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).]

Sacred and secular martyrdom: a review

Sacred and secular martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
John Wolffe
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, viii + 197pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-35001927-0.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, and in London four years later, the idea of martyrdom gained a new salience. This important study by John Wolffe is the product of a RCUK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship: an attempt to build an informed religious literacy on the subject to aid the making of public policy. The book fills a gap that, after having read it, seems obvious, and indeed glaring, but which was not so before (to this reviewer, at least): a measure of how significant and new a perspective on the period it presents.

Wolffe expressly adopts no a priori definition of martyrdom, opting instead to trace its shifting meanings. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had their sixteenth century martyrs, and the nineteenth century had seen their ranks added to from the mission field. While the Christian martyr tended to be passive, the historic shape of Muslim martyrdom was more activist, a life lost in struggle. Wolffe’s achievement is to show how far the idea could be extended into more secular contexts, concluding that no easy line may be drawn between sacred and secular varieties. Martyrs could be made in defence of a nation (particularly during the First World War), even if they were conscript soldiers, or of a different faith to the national one, or indeed of no faith at all. In Ireland in the 1920s there were competing martyrologies, nationalist and unionist. The former focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916 or the hunger strikers of the 1980s; the latter (though less explicitly articulated) centred on the Battle of the Somme. Whole nations could be cast as martyrs in a collective sense for rhetorical purposes, or individual towns. And it was not even entirely necessary to lose one’s life for it to be glossed in this way; such was the case of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA member who died of natural causes at the age of 66 after serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Wolffe’s reading of the language of martyrdom is deft and subtle, showing the complex uses of religious texts and their overtones in the wider commentary, and the interplay of this specific language with the more ambiguous concept of sacrifice. The extent to which martyrs were made and remade according to the needs of the present is a persistent theme. But the range of sources is wider than this, taking in dozens of interviews, as well as fine readings of the architecture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium, and of myriad local war memorials at home.

Wolffe’s chronology is too complex to be easily summarised, but the period began with an unusually tight interweaving of national and religious stories. This was exemplified by the bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who in 1914 described the war dead as ‘martyrs as really as St Stephen … covered with imperishable glory they pass to deathless life.’ Even then this connection was contested. Wolffe shows just how contingent on events and personalities the shape and symbolism of the commemoration of the war was. But by the centenary years of 2014-18, the process of secularisation had left the imagined community (on which such an idea depended) much less Christian, and (in the context of Scottish and Welsh nationalism) without another glue with which to bind itself together. Though the centenary events were in a sense a renaissance of remembrance, it was without a stable consensus on its meaning. By the end of the century, the language of martyrdom or sacrifice for the nation was being replaced by that of victimhood, a motif both more inclusive and more reflective of the ambiguity with which death in the trenches has come to be viewed.

All this will be of absorbing interest to scholars of national identity, but there is a parallel story concerning the churches. The view of William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury between 1942 and 1944, was subtly but substantially different to that of Winnington-Ingram. Even though the Nazi regime was a more unambiguously anti-Christian opponent, Temple could mark the sacrifice of those who had died without speculating on their salvation. By the time of the Falklands conflict, it was clear to many that too close an association with national remembrance compromised the churches’ attempts to present a Christian view of conflict focussed on reconciliation. The churches in both Britain and Ireland had also come to view Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century not as opponents, but as common witnesses to a larger truth, to whose number had been added others from other countries: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These and others were commemorated in 1998 above the west door of Westminster Abbey, just inside which is the tomb of the unknown soldier: old and new (or perhaps rediscovered) understandings of Christian martyrdom in a symbolically crucial building. Wolffe’s telling of these stories will be required reading for all students of British and Irish religion and politics of the last century; no serious historical library will want to be without it.

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Martyrs, memorials and meaning in Protestant England

Sitting in what William Morris described as ‘a great amphitheatre of chalk hills’, the market town of Lewes is one of Sussex’s particular delights. For all its quiet charm, the town is perhaps best known for its elaborate celebrations of Bonfire Night, during which the several bonfire societies in and around the town converge ina grand procession. It is an anarchic mixture of revelry and symbol, pipes and drums, in which effigies of contemporary political bogeymen are burned. In 2019 it was Prime Minister Boris Johnson, but every year Pope Paul V (who was pope in 1605) is also committed to the flames. There is also an act of remembrance for the dead of the two world wars at the memorial in the town centre, and seventeen burning crosses are borne in procession, representing the seventeen Protestants burned at the stake outside the Star Inn under the Catholic Mary I (1555-7). A more eclectic mixture of religious and secular memory and political commentary would be difficult to find in England.

