The Vulnerary of Christ
The Mysterious Emblems of the Wounds in the Body and Heart of Jesus Christ
- John Champoux, Trans.
Angelico Press, 2020
In recent years there has been a significant and growing reassertion of the depth of Christian imagination. Across the fields of biblical scholarship, art, architecture, liturgical practice and theological thinking there is an increasing recognition: that in the efforts of the last century to present the Christian truths in a manner deemed acceptable to ‘modern man’ something essential has been obscured, and is even in danger of being lost. The rot of Modernism is finally being seen for what it is; a fundamental attack on the incarnate Word which ends in the Faith being mere set of moral precepts. Its symptoms of abstraction and evacuation of meaning have begun to be exorcised. There is much still to do.
This publication can be seen as part of a wider intellectual and spiritual project of recent times to reintegrate symbolic and mystical thought into Christian life. And, in doing so, to help rediscover the richness and depth of imagination that has been under attack from an excessive rationalism both within and outside the Church. Angelico Press has now for some years been publishing French writers in translation (Jean Hani, Jean Borella) who have been and are engaged in this work so as to open up their thought to an Anglophone audience. The Vulnerary of Christ is their latest in this genre, though by no means the most recently written.
Indeed, the manuscript was completed shortly before the death of the author in 1946 but has only recently been published in French (2017) and now in English (2020). A full and fascinating account can be found in the editorial notes. In this work Charbonneau-Lassay traces the development of the representation and symbolism of the Passion of Christ from the peace of Constantine to the eighteenth century. In ‘the fourth century’ he writes ‘there [is] manifested in Christian art a mysterious sign that will have an unprecedented vogue through all the intervening centuries until the end of the Middle Ages, a sign that nine-tenths of today’s Christians no longer understand.’
This ancient symbol is the Signaculum Domini, the five wounds of Jesus which are ‘the final seal of the world’s redemption and the mission on earth of the Christ of God.’ They are represented in the most basic manner as five points arranged cross-wise, but through centuries of prayer, imagination and devotion many layers of symbolism have emerged. He traces this development, and the cultural influence and spiritual significance of this symbol, connecting it finally to the more recent and familiar idea of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
These investigations are richly illustrated with a variety of brass rubbings (such as ‘The five wounds “sources of spiritual remedies” on the brass of Robert Hacumblen’s tomb in King’s College chapel at Cambridge (England), 15th Century), engravings (like that of a ‘Scapular carried by M. Lhuillier de la Chapelle during the Wars of 1793’) and drawings (‘One of angels on the Alpais ciborium, 12th century. Louvre Museum.’). This is a detailed antiquarian study, certainly, but it is by means dry. With a flourish he sets each foray into a particular aspect of representation or symbolism in its historical context, and throughout the five hundred or so pages of text the author’s deep love for Jesus shines through.
Unsurprisingly, the focus is primarily on evidence found in France, but as noted above there are English examples adduced as well as items from Spain, the Holy Land, Portugal and elsewhere. What may be of particular interest to readers of this magazine, and especially in the year of Her Majesty’s Jubilee, is the short section on ‘The Sacred Heart of the Royal Stall at Windsor (England)’ where we see a sixteenth century depiction, above the sovereign’s place in the Chapel of Saint George of ‘the heart of Jesus, surrounded by the crown of thorns and rent by a wound from which issues an outpouring of blood.’ This depiction of the love of God cannot be written off as an excessive Continental devotion!
It is unfortunate that the plates were not able to be produced in colour, for whilst many are line drawings, a number of oil paintings are also reproduced. However I think all are available to view online from the galleries that hold them so this is not a serious problem. There is some very occasional repetition of examples, which I think is due to the fact that some chapters began life as articles or drafts of articles. Nevertheless this is an impressive work of wide ranging detail in which you will learn about matters as diverse as ‘The Triple Precinct’ as a representation of the redemptive shedding of Christ’s blood to the significance of ‘Heart-Shaped Sundials.’ Taken altogether, this volume is a learned demonstration of some of the variety and depth of ways in which the unfathomable love of God has been described, recorded, meditated upon and believed.
