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We few, we happy few

16 November 2012

Five contemporary artists, whose religious work can be found in churches and cathedrals across the UK, and who often compete for the same commissions, support one another in an informal fraternity. Simon Jenkins joins the brothers in Suffolk


Brothers in art: left to right: Mark Cazalet, Nicholas Mynheer, Thomas Denny, and Roger Wagner

Brothers in art: left to right: Mark Cazalet, Nicholas Mynheer, Thomas Denny, and Roger Wagner

A GROUP of artists go to Bunhill Fields, in London, to visit the grave of William Blake, and gather at his memorial headstone. The stone announces vaguely that the poet and artist is buried "near by"; so they ask an attendant to point out the exact spot.

"He's buried in that bit of grass over there," they are told, "16 layers down, in a pauper's grave." The grass, unmarked by a stone, is now a spot where children play.

The visit to Blake's resting place is part of a day's pilgrimage, during which the group travel across London from the room in a West End house where "Jerusalem" and Songs of Innocence were written, to Westminster Abbey, where the young Blake sketched many of the tombs, to make engravings.

The artists - Nicholas Mynheer, Mark Cazalet, Thomas Denny, Roger Wagner, and Richard Kenton Webb (who is unable to join us) - have been creating art works in a rich variety of media since the 1980s, but it is only in the past decade that they have come together in a sort of accidental brotherhood.

Accidental, that is, in that the group came into being only when two or three of them kept bumping into each other at exhibitions frequently enough to become friends, and then realised the value of meeting regularly.

Despite its current all-male membership, which is not intentional, the brothers have at least one sister, in the form of the Anglican nun and art historian Sister Wendy Beckett, who has admired and supported several of the artists individually over many years, and has encouraged them to meet. In return, Sister Wendy is highly esteemed by these artists, who believe that she was significant in re-establishing the importance of sacred subject-matter in art.

I CATCH up with four members of the brotherhood when they gather at Snape Maltings, in Suffolk, set among the whispering reed-beds along the River Alde. They are getting together for an exhibition, "The Ocean in a Tree", with paintings, prints, and drawings by two of their number, Roger Wagner and Mark Cazalet.

The Maltings' cavernous old buildings are now home to galleries, shops, and restaurants, as well as the concert hall, which is an important venue in the Aldeburgh Festival. Fortunately, though, the Crown Inn is just a short walk up the road, and after we all meet in the Maltings' car park - a jolly affair, as the friends are clearly thrilled to see each other - we set off through the fields. I fall in with Cazalet, a painter, and we quickly start talking about faith and art.

All five artists have created works for sacred spaces, ranging from parish churches to great cathedrals, and three of them work extensively in response to church commissions. I ask Cazalet what value there is for him in meeting together as a group.

"Part of getting together is maybe admitting that on your own you're very lonely," he says. "There's a great deal of comfort in being together, because you do share the issues you're facing. Commissions come with tremendous baggage, unexpected frustrations, and bizarre delays; so talking about it all is very important for me."

Are they consciously religious in their work, I ask. "Absolutely, yes, and unashamedly," he says. I suggest that it is rare to find artists who are prepared to declare their Christianity. "I think all of us, to various degrees, have found that a fairly serious stumbling block in our careers," he says.

Nicholas Mynheer explains to me how the group spend their days together - sometimes travelling to the places where a significant artist or writer once lived and worked, at other times visiting each other's studios to see creative work in progress.

THE group's first outing was to Bedfordshire, to visit sites connected with John Bunyan and The Pilgrim's Progress. Since then, they have had days devoted to Theodore Powys (a mystical novelist of the 1920s and '30s), the metaphysical poets George Herbert and Thomas Traherne, the painter Stanley Spencer, and others.

"We're very different as people and as artists as well," Mynheer says. "On the Bunyan day, we all turned up, without telling each other, with a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress. I had my grandfather's penny-halfpenny copy, while at the other extreme Roger had a copy about which even the museum people said, 'Wow, that's a first edition, hand-coloured!' It included some pages that had been coloured by Roger when he was about six. It was very funny that each of us had a copy, but all of them different."

In the pub, we settle comfortably around a large table for talk, beer, and lunch. I ask them what is the common denominator in the writers and artists they choose to spend their days on.

"They're heroes of ours," Wagner says. "One of our inspirations was the book Divine Landscapes, by Ronald Blythe (Features, 2 November). He included the places associated with Herbert, Bunyan, and others, in his book, and we started off by following in his footsteps."

"We could go together to major museums, art fairs, and collections," Cazalet says, "but I think the model we've evolved has a pilgrimage element about it." Mynheer says: "It was certainly extraordinary, walk- ing across the countryside on the Pilgrim's Progress and Bunyan day. That felt very special."

Meeting together has led to some creative collaborations, different combinations of the artists working together. Mynheer has recently begun work on an altar for Mirfield, where it is hoped that Cazalet will create a glass chapel. Wagner and Mynheer have designed and made a cover for the Romanesque font in Iffley Church, near Oxford.

"In practical ways, we can be terribly useful to one other," Denny says. "When I was working on the Millennium window for Durham Cathedral, Mark and Richard came down and spent a while looking at my figures - and it was only then that I realised I hadn't seen a catastrophic fault in proportion. . . The length of the arms - they were too stunted." He laughs. "That, of course, would have been accentuated to a monstrous degree when you were looking up at the window."

