Walter Hussey, Graham Sutherland and ‘Noli me tangere’ (1961)

[It is now sixty years since the unveiling of Noli me tangere, a painting by Graham Sutherland for Chichester cathedral, in April 1961. In this adapted extract from my book on Walter Hussey, the dean of Chichester who commissioned the work, I examine the commissioning of the work, and its reception.]

Walter Hussey’s understanding of architectural space is key to understanding the project to refurbish the Mary Magdalene chapel in the cathedral’s south-east corner. Although a small space, and enclosed on three sides, the chapel is however visible the whole length of the south aisle of the cathedral from the baptistry in the west: a view the architect Basil Spence thought one of the most beautiful in Europe. The chapel had in it a Victorian reredos, and paintings to the left and right, one of which was in a poor condition. The architect Robert Potter, asked in 1957 to advise Hussey, thought the best option to clear the whole space and begin again with a single coherent scheme, given its visual prominence. The reredos was not worthy of the redecoration it would need; one of the paintings was beyond repair, the other could be moved; neither were of any artistic merit, Potter thought. More fundamentally, there was an opportunity to be bold, rather than use the derivative work of the firms that made church furnishings. £500 was already pledged by the Friends of the cathedral.

The Mary Magdalene chapel in Chichester cathedral.

Of all those artists and composers Hussey had commissioned at St Matthew’s Northampton, before coming to Chichester, the two with whom he maintained the closest friendships were Benjamin Britten and Graham Sutherland. The ongoing closeness between Hussey and both Sutherland and his wife Kathleen made Sutherland an obvious choice for Hussey’s first commission for Chichester: the Noli me tangere that resides in the Mary Magdalene Chapel.

Sutherland and Hussey had been in regular contact by letter in the years immediately following his 1947 Crucifixion for Northampton, exchanging cuttings from newspapers and magazines and arranging photographs for the same. It was also at this time that Hussey began acquiring work from Sutherland directly for his own collection. The version of the Crucifixion placed in St Matthew’s was not the only version: Sutherland had made another, of which Hussey took possession at some point in 1947. This remains part of the Hussey collection at Pallant House in Chichester, as does Thorn Head, evidently acquired by Hussey around the same time. The Sutherlands visited Northampton in 1952 during which Hussey evidently had two further works on view at the vicarage, with a view to buying either or both of them. Also in the Pallant House collection is a study made in preparation for the portrait of Winston Churchill commissioned by parliamentarians in 1954; Hussey got his picture, of Churchill’s hand, at some point in early 1955.

The relationship was not purely that of artist and private patron, however. Hussey seems to have taken his holidays with the Sutherlands in France, Italy and Austria on a number of occasions during the 1950s, and the friendship seems to have been one of the closest that Hussey had. The mutual trust was evidently such that Hussey felt able to discuss his own homosexuality, still a matter for the criminal law. In September 1957, Kathleen Sutherland wrote that they had been discussing a recent report which she would not name; this was most likely a reference to the Wolfenden Report, published that month. This trust was important to the progress of what was to become the painting for Chichester.

Unfortunately, Hussey’s papers are uncommonly thin concerning the making of this particular work, probably because much of the detail was handled by Robert Potter, who coordinated the project between Sutherland and Geoffrey Clarke who designed new candlesticks and an altar rail, while himself designing the new altar. The theme – of the meeting between the risen Christ and Mary Magdalene as mentioned in John, chapter 20 – was already in Potter’s mind in June 1957, although there was an alternative. It was thought that the head of St Richard of Chichester had for a time rested beneath the floor of the chapel, and the cathedral was lacking any visual indication of the connection with its local saint. Might a refurbished chapel be devoted to Richard? Even though the idea was voiced among the clergy, neither Potter nor Hussey seem to have been enthused, and so Mary Magdalene it was.

At that point the intention was to provide carved figures, but by the following year Potter had decided instead on a painting, in order to provide sufficient colour. In his autobiographical Patron of Art, Hussey recorded that he had had Sutherland in mind from the beginning of his time in Chichester, having thought him very sympathetic at Northampton: it seems probable that holiday conversations in Venice or Menton (the Sutherland’s residence on the French Riviera) would have turned to such a prospect in general terms. Now Hussey saw the opportunity. He recalled mentioning the idea to Sutherland early in 1959, and Sutherland first mentioned it in correspondence in January of that year.

By August Potter had sent Sutherland revised plans for the chapel; Sutherland was still keen, but also occupied with work on his vast tapestry for Coventry cathedral, and an exhibition in the USA in November; the autumn was however in view as a time to start work. Sutherland visited Chichester with some early sketches, meeting the members of the Administrative Chapter in the Deanery; Hussey recalled that Sutherland won the group over by a combination of his personal modesty and the sincerity with which he approached the problem. Hussey was also reassured by the absence of opposition in the chapter, despite the many and varied opinions about art among its members.

By June 1960 Sutherland had two versions – different solutions to the compositional problem of the subject – of which he included hand-drawn sketches in a letter. Sutherland had to grapple with the problem of representing two figures as a group while one (Christ) is pulling himself away from the other: how should the two figures be positioned in relation to each other? What should their gestures be? Sutherland wanted more time to dwell on the two versions, and to select the most successful.

‘Noli me tangere’ by Graham Sutherland. Image: Chichester cathedral.