The path from the topmost road of the estate to the memorial field. Image: Peter Webster

But there is another memorial of that Reformation past in Lewes, although one must now work hard to find it. Though it is difficult to see from most of the town, from the vantage point of the castle keep one can pick out, across the Ouse valley on Cliffe Hill to the east, an austere obelisk, described on the tourist viewfinder as a memorial to the Lewes martyrs. Intrigued by this during a visit to Lewes last August, my unplanned pilgrimage to it began.

It was harder than I expected to find my way. There were no signposts that I could see (though I later found it marked on a town guide), and it was invisible from the valley floor due to the trees on the hill. I asked a couple of people – one passer-by, the waitress in the cafe – if they knew it, but no. Eventually, just by a church, I found a road that seemed to snake up the steep hill. But the keepers of the Cuilfail residential estate (which I suppose dates from the 1970s) provide no signposts. Indeed, such signage as there is leaves the visitor in no doubt that the road is private, with no parking allowed. But eventually, up a narrow path (which did have a sign), I found it, on a flat patch of grass sandwiched between the back fences of the gardens of the houses of the estate and a golf course. On a pleasant Sunday in summer, I saw not another soul in the hour or so I spent on Cliffe Hill, while the castle did a healthy trade in visitors, and the town bustled gently; no-one passes by this place. If a memorial must be visible to operate, then this one can have little effect.

As I write, the politics of public memorials are being discussed with a fervency we rarely see, in the wake of the felling of the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in the centre of Bristol. There is much talk of ‘erasing history’. But – in and of themselves – such monuments tell us almost nothing at all about those they commemorate – about the history that is supposedly being erased. What they do reveal, much more naively, is the intentions of those who created them, acts just as political (in the broadest sense) as toppling Colston and symbolically drowning him in the waters in which so many of his slaves met their deaths. These objects are indeed historical artefacts, but not of what is commonly supposed. In the case of Lewes, the obelisk and the burning crosses represent two distinct ideas of memory and martyrdom – one largely secular and the other strictly doctrinal – that for a time converged but now are as separate as ever.

John Wolffe has recently shown that the Protestant recovery of the Marian martyrs is relatively recent, a twentieth-century reaction to increased Roman Catholic assertiveness of their own recusant martyrs. The Lewes memorial was erected in 1901; elsewhere, in the 1920s, the Protestant Alliance renovated memorials in Brentwood and at Smithfield in London, and set up new ones in Amersham and in Norwich (both 1931). Wolffe points out the particular conflation in Lewes of religious and secular remembrance in the placing of the new memorial to the First World War on the site of the burnings in the town centre. The Sussex Martyrs Commemoration Council, formed in 1925, provided for the illumination of the memorial on every November 5th, further cementing the connection between the events.

But the years after 1945 saw a remarkably swift waning of this Protestant-Catholic antagonism, so much so that the planned canonisation by the Pope of forty English and Welsh martyrs in 1970 jarred with the ecumenical advances being made at the same time between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, regretted the move, both privately and publicly, and appealed for a new shared Christian martyrology. And in time the ecumenical spirit further pushed this kind of polemical Protestant self-consciousness to the margins, though it continued to thrive in the particular conditions of Northern Ireland.

Yet the annual commemoration service at the Lewes memorial continued, and continues still under the auspices of the Commemoration Council – in June, on a date more congruent with the burnings in the 1550s, not November 5th. (The Council also continued to fund new memorials elsewhere in the county to sixteen more Marian martyrs, the most recent in 1997). The church at the foot of the hill that I passed on my pilgrimage was formerly the Jireh chapel, a Calvinistic Independent chapel built in 1805 and now Grade One listed. As the congregation dwindled, the building was taken over by Lewes Free Presbyterian Church, one of only a handful of English outposts of Ian Paisley’s new church in Northern Ireland. And there appears still to be a close connection between the church and the Council, which retains a postal address in Lewes. The church’s minister, Pastor Philip Knowles, an Ulsterman himself, was the preacher at the 2019 service.

