On memoir and the construction of an artistic life

For reasons too complex to dwell on here, the writer of modern English church history is peculiarly reliant on biography, autobiography and memoir. Of old we knew to distrust people’s own accounts of their lives; memory sometimes plays us false. More recently we learned to suspect the conscious or unconscious construction of a life to give it coherence, a sense of purpose, even (in some cases) to cleanse it of its moral blemishes.

It is a particular perspective given only to biographers to observe the full extent to which a memoir matches the actuality of a life. Such was my experience when writing my book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts. Hussey left a carefully curated set of papers, under the control of his successors as dean of Chichester, and kept by the West Sussex Record Office. But they have to be read in a state of dialogue with his memoir, Patron of Art.

Hussey in the deanery, late 1960s. Image copyright Sussex Life, all rights reserved.

Hussey retired to London from Chichester in 1977, to be nearer both to his closest friends and to the capital’s galleries and concert halls. But by 1983, during which year he wrote his draft, his health had worsened and isolation set in, as his friends aged with him, and others died. It seems he met with a refusal from at least one publisher, but he had some friends still, among them the media baron Hugh Cudlipp, who had proved an ally after retiring to Chichester. Cudlipp, having read the draft, wrote to his friend the publisher George Weidenfeld, recommending a book of ‘unusual and absorbing interest, essentially about the great artists of our time.’

How influential Cudlipp’s intervention was, we do not know, but the book was accepted, and it appeared in March 1985 at a price of £12.95 (about £34 today), accompanied by a BBC television interview. Hussey himself bought a remarkable 500 copies, at a cost of over £3,000 even at a discount, presumably for distribution to his friends as a parting gift, an aide memoire to what he thought the great work of his life. How many he did distribute, we do not know, but almost none of his friends’ responses to it have survived, as Hussey died on 25th July.

It was quickly reviewed in the mainstream press. Copies found their way into a handful of libraries in the UK, and it has been widely cited as the principal source on Hussey’s career since. This reliance on the book is understandable, since it gives a detailed account of the making of several of his commissions, and reproduces a number of important letters and other documents. However, Patron of Art in many ways obscures as much as it reveals.

The obscurity is in part due to the writing itself, since Hussey, for all his years spent in contemplation of the beautiful, was clumsy and banal when he took up his pen. One reviewer, the poet and publisher Christopher Reid, thought Patron of Art ‘a dull and inadequate book … lacking any sustained argument, content to itemize his successes chapter by chapter as they arise, and without any serious attempt at evaluative discrimination’. We learn of an unfortunate incident with a coffee pot when Leonard Bernstein and his wife came to visit the Deanery; of the delicious meatballs that were served at Marc Chagall’s French home. Cudlipp admitted that there was a ‘parochial atmosphere which occasionally moves to the front of the stage’, but thought it important due to its ‘authenticity’. Be that as it may, though these details were those that had most impressed themselves on Hussey’s mind, the reader could have managed without them.

Hussey was also indiscriminate in his reproduction of the letters of those he had encountered, several of which are trivial. As another reviewer noted, ‘in Patron of Art Canon Hussey relives it all, reproducing a great many letters from notable people, many of them saying what a splendid fellow Walter Hussey is. Their reproduction is probably the only lapse of taste in his career.’

This lack of discrimination would be more easily excused were Patron of Art compendious, but the surfeit of information on some matters is matched by some glaring omissions.

In Patron of Art Hussey eschewed almost entirely questions of his motives for pursuing his task with such tenacity. Absent also, as his successor as Dean, Robert Holtby, observed, is any sustained theological reflection on the relationship of the arts and the church, or of truth and beauty, all questions to which Hussey’s work ineluctably and urgently gives rise. Holtby also sagely noted the lack of any sense of the place of all these works of art in the liturgical action of the church (a point which I develop here). Patron of Art also begins with the first commissions and in doing so obliterates Hussey’s formation as a lover of art and as a priest – in fact, his first 34 years.

It is also in places verifiably inaccurate in matters of fact, and almost comically unbalanced. If the decisions made by Hussey as author of Patron of Art is a reflection of his estimation of the worth of his commissions, his judgment was surely wrong in the case of the anthem Lo, the full final sacrifice, by Gerald Finzi. Patron of Art gives fully eight pages to the two visits the soprano Kirsten Flagstad made to Chichester in 1947 and 1948. The fact of a world star of Flagstad’s reputation coming to a provincial parish church was certainly notable; the repertoire, however, was not, and neither was the fact of a recital in a church; Hussey had already established a series. Hussey also devoted half a page to the seemingly minor matter of print designs for Chichester.

For Finzi, however, there is but half a sentence, for a piece of music the first page of which has been described by one of Finzi’s foremost interpreters as the ‘best thing Finzi ever wrote’. Of all the Hussey music for Northampton, it is Lo, the full final sacrifice that has entered the repertoire, along with Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Hussey was usually fulsome in his thanks after a first performance or an unveiling – politeness demanded it – and this was no exception. However, there is a clue as to the possible reason for Hussey’s later downplaying of the piece from Finzi himself, who had the impression that Hussey disliked it after playing the piece through at the piano. Finzi admitted that the piece ‘isn’t like Britten, for whom Hussey has a great, great admiration.’ The making of Rejoice in the Lamb, by contrast, has its own chapter, and the first one.

I’ve argued elsewhere that Hussey was an instinctive patron, acting on his instincts and his enthusiasm. This is writ large throughout Patron of Art, in which Hussey documents the episodes he treasured in the most lavish detail, while downplaying others or omitting them entirely. And the very guilelessness of Hussey’s shaping of his record is an example of a kind of instinctive, unselfconscious fashioning of the self. In Patron of Art there is little need to read ‘against the grain’ to draw out the conscious, intentional elisions and omissions of a better writer, bent on deceiving the reader. Hussey’s estimation of his career is plain to see. It is the instinctive memoir of an instinctive patron.

Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts is published by Palgrave Macmillan

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