Mastering the art of religious painting

02 November 2006

Religious artefacts were once the work of the Old Masters; now they're more likely to be sold by suppliers of church furnishings. Sarah Meyrick discovers one artist working to revive the interest in Christian art

HENRY SHELTON has always wanted to be true to his calling to create Christian art. He has enjoyed a varied and successful career as a commercial artist and product designer. But now, at the age of 60, he's reached the stage in his career where he can afford to call the shots, and he is giving himself time to concentrate on his religious paintings.

"It's not easy to make a living as a Christian artist," he says. "Once upon a time, the Church was a great commissioner of art. These days, most churches buy off-the-shelf work from suppliers of church furnishings."

He's just had six months off work, to think about how he was going to spend the rest of his life and ways in which he could witness to his faith through the visual arts.

In a sense, he's come full circle: he grew up in Stepney, and in his younger days painted four portraits of Trevor Huddleston, one of which Bishop Huddleston kept. Since then, though, he's worked largely in the commercial sector.

After leaving school, he served an apprenticeship at a studio in the former Metropolitan Borough, developing his skills in design and hand-drawn lettering. He went on to set up his own studio, and was at the forefront of designing with fibre-optic lighting in the 1980s.

Over the years, he has designed for theme parks, city centres, and private and corporate clients across the world. He also designed a space gallery for the Science Museum in London, showing a satellite orbiting the earth.

Mr Shelton was also the first to introduce into Britain fibre-optic Christmas trees that shimmer and change colour, and was responsible for the Christmas illuminations in Manchester for four years. He even invented a device to water a Christmas tree automatically: it had a telescopic lens and an electronic gauge that triggered a robotic voice when the soil was dry. It went down a storm in the US.

But he is proudest of his work using fibre-optics to create sensory rooms for children with special needs. "We created things like an underwater scene, as big as a wall, with fish swimming across it, or a shooting star going across the ceiling. The staff said that even the children who self-injured were calm enough not to need their drugs any more after half an hour in there. It was wonderful to see the look in those children's eyes."

AS A FINE artist, he found commissions were thin on the ground. Yet he never stopped painting his religious pictures. Now, however, after his sabbatical, he has been taken up by NIW Fine Art Prints, a publishing house that believes there is a solid market for his religious work. NIW is producing a series of limited-edition giclée prints of his work, and plans to market them to Christians in Britain and the US.

"It's something a bit different," he says. "My pictures are not mass-produced. People tell me they've got my picture at the end of the hallway, and as visitors come in, they look at it. Say it's a picture of the baptism of Jesus: through that they form a conversation."

He has a range of styles, but many of his pictures are abstract, and subtle: "not in your face", he says. Much as he loves the Old Masters, he thinks they might not sit comfortably in a modern living room.

Mr Shelton is delighted by the interest from NIW. The publisher's confidence in his product reflects his experience of occasionally designing altarpieces for churches. "I did a large oil painting of the ascension for the altar of the Church of the Saviour, Chell Heath, in Stoke-on-Trent. When I put the painting in a couple of years ago, the congregation all wanted prints of the picture. So I made a set of signed prints, and they were very successful." He hopes the partnership with NIW will make his work accessible to a wider audience.

His Christian faith has its roots in his childhood in the East End. He says that he was a choirboy in church in West Ham when he first became aware of the importance of visual art.

He met Trevor Huddleston through friends. "I once visited him in his chapel in the basement. He used to sit in the middle, contemplating a six-inch Russian icon on the wall. I said, 'Does this set you up for the day?' He said, 'Absolutely. Without meditation, you react in a knee-jerk way. With it, you are ready for the day.'" Bishop Huddleston confirmed Mr Shelton and his wife in 1972 at St Dunstan's, Stepney, before the couple moved to Essex.

Two of his recent projects can be found on his home patch: the new glass screen at his church, All Saints', Goodmayes, and the Millennium Clock Tower just down the road. The clock tower was a project spearheaded by the church, but supported by the wider community. It stands at a busy junction. There's a simple inscription carved out of Portland stone on each side of the square tower, with a short verse from the Bible, such as "And God created the heavens and the earth."

"They are positioned at eye level for people passing by on the bus," says Mr Shelton. The clock tower cost £40,000, all donated by local people whose names are now recorded on a plaque in the church.

The Revd Chris Keating, Vicar of All Saints', says: "The funding came in at the beginning, but then it slowed right down. A Jewish businessman came to see me and asked how much we needed to complete the project. I said £10,000, and he got out his chequebook and wrote a cheque there and then." The tower was dedicated by Bishop Roger Sainsbury, in a ceremony attended by a good cross-section of the community.

Mr Shelton is gratified by the local enthusiasm. "On high days and holidays, people put flowers and wreaths there," he says. "It's a very visual way of witnessing within the community."

Mr Keating was responsible for the artist's other recent project. The side chapel of the Edwardian church has an oak screen, dating from the 1940s, and Mr Keating asked him to come up with some designs to represent the saints in glass. "I said, 'Let me do the life of Jesus'" - which, he says, is now quite unusual. Twelve windows represent a series of New Testament scenes: the Madonna and Child, the young Jesus learning his trade as a carpenter, the baptism of Christ, the temptation, the miracles, the Beatitudes, the Last Supper, Pilate washing his hands, Jesus carrying the cross, the crucifixion, the tomb, and the resurrection.
  The scenes are etched on to glass panels, work that was undertaken by Goddard & Gibbs, an established stained-glass specialist in Stratford. It was a huge piece of work: once the designs were agreed, Mr Shelton had to make full-size drawings of each image, which Goddard & Gibbs turned into templates for each side of the glass panel. Mr Shelton and Mr Keating were determined that the pictures must work for viewers standing on either side of the glass, and so the crucifixion panel has no "INRI" above the cross.

The panels are unelaborate, and the pictures are made up of minimalist, flowing lines. "We wanted something simple, like the illustrations in the Good News Bible," says Mr Keating. The windows won a DAC award.

The congregation also loved them, and queued up to dedicate panels in memory of family. Again, they wanted prints, and Henry has produced a series of limited editions. The organist, Alexander Chaplin, was inspired to compose a cantata based around the panels, and Mr Shelton is wondering about recording a CD with a tie-in book of illustrations.

He hopes to find a market outside the Church, though, and sells his work in a department store. "The people in churches are already Christians," he says. "But I want to witness my faith to other people, too."

For more details, phone NIW on 01727 863471 or visit


 Spiritual matters: Henry Shelton’s works incorporate a number of styles. Mr Shelton is seen (above) in front of Crucifixion; Women of Jerusalem is above right. Temptation (below) is one of the windows designed for All Saints’ Church, Goodmayes


Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read five articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)