Company of Preachers
A Collection of CR Sermons
Robert Mercer CR, Ed.
This slim volume from Mirfield Publications, the third in a series about aspects of the Community of the Resurrection, pulls together a collection of twenty one, mainly-short, homilies, which largely centre on the theme of resurrection.
Edited by Robert Mercer CR, the book is divided into three main sections: after introductory material, readers are presented with a sermon from Charles Gore on the religious life, preached at the Community Church of the Society of St John the Evangelist in Oxford in 1915, which frames the book proper; then the largest section, comprising sixteen homilies preached by members of the Community at various locations between 1958 and 2021; and finally concluding matter labelled ‘An Oxford Movement Trilogy’ which ends with an extract from a sermon on ‘The Cross’ by Eric Simmons CR.
The material in the book is a pleasant and enjoyable read, highlights some of the important figures in CR and some of the important milestones through which the Community has lived, punctuates the text with light-hearted pictures of the brethren, and overall captures a variety of material associated with the Community. Its organisation is, however, a little frustrating: the middle section features sermons in alphabetical order of surname of preacher, which, whilst being perhaps a fair way to order the text – ever a consideration in a monastic community, I’m sure! – nonetheless means one jumps around historical contexts. Indeed, in this reviewer’s opinion, the volume could have been improved by putting the texts in chronological order and adding a slightly-more substantive paragraph setting out the wider context in which each sermon was delivered, rather than the random quotations on preaching which seem to have been used to fill in the gaps, as interesting as they are. This would add depth to what is a good collection, but which seems to lack structure.
Fr Robert notes in his introductory matter that he has tried to preserve the style of the preachers, despite written material lacking the ability to convey the subject’s ‘whimsical humour… engaging charm… magnetic personality… [and] polished oratory.’
Yet he should not fear: each author does bring his own style and personality to the fore, including the editor himself, whose nature comes across in the amusing comments he makes where he has a voice (e.g. ‘Readers of sermons have one advantage over hearers of sermons. Readers can fling a book into the waste paper basket, whereas hearers must wait more politely for their suffering to end’).
As with preachers in the pulpit, of course, I nonetheless found that I engaged with some of these styles more than others. For me, the older sermons were the more engaging. Not because the more recent – and there are, proportionally, a larger number, making the book a little imbalanced – sermons are not instructive, but because of the general shift in homiletics which has occurred between the early-Victorian period and our own, where clearly-articulated theology and doctrine have given way to ruminations on experience. The more modern homilies, for instance, labour over many stories which serve to illustrate single, simple points, whereas the older material fires doctrine and good old-fashioned Biblical exegesis at the reader in plenty. To me, the more modern material can be somewhat ethereal by contrast, though of course it is often this that goes down well with modern audiences.
Whilst the editor notes in his delightfully-titled introduction, ‘An Explanation’, reading homilies is the habit of the few rather than the many, the love for and appreciation of CR within the Church of England and beyond means this is a book which many more than expected might pick up. It would primarily suit a lay (as opposed to academic) audience, and could easily accompany an individual on a short retreat or pilgrimage, or provide material on which to reflect in one’s daily prayer and study time. Equally, it might be of interest to those considering a monastic vocation, or to preachers looking for a little inspiration when preaching ‘for the nth time’ on celebrations such as Easter or Trinity Sundays – I always find it useful to hear what others have had to say about such things. I was very pleased to be offered this book for review, and hope that this light volume, which is testimony to the variety of characters, and depth of experience of CR, might be an inspiration to those who come across it.