This, however, meant a delay, and St Richard’s Day 1960, the date that had evidently been fixed for the public unveiling, was only weeks away. Not for the first time (or the last) Hussey was required to change his plans for a public unveiling, and a less sympathetic patron might have been less accommodating. However, Hussey was able to persuade the Chapter that a delay was necessary, and so it was October when Sutherland brought not one but two finished paintings to Chichester, having completed both of his solutions that were part completed in June. After viewing both in situ in the chapel, one of the two, slightly larger, was selected. Hussey took possession of the second painting for his own collection, but it is not clear whether Hussey paid Sutherland for both. It may be that Sutherland made a gift of it, as he was already working for a greatly reduced fee of £550 at a time when Sutherland was asking his society portrait clients for £3,000.

Compared to the Northampton commissions of the 1940s, the public and critical reception of Noli me tangere was positive. The critic Eric Newton, already a Hussey ally, thought the picture proved that Sutherland was ‘almost the only living artist capable of expressing the full intensity of a Christian theme … To paint the Son of God momentarily mistaken for a gardener is surely more difficult than to visualise Christ crucified or Christ enthroned.’ The Atticus columnist in the Sunday Times dwelt on the straw hat which the Christ figure wears (borrowed from the vicar of Trottiscliffe in Kent where the Sutherlands lived.) Here Sutherland was placing the Biblical scene in his own environments of rural Kent and southern France in order to work out its implications: Kathleen had modelled for Mary, and their gardener for Christ. Hussey understood the metal stair which Christ ascends, as if towards heaven, to have been inspired by the terraced garden of La Villa Blanche at Menton. Sutherland’s garden is not an English one, gentle and lush, but Mediterranean: hotly coloured, and populated with sharp vegetation, reminiscent of Sutherland’s preoccupation with thorns in previous years.

There were some less positive reactions, both local and national, although they were short-lived. The Daily Mail thought the picture ‘bizarre’ and ‘sinister’, and the Chichester press received a small cluster of letters, mostly hostile. In 1963 the painting was defaced and punctured with a ballpoint pen. Speaking in court, the offender, one Mabel Winifred Norris of no fixed address, described her actions as a ‘religious scruple’; the cathedral ‘belongs to the people’. Sutherland’s biographer thought that the press reactions might be related to the fact that Mary’s features are strongly Jewish: historically accurate, but by no means the convention in western art. One of the Chichester letter writers was more disturbed by her fleshy, human figure, Sutherland’s echo of the medieval depiction of Mary as a repentant prostitute; he had always thought of her as chaste and pure. Cheslyn Jones, chancellor of the cathedral, suggested that Mary’s figure and pose was indeed sexualised: she might have been saying “come up and see me some time” (a phrase of Mae West). The suggestion irked Hussey, and the original context in which the remark was made (a sermon) is now obscure, but the point was more serious than Hussey grasped.

Why was there a more favourable reception than might have been expected? As Hussey observed, there was the simple matter of Sutherland’s reputation. The relatively unknown painter of the Northampton Crucifixion was now the painter of portraits of the political, business and artistic establishment: Churchill, Lord Beaverbrook, Somerset Maugham among them. He was also now a member of the Order of Merit, an appointment at the discretion of the Queen, and of which there could be only 24 members at any one time. In a deferential age, such credentials (announced, in Sutherland’s case, in April 1960 while the picture was in progress) would have done much to stifle criticism.

The Mary Magdalene chapel as seen from the west, along the south aisle. Image: Peter Webster

Hussey also thought that the lack of critical comment was due to the location. Potter’s marshalling of Sutherland, Clarke and his own work is both sympathetic to the chapel and perfectly coherent as an ensemble. Sutherland’s painting also fulfilled both the requirements of the viewer from two yards and of being what Hussey later called ‘a kind of heraldic jewel’ when viewed from the baptistry at the far end of the building. Nonetheless, the chapel is a side chapel, at which few services were held, and so no-one would be required to worship in plain view of it, should they object. This was not the case with John Piper’s controversial tapestry, placed a few years later behind the High Altar.

Finally, the reaction may also be explained by the theme. Although there are examples of paintings of the theme, by Rembrandt, Fra Angelico and Titian, they are relatively few in number, when compared by the myriad depictions of the Crucifixion. Kenneth Clark, writing without having seen the finished picture himself, thought that this presented additional challenges for Sutherland, and that viewers must therefore expect something ‘strange and personal’. Be that as it may, an alternative (and indeed mutually compatible) reading might be that Sutherland’s interpretation was always likely to be more acceptable to viewers precisely because it could not so easily be lined up alongside traditional portrayals and found wanting, as had been the case with Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child for Northampton. The man in the street knew what a Madonna should look like, and a mother, and a child; the same could less well be said for Mary Magdalene.

The commission was another example of Hussey’s best gifts as a patron. By this point Sutherland was no novice in working for the churches. As well as the Coventry tapestry and the Northampton Crucifixion, in 1959 he was already in discussion with the Roman Catholic church of St Aidan in East Acton, a suburb in west London, over another Crucifixion to hang behind the altar. (It was completed in 1963). Despite this, Sutherland still felt he came to such projects ‘like a fish out of water – since we, the artists of to-day are (alas!) not acclimatised at the start.’ In contrast, Sutherland was always intrigued by working for Hussey, ‘so strong is my feeling for your example’. Hussey was an ‘understanding & wise patron – bringing into the world again the old relationship of patron & painter’.

[Church and Patronage in 20th century Britain: Walter Hussey and the arts is available in paperback from all good bookshops, or direct from Palgrave Macmillan (from where there is also an ebook edition available), or Amazon, including a Kindle edition).]