When I was perhaps seven years old, I won a Kellogg’s Art Competition. Throughout the sixties and seventies, several firms ran prestigious art competitions, and I was fortunate to receive prizes from Shell, Texaco and Kellogg’s on several occasions – usually books or art supplies. The Kellogg’s competitions culminated in A National Exhibition of Children’s Art, whereby the selected pieces were exhibited at local galleries. I never saw my work exhibited, but I was sent a very lovely set of paints and brushes which I used for many years afterwards, remarkably different from other palettes in the vividness of the pigments.
School art at that time was executed using powder paints which were only as effective as the skill of the mixer, did not sit well on the ‘sugar paper’ used and had usually begun to flake off long before the paintings were taken home, applied using a one-size-fits-all brush that allowed no room for finer work. In theory, the colours were blend-able to achieve different hues and tints, but, in practice, it was incredibly difficult to obtain the colours that were envisioned. As young as I was, I found the whole thing disheartening, causing one teacher to obliquely write on my report, “Would rather write, but paints to please”. I think I first became consciously aware of how much colour meant to me, when I became the recipient of a red ball that was a give-away with Tide washing powder. ‘True Red’, or, indeed, true any colour, was not something I had been aware of before, and it opened my sensibilities enough to recognise that dull, flat shades that almost inevitably had an undertone of muddy puddle brown or dirty purple were not something I wanted to engage with.
My winnings had already provided me with a selection of more suitable palettes, including a lovely Reeves black watercolour tin, but my Kellogg’s prize was my first introduction to the Reeves Tempodisc paint cakes, with rich, gorgeous colours I never knew existed before, and a texture that was not only easy for a child to use, but gave a satisfying coverage. There were twelve cakes, including a magenta, a bright cerulean blue, a glowing tangerine, and a glorious egg yolk yellow that shone. They were colours that I could never have obtained, no matter how skilful I had been at mixing, and I adored them.
At around about the same age, Christmas gifts often included a colouring book of some variety. For the most part, I found no satisfaction in the heavy black line drawings that seldom had any theme or cohesion, preferring a blank sheet of paper to work on, but it was the covers that really put me off. In the sixties, there was a bizarre fad for employing mise en abyme art on imagery aimed at children, and it scared me witless; I would become increasingly anxious at the recursive droste loops, worrying I would somehow get trapped in the seemingly never-ending vortex. The fear ran so deep, that I still irrationally struggle with such images and feel my heart starting to race when I encounter them; unlike Russell Hoban’s mouse child I never did scratch through the last visible dog and see the shine on the tin. My saving grace were two colouring books from a very dear great aunt. The first was focused on world maps, and the second was the story of Cinderella with illustrations to colour in. They both had a linear, cohesive journey, and artwork that was done with care and attention to detail. I enjoyed both these books so much, taking tremendous care and attention, using my Tempodisc paint cakes to paint in the details of the maps and to let my imagination run wild in designing ballgowns for Cinderella and her sisters.
My most joyous moments were spent by myself, with my art supplies and a screw top jar of water, and although I lost some special creations to the big organisation art competitions, I also had tremendous gain from them, and it was through my prizes that I really came to discover the value of making good quality art materials accessible to children.
I arrived at the fourth destination on my journey soaked through and well and truly 'nithered', as we say in Yorkshire, having struggled to push through the biting wind, rain water dripping down my neck and a very wet and muddy pathway, but I am so glad that I did continue. The chapel at Snape Castle and the stunning installation by Jonathan Gabb were my favourites in the entire trail.
The name Snape comes from an old Norse word for a boggy tract of uncultivated land, and whilst only the chapel is open to the public, the track through the grounds clearly shows that the castle, first built in the mid thirteenth century, has no stone foundations, but rests upon oak piles that were driven into the marshy ground. Passed through the Neville family line until the eighteenth century, perhaps one of its most famous residents was Catherine Parr who was married to John Neville until his death in 1543, the same year she went on to marry Henry V111. Catherine is known to have spent long hours in the chapel there.