The Power of
‘In a satirical political sketch, one of the leading politicians says words to the effect of, ‘If you feel offended by my accusing you of fraud and treason, then I am sorry.’ A genuine apology would be: ‘I accused you of fraud and treason, I was wrong. Please forgive me.’ Yet the ‘non-apology apology’ is the most frequently used. Anything that begins with ‘if’ and puts the blame for being offended on the victim is a non-apology. Anything that leaves the more vulnerable trapped into being manipulated towards forgiveness is not an apology’.
This is a timely and clear illustration on asking forgiveness in Archbishop Welby’s magnum opus ‘The Power of Reconciliation’ published in advance of this year’s Lambeth Conference. Another topical feature is the Virgin and Child on its inside page sketched in the frozen terror of Stalingrad, resonant of Russia’s anguish in World War Two. The book went to print just before the invasion of Ukraine so its celebration of a Russian aspect of peacemaking is poignant. The Archbishop writes about peacebuilding and reconciliation ‘in the sense of seeking relationships at all levels of human life that are resilient enough to have disagreement without destruction, victory without triumphalism, concessions without degradation. Reconciliation is the long drawn-out process, extending sometimes over generations, which seeks to achieve that end. Peace is not found by avoiding conflict but by disagreeing well’. The last phrase about achieving good disagreement is a refrain throughout the book.
Justin Welby, like myself, served as parish priest in the Diocese of Coventry and moved on to lead the Cathedral’s ministry of reconciliation. In that role, building from his previous career in the oil industry, he was to help riven communities in Nigeria with his quiet passion to help build bridges across the sectarian divides in that and other lands. ‘The Power of Reconciliation’ is a celebration of peacebuilding in which there is recognition of difficulties alongside recipes for making reconciliation concrete through establishing robust diversity and disagreement without hatred.
Many of us in the Church of England experienced his genius in this realm after he was made Archbishop, inheriting a serious division about which he writes: ‘In the difficult discussions within the Church of England over the question of ordaining women as bishops, the biggest step was to imagine that a way forward could be found. In some of the conversations, several groups were involved. In one of them the facilitator was obviously pushing a solution. It led to all sides digging their heels in. The facilitator was not arrogant or bad at their job, but they were desperate for progress and sought to take things faster than was the mood of the participants. By contrast, earlier in the process, after a major setback, all and sundry spoke of needing five years at least to chart a way forward that ended taking less than two, owing to the desire by all concerned to find such a way. The setback opened the way to progress.’
I found it significant, given the increasing misrepresentation of those of us allowed in this settlement to dissent from the change, that Justin Welby’s new book puts emphasis on reconciliation as nothing ‘one-off’ but something ongoing on every side. A striking feature of the current debates around sex and gender and transgender as well as about the levels of racism in the UK, is that, for some people, those who disagree with them are seen not just as wrong, but as evil. A dismal reality, found where God’s grace is rejected; hence the alarming threats and abuse of individuals involved in these debates on social media.
The author writes both as a Christian and as one concerned about a fractured world. His vision is stated to be one with C. S. Lewis’s book The Great Divorce which portrays hell as a place filled with those without hope and with regrets, and heaven ‘a place of ever-growing joy in an ever-greater place, journeying together in forgiveness and hope to an ultimate destination. The journey begins in pain, with the reality of heaven making even grass as sharp as glass, but eases as progress is made’.
He writes: ‘I remember being asked when I worked at Coventry Cathedral why I bothered with reconciliation involving people who were not Christians? Should I not be preaching the gospel to them? My answer now would be that I was preaching the gospel and that I worked in those circumstances and places, and still do, because when I get there I find God at work, and I join in to learn. To put it less informally, the creative and sustaining work of God is revealed in Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace. In Colossians 1.15-20 St Paul speaks of the cosmic Christ in whom ‘all things hold together’… and ‘through Him God was pleased to reconcile all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross’… ‘Everything’,‘all things’, the piling up of words indicates Paul’s passionate proclamation of the truth of Christ. The human ministry of peacemaking is, consciously or unconsciously, worked out in the day to day, by human beings imperfectly and partly, seeking the glorious reconciliation of all things that is the purpose of God’.
