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.
[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.
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.
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.
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).]
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).]
Most authors will, I imagine, be familiar with the curious feeling provoked by the often very long wait to read the verdict of reviewers on your book, unless your books are the sort that are reviewed in the newspapers. After a year and a half, the reviews of my book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts, have begun to appear – two of them, in fact, in prominent theological journals – and I record them here.
First, however, I note a review that did indeed appear in the press, in the Church Times in fact, in August last year. A friend and colleague described the review as not so much tangential to the book as orthogonal. Perhaps one should be flattered when the window onto a subject that one provides is so clear that the reviewer reviews the view rather than the smudges on the glass. But all that seems to emerge is that the reviewer has little time for Walter Hussey (which is his right), and that the hardback edition is very expensive (which is true.) Readers can form their own view here.
Rather more substantial are two reviews in the last couple of months, from Jonathan Evens in the Journal of Theological Studies, and Allan Doig in Modern Believing (vol. 60, n.3).
For Doig, the book rescues Hussey from the confines of his sadly inadequate memoir, Patron of Art, and sets his work in the fullest historical context. The book is also ‘not your run-of-the-mill clerical biography, which makes it all the more readable.’ This is praise indeed, as those who know the genre may perhaps attest.
In the JTS (July 2019), Jonathan Evens is kind to say that the book is successful in ‘helpfully and critically view[ing] relationships between patrons and artists in the twentieth century’. At times, however, Evens seems to criticise the book for arguing what it did not argue (or at least, was not intended to argue). The book does not explore the undoubted importance of clergy such as Victor Kenna, in the same way as patrons of music such as Eric Milner White and Joseph Poole are only briefly noted, because it is about Hussey’s career in its context; despite the ordering of title and subtitle (a decision of the publisher rather than me), it is surely clear that Hussey is the subject, not the whole interaction between the Church of England and the arts. It is for this reason that it does not explore artists such as Jacob Epstein or Evie Hone; significant though they are, Hussey apparently took little account of them. Evens is quite right to point out synergies between the English and French scenes at the time, but the evidence that Hussey really engaged with artists outside England is thin, until the commission of Chagall at the very end of his career.
Elsewhere in the review, Evens seems similarly to try to have me say things I did not. He questions my right to examine the nature of Hussey’s vocation as a priest, as if it were a moral failing, or at least a failure of good manners to do so. In fact, I explore the unconventional nature of Hussey’s vocation because the evidence suggests it, and because more than one person who knew him, including one very close colleague, themselves raised the question. Similarly, nowhere do I suggest that that it is ‘a requirement that, in order to undertake commissions one must also be able to personally articulate the theological rationale for doing so.’ Hussey’s inability to do so is a matter of historical fact, however, and is material in understanding his methods and his relationships with both artists and critics. The book is a work of history, and this normative judgement is (I submit) not to be found in it.
Towards the end, Evens states that ‘Hussey’s achievement remains substantial, despite Webster’s critique and frustrations’. If I disagreed with that, I should hardly have troubled to write the book at all. My ‘critique’ is merely a means of understanding more fully the nature of that achievement, rather than an attempt to diminish it.
For reasons too complex to dwell on here, the writer of modern English church history is peculiarly reliant on biography, autobiography and memoir. Of old we knew to distrust people’s own accounts of their lives; memory sometimes plays us false. More recently we learned to suspect the conscious or unconscious construction of a life to give it coherence, a sense of purpose, even (in some cases) to cleanse it of its moral blemishes.
It is a particular perspective given only to biographers to observe the full extent to which a memoir matches the actuality of a life. Such was my experience when writing my book on Walter Hussey, Anglican patron of the arts. Hussey left a carefully curated set of papers, under the control of his successors as dean of Chichester, and kept by the West Sussex Record Office. But they have to be read in a state of dialogue with his memoir, Patron of Art.
Hussey retired to London from Chichester in 1977, to be nearer both to his closest friends and to the capital’s galleries and concert halls. But by 1983, during which year he wrote his draft, his health had worsened and isolation set in, as his friends aged with him, and others died. It seems he met with a refusal from at least one publisher, but he had some friends still, among them the media baron Hugh Cudlipp, who had proved an ally after retiring to Chichester. Cudlipp, having read the draft, wrote to his friend the publisher George Weidenfeld, recommending a book of ‘unusual and absorbing interest, essentially about the great artists of our time.’
