Worth a thousand words

Image from the West Sussex Record Office, by permission of the Dean of Chichester. All rights reserved.

Very recently I had what was a new experience for me: selecting images to illustrate a new book, on a remarkable Anglican patron of the arts, Walter Hussey. Before now, most of my work has been concerned with ideas, which are arguably rather difficult to illustrate convincingly, and there was no opportunity to illustrate my book on Michael Ramsey, save for the cover. But this new book is about patronage of the arts, and about an individual, his personality and the crucial importance his relationships with others had in his success as a patron. The publisher allowed some twenty images, and so there was an opportunity to be grasped.

I don’t intend to go into the laborious details of securing the necessary copyright permissions for these images (although there were times at which I wondered whether the effort was justified). Here I am interested in the curious interaction, largely obscure to me before, between text and image in the telling of a story. Hussey died in 1985, and his various appearances on television are hard to track down, as are recordings of his voice. But my various interviewees gave me remarkably consonant accounts of his personality, which also matched the picture that his extensive papers suggested. Included in the papers are a perhaps unsually large number of portrait photographs of Hussey at various ages. How far can one usefully read a photograph as indicative of personality?

Image from the West Sussex Record Office, by permission of the Dean of Chichester. All rights reserved.

Take the first image above, for instance, undated but probably taken in the early 1930s when Hussey was only recently ordained as a priest. He is perhaps 25 or 26 years old, having progressed straight from school at Marlborough College to Keble College Oxford, through theological college at Cuddesdon to a church in Kensington. The very thin sources for this period show a young man of puppyish enthusiasm for his particular interests, but also very earnest and not a little naive. Is this reflected in the picture? Possibly; but other readers may see quite different things.

For me, the second image (left) is a much clearer capturing of certain elements in Hussey’s make-up. By this time, probably in the early 1950s, Hussey has achieved what might have been thought impossible for the vicar of a provincial parish church. In the space of four years, he commissioned works of art from Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, poetry from W.H. Auden, and new music from Benjamin Britten, Lennox Berkeley and Gerald Finzi, amongst others. Hussey, never very much prone to self-doubt, is very probably at a high point of confidence in his largely lone quest to bring the Church of England into a closer relationship with the contemporary arts. He is in demand as a speaker, as a member of committees, and in the print and broadcast media, and his growing network of critics, artists and musicians are telling him how important and remarkable is his project. Part of that success was his boldness, directness, persistence and charm, and the friendships that he was able to develop, notably with Britten and Sutherland. Gone is the awkwardness of the younger man; in this picture, a cliche finds new life: Hussey here is at the height of his powers.

Image copyright Sussex Life, all rights reserved.

The last image is of Hussey as he neared retirement as dean of Chichester, photographed by a local magazine in his study (he retired in 1977). Clearly posed (although it isn’t clear by whom), it coincides with the time at which Hussey is working towards his final projects, and arranging his retirement. The gaze is cast sideways, as if in thought, which alludes to a cliche, of the saintly figure contemplating higher things. He is posed in front of a case of books (another cliche, of the scholarly priest) although there is little evidence that he read much or very deeply. Behind him is a maquette of the Henry Moore sculpture for Northampton, made nearly 30 years before, which remained his favourite commission (it was on the cover of his memoir Patron of Art). While all very fine works in themselves, some of Hussey’s last commissions, from William Walton, Lennox Berkeley and Marc Chagall have a valedictory quality: gifts from old men to another old man. In the book I argue that, although Hussey is often held up as an example of what the churches could do (and should do now), the understanding of theology and culture on which it was based had by this point in time run its course. By the time this picture was taken, Hussey had reached the furthest extent of what he could achieve. The photograph is a summation of a career nearing its end.

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London’s churches of the mind

Twentieth century British fiction features a good few fictional clergy of the established Church of England, and some (if fewer) accounts of religious life itself. Rather fewer again are the number of church buildings. And those that there are tend to be anonymous and stylised if set in a real town or village. Penelope Lively’s novel City of the Mind (1991) is a rather beautiful meditation on London, and its architecture in particular; its buildings invested and reinvested with meaning by the successive generations of people who encounter them over time. Unusually, the novel is populated with several churches, and although none of them are integral to the plot, they are all but one of them named; all of them real buildings rather than merely symbols.

