The Pulpit

Originally the three central panels of the pulpit, by Duncan Grant, 1962, portrayed the Saints Gabriel, Raphael and Michael by Vanessa Bell. They were vandalised in 1962 and the panels repainted after her death by Duncan Grant to designs by Angelica Bell. The surviving narrow left-hand panel is by Vanessa Bell, and the far-right panel is thought to be by Angelica Bell.

Berwick church is dedicated to the archangel St Michael and so it seemed natural that the original proposal was for Duncan Grant to decorate three panels of the pulpit with the three archangels; St Michael the Warrior, St Raphael the Healer and St Gabriel the Messenger. In the event Vanessa painted the original panels for the pulpit. Two black and white images of the original design survive. In 1962, after Vanessa's death, the figures were vandalised; permanent black ink was thrown on them. However Vanessa's narrow panel next to the pulpit steps decorated with fruits survived unscathed as did the panel, possibly painted by Quentin or Angelica, on the opposite side nearest the windows. The three damaged panels were removed and their central portions repainted by Duncan Grant. Vanessa's surviving painted alcoves with their decorative borders give a three dimensional depth to each of the paintings in the series. Duncan replaced the figures with vases containing fruit or flowers picking up on the surviving beautiful fruit panel by Vanessa. It must have been quite emotive for Duncan to paint over Vanessa's defaced work. These panels are a beautiful and joyous homage to her; memorial flowers for perpetuity.

Architectural Context

It is from the pulpit that the Biblical text is expounded and the congregation given a message to apply to their lives. It is a raised platform at the front of the church so that the preacher can be more easily heard by a large congregation and it also helps to convey the authority of the Scripture. The Archangels would have surrounded the preacher as fellow messengers and ministers of God. Particularly the central figure of St Michael the Warrior with his sword would have reminded the congregation of the epistle to the Hebrews: For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Hebrews 4:12. St Raphael would have reminded them proclamation of the Kingdom of God was accompanied by healing.

A decorative border runs up the steps and around the base of the pulpit. A matching border runs around the top of the pulpit. This beige and patterned border is painted directly onto the pulpit itself. The paintings on the sides were painted onto five panels which were then fixed in position. Uniformity is given to the panels by the patterned border and the repeating alcove in which the still-life arrangements are placed.

The names used for the panels below are simply for ease of identification.

The Fruits Panel

This surviving panel of the original pulpit decoration is easily overlooked. Thought to be by Vanessa Bell and is arguably one of the most beautiful paintings in the church. It no doubt formed the basis for the content and style of the paintings which replaced the archangels. In deep and rich colours Vanessa has painted a still life of peaches or nectarines, red and white grapes, pears, apples and plums. All these fruits may have been grown in the walled garden at Charleston or locally. The fruits look fresh and perfectly ripe and the painting feels as fresh as if it has just been painted. The background grey was one of Vanessa's favourite colours.

The Rose Panel

The vase in Duncan's first restored panel shows roses and lilies in a white vase that can still be seen at Charleston. This is either a vase Duncan brought back from travels in Tunisia or one modelled on the same by Phyllis Keyes, whose mark on the real vase shows that the pattern is hers.

The Pineapple Panel

Duncan chose fruits for his second still life. Typical of their contrasting natures, his is a more exotic selection than Vanessa's, and the centre piece of the more exuberant display is a pineapple. The pieces of fruit are heaped up generously on each other and balance implausibly - as if at any moment they might fall off. This disregard for the laws of gravity gives the painting energy. But lest it feel too contrived, a feeling of naturalness is given by the placing of two fruits at the base of vase: they've either fallen off, or there simply wasn’t room for them in the arrangement.

The Butterfly Panel

This painting uses a more subdued and tighter colour palette. The arrangement consists mainly of abstract foliage. The decorative butterfly brings the work playfully to life. The vase seems to be the same as that in the Rose Panel.

The Tulip Panel

This is the other surviving original panel. Except for the surrounding decorative border this panel departs dramatically from the others and the colour palette is muddy. Cloth drapes line the alcove and are pulled back like curtains at the top. The composition is completely different in style: rather static, but more detailed and naturalistic. One wonders from the colours whether the painting was intended to look like this or if it was unfinished. However the fresco still-life in the chancel showing a glass with flowers in it, which was painted by Quentin, seems to be of a similar style.

The Pulpit by Duncan Grant

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