Beauty is an act of resistance. Ruth Naomi Floyd

England: Chichester Cathedral

Chichester Cathedral

by Jonathan Evens

“It has been the great enthusiasm of my life and work to commission for the Church the very best artists I could, in painting, in sculpture, in music and in literature.”

This was what Canon Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester Cathedral, wrote in a brief for the Marc Chagall window based on Psalm 150—the conclusion to Hussey’s remarkable series of commissions, first at St. Matthew’s, Northampton, and then at Chichester Cathedral.

Bishop George Bell strongly supported the appointment of Walter Hussey as dean of Chichester Cathedral to take forward the commissioning program he had initiated there as part of his wider program to reinvigorate the Church’s patronage of the arts. Other Anglican clergy, such as Vincent McKenna, Moelwyn Merchant, and Bernard Walke, played their part in this work of reinvigoration, but it is Hussey’s commissions of William Albright, W. H. Auden, Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Chagall, Cecil Collins, Gerald Finzi, Henry Moore, Norman Nicholson, John Piper, Ceri Richards, John Skelton, Graham Sutherland, Michael Tippett, and William Walton that stand out, in the fields of literature, music, and the visual arts, as truly significant. For his commissions at St. Matthew’s and Chichester Cathedral, Kenneth Clark memorably described Hussey as “the last great patron of art in the Church of England.”

Peter Webster notes that while the period from the mid-1960s onward saw an upsurge in commissioning activity, and that, emboldened by the examples of Chichester and Coventry Cathedrals, authorities in cathedrals and newly built parish churches began to commission new works of art for those buildings, “it was also the case that the high-water mark of the Church’s engagement with the leaders in British art had in fact already been reached”:

Never again in the twentieth century was the Church to achieve the same contact with artists of the stature of Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, and indeed Hussey’s commissions as he neared retirement were of his own generation or older. The art world became more and more fragmented, with a bewildering variety of styles, each developing according to its own particular internal logic. The church continued to commission contemporary art, but now of certain styles amongst the many. Generally, commissions were confined to figurative art, since the task of interpreting abstract work in a Christian way presented considerable challenges. It had been the vision of men like Bell and Hussey that the church should position itself in the mainstream of the nation’s life, including its art. There had now ceased to be a clearly visible mainstream in which the church could position itself. 

As indication of the difficult terrain of church patronage, the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England (CFCE) repeatedly denied Chichester Cathedral’s request to install Jaume Plensa’s Together in the cathedral as the Hussey Memorial Commission. The grounds for rejection, in this case, had to do with what they perceived would have been a significant change in the character of the space above the Arundel Bell Screen as a result of the installation.

New commissions in settings where there is existing artwork and architecture have to take into account issues of harmonization or dissonance—that is, to what extent will the new commission be integrated with whatever is already there or, by being dissonant, raise questions about what is already there? Artworks that are integrated with the life and architecture of a church are not viewed in the same way as works within the white cube of a gallery space, and this needs to be understood and handled with sensitivity during the commissioning process. The result can be a sense of overall integrity and harmony within a space that holds great variety and diversity, and where this occurs, the whole and its constituent parts image something of the Trinitarian belief—the one and the many—that is at the very heart of Christianity.

In my view, the commissioning process at Chichester and the artist himself had fully taken these issues into account in their proposal, and the CFCE’s decision is deeply disappointing for all involved with this commission. The impasse demonstrates that commissions for churches continue to have significant potential for controversy. Having visited on my sabbatical art pilgrimage several churches associated with commissions perceived to be controversial at the time of their installation, such as Albert Servaes’s Stations of the Cross, Henry Moore’s Madonna and Child, and Germaine Richier’s Crucifix, it seems to me that controversies of modern art, whether the reception of the works themselves or that of their challenging content, are with time resolved, as congregations live with the works and learn to value the challenge of what initially seemed to be scandalous.

Certainly, the mix of commissions at Chichester Cathedral—from the “riot of colour and symbol” in the Piper tapestry to the glow of Hans Feibusch’s tender Baptism, the harmonious whole that is the Icon of the Divine Light by Cecil Collins to the fractured energies of Ursula Benker-Schirmer’s tapestry for the Shrine of St. Richard—genuinely invigorate and beautify the cathedral while introducing variety and intrigue into the experience of visiting and worshipping here. Tourists are encouraged to do both during their visit by prayers on the hour and use of the leaflet “A Spiritual Tour of Chichester Cathedral,” which has been designed to help people pray as they walk around the space.

Hussey believed that “true artists of all sorts, as creators of some of the most worthwhile of man’s work, are well adapted to express man’s worship of God.” When this is done consciously, he says, “the beauty and strength of their work can draw others to share to some extent their vision.” This thought underpinned Hussey’s brief to Chagall for the window based on Psalm 150, titled The Arts to the Glory of God, which takes as its theme “O praise God in his holiness. . . . Let everything that has breath praise the Lord.”

