source of intelligence and of expert witnesses whom he could use to help persuade his church council to assent to his plans. Hussey’s network was unique among provincial clergymen, and by and large he allowed it to do his thinking for him.

Even when given the opportunity, Hussey did not articulate his theology of art in any depth, but two themes emerge. Both derived from others, and neither was new in the 1940s: art as a means of instruction, of conveying a message, and art as offering.

In 1949 Hussey wrote that a piece of religious art ‘should convey to those who see it some aspect of the Christian truth.’ Speaking shortly before he retired in 1977, he argued that the artist ‘may, by forcing us to share his vision, lead us to the spiritual reality that lies behind the sounds and sights that we perceive with our senses.’

The work itself was also an offering, as was the effort of the artist in making it. The artist may well enjoy the act of making, and at some level feel compelled to do it, Hussey argued, but ‘whether he is entirely conscious of it or not, [he does it] because it is an act of worship which he must make.’ Hussey was fond of quoting Benjamin Britten’s comment to him that ‘ultimately all one’s music must be written to the glory of God’. There was a pervasive sense in his thinking that the act of making was in itself religious in some way.

So much for Hussey’s theology of the arts. What do I mean by suggesting that Hussey’s approach was unliturgical in relation to the visual arts? To begin with, I certainly do not think that Hussey, as a clergyman responsible to leading liturgical worship, was unconcerned with its conduct. Woe betide the chorister with brown shoes beneath his cassock rather than the regulation black; the two boys carrying the candles in procession had to be of the same height for the visual effect. All was to be done decently and in order.

My point is rather that his patronage was purely aesthetic: the object is everything, and the context of use in which it sits – the regular worship of real people in a particular place – is largely secondary.

David Stancliffe, retired bishop of Salisbury, reviewed my book on Hussey, and made the following point, with which I largely agree:

Hussey seems to have viewed commissions in isolation rather than as part of a coherent whole. It was Coventry’s architect, [Basil] 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.

Take, for instance, the Chagall window at Chichester, Hussey’s retirement project, which stands as a commentary on his work. The theme (which Hussey gave to Chagall) is of ‘the arts to the glory of God’, and though a beautiful thing, it is a work of art about the idea of sacred art; a piece on (or rather, in) a gallery wall, for solitary contemplation. Tucked away in the north quire aisle, it bears no relation to any chapel or altar.

The Mary Magdalene chapel in Chichester cathedral

In contrast, the Graham Sutherland painting Noli me tangere is on an altar, but it is not one that is used to any great extent, by virtue of its location in the building. The whole ensemble in the Mary Magdalene chapel is – to my non-specialist eye, as an historian rather than a critic – the most perfect thing in the building: altar, candlesticks, rail and painting form a perfect whole in union with the stonework and with the prevailing light. But it is something that demands to be seen, either from a distance or from close up, rather than being an invitation to prayer.

What about Piper? Surely it is ‘liturgical’, given where it is, behind the high altar? Here I turn to Hussey’s relationship to the Eucharist in particular.

Everything in Hussey’s background should have disposed Hussey to being more focussed on the Eucharist than was typical amongst Anglicans. St Matthew’s, in which Hussey’s father ministered, was founded as an Anglo-Catholic counter to the strength of the Nonconformist churches in Northampton. John Rowden Hussey had first instituted a Sunday Eucharist each week (not yet the almost universal practice that it is now), then a daily one; St Matthew’s also had reservation of the sacrament at a time when it was a highly controversial practice. In 1925 the church hosted the annual Eucharistic Congress of the English Church Union, a national celebration of Anglo-Catholic identity. Emphasis on the Eucharist was a badge of identity for a highly self-conscious movement. Nothing of this would Hussey then have unlearned when moving from Northampton to study first at Oxford and then for ordination at Cuddesdon College.

The Eucharist in progress at St Matthew’s, Northampton. 1940s-1950s. Image: Peter Webster

Once at Chichester, Hussey’s practice was to reserve the role of celebrant at the principal Sunday service to himself. This may have been a felt necessity, a measure of the centrality of the Eucharist to his thought and feeling. I suspect it is more likely that it was simply something he saw as central to the proper role of a dean. (It may also have been a means to avoid preaching, which was not a strength.)

In his musical commissioning for Chichester, Hussey was clearly thinking about the Eucharist, as evidenced by the commission of a mass from the American composer William Albright in 1975. There had previously been a scheme for a new setting of the communion service in English from Benjamin Britten. It was first mooted in 1967 by Britten and pursued for years by Hussey, but without success before Britten’s death in 1976.

Given all this, one might have expected Hussey, when he saw the opportunity to remake the area around the high altar at Chichester, to focus on the Eucharist in particular. I make no comment on Piper’s tapestry as a piece of work in and of itself, but a little thought experiment will make the point. If you were to take it and place it in some other place in the building, would its symbolism become unintelligible? That is, is the iconic scheme very closely tied to the altar and the work that goes on there? The answer is very clearly not, but if it was eucharistic in its content, it surely would.

The Piper tapestry at Chichester, viewed from beyond the Arundel screen.

(Members of my audience in Chichester made the point that the tapestry can be glossed in Eucharistic terms, which is true, particularly the figure of the cross, but the subject – the Trinity, to which the cathedral is dedicated – was suggested by Piper’s ally Moelwyn Merchant, and there is no evidence that Hussey tried to guide Piper towards a Eucharistic scheme. They also made the point that the remarkable glow of the tapestry that can be seen from the west doors draws the visitor into the building towards the altar where the most important work of the cathedral goes on. This is also quite true, but this is a much more recently recovered idea of sacred space – the notion of liturgy as pilgrimage – which was far from Hussey’s thinking.)

Fundamentally, Hussey did not start with the thought: “here is an opportunity to have a great artist respond to the fundamental liturgical act of my Church, around which my whole formation was orientated”. Instead, his first thought is: “here is a drab and dark space with an existing reredos that is of a poor standard and is out of proportion to its surroundings. Let’s make it look better.”

I argue then that though Hussey is a highly significant figure, but his patronage is centred on the artistic object itself, rather than on where it is located and to what use it might be put. His influence has been limited by the fact that, at a time when all the churches were thinking very hard about their worship – architecture, layout, words – Hussey (by and large) was not.

[My book on Walter Hussey is published by Palgrave Macmillan.]

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