AS I listen to them talking around the table, I reflect that, for a group of artists to become a brother- hood, there ought to be some sort of manifesto. That was certainly the case for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood of the mid-19th century, who came together in a quest to reform the artistic styles of their time.

This group do not have a manifesto, but they do have a shared vision of the transformative potential of art, although they have markedly different ways of thinking about it. Cazalet and Denny speak of their concern about the shifting values of the art world, and the way in which the Church can sometimes collude with it.

Denny says that one of the qualities he draws from being with the group is the sense of being supported by other people who, like him, are not part of the art-world mainstream. "A lot of the things we're all interested in are not generally esteemed in the contemporary art world. If you look at the reviews of contemporary art in any newspaper, there are certain words and phrases that are always used, such as 'irreverent', 'referencing', and 'humorous take on'. What we are interested in is not being irreverent, but reverent; not 'referencing' things, but 'being' things."

THESE distinctions become sharper when they take place not just in art galleries, but in the churches' sacred spaces, too. Cazalet believes that it is almost a matter of honour that the winners of religious commissions say: "I am not a believer, but I was invited to make work in this very exciting context." He thinks that the contemporary art world has caught on to the idea that the beautiful and dramatic backdrops of the country's churches are now available,and that the cathedrals, especially, are hungry for acceptance by the cultural world.

"There's more cachet for Tracey Emin to be in your cathedral, because she brings the two worlds together. It's news, and brings in a huge amount of interest from the media," Denny says. "The difference is that we're not using the church as a backdrop. We are fully integrated and woven into the function of our work - liturgically, sacramentally, theologically."

And prayerfully. "I find that when I'm walking or working," he says, "that's when I'm praying. I'm quite a solitary person. I feel terribly grateful to feel close to God in what I do. I feel extraordinary senses of closeness to God when I'm doing things that might be a kind of vessel in which others can find revelations. The idea that what one is doing might hold possibilities that could be revelatory for people is terribly exciting."

AFTER lunch, we walk back to the Maltings to see the exhibition by Wagner and Cazalet. The show, which has been hung in the Concert Hall Gallery, features work created by the two artists in response to the topography of this part of Suffolk.

"There is stretch of landscape, to one side of a road, that winds from the Maltings at Snape to the quay at Orford, which I have been captivated by since I was a child," Wagner says. "It is the source of many of [these] pictures." As a boy, he was taken to a rolling field of wheat, late one afternoon, and attempted to capture a single tree on canvas by the evening. The exhibition has a number of solitary trees that he has painted in the years since, each of them depicted with a beautiful - almost filmic - quality that reveals the tree as an icon pointing to something much greater than itself.

Cazalet's pieces include a series of chalk drawings on coloured paper, made in woodland next to his Suffolk home. The intense focus of these drawings, rendered in colours that are bright and brooding by turn, makes them much more than recordings of woodland. Cazalet calls them "songs sung in colour and rhythm".

As we stand looking at one of the drawings in luminous, numinous yellows, he talks of the time hespent sitting in the wood. It recalls what he says about the loneliness of his work. The beauty of the image, and the sacrifice made in producing it, makes real sense of this brotherhood, where artists have found companionship and support in each other.

"The Ocean in a Tree", an exhibition of paintings, prints, and drawings by Roger Wagner and Mark Cazalet, is at the Concert Hall Gallery, Snape Maltings, Suffolk IP17 1SR, until 23 December. It can be viewed two hours before the start of any performance in the Concert Hall, or at other times by making an appointment on 01728 687 100.



Cazalet trained at Chelsea, and then Falmouth College of Art, before going on to postgraduate scholarships in Paris and India. The experience of working abroad expanded his references, materials, and ways of working, laying the foundation for a richly diverse body of work. He has undertaken many commissions for churches and cathedrals, working in textiles, glass, murals, and mosaic.

Wagner read English at Oxford University before studying at the Royal Academy Schools. His one-man shows include retrospectives at the Ashmolean Museum in 1994 and 2010. He has produced several books of illustrated poems and translations, including two volumes of a translation of the Psalms. His work Menorah hangs in St Giles's, Oxford, and his new stained-glass window was installed in St Mary's, Iffley, in 2012.
Pamela Tudor-Craig

Mynheer studied Graphic Design at Hornsey College of Art, in London, and graduated in 1981. After spending several years working in advertising, he turned to painting full-time, then, subsequently, sculpture and glass design. His work is almost entirely biblically based, and can be found in Newcastle and Birmingham Cathedrals, and numerous British churches.

Denny is a British stained-glass artist. He studied as a painter at Edinburgh College of Art, and now lives in Dorset. His work can be seen in more than 30 British churches, including Gloucester and Hereford Cathedrals, Malvern Priory, and Tewkesbury Abbey. In 2010, he completed a window depicting the transfiguration for Durham Cathedral.

Webb studied at the Slade School of Fine Art, and gained his MA at the Royal College of Art in London. He is an artist and colourist who works in paint, sculpture, and print. He has exhibited widely in Britain, and has travelled extensively to paint and teach. He is currently a senior lecturer at the University of the West of England, and haslived in the Cotswolds for 25 years.

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