The blitizd church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

Most iconic of all London’s churches is of course St Paul’s cathedral, and although part of the novel is set during the Blitz, Lively avoids using St Paul’s as other novels have, although her character, an air raid patrol volunteer, is at work in the same area. Instead, it is Christopher Wren’s church of St Bride Fleet Street that he sees, largely destroyed in December 1940, its spire ‘lit from within like a lantern’ (p.10). St Paul’s is a church of the mind in a city of the mind; when her Elizabethan explorer encounters the massive ice floes of the North-West Passage, it is in the shape of St Paul’s that he sees them, a ‘cathedral in the ice’ as ‘time and space collide’ in the imagination (pp.48-9). The novel’s main protagonist, Matthew Halland, stands mesmerized in a Charing Cross Road bookshop by a photograph, taken by Herbert Mason on the same night as St Bride’s was gutted by fire, 29th December, of the dome of St Paul’s framed by black smoke but intact.

Halland’s London is that of the late 1980s, as the processes of demolition, redevelopment and gentrification are in spate; Halland is an architect rather reluctantly engaged with a tower of glass in the Docklands. Elsewhere, Spitalfields is the shoreline of the tide of change where ‘a reconstructed past and an inexorable future are fighting it out amid the estate agents’ signs and the cement mixers’ (p.92) Here the spire of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church fights for the skyline with cranes and new office blocks. Round the corner is the former Huguenot church on Fournier Street, an immigrant church itself already overwhelmed by waves of later immigration: subsequently a Methodist church, next a synagogue, now a mosque. The churchyard of St Anne Soho is being redeveloped as a paved shopping precinct, the bodies of generations exhumed and deported to a cemetery further out of the city. Nothing may obstruct the progress of redevelopment (p.36).

Lively’s churches point always to the change that surrounds them, rather than drawing any attention to themselves. The caryatids on the north side of St Pancras’ church on Euston Road are to Halland redolent of the classicism he understands; to his daughter they are nothing so much as ‘ladies wearing bath towels with books on their heads’ (p.87) What these churches never are is alive; places in which real breathing Londoners meet and worship. There is an implicit contrast between the rural, where such things may well continue, and the ghostly Christianity of the city. The German immigrant Eva Burden, who undertakes an engraving in glass for Halland’s tower, was first inspired to work in glass by the west screen in Coventry cathedral by John Hutton: a declaration in the early sixties that the urban church was not dead; the ‘Phoenix at Coventry’ (the phrase is of Basil Spence) could rise from the ashes of the blitzed city. In the late eighties, her only church commissions are of saints and angels for country churches; in the metropolis her work is mere decoration, decanters for the corporate boardroom. In Lively’s London, the churches are bearers of meanings, objects for the imagination, but without present or future. This is a thoroughly secular city of the mind.

English cathedral music and liturgy in the 20th century: a short review

[A short book notice, destined for the Journal of Ecclesiastical History]

Martin Thomas
English Cathedral Music and Liturgy in the Twentieth Century
Ashgate 2015, xvii +265
978-1-4724-2630-7

The musical history of the English cathedrals has long wanted for a single treatment, being hitherto treated only briefly in histories of individual cathedrals, or as part of the history of religious music as a whole. Martin Thomas’ welcome new study fills that gap in the literature. Based on extensive research both in printed primary sources and in cathedral archives, it documents in detail the shifts in cathedral musical practice and repertoire between 1900 and 2005. Its principal argument, which is effectively made, is that the period saw a divorce between church music composition and the wider musical world. This led to the emergence and indeed ossification of a ‘cathedral style’: consciously archaic in compositional technique and conforming to extraneous criteria of ‘fittingness’ with the work of the liturgy.

