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Unless you become as little children . . .

07 March 2014

In the first of a special series for Lent, Richard Harries reflects on the art of Albert Herbert


A vulnerable figure with whom it is easy to identify: Elijah Fed by a Raven in the Desert by Albert Herbert

A vulnerable figure with whom it is easy to identify: Elijah Fed by a Raven in the Desert by Albert Herbert

THIS seemingly childlike painting by Albert Herbert crept up on me, and has stealthily taken hold. Indeed, if I had to select ten images to convey the essentials of the Christian faith, this would be one of them; for it goes straight to the heart of the matter: our utter dependence on God's sustenance.

Albert Herbert (1925-2008) was Principal Lecturer at the St Martin's School of Art, when he found himself increasingly out of sympathy with the prevailing fashion for American abstract art, which was all the rage with his students and colleagues. He was capable of working in this style, and in fact produced a number of attractive abstracts at this time, but he found that he could not go on in that way. Yet he had also given up representative art; so he seemed stuck.

It was a difficult time for him, and, as he wrote, he "used to creep down to the etching room of St Martin's and work at these little prints, literary, illustrative, with bits of theology hiding behind childish jokes; all the opposite of what my modernist colleagues were teaching on the top floor".

So he taught himself to draw again by looking at children's drawings, and this led to his "drawing what I felt and knew rather than what it looked like".

This artistic drowning and resurrection he explored in a series of paintings on the theme of Jonah and the whale. The spiritual insight of his work was recognised by Sister Wendy Beckett, to whose discernment we owe so much; and Herbert's painting has also been promoted by his gallery, England & Co.

Herbert clearly felt that he had to learn to see the world again with something of a child's eye, and a child's capacity for wonder. In this, there is a parallel with the Neo-Platonist artist Cecil Collins, from about the same period, one of whose paintings shows a fool walking along holding the hand of a little child who is leading him. All Herbert's paintings have this seemingly childlike simplicity, although the colour and composition are in fact subtle and sophisticated.

A number of dramatic stories from the life of the ninth-century-BC prophet Elijah appear in the Christian art of both East and West, including this one. The icon of this scene has a bearded Elijah, sitting on the ground against the background of his dark cave, with the sharp peaks of mountains above. He is looking over his left shoulder, gazing up at a raven perched on the ledge of the cave. The raven is holding a round piece of bread shaped like a eucharistic wafer in its beak.

Nicholas Mynheer, who has also painted this scene, is closer to this way of depicting it than Herbert, who has his own distinctive understanding.

First, Elijah is bald, beardless, and naked except for a loincloth. He is exposed, frail, and vulnerable; in short, an easy figure with whom to identify. Second, the long, looming dark clouds and the threatening colours of the landscape clearly have their own message. But so, too, have the bright horizon and the patch of light in the sky above the clouds.

Especially interesting is the luminous church or temple, set against the darkest part of the mountains, with its mysterious entrance. Such a building appears elsewhere in Herbert's work, and points to the need to make an interior journey. Then there is the raven with the round wafer in his beak, almost as large as the frail man.

Finally, another characteristic of Herbert: a coiled worm in one corner, with a smile on its face, as though in the end we are not to take ourselves too seriously.

Herbert had no early religious education or interest in religion, but in 1958, he was received into the Roman Catholic Church. Brought up in Bow in a very modest home, he had no cultural background, either. It was when he was working in a library when he left school that he saw an article on surrealist art in a magazine. It came as a revelation, and made him realise that "art was about revealing the marvellous."

His own paintings certainly do this, not least this one. For Herbert, art was not about meaning, but about feelings. From this point of view, it is not difficult to feel one's way into this painting.

Frail and vulnerable as we are, with clouds of worry stretching over our minds, we are pointed to God's miraculous, sustaining grace, not least as this comes to us in the eucharist. But this also requires us to enter into ourselves, to go into that mysterious, luminous temple.

Yet, as the smiling worm says, there are also jokes. There is fun to be had, provided we are not portentous about ourselves, even about our spiritual journey.

The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is the former Bishop of Oxford, and the author of The Image of Christ in Modern Art (Ashgate, £19.99 (CT Bookshop £18 - Use code CT158 ); 978-1-4094-6382-5) (Books, 20 December). This Lent series is based on the book.

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