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Beauty can be moral and true

12 October 2012

OCTAVIA HILL died 100 years ago this year. She was one of those magnificent Victorian women who got out of bed every morning to change the world. She was a tireless social reformer, concerned above all with the housing of the London poor.

Although she was much inspired by the likes of the Christian socialist F. D. Maurice, she did not share his politics. I think of her as a one-nation Tory: she would have been in favour of a small state and greater personal responsibility; she hated the culture of dependency which she believed was created by welfarism; and she went on to be a co-founder of that con­servative institution the National Trust. Of course, it makes limited sense to say that she was a Tory, because she didn't have a vote -  she was against women's voting. She was not any sort of radical.

But the thing about Hill is not her politics, but that she cared so deeply and achieved so much. One of the things that drove her was a very Victorian idea of beauty as being a moral as well as an aesthetic category. As a teenager, Hill started working for John Ruskin, copying Old Masters. It was Ruskin's sense that art has a morally transforming potential that inspired her to beautify public space.

If there is anything that sets us apart from the likes of Hill and Ruskin, is it this idea that beauty is morally significant. The art world hardly ever uses the word any more, leaving it as an ideal for the cosmetics industry.

It was already being questioned, but beauty in art got killed off by the horrors of the First World War (what could beauty mean after all that?) and the subsequent rise of the avant-garde. In the post-war era, the likes of Clement Greenberg were persuading artists to understand their work simply in its own terms - art for art's sake.

I believe that this is a fundamental characteristic of modernity: that truth, goodness, and beauty come to be separated from each other. And what I see in the life of Hill is a perfect illustration of why we need to bring them back together again, as the theologian Hans Urs von Balt­hasar has rightly insisted in his magnificent theological aesthetics, The Glory of the Lord.

What we do in church is not, as it were, the truth bit (from the pulpit and altar) plus the goodness bit (going out and doing good works) plus the beauty bit (liturgy, music, painting). The Christian vision is not a com­bination of these separate concerns, but recognises that they are all related, and grow out of each other - a bit like the Trinity. Hill reminds us once again to insist that beauty can be both moral and true.

Canon Giles Fraser is Priest-in-Charge of St Mary's, Newington, in the diocese of Southwark.

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