The chapel, still used for regular worship, part of the Masham parish, and with a faithful congregation, is reached via an elegant staircase, and the only concession to modernity is the addition of low voltage electric lighting; other than this, it is preserved in its original state. I physically tingled as I stepped over the threshold and back into history. The woodwork carving and stained glass are stunning, and looking upwards the painted ceiling created by the Italian artist Antonio Verrio (1636 - 1707), who also worked on the ceilings at Burghley House for the Cecil family, must have been glorious when first worked. The ceiling fresco was damaged when the chapel was used for a brief moment in its 18th century history to store grain and straw, but the egg tempura ochres, rich brick reds and lazuline blues still shine like jewels, and it is this feature of the chapel that Jonathan Gabb chose to work with in his installation, 'Wonder And War In Heaven'. Gabb's work draws out the spirit and drama in Verrio's work, referencing the vibrant colours of the fresco by creating a third ceiling (the first is the original chapel ceiling and the second is the ceiling made to contain Verrio's painting) of knotted cords and an interwoven canopy of threads that draw the eye to the original, but also provide something new and contemporary in the space. It is a reaching out; an acknowledgement and honouring of the history and faithfulness of those who have found fellowship there, but also connecting them to the present, making intrinsic links with a faith that has endured.
I lay down in the nave of the aisle to appreciate the synthesis between the old and the new, and I was deeply moved. I adore exquisite, old architectural features and it breaks my heart to see churches tearing them out believing that they can't move on without them, instead of imaginatively incorporating these treasures into their plans for the future; Gadd's work symbolically showed the value in holding the two in harmony. That is this artist's gift; to meld sculpture, painting and the built environment, his process allowing the work to inhabit a space, its architecture forming its outcome.
The title for his piece comes from a reference in Revelation 12:9 which relays the story of the dragon being cast out of heaven, and with both colour and form this also comes to live in this place. It is celebratory, a dance of continuance that embraces and enfolds all who come - whether traditionalist, contemporist or a sprinkling of both - in a kaleidoscope of ever-changing colour.
Apart from the sheer beauty of the piece and its effect on my emotions, I spent some time looking at Gadd's working practice - i.e, how he had installed the work without compromising the structure of the building in any way whatsoever, It was quite a feat of engineering, and I learned so much about the possibilities that are there, simply by studying his methodologies. I stayed far longer here than in any of the other places, was completely mesmerised by it and left with a head full of presence and ideas. Collecting my postcard on the way out, I switched off the lights just as the afternoon sun was at its highest and a prismic shaft of light filtered through the stained glass, scattering the colours in a beautiful rainbow that over-arched the altar. It seemed fitting.
The third church I came to on Sculpt, the Art in Churches pilgrimage, was the Church of Saint Michael the Archangel at Well.
Well is an ancient settlement, and this church is at least the third that has stood on this site. An entry in the Doomsday Book of 1086 reads, 'Welle - there is a church there and a priest'. The church of that period was superseded by a Norman building (c1190), and the present church was begun in the early fourteenth century. The building has a wealth of interesting features from different periods of history including a Roman mosaic, medieval stained glass, sixteenth century graffiti and the original altar. It is this blending and melding of the fabric of centuries that makes up both the church and the village that inspired Harriet Hill's installation piece, 'Rock of Ages'.
Rock of Ages takes the form of a suspended rock about three metres in length, formed in willow and then covered in wet felting using wool from the local Masham sheep, with baler twine worked into the surface. It is suspended from the church roof with taut shock cords. The Rock is, perhaps obviously, a reference to August Toplady's hymn of 1763, 'Rock of Ages', and symbolises the community that has been there since ancient times, layered and evolving, but always present, the local wool and familiar farm materials a reflection of the ordinary people who have worked the land around the church and played a crucial part in its long history. The taut, red suspension cords draw attention to the architecture and space within the building and speak of the life blood that has ebbed and flowed through the community since ancient times, and as the rock floats eerily above the ground, casting strange shadows as it is pushed back and forth, perhaps it gives us a cue to consider what the future will contribute to this unbroken heritage.
Harriet Hill's work responds instinctively to the specifics of each space, her work as a contemporary felt maker challenging ambiguity, scale, but also a great sense of play, inviting viewers to explore in a very tactile and fun way. I watched two small boys push the rock back and forth between them, enjoying the bounce and elasticity of this giant egg swinging through space, and reflected that their engagement in this ancient place was now as much a part of its timeline as a Roman mosaic, a mention in the Doomsday book and the colours that lit up the floor from medieval glass-work.
