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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.