Keeping art and soul together

17 November 2010

Pat Ashworth finds that the art of commissioning works for churches has changed a great deal since the swashbuckling days of Walter Hussey

WALTER HUSSEY was “the last great patron of art in the Church of Eng­land”. So said Sir Kenneth Clark, doyen of British art history. And he should know.

The Very Revd Walter Hussey, Dean of Chichester Cathedral from 1955 to 1977, had a private collection that embraced modern artworks and old masters alike. And his com­missioning of significant contem­porary work was without parallel.

Here was a churchman with the passion, the connections, and the aplomb to order an anthem from Benjamin Britten, music from Holst, a set of psalms from Leonard Bern­stein, an altarpiece from Graham Sutherland, a stained-glass window from Marc Chagall, and a tapestry from John Piper.

Most of the artworks are now considered jewels, although not all of them were rapturously received at the time. Hussey is now spoken of with a mixture of admiration at what he achieved and acknowledgement that his independent way of working could not be repeated today.

To mark the centenary of Hussey’s birth, Chichester Cathedral em­barked on the Dean Walter Hussey Memorial Commission (Features, 13, 20, 27 November, 1, 11 December 2009). The Dean and Chapter announced this week that they had chosen the Spanish artist Jaume Plensa to make a sculp­ture to hang in the Cathedral’s central space.

Vivien Lovell, the director of the art-commissioning agency Modus Operandi, which ran the centenary commission, describes Hussey’s ap­proach as that of a connoisseur. “He developed a passion for acquiring and commissioning work by par­ticular artists,” she says, “and with his singular determination he would rush around taking executive action and commissioning work that he obviously rated.” She adds, with some affection: “And not asking anybody, according to all the reports. Of course, the results can be fabulous, but also not so great, sometimes.”

There is still a place for the individual patron of art, she believes, and even more of a place for the project champion. She puts the Vicar of St Martin-in-the-Fields, the Revd Nicholas Holtam, in this category, saying that he has a strong sense of what is right for a particular church building. “He is a complete visionary star,” she says of Mr Holtam, who steered the £36-million renewal pro­ject recently completed at the church.

Hussey’s influence was wide­spread. Sutherland attributes his own series of religious works to Hussey’s com­mission in 1945 for a Crucifixion in St Matthew’s, Northampton, which Basil Spence particularly liked, and which led to his commissioning the tapestry for Coventry Cathedral, in 1951.

PATRONAGE by influential indi­viduals did not die out with Hussey. Lord Palumbo, a Lon­don property developer, was also a churchwarden at St Stephen’s, Wal­brook, in the City of London, and a friend of the sculp­tor Henry Moore.

In 1967, he commissioned Moore to make a new altar for the building — a direct hit from an incendiary bomb in 1941 had completely des­troyed the dome. When it was re­placed, there was debate about what should go beneath it to celeb­rate the restoration.

Lord Palumbo, formerly a trustee of the Tate and chair­man of the Arts Council of Great Britain, says: “I thought a central altar would be wonderful. In Wren’s time, the pulpit was the principal focus of the church and the altar was tucked away at the east end.

“Now that the altar was the principal focal-point of interest in the 20th century, to celebrate the com­munion we thought an altar by Henry Moore would be wonderful. So I went to see Henry. He was rather diffident about it, because he was an agnostic, and couldn’t get his head round the idea of a central altar. But, eventually, after many visits to the church just sitting watching the way the light fell through the clear-glass windows, he came up with this design.”

It was based on the altar’s being like a sacrificial stone, some­thing, Lord Palumbo says, that “trig­gered all sorts of things in Henry’s mind. He used to spend his summers in Forte dei Marmi, in Italy, and made a mock-up in polystyrene which we brought to England and put in the church. It looked wonderful — exactly the right scale and dimen­sions.”

He recounts how Moore visited the quarry used by Michelangelo, where the sculptor chose and modelled the stone to reflect the angles of light that he had been observing for five years.

“Then it was brought back to England — eight tons of it — and taken to Much Hadham, where he put it into a field surrounded by sheep. It was a bit of a risk because we hadn’t got any permission for it. . . Then Henry died, in a way mercifully, because the chancellor of the diocese to whom we’d applied hated it. He thought it was ugly. He said it wasn’t an altar because an altar was a table, and a table had four legs.”