This work is full of practical wisdom about the humble ministry of reconciliation and its cost, insight about researching situations of conflict, listening to all sides, being present to others, oneself and God. And keeping faith in his possibilities.
NEVER A DULL MOMENT
Chatto and Windus, 2021. ISBN 9780701188702
I have long harboured a sneaking regard for George V and Queen Mary and have felt that they did not deserved the negative reputations so often accorded them. Jane Ridley’s book George V: Never a Dull Moment helps to set their record straight.
Professor Ridley spent seven years researching this book in the Royal Archives. I am full of admiration for the way she has woven her material into a gripping biography. Ridley’s interpretation and judgement for the most part is superb. She does not shy away from difficult subjects such as George V’s fraught relationship with his sons, and possesses the gift of taking complicated issues such as Parliamentary reform or Irish Home Rule and describing them in an easily understandable way.
George V was ill-educated, flawed and irascible. He made mistakes and sometimes experienced bad luck. He turned out, however, to be a hard-working, flexible and popular King, who helped the monarchy adapt to a more democratic age, which included the first Labour government. George V was a dutiful monarch during the First World War, who surrounded himself with capable staff and was not afraid to take difficult decisions. His biggest mistake was his failure to confront his eldest son, David, about his infatuation with the unsuitable Wallis Simpson.
The King who emerges from this book is a very human figure. I had not realised that George V suffered periodically from depression. Ridley is particularly good when it comes to George V’s relationship with Queen Mary. The Queen had to work hard at times to stop them drifting apart, but George V remained devoted to her.
Ridley’s book contains a few weak spots. Archbishop Cosmo Lang of Canterbury gets the Derek Jacobi treatment. Ridley omits to mention George V’s long friendship with Lang which began in 1900. She writes: ‘Archbishop Lang invited himself to Sandringham’ in January 1936 when George V lay dying, as though the archbishop’s visit was an imposition. Lang actually went to Sandringham after talking to Clive Wigram, the King’s private secretary, who may have encouraged him to go. Ridley describes Lang at Sandringham as ‘a noiseless spectre in black gaiters’, lifting her words from the Duke of Windsor’s 1951 self-serving autobiography, A King’s Story, ghost-written by Charles Murphy, in which the Duke sought to settle old scores. On the next page Ridley describes Lang as ‘gliding silently’ into the King’s bedroom. In fact Lang changed into his purple cassock at Sandringham and appears to have behaved with sensitivity and kindliness.
Another, rather more significant weakness is that for the most part the George V is silent about the King’s spiritual life and religious views: the index contains three bland entries for ‘Christianity’ and six for ‘Catholicism’, but nothing for ‘Church of England’ or ‘Supreme Governor’. As a young man, George V promised Queen Alexandra that he would read a chapter of the Bible every day and he kept this up all his life. The King went to church every Sunday and took Holy Week seriously. His religion was rather Mattinsy, but he appreciated Holy Communion and enjoyed a good sermon. The King met many clergy on his travels and took an interest in ecclesiastical appointments. It will come as no surprise that he could be fussy about his royal chaplains’ robes. George V regarded the Church of England as his Church, but was also sensitive to the feelings of his Presbyterian and Roman Catholic subjects. Ridley mentions the high moral tone of George V’s court, but never suggests this might in part have sprung from the King’s religious convictions.
This is emblematic of a wider problem with contemporary historical writing: if Christianity does not mean much personally to modern writers, they are sometimes in danger of overlooking it or not picking up the signs when researching and writing their books. I have, for example, come across books about the home front in the two World Wars containing no reference to Christianity, despite Christianity being a part of the culture, world view, and possibly private lives of many people at the time.
The absence of material about the King’s Christian faith and the Church of England is a flaw in George V, but I should not like this to overshadow an otherwise excellent book, which will be of interest to historians and general readers alike. It is also a rattling good read and I can pay Professor Ridley no higher compliment than to record that one day on holiday I became so engrossed in George V that I missed my train and had to catch the next one. I unhesitatingly recommend it.
