By Duncan Grant, 1944
For many visitors the four circular paintings, often referred to as ‘The Four Seasons’, are the most pleasing paintings in the church. Together with the two door panels ‘Day and Night’ they form a sequence that illustrates a biblical passage from Genesis 8:22 ‘As long as the earth endures, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night will never cease’, recalling God's promise to Noah after the Great Flood that He would never again destroy the earth.
There are said to be over 5000 promises mentioned in the Bible, and Christian hope rests in belief in a promise-
Duncan has imaginatively interpreted the text in such a way as to illustrate a motif known as ‘The Labours of the Month’. One of the earliest examples of this appear in a Byzantine mosaic depicting the personification of the months in terms of seasonal labours dating back to the early sixth century, indicating Duncan’s preference for this period. In Medieval times the theme was portrayed in stone carvings, stained glass, miniatures in manuscripts and paintings. ‘The Labours of the Month’ allowed Duncan to do something that he enjoyed: portraying the body in action and conveying a sense of exertion, muscular tension and movement.
But ‘The Labours’ also make one think of the less positive aspects of work such as the biblical narrative of Adam and Eve’s eviction from the Garden of Eden. Here God told Adam of his punishment for eating the forbidden fruit: ...through painful toil you will eat of it [the ground]...By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return. Genesis 3:17-
The paintings also illustrate the simple agricultural lives in which many of the rural congregation would have been engaged. The fecundity of the land is portrayed in the roundels. For both Bishop Bell and Duncan Grant this periodicity of making and doing appealed to them greatly. Indeed Bishop Bell explored the idea of setting up a religious guild of artists and craftsmen subsequent to the Berwick murals; he realised that the lives of the artists needed to be steeped in religious faith and practice in order for their work to convey its meaning and significance.
To the contemporary visitor to the church the paintings represent a romantic and nostalgic return to a simple life lived in touch with nature and governed by the landscape and the seasons. They represent a rhythm to life which contrasts to the frenetic pace of our contemporary age with its industrialisation and the ever-
Going from left to right the paintings illustrate the biblical passage in the following way: Spring ploughing the land in preparation for ‘seedtime’; Summer ‘heat’ and ‘harvest’ as the corn is made into stooks; ‘Day’ and ‘Night’ on the doors; followed by ‘harvest’ of apples in the Autumn; and finally, gathering wood for the ‘cold’ of Winter. The roundels are painted onto what appears to be hard board rather than plaster board and they have survived the passage of time better than the large murals. The circular shape of the paintings reflects the cyclical nature of what is being depicted.
The first panel captures the feeling of the ploughman and his plough being one. He wears thick coat and hat against the harsh winter cold. The fairly monochrome palette conveys the hard monotony of winter and work. His back is bent in exertion and his gaze is fixed on the line he is cutting with the blade of the plough. The line of a fold in the Down runs along the back of the horse and over the ploughman's head emphasizing his stoop and the way in which he is bowed by both the work and the hardness of the season. At the same time that line reinforces the strength of the horse and his forward movement. The backdrop is that of the folds of the South Downs. Duncan has certainly captured a ploughman completely engaged in the skilful and strenuous task of cutting a straight furrow line, one which would be lost if he looked back. ‘No-
In the second panel there is the feeling of the heat of summer: partly through the light golden colour palette, but also through the bent backs of the labourers and the obvious strain of their work. One labourer lifts the stalks to gather and shape them while the other bends over to bind the stook. The postures of the two form an interlocking rhythm that is almost dance like. It conveys something of interdependence of the labourers in their tasks, of the joy and co-
The central doors show day and night. A single pond, probably the one outside the house at Charleston, is depicted with the sun and moon reflected on its surface. The left door representing day shows the pond with the rich greens of what are probably willows growing up on the far bank as the sun rises over it. The right door, representing night, shows the other half of the pond but now in the deep colours of moonlight with a beautiful mature tree leaning out over the water. The combination of the doors through which people come and go, the Downland landscape, and the depiction of day and night evoke the words of Psalm 121:5-
This panel is painted in beautifully rich colours. The apple picker on the ladder is again bent over in exertion as he passes over a heavily laden basket on his descent down the ladder. The basket is balanced on the head of his fellow worker who raises both arms to keep it in place. The ladder is a prominent feature: as it extends up out of the painting Duncan captures the ascending and descending movement of the task. It is possible that he playfully saw an opportunity to incorporate a ladder because of the well known biblical reference to the ladder of Jacob in the Old Testament. In a dream Jacob sees a ladder resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Genesis 28:12. Jesus later tells his disciples that they will ...see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. John 1:51.
The final painting of a bitterly cold snowy winter scene shows a mother with her two children, her back bent with a heavy load of sticks. She keeps hold of her toddler who pulls her over as he reaches down for a twig; her other child wildly dances around behind. In the background is a small hovel that might be their home. Duncan has chosen to introduce a woman’s work: caring for her lively children and gathering wood at the same time. Duncan certainly had a deep appreciation of the way in which Vanessa kept things together in the home and still managed to find time to paint. She had more tensions to balance and contend with than he did. Perhaps he was also making a reference to the popular First World War song ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’ by Ivor Novello, whose last line reads ‘...til the boys come home’. Here perhaps the winter represents the harsh bitterness of war and of a mother trying to keep her balance and hold things together -