Latest reviews for Walter Hussey

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.

Review: Walter Hussey and the arts

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

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

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

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

Walter Hussey and the Arts: a review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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