How influential Cudlipp’s intervention was, we do not know, but the book was accepted, and it appeared in March 1985 at a price of £12.95 (about £34 today), accompanied by a BBC television interview. Hussey himself bought a remarkable 500 copies, at a cost of over £3,000 even at a discount, presumably for distribution to his friends as a parting gift, an aide memoire to what he thought the great work of his life. How many he did distribute, we do not know, but almost none of his friends’ responses to it have survived, as Hussey died on 25th July.
It was quickly reviewed in the mainstream press. Copies found their way into a handful of libraries in the UK, and it has been widely cited as the principal source on Hussey’s career since. This reliance on the book is understandable, since it gives a detailed account of the making of several of his commissions, and reproduces a number of important letters and other documents. However, Patron of Art in many ways obscures as much as it reveals.
The obscurity is in part due to the writing itself, since Hussey, for all his years spent in contemplation of the beautiful, was clumsy and banal when he took up his pen. One reviewer, the poet and publisher Christopher Reid, thought Patron of Art ‘a dull and inadequate book … lacking any sustained argument, content to itemize his successes chapter by chapter as they arise, and without any serious attempt at evaluative discrimination’. We learn of an unfortunate incident with a coffee pot when Leonard Bernstein and his wife came to visit the Deanery; of the delicious meatballs that were served at Marc Chagall’s French home. Cudlipp admitted that there was a ‘parochial atmosphere which occasionally moves to the front of the stage’, but thought it important due to its ‘authenticity’. Be that as it may, though these details were those that had most impressed themselves on Hussey’s mind, the reader could have managed without them.
Hussey was also indiscriminate in his reproduction of the letters of those he had encountered, several of which are trivial. As another reviewer noted, ‘in Patron of Art Canon Hussey relives it all, reproducing a great many letters from notable people, many of them saying what a splendid fellow Walter Hussey is. Their reproduction is probably the only lapse of taste in his career.’
This lack of discrimination would be more easily excused were Patron of Art compendious, but the surfeit of information on some matters is matched by some glaring omissions.
In Patron of Art Hussey eschewed almost entirely questions of his motives for pursuing his task with such tenacity. Absent also, as his successor as Dean, Robert Holtby, observed, is any sustained theological reflection on the relationship of the arts and the church, or of truth and beauty, all questions to which Hussey’s work ineluctably and urgently gives rise. Holtby also sagely noted the lack of any sense of the place of all these works of art in the liturgical action of the church (a point which I develop here). Patron of Art also begins with the first commissions and in doing so obliterates Hussey’s formation as a lover of art and as a priest – in fact, his first 34 years.
It is also in places verifiably inaccurate in matters of fact, and almost comically unbalanced. If the decisions made by Hussey as author of Patron of Art is a reflection of his estimation of the worth of his commissions, his judgment was surely wrong in the case of the anthem Lo, the full final sacrifice, by Gerald Finzi. Patron of Art gives fully eight pages to the two visits the soprano Kirsten Flagstad made to Chichester in 1947 and 1948. The fact of a world star of Flagstad’s reputation coming to a provincial parish church was certainly notable; the repertoire, however, was not, and neither was the fact of a recital in a church; Hussey had already established a series. Hussey also devoted half a page to the seemingly minor matter of print designs for Chichester.
For Finzi, however, there is but half a sentence, for a piece of music the first page of which has been described by one of Finzi’s foremost interpreters as the ‘best thing Finzi ever wrote’. Of all the Hussey music for Northampton, it is Lo, the full final sacrifice that has entered the repertoire, along with Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb. Hussey was usually fulsome in his thanks after a first performance or an unveiling – politeness demanded it – and this was no exception. However, there is a clue as to the possible reason for Hussey’s later downplaying of the piece from Finzi himself, who had the impression that Hussey disliked it after playing the piece through at the piano. Finzi admitted that the piece ‘isn’t like Britten, for whom Hussey has a great, great admiration.’ The making of Rejoice in the Lamb, by contrast, has its own chapter, and the first one.
I’ve argued elsewhere that Hussey was an instinctive patron, acting on his instincts and his enthusiasm. This is writ large throughout Patron of Art, in which Hussey documents the episodes he treasured in the most lavish detail, while downplaying others or omitting them entirely. And the very guilelessness of Hussey’s shaping of his record is an example of a kind of instinctive, unselfconscious fashioning of the self. In Patron of Art there is little need to read ‘against the grain’ to draw out the conscious, intentional elisions and omissions of a better writer, bent on deceiving the reader. Hussey’s estimation of his career is plain to see. It is the instinctive memoir of an instinctive patron.
Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the Arts is published by Palgrave Macmillan