New Art in Britain 1945-65
Barbican Centre, London,
until 26th June, 2022
To begin with what the show is not about. It’s not a comprehensive review of all artists working in Britain in the twenty years following the end of World War 2. Artists who were active before the war, such as Graham Sutherland, Barbara Hepworth or Henry Moore, are not included. Instead, we have artists who experienced the war and then became active in the post-war period. And the show is thematic rather than grouped by schools. It concentrates not on method or place of birth but on shared experience and preoccupations.
There are 48 artists in the show, 17 of whom were born outside of Britain, most of whom were either refugees from Nazi Germany or who had come here from the Empire. Some died sadly young – such as Peter King whose two sculpted heads have force and stick in the mind, and the Hungarian Eva Frankfurther whose West Indian waitresses are sisters of Degas’ washerwomen.
The excellent curators describe what at first glance looks like a wildly disparate show as having a ‘rough poetry’, the phrase used by the artists Alison and Peter Smithson to describe the ethos of the Brutalist school of architecture which they were part of. And the show is relentlessly urban. The nearest we come to nature is Frank Bowling’s ‘Big Bird’ (two dying swans). Otherwise, it’s Kossoff’s ‘Early morning, Willesden Junction,’ in thick, swirling, masterly alive paint, and photographs of the bombsites of Bermondsey and Hulme.
‘You’ve never had it so good’ this ain’t. The destruction of war, both of buildings and of the human body overshadows the gallery, itself built on a bombsite. We begin with Lee Miller sitting in Hitler’s bath, the day he committed suicide. Her boots have the mud of Dachau on them. In the next room there are prints by Paolozzi (interned for much of the war) which dissolve like bodies vaporised by a nuclear blast. Paolozzi has some of the best work in show. Next to this are two paintings by the Goanese Francis Souza, a modern St Sebastian and a crucified Christ, both with Roualt-like heavy black outlines and dark colours and mixing Expressionism and Brutalism. Souza had been educated by Jesuits, joined the Communists and later had a string of mistresses, as if to prove the international nature of bohemianism. The room is completed by John Latham’s huge sprayed-on full stop on a white canvas, which may have echoes of a nuclear explosion.
The violence of smashed and battered bodies, helmets and fragile figures continues throughout the first floor. The most effective works here are Paolozzi’s three bronze St Sebastians (when did the saint last feature so often in a modern art show?). Paolozzi’s most accessible work is in public places which is not good for aesthetic appreciation – few people choose to linger in Tottenham Court Road tube station. But here at the Barbican it’s possible to stand amongst his hieratic, robotic figures and let the artist work his magic.
There are many other highlights to the show. Three of Lucian Freud’s early portraits of early wives are contrasted with Sylvia Sleigh’s renaissance-style cross-dressing portraits of her husband (not publicly shown in her life-time) and a series of Bill Brandt photographs of nudes. The photography in the show undercuts some of the impoverished, grimness and seediness of the paintings – though it’s easy to see why David Hockney, represented by what he described as cruising propaganda, fled from the gloomy British art scene to California.
Of course, there was a vitality and life and even vulgarity in the art world. The best artist to comment on the Festival of Britain New Elizabethans was Ronald Searle. It’s a pity the Molesworth books aren’t in the show. Searle had been in Japanese P.O.W. camps and knew about the horrors of war quite as much as any of the artists in the Barbican. And it’s that kind of life which shows in Roger Mayne’s photograph of ‘A girl jiving in Southam Street’ (and it’s curious how much she looks like the boy in the famous 1920s photo of a young Etonian standing by his luggage).
This is a very good show with just too much in it to review. It’s not a complete history but it does give a sense of artists working to express the wan beauty of the world in which they live, a world expressed as much by William Scott’s ‘Blue still life’ as by John Bratby’s kitchen sink painting, as by his wife’s black eye or Richard Hamilton’s ‘This is tomorrow’ launching Pop Art.