Speaking theologically, Thomas is very clear that this was a wrong turn for the cathedrals to have taken. However, the study does not engage to any great extent with the now voluminous literature on secularisation and culture in the UK. As such, opportunities are missed to engage historically with many of the arguments that the study seeks to refute. What was it in the changing understandings of the relationship of cathedrals with their dioceses, city communities and (crucially) with the tourist that disposed them towards the preservation of a particular style? Thomas is sure that the argument that sacred music should be consciously archaic is false, but why was it put forward, at the times in which it was put forward? What view of the relationship between culture and theology did such arguments embody, and whose interests were they designed to serve? Why should critics have tended to value utility in church music over compositional innovation?

There are many such questions of motivation and context that are left unasked. The book provides much welcome material for historians, but there remains much to be done in integrating cathedral music into the story of twentieth century English Christianity as a whole.

“The most functional of all our cathedrals”

One of my two contributions to the new DVD on the English cathedrals and monasteries was a summary history of Guildford cathedral, by the architect Edward Maufe. Interrupted by the Second World War, the project which began in 1932 came to fruition at the church’s consecration in 1961. Having written just 3,000 words for this particular piece, I anticipate coming back to Guildford at greater length a bit later. There is plenty to be said about it yet; but here is an adapted extract.

Unlike the other study of mine, on Chichester, there was almost no secondary literature on which to build. This is odd, as Guildford is a significant building in recent religious history for several reasons. Of the five new dioceses created in 1926-7, only for Guildford was a new building planned. In the other four cases, existing parish churches were taken over and (as in Portsmouth) expanded. Guildford is also one of only two newly built Anglican cathedrals to be placed on an entirely new site (the other being Liverpool). With Coventry, it is one of the two cathedrals built in modernist style, although it has suffered in critical appreciation by comparison.

Guildford Cathedral, by stevecadman (Flickr), CC BY-NC-SA

Guildford Cathedral, by stevecadman (Flickr), CC BY-NC-SA

The building is an essay in the Church of England’s idea of itself, particularly at the time that the building was approaching completion. Guildford shows the desire to be a church that preserved those elements of the past that were most important, whilst at the same time moving with the times. The desire that the building be ‘of its time’ was particularly strong, and this felt need for a contemporary expression of the faith was common across all the religious arts. But it also needed to acknowledge and incorporate the language of the historic buildings of which it would be a counterpart: in short, it still needed to look like a cathedral to the non-specialist observer.

Part of the reason Guildford suffered in comparison to Coventry (in critical opinion) was Maufe’s failure to embrace the modernist style more fully. For those looking on sympathetically from outside or from the fringes of the church, the church was an antique in its worship, in its religious art, in the dress of its clergy. Only a whole-hearted embrace of a new contemporary language could reach those with whom the church had ceased to communicate, it was thought. But the building retains the medieval conception of sacred space, its design leading the contemplation of the worshipper upwards and out of the self. In this it owes little to the leading trends in liturgical theology of the time, which emphasised the communal element to being the Body of Christ.

At the same time, in the 1950s and 1960s the Church of England was revising its canon law, beginning to revise its liturgy, and looking to rationalise its organisation and its finances. In Adrian Hastings’ phrase, the completion of Guildford seemed to signal the arrival of a church that was ‘efficient, sophisticated, progressive.’ Maufe’s neo-Gothic designs artfully conceal, and indeed rely upon, the most modern of techniques. Maufe’s ‘conquest of space’ is achieved only by means of building techniques unknown to the builders of the medieval cathedrals. The scourge of the death watch beetle is no scourge at all for a roof made of reinforced concrete. Beneath the soaring spaces are the heating pipes embedded in the floor, another effective yet unobtrusive measure.

Outside Maufe could build purposely to accommodate the new technology of the moment in the 20s and 30s: the motor car. There was an imposing approach road from the newly completed by-pass road to the west (now the A3). The drive would bring bus- and coach-loads of visitors to a wide turning circle by the west door, and there was ample parking for private cars. Here was a forward-looking, modern, efficient church, planning for the future traffic growth which was sure to come. It was ‘the most functional of all our cathedrals’.

