Review: Walter Hussey and the arts

Some highlights from a very generous review of my book on Walter Hussey from the writer and composer Robert Hugill.

Hussey in his study in Chichester. Image copyright Sussex Life, all rights reserved.

Hussey was ‘an important figure in 20th-century art and music’ and responsible for commissioning such figures as Benjamin Britten, Edmund Rubbra, Leonard Bernstein, Lennox Berkeley, Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, and Marc Chagall. My book provides ‘some remarkable illumination as to how this striking body of work came about’. It ‘does a great job in following the history of Hussey’s activity and putting it in the right context’, and not only for the big names: ‘part of the fascination in the narrative is the list of less iconic works which Hussey also commissioned’.

It is a ‘a fascinating and illuminating read… a highly readable, well researched and engagingly written examination of exactly how these works and many others came into being’. Readers should ‘persuade your local library to get a copy’.

Bernstein in Chichester

2018 is the centenary year of the birth of Leonard Bernstein. Among the many events to mark the year is the Bernstein in Chichester festival, which celebrates Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms, commissioned for Chichester Cathedral by its dean, Walter Hussey.
I shall be speaking about Hussey at a symposium event on April 20th (booking details here), and then curating an exhibition of archival holdings about the Psalms later in the year, including some of Bernstein’s letters. It will be shown first at the West Sussex Record Office, and then in the cathedral. This short essay was written for the festival website.
My own book on Hussey’s patronage of the arts is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester between 1955 and 1977, was the most significant patron of the contemporary arts for the Church of England in the twentieth century. The Bernstein in Chichester festival celebrates his most famous commission of music for Chichester, the Chichester Psalms. But there was more music than this for the cathedral: works from William Walton, Lennox Berkeley and others. For his church of St Matthew Northampton (where he was vicar for nearly twenty years before coming to Chichester) there was more music: from Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi (Lo, the full final sacrifice), Michael Tippett and (most famously) Rejoice in the Lamb, by Benjamin Britten, with whom he became a lifelong friend.

Hussey in the late 1940s. Image from West Sussex Record Office, all rights reserved.

Though music was perhaps Hussey’s first love, his own collection of painting and sculpture was the basis of the collection at Pallant House in Chichester. Visitors to the cathedral can see commissions from John Piper, Graham Sutherland and also Marc Chagall; Chichester is one of only two churches in the UK that contain Chagall stained glass. At Northampton two commissions by Hussey still face each other across the church: one by Sutherland, and the other, Hussey’s first, from Henry Moore.

In 1943, in wartime Northampton, still under blackout conditions at night, why did Hussey, provincial parish priest, decide that a revival of the religious arts should be his life’s work? (This, to be sure, was not his first thought, but within a few short years he had achieved national and international recognition for his project.) Hussey was not given to much theological reflection on why he, a priest, should be trying to commission contemporary art for the church at a time when such activity was at a low ebb. But Hussey was led by his senses. Deeply moved as a young man in London by the art he could see and the music he could hear, he could not see why the close relationship between church and artist he saw in the medieval churches of England should not be restored. Leaving the justification to others to make, he decided just to do what he could in a practical way. Unencumbered by any sense of his place in the pecking order, his first successful commissions were from Britten and Moore, who came to be arguably the two greatest exponents of their arts that England produced in the twentieth century.

Kenneth, Lord Clark, a Hussey ally from early on, described him as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. It was this persistence and sheer self-confidence which led him to approach Leonard Bernstein on the basis of the briefest of meetings in New York some years before. But it is this chutzpah that is the hallmark of Hussey’s way of working. Artistic commissions in the twenty-first century tend to be committee affairs, with stages of consultation with all those with an interest in a project. Hussey was a patron of an older school: he kept his eyes and ears open, decided what he liked, and went all out to persuade an artist or composer to work for him, and to raise the money to pay for it. Chichester, Northampton, and the English church in general are the richer for it.

Walter Hussey and the Arts: a review

The first review is now in of my book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts. It comes from David Stancliffe, now retired as bishop of Salisbury and formerly provost of Portsmouth cathedral, only a short distance from Hussey’s Chichester. It is published in Art and Christianity, 93 (spring 2018), the bulletin of Art and Christianity Enquiry, to which body Stancliffe is an adviser.

Hussey in the late 1940s. Image from West Sussex Record Office, all rights reserved.

Since the review is an extended one, it gives Dr Stancliffe space to reflect at length on Hussey’s legacy as reflected in the book. As well as praising the book’s perceptiveness, he comments that ‘Webster has done a really brave job in making the most of Hussey’s achievement without glossing over the major difficulties’, and it is on these difficulties that he expands, elaborating and largely confirming my own argument.