And the collected sermons and addresses from these events that the Council publish are of a kind familiar to students of this continuing Protestant remnant. They speak of a self-conscious, defensive community, dwindling with age, at odds with the mainline Christian denominations, continuing to contend for a pure gospel as the martyrs did. The Council is also connected through personnel and joint activities with Christian Watch, formed in 2001 and devoted to ‘informing Christians about the possible loss of their religious liberties from current and proposed developments within the UK and European Union.’ And so the language of persecution persists, but not at the hands of Rome but of an aggressive secularising state. While the secularised commemoration of Bonfire Night burgeons, a smaller, more specifically religious memory still attaches to the gaunt obelisk on the hill. The object remains, but its history is still being made.

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Walter Hussey, Henry Moore and the Northampton ‘Madonna and Child’

It was a great pleasure to give a lecture at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester on 9th January on the subject of Walter Hussey, Henry Moore, and the Madonna and Child made for St Matthew’s church in Northampton in 1943-4. It is available on Soundcloud and the slides in Slideshare.

The lecture was largely drawn from my recent book on Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester and patron of the arts. My thanks are due to Pallant House for permission to use certain images of Henry Moore’s works in their keeping.

[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).]

Walter Hussey, the liturgy and the Eucharist

[A short talk given to a symposium on Visual Communion, organised by Art and Christianity and held at the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester on Saturday 2nd March. On the panel with me were Frances Spalding, art historian and biographer of John Piper, and Simon Martin, director of Pallant House Gallery, where Walter Hussey’s private art collection is kept and shown. The theme was Hussey’s commissions for Chichester, and the 1966 tapestry by John Piper in particular. What follows is derived from my recent book on Hussey.]

Today I want to put Walter Hussey in theological context, and (since our theme is Visual Communion) to look in particular at his own liturgical and Eucharistic sense. In general I think that Walter Hussey is the most significant individual patron of the arts in the 20th century Church of England. Today, however, I want to suggest that Hussey was not very theologically driven, and almost entirely unliturgical, at least in relation to the visual arts.

Hussey was an instinctive patron: he knew what he liked, and went out to get it. A regular visitor to London galleries while at his first parish in Northampton, and from Chichester when dean of the cathedral, his interest in the London artistic scene was first developed when a curate in Kensington in the 1930s. He was also an assidous seeker of expert advice. His network of connections grew as he commissioned art, music and poetry for Northampton in the 1940s, which he used both as a source of intelligence and of expert witnesses whom he could use to help persuade his church council to assent to his plans. Hussey’s network was unique among provincial clergymen, and by and large he allowed it to do his thinking for him.

Even when given the opportunity, Hussey did not articulate his theology of art in any depth, but two themes emerge. Both derived from others, and neither was new in the 1940s: art as a means of instruction, of conveying a message, and art as offering.

In 1949 Hussey wrote that a piece of religious art ‘should convey to those who see it some aspect of the Christian truth.’ Speaking shortly before he retired in 1977, he argued that the artist ‘may, by forcing us to share his vision, lead us to the spiritual reality that lies behind the sounds and sights that we perceive with our senses.’

The work itself was also an offering, as was the effort of the artist in making it. The artist may well enjoy the act of making, and at some level feel compelled to do it, Hussey argued, but ‘whether he is entirely conscious of it or not, [he does it] because it is an act of worship which he must make.’ Hussey was fond of quoting Benjamin Britten’s comment to him that ‘ultimately all one’s music must be written to the glory of God’. There was a pervasive sense in his thinking that the act of making was in itself religious in some way.

So much for Hussey’s theology of the arts. What do I mean by suggesting that Hussey’s approach was unliturgical in relation to the visual arts? To begin with, I certainly do not think that Hussey, as a clergyman responsible to leading liturgical worship, was unconcerned with its conduct. Woe betide the chorister with brown shoes beneath his cassock rather than the regulation black; the two boys carrying the candles in procession had to be of the same height for the visual effect. All was to be done decently and in order.

My point is rather that his patronage was purely aesthetic: the object is everything, and the context of use in which it sits – the regular worship of real people in a particular place – is largely secondary.

David Stancliffe, retired bishop of Salisbury, reviewed my book on Hussey, and made the following point, with which I largely agree:

Hussey seems to have viewed commissions in isolation rather than as part of a coherent whole. It was Coventry’s architect, [Basil] 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.