The English cathedrals and monasteries: new DVD-ROM

CaM_cover

I’m very pleased to see the recent release of this DVD resource, on The English Cathedrals and Monasteries, from the Christianity and Culture project at the University of York.

My own contribution to it is two case studies, of Chichester cathedral and of Guildford cathedral. My thanks are due to Dee Dyas for the opportunity to be involved. There are some reflections on writing cathedral histories in this earlier post.

Walter Hussey, patron of art

[I first starting investigating the career of Walter Hussey some nine years ago. He has appeared in several of my articles so far, but the book I always intended has been put back. Now, though, a proposal for that book has been accepted is currently under consideration by a publisher. Here’s what it is about.]

Walter Hussey is known for an extraordinary sequence of commissions of contemporary art and music, for the church of St Matthew Northampton from 1943 and, from 1955 to 1977, for Chichester Cathedral. The names read as a roll-call of post-war artistic and musical life: Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Marc Chagall in the visual arts; Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett, William Walton in music.

Hussey became something of a grandee: an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an honorary Doctor of Letters of the young University of Sussex. Kenneth Lord Clark, critic, broadcaster, and sometime director of the National Gallery, described Hussey as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. As interest in the relations between theology and the arts has grown, so has Hussey’s reputation as the most significant patron of art for the English church of the twentieth century. Countless recording sleeve notes and exhibition catalogues record Hussey’s role in glowing terms, and the art historical literature has accorded him a corner niche in the pantheon of the great individual patrons. For one commentator, Hussey single-handedly ‘turned the tide against Anglican neglect of modern art’.

Missing in all this is any extended critical study of Hussey’s life and work as a whole. The musicological and art-historical literature confines him to a walk-on part, while church historians have paid greater attention to the other major figure in Anglican artistic patronage, George Bell, bishop of Chichester.

Why, then, study Walter Hussey ? Most obviously, the Hussey Papers are a rich source for studying the commissioning of the contemporary arts, giving a vivid picture of the relationship between one exceptional clergyman and his commissionees. Almost none of this material has ever been integrated into the existing literature.

Within the contemporary Church of England with its cathedrals now crammed with contemporary art, Hussey has been seen as a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for a rediscovery of a contemporary language for the Church’s message. This story of dogged effort in the face of philistinism and ignorance is the nearest we have to a meta-narrative of the churches and the arts. But it is a story established by dint of omission, since the integration of the religious arts into the study of recent British religious history is in its infancy. To document Hussey’s patronage is to provide key signposts in this terra incognita.

Hussey is also a case-study in the unspoken assumptions of catholic Anglicans about the arts, the church, and the place of creativity in national life.  The social and economic crises of the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s prompted intense debate over the nature of ‘national religion’, and its connection with the mainstream in national culture. The church could not hope to regain the attention of ‘Modern Man’ without speaking through the art in which he was already expressing himself. Hussey stands as one of the most active and well self-documented case studies of this theological current in action.

Hussey’s career saw revolutionary change between the churches and the people. Church attendance and affiliation collapsed dramatically, as did the church’s confidence in its own ability to communicate and minister effectively. Part of the crisis was of religious language, and its ability to communicate in a manner meaningful to Modern Man.  Some sought new means of mission, and the contemporary arts were seized upon as a means to that end. If words were no longer securely meaningful, then perhaps the arts provided an alternative language. If the 1960s saw the discursive death of Christian Britain, as Callum Brown has suggested, then Hussey made an attempt at resuscitation.

The means by which taste was shaped and determined also changed in the ‘long 1960s’. The vision of a beneficent establishment raising the horizons of the people through the BBC and other channels was overturned by a quite new emphasis on the entitlement to ‘do one’s own thing’. Hussey’s mode of patronage depended on a discerning patron, authoritative critic and notable artist working in tandem, disseminating new art downwards to a grateful if uncomprehending public. This way of working, successful in the 1940s, was by the 1970s no longer fit for purpose.