In Chagall Glass at Chichester and Tudeley, Charles Marq, Chagall’s collaborator on his windows, writes,

The triumphal quality of this chant is expressed by the dominance in the composition of the colour red (red on white, on green, on yellow), broken by a certain number of green, blue and yellow blobs. This is the first time that Marc Chagall has conceived a subject composed entirely of small figures; it is the people in festive mood glorifying the Lord, exalting his greatness and his creation.

The work, he says, communicates a “message of glory and praise.”

Hussey had shown an interest in music, drama, painting, and sculpture from his school and university years, and in his entry in Who’s Who, he cited his sole recreation as “enjoying the arts.” He acquired an important and varied collection of his own, which, on retirement, he offered to leave to the city that he had done so much to promote as a center of the arts.

Like many others, he was concerned about the neglect into which Pallant House, a fine example of eighteenth-century domestic architecture, had fallen, and, as Dr. K. M. E. (Katherine Maud Elisabeth) Murray wrote, “His generous offer . . . was made deliberately as a means of securing the restoration of the house and its opening to the public.” In 1982 Hussey was present at the official opening of the house and saw his paintings and other works of art displayed in the same informal domestic setting as they had been at the deanery where he had taken so much pleasure in showing them to friends and strangers alike.

Pallant House, which has been described as “a jewel of a gallery” and “one of the most important galleries for British modern art in the country,” is now home to a collection of British modern art frequently described as one of the best in the UK, with important works by Gino Severini, Ivon Hitchens, Henry Moore, John Piper, Graham Sutherland, Patrick Caulfield, Michael Andrews, Peter Blake, and Richard Hamilton.

Bell and Hussey also supported the development of a nationally significant collection of mid-twentieth-century British art at the Otter Gallery, which forms an integral and vital part of the University of Chichester. This gallery is home to an extensive collection of art that includes works across all disciplines. It offers a welcoming and accessible space for art to both its immediate community of staff and students and diverse audiences beyond. Core to the gallery’s mission is its original intention to place art at the heart of people’s lives. By 2020 the gallery intends to be a stimulus for research and learning, exploring new perspectives and insights through practice, display interpretation, and engagement.

The collection was started in 1947 when Eleanor Hipwell, head of art for Bishop Otter College, acquired three paintings from an exhibition held at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in order to display them in the university. Shortly afterward, K. M. E. Murray was appointed as a new principal. Along with Hipwell’s successor, Sheila McCririck, Murray pursued a determination to develop a collection of contemporary art that would inspire and inform the students of the university. The acquisition of quality work with inadequate monetary resources was a demonstration of Murray’s persuasive persistence. The support of Bell, who was chairman of the Bishop Otter College Council, and Hussey was vital in helping to promote acceptance of an acquisitions policy that included controversial and challenging pieces such as Patrick Heron’s Black and White.                                                                                        

I visited while a selection of the permanent collection was on display in an exhibition called “Connected Collections.” This exhibition enables visitors to explore and contemplate the various aesthetic, historical, stylistic, and social juxtapositions between diverse yet interlinked artworks and their makers, inviting further connections and new discoveries. Among the ceramics on display, comparisons can be made between makers such as Alison Britton, Michael Cardew, Ewen Henderson, Bernard Leach, Eric James Mellon, and Lucie Rie, while oil paintings, watercolors, and prints by artists including Elizabeth Blackadder, Sandra Blow, Mary Fedden, Terry Frost, Graham Sutherland, and Alfred Wallis serve to highlight just some of the connecting themes between two- and three-dimensional works.

On visiting, I was surprised to discover that the collection includes Jean Lurçat’s altarpiece tapestry The Creation in the college’s chapel and Geoffrey Clarke’s aluminium Crucifixion sculpture above the chapel’s entrance. Lurçat’s tapestry here is a vast improvement on the apocalyptic one he designed for Notre-Dame de Toute Grâce du Plateau d’Assy, which is entirely lacking in the menace required for that subject. Here, though, the accent is on beauty and wonder in a towering conception where seeds and birds soar in heightened colors.

Clarke’s sculpture, attached to the gable of the chapel immediately over the entrance door, incorporates the figures of the two thieves who were crucified alongside Christ. The sculpture also holds a nugget of glass, “a symbol of the eye of God.” Clarke has used words such as illumination, inspiration, light, kindling of mind and spirit, and vision to describe the work, which he was commissioned to create after completing commissions for the cathedral.

Also alongside the chapel is John Skelton’s tau cross titled Axis Mundi. Skelton created this work while in residence at Bishop Otter College. The vertical block represents life, and the horizontal one represents the afterlife.

Both sculptures feature on a sculpture trail around Chichester.

As Peter Webster notes, Hussey’s mode of patronage, which “depended on a discerning patron, authoritative critic and notable artist working in tandem, disseminating new art downwards to a grateful if uncomprehending public,” was, by the time of his retirement, “no longer fit for purpose.” While this is true, it nevertheless made significant achievements across a wider field than church commissions alone and was a major contribution to reinvigorating the Church’s patronage of the arts.