Take, for instance, the Chagall window at Chichester, Hussey’s retirement project, which stands as a commentary on his work. The theme (which Hussey gave to Chagall) is of ‘the arts to the glory of God’, and though a beautiful thing, it is a work of art about the idea of sacred art; a piece on (or rather, in) a gallery wall, for solitary contemplation. Tucked away in the north quire aisle, it bears no relation to any chapel or altar.

The Mary Magdalene chapel in Chichester cathedral

In contrast, the Graham Sutherland painting Noli me tangere is on an altar, but it is not one that is used to any great extent, by virtue of its location in the building. The whole ensemble in the Mary Magdalene chapel is – to my non-specialist eye, as an historian rather than a critic – the most perfect thing in the building: altar, candlesticks, rail and painting form a perfect whole in union with the stonework and with the prevailing light. But it is something that demands to be seen, either from a distance or from close up, rather than being an invitation to prayer.

What about Piper? Surely it is ‘liturgical’, given where it is, behind the high altar? Here I turn to Hussey’s relationship to the Eucharist in particular.

Everything in Hussey’s background should have disposed Hussey to being more focussed on the Eucharist than was typical amongst Anglicans. St Matthew’s, in which Hussey’s father ministered, was founded as an Anglo-Catholic counter to the strength of the Nonconformist churches in Northampton. John Rowden Hussey had first instituted a Sunday Eucharist each week (not yet the almost universal practice that it is now), then a daily one; St Matthew’s also had reservation of the sacrament at a time when it was a highly controversial practice. In 1925 the church hosted the annual Eucharistic Congress of the English Church Union, a national celebration of Anglo-Catholic identity. Emphasis on the Eucharist was a badge of identity for a highly self-conscious movement. Nothing of this would Hussey then have unlearned when moving from Northampton to study first at Oxford and then for ordination at Cuddesdon College.

The Eucharist in progress at St Matthew’s, Northampton. 1940s-1950s. Image: Peter Webster

Once at Chichester, Hussey’s practice was to reserve the role of celebrant at the principal Sunday service to himself. This may have been a felt necessity, a measure of the centrality of the Eucharist to his thought and feeling. I suspect it is more likely that it was simply something he saw as central to the proper role of a dean. (It may also have been a means to avoid preaching, which was not a strength.)

In his musical commissioning for Chichester, Hussey was clearly thinking about the Eucharist, as evidenced by the commission of a mass from the American composer William Albright in 1975. There had previously been a scheme for a new setting of the communion service in English from Benjamin Britten. It was first mooted in 1967 by Britten and pursued for years by Hussey, but without success before Britten’s death in 1976.

Given all this, one might have expected Hussey, when he saw the opportunity to remake the area around the high altar at Chichester, to focus on the Eucharist in particular. I make no comment on Piper’s tapestry as a piece of work in and of itself, but a little thought experiment will make the point. If you were to take it and place it in some other place in the building, would its symbolism become unintelligible? That is, is the iconic scheme very closely tied to the altar and the work that goes on there? The answer is very clearly not, but if it was eucharistic in its content, it surely would.

The Piper tapestry at Chichester, viewed from beyond the Arundel screen.

(Members of my audience in Chichester made the point that the tapestry can be glossed in Eucharistic terms, which is true, particularly the figure of the cross, but the subject – the Trinity, to which the cathedral is dedicated – was suggested by Piper’s ally Moelwyn Merchant, and there is no evidence that Hussey tried to guide Piper towards a Eucharistic scheme. They also made the point that the remarkable glow of the tapestry that can be seen from the west doors draws the visitor into the building towards the altar where the most important work of the cathedral goes on. This is also quite true, but this is a much more recently recovered idea of sacred space – the notion of liturgy as pilgrimage – which was far from Hussey’s thinking.)

Fundamentally, Hussey did not start with the thought: “here is an opportunity to have a great artist respond to the fundamental liturgical act of my Church, around which my whole formation was orientated”. Instead, his first thought is: “here is a drab and dark space with an existing reredos that is of a poor standard and is out of proportion to its surroundings. Let’s make it look better.”

I argue then that though Hussey is a highly significant figure, but his patronage is centred on the artistic object itself, rather than on where it is located and to what use it might be put. His influence has been limited by the fact that, at a time when all the churches were thinking very hard about their worship – architecture, layout, words – Hussey (by and large) was not.

[My book on Walter Hussey is published by Palgrave Macmillan.]