I collected my postcard and continued on to Snape.
West Tanfield is the kind of church you'd imagine a bonnet-ed Austen heroine to emerge from, clutching a posy of myrtle, having just married the scarlet clad officer by her side. It is beautiful as a building and set in a breathtaking location. This traditional English identity made the installation that greeted me as I stepped through the doorway all the more surprising and wonderful.
Eduardo Niebla is Moroccan born, exiled to Spain at the age of five, now living in North Yorkshire, and widely regarded as one of the greatest guitarists and composers of his generation. He describes music as 'the ultimate tool for sculpting feelings and thoughts in any imaginary landscape, real or unreal', and says, "for a long time I have felt that art is a universal language with no barriers to humanity".
'The Seven Colours' is a sound installation consisting of a composition about community, beginning with those drawn from the village of West Tanfield and moving gradually outward to embrace a global community, the sentiment being that mankind should celebrate communities of every kind across the seven continents. The first sound is one of a train, reflecting the fact that a railway line used to run through West Tanfield, supporting local agriculture and industry, and transporting soldiers - some of whose names are listed on the church walls - to war. Running water is recorded from the River Ure which flows through the village, symbolic of the connections it gathers as it meanders on its way. The children of the school, the church bells and the braying of the village donkey are woven with indigenous chants of tribesmen far away, music of different cultures, orchestras, rainfall in Amazonian forests, welsh choirs and much, much more, filling the amphitheatre of the church with sound that spoke of diversity and yet deep, deep connection; of the local and the global and the richness of community that unites us.
I'm not a person for whom sound is an easy medium. I don't often get it. Yet, as I explored this lovely church, the soundscape following me, it filtered into my spirit and moved me greatly, until at one point I found myself joining in the swell of a large choir singing 'Cwm Rhondda', and at another sobbing quietly to a stick tapping lullaby.
The church itself has gorgeous woodcarvings to discover, a very different kind of cross to most and, whilst those soldiers who didn't come back are listed, so also are those who did, celebrated with pride and dignity; the setting echoing that sense of deep community and place.
It was a reminder of diversity, of richness of culture and tradition, of how the past can inform the present and the global can enrich the local, but it also spoke deeply of the potential inherent in each one of us to reach beyond the edges of what we know and ever extend our borders to embrace new knowledge and people who are different to us, but can teach us much.
As I collected my postcard to mark this stopping place on my journey, I felt genuinely gathered in a global community in a way that had both provoked and soothed me.
Now on to Well...
Aerende is an old English word from which our modern 'errand' is derived. It essentially means 'to go on a mission or a journey to complete a task or discover an answer. It has a sense of pilgrimage about it, and it was this essence that I found running through the Art in Churches presentation, Sculpt, a circular route of seven churches to walk between, each containing an installation, with a postcard to pick up at each one to mark the progress through the journey.
I chose to begin my task of completing the circuit at North Stainley, a picturesque village in the Harrogate district of North Yorkshire, arriving right in the middle of the UCI Road World Championships, an event which the whole district had embraced in some stunning displays of art and celebratory support. The pupils of the tiny school next door to the church had all designed their own cycling jerseys in the UCI colours which festooned the railings, the village bus stop had been decked in coloured spots, the zebra crossing yarn bombed in appropriate stripes and the church gates held the image of a jersey cleverly woven through the wrought iron work. There was a real sense of carnival wherever I looked.
The church of St Mary the Virgin is a beautiful building, overflowing with unusual stained glass, glorious furnishings, art work that shows its historic links with Ripon Cathedral, a fascinating churchyard with some very magnificent memorials and a setting that is sanctuary to both wildlife and human, but this peaceful haven also obviously has a tremendous amount going on and is one of the lively hubs of village life. It seemed overwhelmingly 'right' that this church should be chosen to house Sarah Williams' piece, 'Every Small Difference'.
Williams is the daughter of Reg Williams, one of the York Four, her career path determined early and having her first public exhibition at age eight. In more recent years, she has brought her skills to bear on Interior Design, Architectural Design, Furniture Design and Jewellery making, before returning to painting full-time, describing oil paint, her natural medium, as "the smell, the texture, the depth and colour of pigments, total nectar".