But rather like the new Coventry Cathedral of the early 1960s, Hussey seems to have viewed commissions in isolation rather than as part of a coherent whole. It was Coventry’s architect, 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. There were some notable works of art, and some remarkable juxtapositions, like the Sutherland Crucifixion opposite the Henry Moore Madonna and Child in Northampton: but was there a theological – let alone a liturgical – rationale for placing these two striking works of art where they could speak to each other across the space? Certainly nothing in Hussey’s writings articulated this, and the contexts of his musical commissions reveal no lasting sense of the place of music within the developing liturgical life of the church.

On my noting of Hussey’s lack of interest in architecture:

For me, this gap is a major failing, as it deprives Hussey’s commissions of their key raison d’être. At a time when the timid post-war reconstructions had a stylistic cross-roads before them, to have been unaware of the liturgical and architectural implications of decisions about what and how to build seems more serious than a ‘lacuna’ to me. It has reduced Hussey’s influence from what might have been a major force in the liturgical and artistic development of the church in the second half of the 20th Century to an interesting but essentially amateur patronage of a series of disconnected objets d’art.

He also takes up the question I raise (and others have raised) about the depth of Hussey’s vocation as a priest:

This raises the question as to how far was Hussey a convinced apologist for the Christian faith, with a deep sense of priestly vocation at his core, and [conversely] how far did the offices he held within the Church of England [simply, or incidentally] allow this talented patron of the arts the opportunities he craved to fulfil his vocation as a patron of the arts?… Certainly the Church of England and its cultural life would have been the poorer without his ministry, yet there is curiously little either in his writings or in the way the commissions present any kind of coherent theological or spiritual statement that suggests a deeper sense of vocation, or indeed much sense of Hussey’s own spiritual insight.

Would, in other words, Hussey still have been a private patron even had he not followed his father and elder brother into the ‘family business’? It is an intriguing question, but an impossible one to answer. But I should not like to dismiss the possibility out of hand: Hussey had private means, although not to the same degree that the Church and other donors provided, and so it would have been possible. We should be careful not to dismiss Hussey’s piety, which he took seriously enough, but the question mark remains. Had he taken up some other profession and become a private patron, we might have been discussing a different question: does art commissioned by private individuals, rather than the Church, still meet the definition of ‘sacred art’? Must there be something more than the intention of either or both patron and artist to meet that definition? Must sacred art in fact be housed in a church, or some other shared space of a worshipping community?

Walter Hussey and the Arts: chapter summaries

Abstracts of each chapter of Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts (now available from Palgrave Macmillan, 2017 as ebook and hardback), with links to purchasable PDF versions of each.

The book as a whole
The first full-length treatment of Walter Hussey’s work as a patron between 1943 and 1978, first for the Anglican parish church of St Matthew in Northampton, and then at Chichester Cathedral. He was responsible for the most significant sequence of works of art commissioned for the British churches in the twentieth century. They included music by Benjamin Britten, Leonard Bernstein and William Walton, visual art by Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland and Marc Chagall, and poetry by W. H. Auden. Placing Hussey in theological context and in a period of rapid cultural change, it explores the making and reception of the commissions, and the longer-term influence of his work, still felt today.
As well as contributing to the religious and cultural history of Britain, and of Anglo-Catholicism and the cathedrals in particular, the book will be of interest to all those concerned with the relationship between theology and the arts, and to historians of music and the visual arts.

Chapter 1. Introduction
The introduction outlines Hussey’s reputation as patron of the arts both during his career and since his death. It reviews the scholarly literature to date insofar as it has paid Hussey any attention, and sets out the several areas of the current historiography of British religion and the arts to which the study addresses itself. Finally it outlines the argument of the book chapter by chapter and ends with some remarks on the scope of the book and what it aims (and does not aim) to do. Buy the PDF

Chapter 2. The formation of a patron
Chapter 2 traces Hussey’s formation in the 1920s and 1930s: the son of a clergyman who progressed through public school (Marlborough), Oxford and ordination training at the Anglo-Catholic Cuddesdon College to a curacy in London. It also examines his early aesthetic development, as a viewer, listener, amateur musician and artist, and lays out the context for that development: of Anglican theologies of the arts of the 1920s, and the available examples of ecclesiastical patronage that others set. It argues that Hussey’s understanding of the arts in relation to culture and of the right form of patronage were both present in their essentials before he began his work at Northampton, as were his particular enthusiasms and artistic blind spots. It also shows that Hussey’s homosexuality was key to understanding the relationships he was later to form with those he commissioned. Buy the PDF

