Before the Reformation, even some of the small rural Downland churches, such as the one at Clayton, had extensive murals.
Bishop Bell of Chichester wanted to revive this tradition. In 1941 he wrote to his friend Sir Charles Reilly who was a neighbour of Duncan Grant’s aunt and also familiar with previous mural work done by him:
”I know that you will rejoice to hear that the plan you suggested of getting Duncan Grant to do a mural for one of the old Sussex churches is coming about…”
Berwick was going to be a great experiment and a catalyst for promoting the relationship between the Arts and the Church.
In 1941 Sir Kenneth Clarke wrote: “…with a little judicious publicity it might have the effect of encouraging other dioceses to do the same. If once such a movement got under way, it would have incalculable influence for the good on English Art.”
The ‘experiment’ received further support from Frederick Etchells who wrote in 1941: “Because the church is in fact less than 100 years old… therefore this is a suitable case for an experiment because to all intents and purposes it is a modern church.”
The Dedication of the Murals
The timing of the dedication of the murals was, Bishop Bell thought, no coincidence. He likened the achievement of the Bloomsbury artists at Berwick to that of Giotto who had been inspired by the life of St Francis and whose murals the bishop had seen himself in the church of St Francis at Assisi. In his sermon he described Giotto as the first among his contemporaries ‘to quicken the dead conventionality of inherited practice with the fire of natural action and natural vive. He was the humaniser of painting…’
The Bloomsbury artists were doing the same for painting in their day. Bishop Bell expressed his belief that the murals represented a fulfilment of his vision to reunite religion and ‘modern’ art and so bring about a ‘spiritual awakening of our country’. Bell set out this vision at his enthronement address at Chichester Cathedral on 27th June 1929:
Whether it be music or painting or drama, sculpture or architecture or any other form of art, there is an instinctive sympathy between all of these and the worship of God. Nor should the Church be afraid to ask the poets and the artist for their help, or to offer its blessing to the works so pure and lovely in which they seek to express the Eternal Spirit. Therefore I earnestly hope that in this diocese (and in others) we may seek ways and means of a re-association of the Artist and the Church: learning from him as well as giving to him: and consider with his help our conception alike of the character of Christian worship and of the forms in which the Christian teaching may be proclaimed. Ten years later, in the midst of war, Sir Kenneth Clark announced in a letter to the Times (1939) the formation of the Central Institute of Art and Design (CIAD) whose purpose was to respond to the plight of artists in wartime. In his letter Clark argued ‘…war waged to maintain a free civilization should not in its course starve the artist… at present artists and designers of all kinds are suffering the most serious distress… Despite public recognition of this fact little has yet been done to help them’.
It was a cause that Bell passionately identified with and almost immediately he took up the challenge of stimulating Church patronage of the Arts within his own diocese. He received enthusiastic support from Sir Kenneth Clark at the CIAD and within his diocese from Professor Charles Reilly who had a home near Brighton. The CIAD introduced Bell to the Society of Mural Painters whose membership included both Hans Feibusch, who offered to undertake commissions in the Diocese for no fee, and Duncan Grant who was also a committee member of the CIAD. Bishop Bell’s relationship with the CIAD would help him to build a bridge across the great gulf that had arisen between the Church and the Arts. Bell and Clark believed the crisis of war represented the right moment to bring about such a reunion.
Feibusch was the first to complete murals in the Diocese and Prof. Reilly heralded his work at St Wilfrid’s, Brighton in 1940 as the first ‘modern’ murals in any English church. By ‘modern’ he meant: a painting belonging to the present generation and based in its forms and colour on the revolution in the graphic arts brought about by the researches and experiments of Cezanne and Picasso.
Prof. Reilly was credited by Bishop Bell with the idea of taking the project to a new level by by proposing Duncan Grant undertake a scheme at Berwick. For the first time a modern artist of national standing would undertake a complete decorative scheme for an historic rural church. If the project was successful, they believed it would stimulate demand for commissions in churches all over the country to alleviate the plight of many artists.