'Every Small Difference' takes the form of a tryptych, representing the Trinity of the Christian faith, twelve bubbles - one for each of the twelve disciples - and three mirrored orbs which fracture the triune panels relaying a sense of both the viewer and the institution having become distorted and separated from each other. An overarching rainbow is fading and incomplete.
The conversation the artist wants to pursue is that of the vulnerability of the planet in an ongoing war with climate change, and our responsibility as individuals to protect it, but also our own vulnerabilities of finding place and spirituality. The bubbles are fragile and can be popped at any time, be they those that represent the delicacy of the eco-system or those that arise from our own sensitivities when circumstances overwhelm us. Williams suggests that the church is a place where traditionally people found sanctuary in times of crisis, war and poverty, and that, as the upheaval of climate change and other world crises make their impact there is an opportunity for church to take up that role again, but for that to realistically happen a programme of small differences needs to be instigated to repair damage and rebuild trust, in much the same way as rebuilding a planet takes the efforts of individuals and collectives to do their bit making small differences to influence the whole ecological debate. It is a complex duality of thought processes, and for me it felt too contrived and didn't quite hold together, but 'Every Small Difference' is a very peaceful art work, it sat well in the quiet oasis that is North Stainley, and I was pleased that I'd seen it.
Having collected my postcard, my journey then took me to West Tanfield...
In my choice of work to represent the colour blue, I’m for the first time selecting a piece by an artist who is still very actively working and whom I very much admire; indeed, I’ve followed his blog for some time and his recent myths work blows me away. He began his career as an actor, choreographer and theatre director, and that sense of ordered scenography, versatility of expression and considered movement still lies at the seam of every art work.
The piece I’ve selected is, ‘Christ writes in the dust - the woman taken in adultery’, an acrylic on panel by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, painted in 2011. The artist has made the conscious decision that the woman should be older, her body not the stick thin image of a young flirt, but heavier, more worldly-wise and defiantly aware that she was flaunting her sexuality; the head of Christ bent down to her level, His stance echoing her own in almost balletic precision, identifying totally with her and slightly in front, so that He would bear the brunt of any stones aimed at her. The setting is based on sketches the artist had made of Montclar in Catalonia - a picturesque village with a brooding darkness of bitterness and unforgiveness relating to events that happened in the Spanish Civil War of 70 years ago.
Blue is apparently the most calming of colours. For a subject that is horribly cruel, the hues of this beautiful piece imbue it with a disarming gentleness. The viewer sees the stones drop from the hands as we gaze.
Whenever this piece is shown, you will see visitors contorting themselves to try and see the expression on Jesus’ face; they seem not to be able to resist it. And perhaps there is something metaphorical in that for those who bend any which way to discover the face of Jesus.
I love this quote from Hicks-Jekins’ blog –
‘In dance terms we talk about ‘muscle memory’. This is the process by which a gruelling schedule of training and rehearsal become so much a part of the dancer’s body that the technique and the steps barely require conscious thought, freeing the mind to fully give itself up to the performance. Painting, I’ve found, is exactly like that. At this distance from my first career I can see now that I gave up one form of rehearsal only to adopt another. I simply relinquished the performance as the mode of expression to replace it with the exhibition. Some things in life really don’t change. I even have ‘Opening Nights’!’
Sheffield based John Brokenshire’s painting is my choice for the colour ‘indigo’. Although it breaks my own brief in that it is widely used, it is an incredibly powerful image and every viewing of it brings out more.
Brokenshire left the work untitled. I’ve seen it given the titles of both ‘Pentecost’ and ‘Dove’ by others, but neither seem to me to convey the full expanse of the piece - although I can fully understand why they are there. Brokenshire said that he ‘“was keen to get a very loosely represented image of a bird in space into my painting. But I wanted a sense of a bird hovering, not on a trajectory. At the same time, I hoped to refer in some way to angels: even if very obliquely by colour alone or by suggestion. Darkness had to be the counterpoint to this.…’
I, personally, see the outline of what appears to be a cross beam and a head bowed directly underneath and the shadowy, lost figures in the top right hand corner, and it speaks to me very powerfully and poignantly of that point where darkness came and the spirit of Jesus left this earthly body, finding it beautifully reminiscent of those times when I have sat with the dying.