My Fair Lady
then on national tour
‘In church! That’s the deepest cut!’ roars Stephen K. Amos as Alfred P. Doolittle in this thrilling revival of My Fair Lady. The paterfamilias has been ruined by a donation from the kindly gentlemen when he goes in search of his daughter. They are, of course, Professor Henry Higgins and Colonel Pickering, who have alighted upon flower-seller Eliza in Covent Garden and taken her home for the phoneticist Higgins to eliminate her Cockney squeal and make her into a lady with rounded vowels and elongated phrasing. The plot, flimsy as it is and essentially an Edwardian comedy of manners, will be known to many from the film. Its perennial theme is self-betterment, and the throwing together of polar opposites. Or perhaps not so opposite, as appealing to the moralist snob value, Doolittle père is making good on his relationship with Eliza’s ‘stepmother’ and going for a church wedding (St George’s, Hanover Square, no less!) as he appears to leave behind his boozy former existence: the dustman more often in the pub than with a broom.
This production has come over from the Lincoln Center, New York, where it opened in April 2018. (And then the pandemic…) It’s arrived in a glorious blaze on St Martin’s Lane and is an absolute gem of a show, sparkling and delighting throughout the whole of its three hours. If nothing else, it’s value for money. Bartlett Sher directs and anyone who saw his previous Lincoln Center transfers (South Pacific to the Barbican and The King and I at the Palladium) will know how deftly he picks up these classics and lovingly breathes new life into them. He also knows the hallowed ground on which he walks when it comes to something adored down the decades so includes a number of affectionate nods to the film version. His new version of To Kill a Mockingbird is another essential summer show and whilst that’s essentially a new piece, written by Aaron Sorkin, he knows how esteemed the motion picture is and manages to work with that. For this MFL he’s done something similar and it’s just one of the reasons to make audiences smile. He’s also returned to Shaw’s Pygmalion as the source text to cut through accreted tropes and syrup.
Michael Yeargen’s sets and Catherine Zuber’s costumes more than match the quality of everything else. The Higgins house moves forward as a great pod when required and has a life of its own when action is portrayed in another room. To say any more would spoil the surprise of its inventiveness. The costumes work brilliantly, especially the extravagant hat couture. Watching the Royal Ascot scene is a true open-mouth moment. Everything is boosted and carried forward by the surging wave of a 40-piece band in Ted Sperling’s bright and verdant orchestration. Frederick Lowe’s score has arguably never sounded better and it showcases the composer’s versatility. At times his operetta origins come through with hints of Lehar (‘On the street where you live’). Other moments look forward to Bernstein and West Side Story, such as ‘Show me’. And he recalls that other great chronicler of London on stage, Lionel Bart, with a raucous ‘I’m getting married in the morning’ Riotously done here with a can-can) and tunefully addictive ‘Wouldn’t it be loverly?’.
But this is a piece that relies on its leads and of whom it makes great demands. Here we have a total star in Amara Okereke playing Eliza. Not quite an ingénue, she is yet in the first flush of her career and seems destined for greatness. From the moment she opens her voice she makes the role her own, inhabits the auditorium, and has everyone eating out of her hand for the rest of the night. Harry Hadden-Paton, fresh from Downton Abbey, is Higgins, all bluster and misogyny, self-isolated and eccentric. He’s also young enough to believe they might just fall for each other without it seeming manipulative, and he rattles through the Alan J Lerner book and lyrics with absolute mastery, having debuted the show in New York too. Malcolm Sinclair’s Colonel Pickering is a total joy with added dimensions in what is so often the straight-man stooge to Higgins. Sharif Afifi is touching in the non-part that is Freddy Eynsford-Hill, and no one can touch the grande dame of the night: Vanessa Redgrave as Mrs Higgins. At the age of 85 she has that stage royalty air of being able to appear and simply wave a hand to ensure enchantment. Again, she makes a thin role go very far and, though using a crutch in one or two scenes and a little short on breath through emphysema, gives a bravura performance.
