Poet of church and state: rereading C. H. Sisson

[Reading time: c.15 minutes]

I give away no secrets of the historian’s trade when I say that history is not often written purely for its own sake. However remote in time and spirit their period of study is, most historians write because of some sort of felt connection with present concerns, even if it is oblique. The past does not repeat itself, but past and present often rhyme. At other times, however, the very remoteness of the past serves to set our own time in a new light. Such is the case with the English poet and critic C.H. Sisson (1914-2003). What follows is taken from a new book chapter on Sisson, due out later this year.

You may ask how any aspect of a life that ended less than twenty years ago can be thought of as remote. Though most of what I describe is comfortably within living memory, Sisson’s understanding of what a national church should be, and of the ideal relationship of faith, worship and language, has now become almost entirely obscure, though parts of it survive in a more dilute form. Although Sisson’s sense of these things is some way removed from my own, to look at him afresh shows just how far English religious life has changed in a very short time.

Sisson worked in comparative obscurity until after his retirement in 1974, largely unknown to the world, Roger Scruton thought, by dint of ‘the unfashionable nature of his opinions and the frequently sour manner of their expression.’ Since then, the republication of much of his verse and prose in collected volumes by the Carcanet Press has secured a modest but enduring literary reputation. In his many prose writings on the Church of England, however, Sisson’s was a voice of a kind of ecclesiastical conservatism that sat in the gaps in between the main streams of change and resistance in English religion of the 1960s and 1970s. And since much of the writing of the history of the period has been organised along these same lines, Sisson has so far figured very little.

C.H. Sisson, by Patrick Swift (1960), via Wikimedia

The dominant theme in that historical writing has been the slippery idea of secularisation, the long process by which the mass of the English ceased both to participate in the life of the churches, and to think of the story of their lives in a Christian frame. But the body of opinion that Sisson most clearly represents is not of those who were leaving the churches, who have been most studied. Sisson’s kind of people were staying, and their opposition was born not of rejection of the Church, but of disappointment with the way in which it was changing. It comes from a religious need still felt, yet increasingly unmet, a sense of having been deserted. On the so-called permissive society, or the relaxation of the law on divorce, abortion and homosexuality in the 1960s, Sisson had relatively little to say. As such, he is also largely absent from the substantial historical literature that has now been produced on those topics. Sisson was liturgically conservative but on grounds other than doctrine; he was virulently anti-Catholic but for reasons of politics and national identity rather than theology; on issues such as the ordination of women or theological bestsellers like Honest to God or The Myth of God Incarnate he had little to say. The kind of conservatism to which Sisson gave voice has tended to be treated as a residual category, as if it were a kind of unthinking reaction amongst those without sufficient commitment to choose to be catholic, liberal or evangelical.

Sisson’s reading and writing on the Church of England seems to have begun in earnest in the early 1950s, a point at which many of the reforms to which he took exception were being discussed. It gathers momentum and volume during the 1970s, as many of the changes were at the point of implementation, and continues in the 1980s, when they were a fait accompli, a matter for regret rather than resistance. These later pieces read, to use Roger Scruton’s phrase concerning the verse, as ‘more like regrets than prophecies… a distillation of a common loneliness.’ Those changes fell into two broad categories: legal-constitutional, and liturgical.

In 1965 the church secured the permission of Parliament to produce experimental forms of service, three series of which appeared between 1966 and 1973 as alternatives to the Book of Common Prayer. The culmination of the process was the Alternative Service Book of 1980, against which a petition was presented to the General Synod in 1979, signed by some three hundred luminaries including cabinet ministers, heads of Oxford and Cambridge colleges, actors, journalists and poets. Sisson played a part in bringing the petition together, and continued to write frequently throughout the 1980s on what he saw as a calamitous loss, even though the BCP was (and remains) still authorised for use. Objections to the ASB clustered around three poles: that its language was unfamiliar, and so disruptive to worship; that the language lacked the beauty of the 1662 book (and that beauty was important in its own right), and thirdly, that it was banal, flat, lacking a certain allusiveness (or perhaps openness to interpretation), that pointed beyond itself to the mysterious things to which it referred.