But each viewer will bring their own gaze… it is enough to say that it increases in beauty with each look, and ‘Untitled’ is the most perfect of titles in my opinion; to try to give it one is to clip the bird’s wings and limit its flight.
I struggled to find a ‘violet’ selection. There are two in the collection that have strong purplish ranges, both by the same artist, but neither resonate with me and I would feel inadequate to comment upon them, so, as this is my personal curation and I can be as controversial with it as I wish, I’ve opted instead to draw attention to something that I find very delicately done and that has hints of violet blue that on the surface brings a delightful texture to the piece, but that I cannot look at now without feeling revulsion and that I feel strongly should no longer be a part of the collection.
Eric Gill’s ‘The Annunciation’ shows a colourful angel Gabriel (whilst angels are generally believed to be non gender specific, the three named in Scripture are referred to and named in the masculine) appearing in the bedroom of the young girl Mary to announce that she is going to have a child, the ‘Ave Maria’ (‘Hail Mary’) and ‘Fiat mihi’ (‘Let it be unto to me’) written in reversed text on the wall behind – the picture was originally done to be viewed through a mirrorscope – and the placement of a lily in a vase to indicate her purity. The girl is obviously in adoration of the figure in front of her.
Yet, we have known for over three decades now that Eric Gill, a very famous, prolific and renowned artist, repeatedly raped and sexually abused his two daughters from their pre-teenage years onwards and even kept notes of the measurements of their maturing body parts alongside measurements of his penis size, both flaccid and erect.
In 2017, Ditchling Art Gallery, where connections to Gill’s family still run deep, addressed the problem of Eric Gill honestly and openly and after huge deliberation, Nathaniel Hepburn drew the conclusion,
“At one end, there are those who believe biography to be irrelevant; and at the other, there are those who believe he was a disgusting man, and wonder why he should be shown at all. Most are in the middle. Even within the team at Ditchling, different people feel different things. But in the end, the only reason for doing the show is because he is an extraordinary artist.”
Hepburn did it responsibly, taking advice from those trained in dealing with abuse, and whether or not we individually agree with that decision, especially in the light of high profile sex abuse cases in recent years, Ditchling is, at the end of the day, a commercial gallery operating as a business for whom local man Gill’s work provides a good stream of income. In such context, the very real argument of separating the art from the artist has a place for some.
However, I would contest that touring Gill’s work in times when the appalling revelations of abuse by Ministers and Clergy in religious organisations, including the Methodist Church, are being continually investigated, is neither wise nor appropriate, and is deeply insensitive. There are so many other worthwhile artists doing incredible work on spiritual themes that to quietly retire the work of an artist who does nothing to enhance the church’s desire to honestly confront its past and move on with integrity and grace, would be no loss whatsoever and would be deemed a responsible act.
The Methodist Modern Art Collection can be viewed online here.
* Since writing this post, I am pleased to report that the Methodist Modern Art Collection is going to be relaunched in September 2021 as part of the Coventry City of Culture events, and it is my understanding that Eric Gill's work has been 'retired'. Some exciting contemporary artists working around spiritual themes now have a place within the collection.
This week is Museums Week, an annual awareness event when museums and art galleries highlight the treasures in their collections by focusing on a specific theme. The theme for 2019 is 'The Colours Of The Rainbow'.
I have no official authority to do this, but purely as a personal exercise, I thought it would be interesting to look at the Methodist Modern Art Collection and to curate it using these same values that galleries across the country are using, in order to highlight some of the pieces that perhaps don't get as much of an airing as others do (and to contemplate a couple of my favourites) .
I'm guessing that it's no surprise that I chose one of Sadao Watanabe's two prints contained in the collection to represent the colour red. Either one would have fitted the brief, but I love the gentle humour of 'People Visit The Stable'; the way Joseph holds his finger to his mouth to hush the folks arriving, the way they stoop to enter the cave, and that disgruntled look on the horse's face cracks me up every time I see it.