Sadly the Coliseum is a great barn of a place, long and wide, and London’s largest stage. This means at times the space drowns the show, which at its heart is a domestic comedy after all. The more intimate moments can lose impact. The pit is not closed and the sound goes straight up, so don’t sit in the stalls. Other theatres will surely be better when it tours to Bradford, Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southampton and Birmingham. And, yes; I could have danced all night.
Art and faith in harmony
Owen Higgs talks to John Booth, Chairman of the National Gallery
John Booth will be known to many readers of New Directions as a Guardian of Walsingham, former Chair of the Chichester Diocesan Fund, Governor of St Stephen’s House, Church Warden of St Andrew Holborn, and that is to list just some of his work for the Church. He is also Deputy Lieutenant for West Sussex, Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, and Chairman of the Prince’s Trust. Since September 2021, John has been Chairman of the Trustees of the National Gallery. He generously gave his time to New Directions to talk about being responsible for one of the world’s greatest art galleries and why he looks forward to seeing what the Sunday School have made.
John began by saying that the first duty of the gallery’s trustees is to keep the collection of paintings safe. That means safe from fire and theft (and there has only ever been one major theft from the Gallery, chronicled in the recent film ‘The Duke’). And that paintings on loan are lent to the right people, that they are fit to be lent and that they are returned to the gallery in good condition. And, finally, that the collection is well presented, added to where appropriate and kept in a good state of preservation.
To that end, the National Gallery is also a centre of scholarship. The Trafalgar Square site has important laboratories and studios for the study and conservation of paintings. There is also a major library for research, e.g., into the provenance of works. This makes the Gallery an important hub for the sharing of knowledge. It is as part of that sharing that the Gallery works with University College London on how to present paintings whose previous owners were involved in the slave trade.
Before his appointment at the National Gallery John had been Chair of Trustees at Pallant House, Chichester’s leading art gallery. He greatly enjoyed his time at Chichester which he sees as a significant preparation for his new role. In terms of the nuts and bolts of the work, the two posts have many similarities, not least that both are answerable to the Government. The National Gallery is an arm’s length body of Her Majesty’s Government and reports to the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. Pallant House is supported by Chichester District Council and the Arts Council. Of course, there are major differences in scale. The National Gallery welcomed 6 million visitors a year pre-pandemic; Pallant House 60,000. And the contents of the collections are different. That of Pallant House is almost entirely British art from the 20th century; that of the National Gallery is essentially European painting from seven centuries up to the First World War.
But the National Gallery is not just about the past. In 2024 it will celebrate its two hundredth anniversary. This has been the focus for taking stock of where the gallery is post-Covid, as a result of which there will be new members’ facilities, a redesign of the Sainsbury wing entrance to improve the welcome to visitors, an upgraded learning centre, and a new research centre. It is also intended to develop the site’s already generous digital presence, building on the work done during the pandemic (the gallery’s online activities for viewers took off during the pandemic with audiences of more than 100,000). And while John reckons the physical object will never be replaced by its digital representation, the current tour of the digital ‘Adoration of the Magi’ (by Gossaert) which began at Winchester Cathedral is a pioneering way to bring the collection to new viewers throughout the nation.
And that is only one of a number of ways by which the collection is shared and handed on, a theme close to John’s heart. Another way this sharing has been achieved is through the gallery’s close relationship with leading contemporary artists. So, some artists, such as Bridget Riley, have been trustees. And later this year there will be a Lucian Freud exhibition. Like his friend and contemporary Frank Auerbach, Freud frequently came to the gallery to sketch in the evenings when the visitors had left. There also continue to be artists in residence who not only interact with the gallery but may leave some of their work to the gallery’s private ‘Historic’ collection (Paula Rego’s and Sean Scully’s work currently grace the entrance to the new Hub, the staff working place in the centre of the site). However, there are no plans to change the character of the collection to bring in later works or different media e.g., video. Rather, the collection will grow by acquisition in new areas and by the filling of gaps (expect a Veronese portrait soon).