The Berwick Commission
Grant began work on the commission almost at once, even before formal permission had been granted. Vanessa Bell records the activity at Charleston in her letter to Jane Bussy of June 13th 1941. She expresses her delight that they were once more occupied in the way they loved most.
As for us, you will never guess what we are up to. It starts by the curious fact that Duncan is in touch with a Bishop, the Bishop of Chichester. So friendly have they become that it seems extremely likely that we shall all, D., Q., Angelica and I, be turned into a neighbouring church (Berwick) and allowed to cover the walls with large works. What a wartime occupation! It needed Hitler to bring such things to pass. We have got as far as doing sketches, which have met with approval on the whole, though D.’s Christ was thought a bit too attractive and my Virgin and bit frivolous. Still that is easily changed, and on the whole we accept every suggestion and read our Bibles diligently. How we shall ever manage to paint walls 30ft high I can’t conceive, but that trouble is in the future. Q. of course doesn’t get very much time – he’s planning the Wise and Foolish Virgins climbing an immense staircase seen from below… So you see we do manage to spend a good deal of our time as usual.
The Berwick commission required the agreement of both the local Parochial Church Council and also the Chancellor of the Diocese. He was himself advised by the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC). Duncan Grant produced a model of the church showing the painted walls and parts of this are included in the exhibition.
However, just before the Chancellor could give his authorisation, one member of the parish lodged a formal petition objecting to the murals. This triggered a ‘Consistory Court’ hearing at which evidence was heard from both those in favour and those opposed to the scheme. Bishop Bell along with members of the CIAD felt that much of the future of Church Patronage of the arts might rest upon this commission.
In the small flint schoolhouse, just down the lane from the church on 1st October 1941, the court heard evidence from Sir Kenneth Clark, Bertram Nicholls and Frederick Etchells in support of the scheme. The sincerity of the artists was emphasised along with their generosity in asking for only a fraction of what the work would normally cost. Despite the objections, the Chancellor authorised the commission to go ahead.
The Significance of the Murals
It is difficult to measure the impact that Bishop Bell, and the Berwick murals in particular, have had on Church patronage of ‘modern art’. Bishop Bell may well have felt disappointed that the catalytic effect he had hoped for did not materialise in any dramatic way. But his vision certainly inspired others in the post-wars years, particularly where reconstruction to dam-aged churches was needed; Coventry Cathedral being an outstanding example.
The murals are an unique example of war art. They record the landscape, the people, and the way of life that was under threat. Christ in Glory depicting, amongst the three servicemen shown, Douglas Hemming who was killed at Caen, takes on a war memorial role. Their religious content reflects the belief of their patron that Christianity was the central pillar a European civilization that was under threat from the despotic forces of evil.
The artists were considered ‘avant garde’ in their day but they produced a scheme for Berwick which draws heavily on the tradition of ecclesiastical art. They pay homage to the high points of the artistic heritage of a European Civilization which was in turmoil. Though these were ‘modern’ artists they express a respect for both the history and tradition of art and the simplicity of the setting and community for whom they were painting.
The murals represent the enduring ideal that the artist has an important and vital contribution to make to religious human expression and worship and that both the church and the artist are impoverished by their separation. Bishop Bell seems to have had a deep personal need for things that made him feel ‘human’ in a world of increasing mechanisation. His God was a ‘humanising’ God, expressed most clearly in the life and ministry of Jesus. Art was a vehicle that helped Bishop to feel human and to feel that God was close to him. He was aware of how the church could become a dehumanising system and of how the creativity of the artist could help to rectify this and redeem both individuals and the religion itself.
The artists love for and use of local people and the local landscape showed how the divine was a part of the everyday and it enabled people to sense the closeness of God to their own lives. In this way they convey the central tenet of Christian faith that in Jesus God shared fully in human experience in order to redeem ‘humanity’. As Bell put it in his dedication sermon:
The pictures will bring home to you the real truth of the Bible story …help the pages of the New Testament to speak to you – not as sacred personages living in a far-off land and time, but as human beings …with the same kind of human troubles, and faults, and goodness, and dangers, that we know in Sussex today.