Since the tradition of decorating the interior of churches with paintings had been lost in Britain during the Reformation, it was understandable that those who wanted to revive the tradition would think modestly in terms of introducing a decorative scheme.
Duncan Grant (1885-1978) was the lead artist for the paintings and put forward the initial proposals. He moved with Vanessa Bell (1879 – 1961) and her husband, Clive, to Charleston Farmhouse at the foot of the Downs, three miles to the west of Berwick Church, in 1916. Vanessa was sister of Virginia Woolf.
Quentin Bell (1910-1996) was the son of Vanessa and Clive Bell and undertook all the paintings within the Chancel as well as ‘The Supper at Emmaus’ at the end of the north aisle.
The ‘Decorative Scheme’
Duncan and Vanessa had in view a ‘decorative scheme’ which, rather than simply being a series of individual paintings within frames, would create an environment with its own particular feeling and aesthetic.
Duncan’s work is influenced by his travels in Italy where, as an art student, he had seen the mosaics at Ravenna and copied the frescoes of Piero della Francesca (1420-1492) at Arezzo. Then in Paris he had copied works by Chardin (1699-1779) portraying scenes from everyday life, ordinary people in work or recreation. At the same time he studied the work of the Impressionists and was later greatly influenced by the Post-Impressionists such as Cezanne, Seurat, and others.
Subsequently he became known as a British ‘Post-Impressionist’ for his use of bright colour and direct application of paint freed of convention. The paintings at Berwick exhibit influences from all these traditions, but also something of the artists focus on the intimacy of the home and personal relationships and their love of the beauty and simplicity of the Downland landscape.
It is easy for a visitor to Berwick to be overwhelmed by the scale of the paintings and the relatively small size of the church. Time is needed to absorb the atmosphere and to enter into the habitat of the paintings and look at their detail as well as their overall impact. That indeed was Professor Reilly’s experience who described how on entering the church he felt as if it was “like stepping out of a foggy England into Italy. I felt such a happy heavenly feeling as I sat there”.
We don’t know what Duncan felt when he visited Berwick church on his own, before the commission. He certainly didn’t display any prejudice against churches in general. His later reaction to Lincoln Cathedral may give us a clue to how he may have felt in the sacred space at Berwick. Speaking of the frescoes he painted in 1959 for the cathedral’s Russell Chantry, he said that his choice of scheme was a response to the feeling that the building aroused in him: ‘Lincoln cathedral is a gloriously happy church…’. Despite the war the paintings at Berwick seem to be a similar response to those in Lincoln: a desire to create a happy, uplifting space in which the imagination is awakened and set free to rise above the darkness and horror of war. The paintings are a tribute to the capacity of art to lift the human spirit. The horror of war would always part of human life but so also would be the ascent of the human spirit in joy and celebration over it.
In fact Duncan wanted to do more decorative work than was, in the event, realised. The Bishop was advised not to give consent to some of Duncan’s proposals, which were made subsequently to those for which permission had been granted, and some work was done without permission. In addition, there was the prevailing view that it was not considered appropriate to decorate the historic fabric of the church that had not been altered during the Victorian restoration. Perhaps the limitations are just as well. Some of Duncan’s previous work had been criticised for verging on pastiche and the balance at Berwick might well have been tipped in this direction. The painted architectural panels on the east wall tend towards this.
Duncan Grant’s Iconography
Duncan favoured earlier Christian iconography with its affirmative emphasis on the joy of salvation and eternal life and positive symbolism. He was attracted to the more naive, natural and ‘primitive’ human expression. When he was later asked to paint the murals for Lincoln cathedral for the chapel of St Blaise (patron saint of wool merchants) he chose the ancient iconic image of Christ the Good Shepherd whom he painted in a ‘blaze’ (a deliberate pun on his behalf) of glory. He preferred this positive image to one of St Blaise’s gruesome martyrdom. At Lincoln he also portrayed the medieval quay and wool trade which reflected the appeal that the vitality of working life had for Duncan. At Berwick he expresses this in the ‘Labours of the Months’ on the chancel screen.