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.
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.