Had the Church brought forward the ASB forward before 1974, it is likely that the opposition to it would have centred on Parliament rather than the General Synod. But that year had seen Parliament pass the Worship and Doctrine Measure, the culmination of a thirty year process in which Parliament had relinquished more and more practical control over the Church. The 1974 measure allowed the Church itself, through the Synod, to authorise permanently new liturgy where previously it had required parliamentary assent, and to settle its own doctrine. The measure marked a decisive redefinition of what membership of the Church of England meant. The notion that Parliament acted as a ‘lay synod’, guiding and if necessary restraining the Church on behalf of the nation was to be superseded by a Church more directly controlled by its active members, through the newly instituted Synod.

But there was yet a significant attachment to the existing constitutional settlement, as is evident from the deliberations of a commission on church and state, which reported in 1970. ‘Some people belong to the Church of England more because they are English than because they are Anglicans’, and this idea of membership, though ‘vague and inarticulate’ is better represented by Parliament on behalf of the whole nation, the authors thought, than by the narrower group of clergy and church-minded laity which made up the Synod.

So it is in these two related contexts – one linguistic and aesthetic, the other constitutional – that we ought to read Sisson’s writing on the Church of England.

*****

The nature of Sisson’s own belief is somewhat hard to pin down. But belief is necessarily articulated in language, and Sisson’s view – a profoundly serious one – of the nature of language is the foundation of the whole social, aesthetic and political superstructure which can be reconstructed from his essays. There were ‘spaces between the ultimate silence and exposition, which are filled only by great literature, and by poetry in particular.’ The language of worship occupied this space, and as such was a matter of the utmost seriousness. And its nature was fundamentally social; the Church was what later critics might have called a linguistic community. ‘Our speaking is that of a race, a tribe, a time. There is no speech which is not of a here and now and it is nothing in terms of other times and elsewhere. That is why the historical church is so apt to our needs and meaning. It is a congregation of meaning and there is no meaning without congregation.’ Given this, liturgical revision was a very serious matter, and (as Sisson became convinced) too difficult to attempt with any safety. He saw nothing in the theological milieu of the Church of England in the 1970s that suggested that a restatement of Christian faith in a way intelligible to a secularising society was likely. And so the idea of revision, already difficult, seemed more and more frivolous. ‘Pending a new clarification of things,’ he wrote in 1981 after the battle for the Prayer Book was lost, ‘better try to understand what our ancestors were saying.’ Better to work with – even despite – an authentic older text, however unwieldy, than to say nothing meaningful in contemporary prose.

Of which community was the Book, and indeed the Church, a product? ‘I am of a religion’, he wrote in an essay on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ‘in which … Christianity is an accident; the religion of our fathers, or the mère patrie, of the spirits buried in the ground, of the religion of England. I cannot help it.’ In metaphysical terms, the religion of England was an accident, the substance of which was a nation, formed in a place. And Sisson’s thought pointed both to a certain kind of localism, and a very particular idea of the national community. The fundamental message of the parish system, an outward order that comprehended every inch of the country, was: ‘You will find the faith taught, and the sacraments ministered, where you live. Go to your parish church.’ To travel to a different church for a particular preacher, or to another for the manner in which the Eucharist was celebrated, was to call into the question the Church of England’s claim of catholicity. ‘There is no meaning except in terms of a time and a place’ he wrote: ‘If one could understand it would be at one altar, in a stone building, in such a place’.

The historical fact of the Church of England also had, for Sisson, ineluctable implications for politics and nation as well as the parish. Despite its dwindling strength, the Church of England was driven by its very nature to make universal, indeed implacable claims about the whole of human existence. It could never become simply a private society for the provision of ‘innocent Sunday entertainments’, no different in kind to any other voluntary association. Some form of relationship between the Church and the state would have always to be defined that recognised its unique scope and the range of its claims. And atop this whole structure sat the sovereign, who in the last instance was ‘the final safeguard of our unity… a point of unity in a single Person present on the throne by hereditary right and form of law.’ The established Church and the sovereign were bound together in a relationship, in which the disappearance of one entailed the extinction of the other. Sisson’s sense of the nation had at times almost a mystical tone; Donald Davie noted Sisson’s remarkable metaphor of the monarch who ‘broods over this body of laws and institutions’, as if in some kind of maternal, creative relationship, the nation’s originator.