Lord Palumbo had to demonstrate to the arcane Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved that the altar was an altar. “It was rather derided and mocked, as people do with things that are new, until it becomes part of the landscape of memory and becomes familiar,” he says.

He remembers the comment of Margaret Thatcher, who came to see the altar after lunching at the Bank of England: “She said, tongue in cheek, ‘Now, Mr Palumbo, tell me, which came first — the church or the altar?’ Which was a lovely way of putting it, I think.”

MOORE’s circular altar is the starting point in “Com­mission”, a current exhibi­tion of contemporary art in British churches, at Wallspace, an independent art gallery in the 18th-century church of All Hallows’ on the Wall, also in the City.

The aim of the exhibition is to pro­mote best practice in the commis­sioning of permanent works, to inform debate about the process, and to encourage artists to engage with the challenges involved.

“Contemporary artists are in­trigued by placing work in spaces like ours,” the director of Wallspace, Meryl Doney, says. “They’re inter­ested that this is not a white cube, a neutral space dedicated to art, but that the space informs the work, and vice versa.”

Damien Hirst was the first artist to exhibit at Wallspace, and others include Sam Taylor-Wood, Ana Maria Pechecho, and Peter Howson.

Commissioning permanent work for religious spaces can be hit-and-miss, Mrs Doney acknowledges: “It’s going to be here for the next 1000 years, and it has to relate to everything else in the building, which is quite a daunting task. Successful commissions are where the church understands the processes of producing visual art. They engage with the artist all along the way.

“Artists need a real understanding of the work’s contribution to the place when it is finished. One or two are just works of art plonked in a place, and these don’t work. It’s got to be an organic process.”

She also believes that there is still room for the situation where “the vicar knows an artist, loves the work, and gets it in”. And, while she ac­know­ledges that funding is inevitably going to lead to some slow-down, it won’t be “in terms of enthu­siasm, or people doing imaginative stuff in these areas”.

ALL HALLOWS’ is also home to Art and Christian Enquiry (ACE), set up by the Revd Tom Devonshire Jones, which plays a leading part in encour­aging the relationship between the visual arts and the Christian faith. ACE has worked in partnership with Wallspace on “Commission”, and, to coincide with the exhibition, has published a book Contemporary Art in British Churches, which pro­vides a survey of church commis­sions.

Paul Bayley, ACE’s director of pro­jects, migrated to the organisation from the secular-art world, and is encouraged by the upsurge in artists considering church commis­sions.

“Twenty or 30 years ago, you wouldn’t have got so many engaging with ideas of faith, with the Church or organised religion per se,” he says. “I think it’s become much less of a taboo subject.” He thinks that public funding at the time of the millen­­nium also helped, when the placing of artworks in sacred settings was seen as a legitimate use of public money.

A panoply of arts consultants, agents, and galleries now see this as an interesting area for their artists to be working in. “There’s still a bit of op­position whenever a new work arrives in church, and I absolutely under­stand that,” Mr Bayley says, recalling the eyebrows that were raised at the Tracey Emin neon piece I felt you and I knew you loved me, installed in Liver­pool Cathedral and featured in “Com­mission”. Emin received an ACE award for it.

“Admittedly, lots of artists have their own concept of spiritual belief: they don’t necessarily always fit into an Anglican tradition, but they have a deep response to spiritual issues,” he says. “I think Tracey Emin genuinely does. It’s interesting that this work means so much to her. She’s produced a facsimile for the show, and cares about it enough to subsidise it through some of her other work.”

Another early work that predates the boom in church commissioning which is being celebrated at Wallspace is Antony Gormley’s Sound II at Win­chester Cathedral (1986). “It had to overcome quite a lot of the ‘This is inappropriate, given the setting’ kind of criticism, which can sometimes be a cloak for ‘We don’t like con­temporary art coming into this space,’” Mr Bayley says.

“But, interestingly, the Gormley is now being used as a branding device by the cathedral. It was sited there eight years before he won the Turner Prize, and 15 before Angel of the North made him a household name. So I think one of the other advantages for churches and cathedrals is that if they have this patient dialogue with an artist, they can sometimes get a world-class work for not a great deal of money.”

He forecasts that more stringent times may bring a move towards more temporary installations, some­thing he would welcome, because of the time it gives for a dialogue and a relationship to build up. “Quite often, when pieces are parachuted in as one-off commissions, that’s when there’s a real reaction against them. Some­times it takes a decade for them to feel comfortable in an ancient building, whereas if something is going in three weeks’ time, people are much more tolerant, and often come to like what the artist has done.”