Watanabe began his career as a textile dye artist, and although this is a paper print it still retains that sense of mingei folk art and a fabric quality; the lines of the Japanese clothed figures gently softened by his use of distressed kozo paper and the application of natural pigments that have been prepared in a medium of soybean milk, allowing the protein in the milk to bind the colours to the surface of the paper.
Incredibly private and reserved, Jacques Islin, who died in 2003, has been described by his friend and theatre collaborator, musician Jean-Luc Muller as '...a bright palette just like his paintings, a creator, a designer of ideas, an authentic artist...alternately storyteller, historian or man on the ground and of course, outstanding art teacher.' His gifts made sense to him only when they could be used by others, turning down educational accolades that would have taken him away from his students, saying, "Teaching is not filling vases, but lighting fires".
Giving his paintings a title was a detail he rarely bothered with, so his wife, Helene, and Jean-Luc Muller did it for him, and it was they who named this piece that glows with rich, vibrant tones. Helene explained, "Together, we tried not to betray the message that Jacques wanted to convey when we had to translate the images, the feelings and the spirit of his works into words. Have we arrived? ... Have we succeeded? ... Only Jacques could affirm or deny it."
(*NB; Caption on above image should read '1933 -2003'.)
It would be all too easy for my choice to represent Yellow to be Dr Jyoti Sahi's 'Dalit Madonna'. A print of the piece hung in the dining room of Barefoot College, I knew and loved it long before I realised it was part of the Methodist Collection, but now it has become worn to me through over familiarity, used widely on publicity and magazine covers, and I want this curation to draw out the less well known.
The story behind Ceri Richards' 'The Supper At Emmaus' is a wonderful one and those who see the guache sketch as part of the collection often miss its significance.
Richards wasn’t known as a painter who chose religious subjects at this point in his career. The Welsh landscape and its industries were his main influence at that time, perhaps best known for his paintings based on the poetry of Dylan Thomas and those that reflected his own musical interests.
However, when St Edmunds College became a full college of Oxford University in 1967, the student-run Picture Committee decided that a new chapel altarpiece should be commissioned to mark the event, and after discussion with the then College Chaplain, it was decided that the event in Luke’s Gospel in which, after the Crucifixion, Christ appears to two of the disciples in the village of Emmaus, should be the subject, the title being, ‘The Supper At Emmaus’. A list of possible artists was drawn up and letters were sent inviting them to submit sketches for an altarpiece design, with the terms being that all submitted sketches would be bought and retained by the Hall for £15 each, and that the chosen artist would be paid £300 for the finished altarpiece.
The Fellows favoured Stanley Spencer who was, of course, well used to doing contemporary gospel based work, but he wasn’t prepared to do it for the fee being allocated to the project. Both John Craxton and John Piper, two other very obvious choices, turned down the invitation to submit - Craxton ventured that it was not possible to paint a true religious painting in the modern era, but he offered instead to paint a large painting covering the whole east wall with “a rather abstract landscape with the symbols of Christianity in it”, and Piper did not like the terms of the commission, stating that “to complete a sketch it is necessary to complete the whole work in one’s mind”. The Australian Artists, Roy de Maistre (his ‘Stations Of The Cross’ hangs in Westminster Cathedral) and Louis James (primarily a landscape artist), Theyre Lee Elliot ( famed in the first instance for his commercial art designs such as the Speedbird logo for Imperial Airways and the Post Office symbols for air-mail and the telephone, but after a serious illness in 1950 he turned to religious art, including the ‘The Agony’ which is also now part of the Methodist collection) and Welsh artist Ceri Richards, all submitted sketches. Lee Elliot’s foray into spiritual subjects was very new and only Maistre had an established reputation as a religious painter. Although he wasn’t chosen for the commission, Maistre worked up a painting from his sketch, retained the title, ‘The Supper At Emmaus’, and, surprise, surprise, that oil painting is now part of the Methodist Modern Art Collection too!
After much deliberation, Richards’ was invited to take the commission but, whilst the sketch submitted had all the compositional elements, something was missing. The Bursar, Reggie Alton, felt that the colours weren’t bold enough to be seen throughout the chapel, so the artist was asked to do another sketch, re-thinking his colours; the white table cloth and that radiant stream of light behind Jesus, which together echo the cross, were transformed to the glorious yellow we see today, and the other tones were made much richer and bolder.