Such an attachment to a locality and to the ideal of the parish is, of course, far from extinct, and neither is attachment to the monarchy. But Sisson’s religious politics drove him to certain conclusions which would now find little assent. Raised a Methodist, he became dismissive of the Free Churches which were ‘ancillary and in the main derivative’, bodies whose political battles were fought for them by the established Church; Sisson was no ecumenist. The fact that, for the first time, England was now home to many from the Commonwealth who adhered to other faiths – a spanner in the works of Sisson’s idea of faith and nation – seems hardly to have registered. Roman Catholics, however, were almost an enemy within. Despite the day-to-day quiescence of English Catholics, Sisson thought, the Papacy had never renounced its claims as a temporal sovereign, and so in England those Catholics were a minority simply biding their time. ‘They have their politics, however subduedly for the present, and they are not in their obedience bound to England.’ A greater misunderstanding of the English Catholicism of the time, and of the Papacy, would be hard to find.

*****

Sisson emerges from his essays as a voice of a kind of ecclesiastical Toryism which, though elements of it survive, is surely hard to accept as a whole system. No-one now seriously asserts the need to restore greater parliamentary oversight of the established Church. Although the Book of Common Prayer is still used and valued by many – not least in the cathedrals – it is as one option among several to be chosen; no longer has it the same sense of givenness or universality. Overtones of Sisson are perhaps audible in the sense of loss felt by those people, perhaps not all regular worshippers, who were unable to visit the churches at times due to the pandemic, just to sit and think and perhaps pray. The idea of a faithful laity deserted by trendy clergy is still certainly live and well in certain section of the conservative media, for whom the troubles of the Church of England still make good copy from time to time. But except for a very few, the late Roger Scruton notable among them, Sisson’s understanding of what a national church should be – indeed, must inevitably be – and of the necessary relationship of faith, language and nation, has now become almost entirely obscure as a viable intellectual option. But it deserves to be understood, as a missing piece in our understanding of recent religious history.

Book review: In the long shadow of the Third Reich

[A review published in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church]

Gerhard Ringshausen and Andrew Chandler (eds)
The George Bell-Gerhard Leibholz Correspondence: In the long shadow of the Third Reich, 1938-1958
London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2019
978-1-4742-5766-4 (hardback)
xxvii + 475

The papers of George Bell, twentieth century bishop of Chichester, are among the most significant and most extensive collections for modern church history. This important volume, generously edited and well produced (and now, since 2021, available in paperback at a reasonable price) inaugurates a series of editions that promises to open up Bell’s papers to those unable to consult them in the library of Lambeth Palace. Bell was a prolific correspondent in general, but his exchange with the German legal scholar Gerhard Leibholz must be among the most extensive of all such correspondences to have survived, now distributed between Bell’s papers and those of Leibholz in the Bundesarchiv in Koblenz. Though a selection of the letters was published in German in 1974, it is hard to find in libraries outside Germany, and this complete edition – a joint production of British and German scholars – promises to open up the correspondence in new ways. The letters are marked throughout by both great personal warmth and great immediacy and urgency; absent is the sort of self-consciousness sometimes found in letters written with one eye on an unknown later reader.

Readers of this journal may be slightly surprised at how little there is in the letters about the church as such. This is no complaint, but it is instructive nonetheless. Bell and Leibholz were first in contact in early 1939, after Leibholz, a Volljude (in Nazi terms) but baptised a Lutheran, had arrived in the UK from Germany seeking refuge. Once Leibholz had been released from internment, in part due to Bell’s intercession, the correspondence is dominated by the progress of the war, the fate of the German churches, and then (in time) the likely shape of the post-war order. That the conflict was at root a religious one, between a godless Nazism and a true European civilisation that was fundamentally Christian, was a working assumption that lay beneath their remarkable interaction. That the post-war order – that would have to include a reconstructed Germany, the ‘other Germany’ once stripped of the alien accretion of Nazism – should have a Christian basis was something of which politicians had to be reminded, repeatedly and sometimes forcefully; it was not, yet, a matter that required justification, as would be the case before very long. What the reader finds, as the pair discuss the situation, exchange resources, and read and comment on each other’s writing, is a kind of applied political theology that does not yet need fully to justify its assumptions.