Chapter 3. The 1943 Jubilee festival at Northampton
Chapters 3 and 4 together examine the full record of patronage for Northampton. Chapter 3 begins by situating the church of St Matthew in its local context, and as a prominent example of an Anglo-Catholic church. It then examines the five ventures that together formed the jubilee festival of the church in 1943: an organ recital from George Thalben-Ball, a concert by the BBC Orchestra, new music from Benjamin Britten (his Rejoice in the Lamb) and from Michael Tippett, and finally (in 1944) the sculpture Madonna and Child by Henry Moore. It examines in particular the critical and public reactions to each work, and shows that the debates that the Moore provoked went to the very heart of what religious art was, and what it was for. Buy the PDF

Chapter 4. Music, art and poetry: 1944-55
Chapter 4 continues the story of Hussey’s patronage from 1944 until his departure from Northampton in 1955. It produced a painting from Graham Sutherland (Crucifixion, 1946), poetry from W.H. Auden and Norman Nicholson, and music from Malcolm Arnold, Lennox Berkeley, Edmund Rubbra and Gerald Finzi (Lo, the full final sacrifice, 1947) amongst others, including Benjamin Britten (for a second time). Those twelve years also saw the establishment of Hussey’s characteristic modus operandi, as he created ex nihilo a network of supportive critics, clergy and key players in the spheres of art, music and broadcasting. Buy the PDF

Chapter 5: The religious arts on a rising tide: people, media, networks
Chapter 5 places Hussey’s growing renown in the changed context of the immediate post-war period. Whilst the characteristic catholic understanding of the nature of culture was mostly unaltered by the War, Hussey’s project was now also framed by the need for reconstruction, both physical and (as some saw it) cultural and spiritual. The chapter describes a moment at which a new settlement between the church and the arts seemed possible, supported by a growth in media coverage, scholarly interest and exhibitions. It also details two key relationships in Hussey’s network: with Kenneth Clark, perhaps the most influential individual in British art, and with George Bell, bishop of Chichester, the other most significant figure in Anglican patronage of the arts in the period. It was Bell who brought Hussey from Northampton to Chichester in 1955: the cathedral of a diocese in which Bell had done significant work in relation to the arts, but that was itself not quite ready for a project such as Hussey’s. Buy the PDF

Chapter 6: new visual art for Chichester
Hussey’s commissions of new visual art and new music for Chichester cathedral are examined in chapters 6 and 7 respectively. Chapter 6 begins with an examination of what cathedrals were thought to be for, since their purposes were in question in a new way in the fifties and sixties. It then examines each of the works of visual art in turn: works by Graham Sutherland, Geoffrey Clarke, John Piper, Ceri Richards, Cecil Collins and Marc Chagall. As in chapters 3 and 4, it examines both the making of the works and their reception, and argues that, whilst highly effective in their own right, the works as a whole strike a less radical note than the Northampton pair from 1944-6. Buy the PDF

Chapter 7: Chichester music
Chapter 7 examines the series of compositions of new music for Chichester. It argues that the final compositions in the 1970s from the older figures William Walton and Lennox Berkeley have a similarly conservative flavour to the works of visual art documented in chapter 6. However, the commissions from Bryan Kelly, James Bernard, William Albright and in particular from Leonard Bernstein (the Chichester Psalms) show a more consistent engagement with contemporary trends in composition, and in particular the revolution in ‘church pop’ then under way. Buy the PDF

Chapter 8: cathedral, city and diocese
Hussey’s time as dean was one of searching, indeed existential questioning of the very purpose of the cathedrals within the church, in their urban environments, and as destinations for tourists. The whole of Hussey’s career was a response to these challenges by one particular means; chapter 8 examines the rest of his record as dean, and argues that his overwhelming focus on the arts was to the detriment of other areas of the cathedral’s life. Buy the PDF

Chapter 9: Legacy
The book ends with a reflection on the nature of Hussey’s model of patronage. Hussey did inspire others during his career and immediately following to commission new works for churches. But chapter 9 argues that Hussey’s success was in large part due to his personal qualities; his work was not as a distant, demanding patron but as a friend and collaborator, and as an unofficial chaplain to those with whom he worked. As such, his way of working was not easily codified into a model that could easily be transferred to other contexts, and the more public and institutional way in which the churches have come to work in the very recent past is perhaps an acknowledgment of the fact. More fundamentally, it argues that Hussey’s work was based on a catholic understanding of the relationship between national religion and culture, formed before the Second World War but given new impetus by it, which became hard to sustain as both the arts and the position of the churches changed during the long Sixties. Those in the present day churches who would see a live tradition of ecclesiastical patronage have needed to look elsewhere for their justification. Buy the PDF

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.