When the altarpiece was finished, Richards’ designed a gold gilded frame for it, which was made up by Alfred Hecht, the well known framer responsible for most of the frames in the National Portrait Gallery from about 1947 – 1974, framer to Francis Bacon and Graham Sutherland, and who famously said, ‘When I die, let my epitaph be “Alfred Hecht, the man who invented the coloured mount.”
And so it is that now we have this wonderful piece of art in the Methodist Art Collection and there is so much about this story that makes it special. The commissioning of the altarpiece didn’t come from the high officials of the college, but from the student body; a group of young people who were trusted with every part of it, and whose legacy lives on long after they have gone from the place. They took a gamble on an artist who hadn’t built his reputation on religious art and they saw a sketch that wasn’t quite what they wanted, but trusted its potential and pursued it. They had the confidence to say, “No” to a very well known artist who sniffed at their budget and was greedy for more, and then there was Maistre who recognised that nothing is wasted unless we allow it to be and continued to work on his rejected sketch.
There’s more. We now know that Richards’ did an earlier sketch before he submitted for the commission. It's quite different from the other, showing Jesus standing, one stranger appearing visibly taken aback by the signs of the nails on His hands, the other with what appear to be female facial features remains seated, perhaps not having realised the import of what her companion is trying to point out yet. The three sketches together all give a fascinating insight into the creative process of the artist as he progressed developmentally from first receiving the invitation to submission, through to the finished piece.
For my choice for 'green', I have opted for Eularia Clarke's 'Storm Over The Lake'.
Most of Clarke's works are colourful and threaded through with a wit that has seen her compared to Stanley Spencer. For example, I particularly like her portrayal of Zaccheus as a podgy middle-aged man who has long lost the skill of climbing trees, but who is determined to pull his creaky body slowly up, whilst the children who have effortlessly scrambled up to watch the spectacle laugh at his awkwardness, and her portrayal of a child Jesus helping his dad by carrying timber over His shoulder in a way that reverberates in His later years is both endearingly beautiful and choking.
'Storm Over The Lake' appears far more troubled, BUT the fact that the collection does have two of Eularia Clarke's works is extraordinary in itself and her story is one of true conversion to religion.
Eularia Clarke was born in 1914, to agnostic parents, but into a creative family. Her brothers, Anthony and Francis Baines became well known musicians, and Eularia was encouraged in her art skills.
At the age of seventeen, she visited Florence, was captivated by the frescoes of Fra Angelico and Giotto and began to paint gospel scenes for herself. Seeking to discover more of God, she won a scholarship to St Anne's College Oxford to study Theology, but said that the course put her off religion for the next twenty years and used her time there to attend the Ruskin School of Art, where she was taught life drawing by Gilbert Spencer, Barnett Freedman and Albert Rutherstone.
In common with most women of that era, when she married in 1937 her time was occupied with housework, raising children and the world around her, and, apart from occasional sketches of her children, she put her art aside. By the time the war was over so was her marriage and, left without any financial support, she gave recorder and guitar lessons to provide an income for her family.
In 1956, she met a young musician who happened to be a Catholic, her interest in matters of faith was re-awakened and in 1959, suffering from breast cancer, she converted to Catholicism. In 1960, having had a mastectomy, she went on pilgrimage to Lourdes in search of healing. Whilst watching the other visitors worshipping, she was inspired to begin sketching them and felt a 'call' to illustrate the gospels. She went home and turned the sketches into oils - the first she had done in over twenty years. But there was a condition to the call. She felt that none of the work she did was to be sold, but was to be kept gathered in one collection as a ministry to the world.
So, for the next ten years, in over 88 canvases, she brought the gospels alive through paint, the characters, clothing and settings of 1960's England.
In 1967, the cancer returned, this time in her lung, and she finally died in November 1970.
All of her 'ministry paintings' are held by the Eularia Clarke Trust, except for two. In 1965, she broke her rule and sold both 'Storm Over The Lake' and 'The Five Thousand' to the Methodist Modern Art Collection, making copies for her own collection. Nobody knows why she acquiesced just this once, but I'm so glad that she did.