We spoke about the experience of the visitor to the gallery and John’s own interest in the arts. Timed entry during Covid has been a bugbear for many visitors but entry is now hybrid, allowing spontaneous, unbooked entry to those who prefer it while retaining booking for exhibitions, especially at busy times. John is proud that the gallery has led the way in returning to pre-covid conditions for the general visitor, although it is still missing its very substantial audience of overseas visitors.
John’s own interest in art began when aged 5 or 6 he was taken to tea with an art teacher colleague of his mother. There was an abstract on the wall which he couldn’t understand but which fascinated him. Later, aged 18, he visited the Pompidou Centre for a retrospective of the mid-century Franco-Russian painter Nicolas de Staël and was bowled over by abstract/semi-abstract seascapes. This led to a love of how figuration and abstraction meet, tracing the grand tradition backwards while moving forward into the contemporary twentieth century scene.
Within the gallery’s collection, John singled out as favourites first the Leonardo drawing of Our Lady, Our Lord, St John the Baptist and St Anne (the ‘Burlington House Cartoon’). The cartoon gives the opportunity to stand close up to the work of a towering genius and see how he worked in extraordinary detail on such a large scale. But it also has a powerful Christian perspective in the tenderness of expression between Our Lord and his cousin. The second artist John talked about was Van Gogh whose works move and impress, not least because of the way Van Gogh wrestled with his mental health while at the same time extending what could be made in paint.
But art is not just for galleries. John believes passionately in the Church as a home for the arts. He has personally helped churches acquire art – visitors to Walsingham will know the David Begbie Calvary in the Barn Chapel. And he sponsored Maciej Urbanek’s powerful and award-winning large scale works at St Michael’s, Camden Town, and St Andrew Holborn. John also highlights Bishop Martin Warner’s work at St Paul’s Cathedral where the acclaimed Bill Viola commission is another example of the interaction of Church and the arts.
Of course, few churches have a St Paul’s Cathedral budget but his own parish experience of the making of an icon of St Giles for St Giles, Coldwaltham, showed how the local community might support a new artwork. And John speaks with enthusiasm about how a Sunday School artwork, brought in at the notices, may be as significant and moving for a congregation as the work of professional artists made at some cost with the future in view.
All artists, children and professionals, like their work to be seen. Our thanks to John for his work to bring together artists and viewers, contemporary and old.
It is customary to say at the end of interviews how much the magazine paid for lunch. John kindly bought our tea.
Pentecost by William Blake
Unless the eye catch fire,
The God will not be seen.
Unless the ear catch fire
The God will not be heard.
Unless the tongue catch fire
The God will not be named.
Unless the heart catch fire,
The God will not be loved.
Unless the mind catch fire,
The God will not be known.
William Blake (1757-1827) was a writer and thinker who also painted and made prints. Religion featured heavily in his output and he claimed to see visions from an early age, often including angels. To others he seemed mad during his lifetime and it was only after his death that his work became truly influential, with many seizing upon the other-worldly, cosmological nature of his style. Both the Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy had a profound impact on him. Composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and John Tavener have used his texts, along with so-called countercultural artists in the 1970s including Allen Ginsberg and the Beat Poets, Jim Morrison and The Doors, and Bob Dylan. Major retrospectives of his artworks have also been mounted in recent years and his embodiment of metaphysics, philosophy, and religion in one body of art mainly through poetry and illustration has granted him an almost prophetic status, considered a visionary and one very much ahead of his time.
The Pentecost poem repeats rhythmically the ‘unless’ idea with the ‘fire’ element at the end of each alternating line, with the second half of each sentence giving the conclusion-effect. Six syllables per line, it has a chant-like, mesmeric quality and is easy to learn. The half-rhymes make it neat yet arresting and its appeal is to the senses, heart and mind.