The period was also one of general cultural fracture, during which the classical in all the arts was shifted further and further from the centre of artistic life; a movement which posed difficulties for those in the churches and outside who wished to place Anglican patronage in the centre of the mainstream of national cultural life. By the end of Hussey’s career it was less than clear where that centre might be.

The career of Walter Hussey thus affords the historian a unique opportunity to examine one sphere in which the church met, resisted, negotiated with or capitulated to forces of change in the society in which it was located.

Writing the history of the modern cathedrals. Part One

I recently had occasion to think about cathedral histories; and in particular, the clutch of volumes that appeared over the last few years for the major medieval foundations. There is a prevailing model: a large general volume, with multiple authors under the general editorship of a senior scholar, with often some sort of relationship with the cathedral chapter itself. York Minster blazed the trail (Gerald Aylmer and Reginald Cant, 1977) and since then Chichester, Canterbury, St Paul’s, Norwich, Rochester and Winchester have all their own histories. (See the list at the foot of this post if you’re interested; I doubt it is complete.)

It struck me then how very thin the coverage for the more recent foundations is in comparison; and some recent work I’ve been doing on Newcastle cathedral (St Nicholas) has confirmed the impression. Coventry is a unique case, as are the other newly built cathedrals (Guildford and Liverpool). For those medieval parish churches given cathedral status to serve a new diocese, there seems to be almost no scholarly historical writing. None of the cathedrals of Blackburn, Birmingham, Bradford, Chelmsford, Leicester, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield or Southwark  has (as far as I know) its own single-volume history, nor indeed very much in the way of shorter pieces of work. They all, of course, have their guidebooks, which by and large include a potted history, but little more. (I should say that I am primarily interested in these buildings as cathedrals; and so I’m setting aside work done on their previous history as parish churches.)

Why this neglect ? There is, of course, simply less history – a little over a century, if that, as set against 900 or more years for Chichester or Canterbury. But it may be to do with the comparative neglect of modern religious history (as opposed to medieval), and to a sense that the Church of England got the timing wrong, creating a host of new cathedrals in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, just as its own significance was beginning to wane and they became less and less relevant. There may also be less of a readership to buy such books (fewer tourists), and they lack a 900-year anniversary on which to hang the publication.

Whatever the reason, there is some very interesting work to be done on these churches, individually and as a group. How did the growing self-confidence of cities such as Manchester or Newcastle shape the formation of new dioceses and their cathedrals ? If they were expanded and/or newly decorated, who paid ? How significant was the presence of an older Roman Catholic cathedral (as in Newcastle or Portsmouth) ? How did cathedral ministry in the urban environment differ from life in Ely or Salisbury ? Were these buildings of local symbolic importance during the Blitz, as St Paul’s was for London ?  I should be delighted to receive any references that bear on these and related questions.

In Part Two:  writing the history of the Roman Catholic cathedrals (Arundel), and of a new building (Guildford).

Recent cathedral histories (additions welcome)

Atherton, I., Fernie, E. Harper-Bill C. and Smith, H. (eds) Norwich Cathedral: Church, City and Diocese, 1096-1996  (London, Hambledon, 1996)
Aylmer, G., Cant, R. (eds) A History of York Minster (Oxford, Clarendon, 1977)
Burns, A., Keene, D., Saint, A. St Paul’s. The Cathedral Church of London, 604-2004   (New Haven, Yale, 2004)
Bussby, Frederick Winchester Cathedral, 1079-1979    (Southampton, Bussby and Cave, 1979, 1987 reprint)
Collinson, P, Ramsey, N., Sparkes, M. (eds) A History of Canterbury Cathedral    (Oxford, OUP, 1995)
Welander, David The History , Art and Architecture of Gloucester Cathedral    (Stroud, Alan Sutton, 1991)
Yates, N.,  Welsby, Paul A. (eds) Faith and Fabric; A History of Rochester Cathedral, 604 – 1994 (Woodbridge, Boydell, 1996)
Mary Hobbs (ed) Chichester Cathedral. An Historical Survey (Chichester, Phillimore,1994)