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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.