This reader, at least, is also struck by the slight improbability of such a meeting of unequals, which the editors suggest may be unique, and I suspect they are right. On the one hand was Bell, a senior bishop of the established Church, member of the House of Lords and the Athenaeum club; on the other Leibholz, a citizen of an enemy power, almost a generation younger, uprooted with a young family, first interned and then forced to scratch around for grants and for whatever might be earned by writing. In time the war ended, and there was the matter of re-establishing contact with friends and family in the chaotic conditions of a ruined Germany, and eventually a return home. The exchanges give a remarkable insight into the precariousness of the refugee experience, even for one as (relatively) well connected as Leibholz. We see Bell intervening to help in practical ways throughout, as he did for many others, both Jews and German Christians: there are countless letters of recommendation and reference; schemes of support are patiently constructed only to be upended by events. But Bell was also a learner. Although in regular contact with the German churches, he himself knew little German, and did not know the country well. Though, as the editors note (p.xv), Leibholz did much to confirm ideas that were already Bell’s, his influence was in giving Bell’s positions a new weight and substance, and in helping lift them out of the more confined milieu of English middle-class and ecclesiastical life. As such, the letters provide a rich and invaluable contextualisation of Bell’s very well-known political interventions, in Parliament and in print. Bell’s learning shows a kind of humility that was not always found on the episcopal bench.

There is also a further connection to a rather more well-known German Christian of the same generation, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, to whose twin sister (Sabine) Leibholz was married. It was through Bonhoeffer, whom Bell knew very well, that Leibholz and Bell were put together. One of the editors, Andrew Chandler, has written on the later legacy of Bonhoeffer’s thought, and his martyrdom at Nazi hands in the last days of the war. If not quite the subject of a cult, Bonhoeffer has taken on a venerable status in later years, and it is an affecting experience to overhear Bell and Leibholz exchange news of Bonhoeffer’s imprisonment, with an increasing desperation, still clinging in April 1945 to seemingly hopeful but erroneous scraps of information, by which time (as the reader knows) Bonhoeffer was already dead. As the urgency waned in the early 1950s, Bonhoeffer provided a thread of shared memory between the Leibholzes and Bell, whom after his death was described as ‘the most faithful and best friend we have had in the English-speaking world.’ (453) Though neither Bell nor Leibholz bore the ultimate cost of discipleship as Bonhoeffer did, the whole volume intertwines the personal and the political in an unforgettable way. It should be required reading for scholars of the religious and political history of Europe, but deserves a much wider readership than that.

Iris and the Christians: what did the British churches make of Murdoch, 1954 – c1983

The audio recording of a public lecture given at the University of Chichester on 19th February 2022, as part of a study day at the Iris Murdoch Research Centre. My thanks are due to Miles Leeson for the invitation, and to the audience for a very engaged and stimulating discussion afterwards.

(52 minutes.)

I examine Christian reactions to Murdoch’s work in three areas: her strictly philosophical work on metaphysics and ethics, and her novels. I explore the remarkable closeness of Murdoch’s distinctive preoccupations to those of British theologians in the period. However, her position outside the usual circles of Christian discourse made it difficult for her to be heard and, when she was, her fundamentally atheistic position made her philosophical work hard to digest. The final third of the paper then looks at Christian readings of her novels, in which readers found much more congenial material with which to engage.

Authors discussed include: (among the theologians) Don Cupitt, Colin Gunton, Eric Mascall, Alasdair Macintyre, John A.T. Robinson, Keith Ward; among the critics: Bernard Bergonzi, Ruth Etchells, David Holbrook, Valerie Pitt. In relation to aesthetics, there is some discussion of Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts.

George Bell, Walter Hussey and Christian support of refugee artists in England, 1943-58

This is a talk given at St John’s church by Waterloo station in central London, as part of a one-day conference, “A Jewish Jesus: Art and Faith in the Shadow of World War II” on Wednesday, 16th June 2021. The sound quality is not ideal, but usable.

Although the title refers both to George Bell, bishop of Chichester, and Walter Hussey, it is primarily about Bell. It is a much-truncated version of an broader article on Christian support of refugee artists, which I hope to submit for publication before too long.

As I say at the very beginning, it is not a contribution to the critical art history of the several paintings I discuss. It is, instead, the history of patronage, and of Christian artistic patronage in particular. Bell acted out several related impulses: a basic Christian hospitality to those in need; a longstanding special concern both with Germany and with Jewish refugees; and a wider theological understanding of Christianity, art and European culture. I show that he was successful due to a combination of practical support, artistic and spiritual counsel, and simple friendship.

The conference was held in association with Art and Christianity, the leading UK organisation exploring visual art and religion, and Insiders/Outsiders, a continuing celebration of the contribution of refugee artists from Nazi Germany to British culture. It was part of international Refugee Week 2021 and the 11th annual Waterloo Festival.

The playlist of the whole event is here.

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).]