The Methodist Modern Art Collection can be viewed online here.
When I was given the privilege of working with seven co-curators on an exhibition for Hull Ferens that would provoke and stimulate interest in the gallery’s oldest piece of artwork, Pietro Lorenzetti’s ‘Christ between St Peter and St Paul’, I knew that this was something special.
The Lorenzetti was acquired by the Ferens in 2013, for £1,612,940, with the help of an Art Fund Grant and the Heritage Lottery Fund, after the culture secretary had placed an export ban upon it to prevent it leaving the country. Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, said at the time, 'This is a very exciting moment not just for the Ferens and for Hull but for the wider British public too. As the only fully autographed work by Lorenzetti in the UK, it’s a hugely significant acquisition.’
After a year of conservation, restoration, stabilising the structure and cleaning, the work was put on permanent display in Gallery 1, where it looks magnificent. It dates from around 1320, constitutes one section of an altar piece, probably executed for a church in Lorenzetti’s home town of Siena and the multiple layers in its making show a great depth of training and skill. First any knots or holes in the wooden panel were filled, sealed with glue and smoothed. Linen was applied over the panel with glue and then multiple layers of gesso were put on to prepare the surface. Lorenzetti would then have done the basic under-drawing and inscribed the outline with a sharp tool, marking out the parts that were to be painted and those that were to be gilded. The gold leaf was applied first, burnished and details added with punching or inscribing techniques. The paint for the panel was egg tempura, mixed from naturally occurring minerals, insect dyes and spices. Lorenzetti has also employed mordant gilding for the gold lines on Christ’s robes, which involved boiling together oil and resin to make a sticky adhesive that could be finely painted to control the metal leaf.
The painter was working at a time of great transition in art, the gestures and facial expressions of his figures, the three dimensional awareness and depth of space around each one, a significant departure from all that had gone before. Saint Paul stands on the left with a sword in his hand wrapped around with a belt, the first a reminder of his beheading as a martyr, the second a symbol of his saintly status as only those of high rank were allowed to wear belts, and on the right is Saint Peter, considered the first Pope, and holding what is still the symbol of Popes, the keys to the kingdom of heaven. At the centre is Christ Pantocrator, one hand lifted in blessing, the golden lines on his robe symbolising his divinity. The inclinations of the heads, the eye glances and facial expressions all give the impression that we have stumbled upon them in a silent conversation.
It was from this thought that the concept for the 'Silent Conversation: Lorenzetti And The Ferens' Collection exhibition emerged, linking the Lorenzetti to other Ferens’ works – a number of them not seen in the public gallery for many years, and I was approached to be a part of the team that would co-curate.
Divided into three parts, the exhibition opened to the public on March 17th, 2018, in Gallery 11 at the Ferens. It traces ‘silent conversations’, where lips are firmly closed, but other aspects of gesture, location, colour or expression in the works conveys an unspoken interaction or internal conversation. ‘Solitude’ includes those works where sole figures are depicted. ‘Pairings’, as might be guessed, investigates exchanges between two figures, and ‘Company’ the untold conversations that may be taking place in works where a number of figures share the space. The use of film, audio-labelling for izi travel viewers and conventional labelling has further added other dimensions to the exhibition.
This exhibition has been an absolute joy to put together. The word ‘curate’ has its etymology in the Latin curare, meaning to take care. In Roman times it signified the person who took care of the bath houses, and in medieval times it had evolved to be the name of the priest who cared for souls - we still have our curates today. Only in the eighteenth century did the word assume a usage in caring for arts and artefacts. Today it means to safeguard the heritage of the works of art, to select new work, to connect it to art history and to display or arrange the work. But, of course, it is so much more. It is also about putting together a good exhibition that will provoke conversation and interest in those who come to view.
'Silent Conversation: Lorenzetti And The Ferens' Collection' can be seen in Gallery 11 of the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.
This part of my site isn't about me at all.
It is about watching, observing and reading the work of others. Those who know what they are about, who have honed their crafts over many years and for whom I have the greatest respect and admiration.
I have learned, and continue to learn, so much from each show watched, each book read, each art work discovered and each person encountered, and I am humbled by their generosity of spirit in giving so much.