CHURCHES and cathedrals are becoming more professional about engaging with con­temporary art, but Mr Bayley draws a parallel with the ubiquity of public art, and is “slightly nervous that everyone says, ‘There’s an empty space, let’s fill it with artwork.’ . . . And there are works from 20, even 50 years ago which could be jet­tisoned, just be­cause they’ve fallen out of fashion.”

Ms Lovell believes that the climate for the commissioning of art in churches is “enormously healthy. . . One reason is that ACE has helped to raise the whole awareness and quality of the work.”

Arts consultancies such as hers work in what she describes as a con­sultative and collaborative way. “We don’t come in and say we recommend you have X or Y artist for this or that.

“We suggest working with an arts panel, and then we will draw up a typically long and then a shortlist with the panel. It’s a question then of taking ideas on board, and taking people with you, but still achieving a very high-quality end result.”

It is “absolutely the case” that you do not have to be religious to produce religious art, Ms Lovell says. “Artists who are agnostic or atheist often have an amazing response to a site, which they recognise as being sacred or important or contemplative. Because, actually, art is working along parallel tracks: the artists want to produce something that is timeless and con­templative, will withstand multiple viewings, and is a classic of its kind.”

Nor are commissions confined to cathedrals and large buildings: the Lumen United Reformed Church in Bloomsbury, London, has two com­missioned works: a window by Rona Smith, and a font, drinking fountain, and garden fountain by Alison Wild­ing.

Agencies will take risks: Modus Operandi’s commissioning of Shirazeh Houshiary for the new east window at St Martin-in-the-Fields was thought to be taking a chance, since she had never made anything in glass before. “But I knew that she could, given the right collaborator [Pip Horne]. . . It’s wonderful when it pays off. When we saw the window for the first time, it was quite heart-stopping.”

Competition is considered a good way to find an artist, because it allows views to be recorded and fed through to the selection panel. “Even if the public favourite doesn’t always win, for whatever reason, people do re­member being consulted,” Ms Lovell says.

Alongside the big players sit others directly engaged in art-commis­sion-ing for churches: independent trusts such as Art and Sacred Places, formed under the auspices of the former Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd John Gladwin; and ChurchArt, whose website is run by the Cathedral and Church Buildings Division, and which provides a database of more than 300 artists.

There is also Commission for Mission, run by the Revd Jonathan Evens, under the patronage of the Bishop of Barking, the Rt Revd David Hawkins, with a brief to encourage churches with smaller budgets. A proportion of the artist’s fee goes to charity. It was launched 18 months ago, and Mr Evens has been surprised and delighted at the range and number of artists keen to work with churches.

The last word goes to Mr Bayley. “One of the things we’re champion­ing is the real variety and depth of some of the things that are happening at the moment. There are some things that I’m not personally a huge fan of, but I really applaud the wish to engage with the art of the time.”

“Commission: An Exhibition of Con­­temporary Art in British Churches” is at Wallspace, All Hallows’ on the Wall, 83 London Wall, London EC2. It runs until 3 December, Tuesday to Friday, noon to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission free.  

The ACE monograph Contemporary Art in British Churches costs £5.

Chichester commission

‘The words came in a flash’

Tracey Emin — Liverpool Cathedral

‘A new experience’

Shirazeh Houshiary — St Martin-in-the-Fields

To create the window for St Martin-in-the-Fields was a totally new experience. While being sensitive to the church’s require­ments, we needed to be chal­lenging and create a work which was contemporary and new. This was perhaps the most difficult part of the project.

Clearly, many people would like to reject what is new and are happier with what is familiar. For me, there is no distinction between consecrated space and other spaces, as I feel the whole world is a sacred place. We needed to create an experience that would transcend the distinc­tions between sacred and pro­fane, and also be sensitive to the architectural quality of the build­ing and the original vision of its architect.

After our proposals were chosen by the art advisory panel, the same proposals were then rejected by the parochial church council, and were ac­cepted only after further amend­ments. It took two years to obtain all the necessary per­­missions prior to fabrication.

The problem was not just that the building was old and important historically, but also that it was a sacred space for many people. This ensured the process was lengthy and differ-ent from our other projects, but ultimately powerful and enriching.

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