IN KEEPING with its title, "Still Small Voice"at the recently
renovated gallery The Wilson, in Cheltenham, has rather crept under
the radar despite its significance as an exhibition and a
well-subscribed associated lecture series.
Opening before the plethora of Lent exhibitions, which
demonstrate the health of the engagement between the Church and
art, but continuing beyond them, itilluminates both past and
present practice in this engagement.
Ben Quash of King's College, London, a contributor to the
catalogue and lecture programme, provides one frame through which
to view this exhibition. That is art in Christianity - i.e. the
20th-century revival in ecclesiastical commissions, represented
here by two Graham Sutherland studies for his Coventry Cathedral
tapestry - and Christianity in art - i.e. notable artists such as
Stanley Spencer and Edward Burra who consistently "do" or "did"
theology in works created for the mainstream art market.
One of Quash's initiatives has involved education and research
partnerships with the National Gallery which have received support
from the Ahmansons, Howard and Roberta, from whose collection of
modern British art this exhibition is drawn. The Ahmansons, listed
by Time magazine in 2005 as being among the 25 most
influential US Evangelicals, have been prominent patrons of the
arts in both the US and the UK. They have encouraged Christians to
engage artists with whom they wouldn't agree theologically or
morally, and to look at a lot of contemporary art.
Roberta Green Ahmanson has suggested that central to the vision
of the artists in their collection "is a kind of spareness, a
bleakness born of the suffering of two world wars".
Quash speaks of this as a "chastened pastoral sense" combined
with a modest acknowledgement of the "broken". Ahmanson states that
this can be seen in the muted colours and restrained vision of the
artists included, and yet, she says, "they turn to biblical images
to understand their grief."
The collection begins with the Nazarene and Pre-Raphaelite
styles of William Dobson and William Bell Scott, and continues,
with Eric Gill as the bridge between Modernism and the earlier Arts
and Crafts movement, through the inter-war period of the 1920s and
1930s, the Second World War, the post-war era, and the later 20th
century, into the early 21st century. Its closest equivalent in the
UK is the Methodist Art Collection, which, while broader in the
range of artists collected, has less depth, particularly in the
focus that the Ahmanson Collection has on the middle years of the
20th century, with its renewed interest in religious art.
This, as the exhibition curator Lyrica Taylor notes, was
"brought about by the horrors of the First World War and the demand
for new churches following the widespread destruction of the Second
World War". The focus and heart of this collection is located there
in works by Burra, Jacob Epstein, Eric Gill, Barbara Hepworth,
Henry Moore, Spencer, and Sutherland. If the Ahmanson and Methodist
collections were exhibited together with a judicious choice of
contemporary work, this would offer a relatively comprehensive
review of modern British religious art.
Here the contemporary element is provided by Angus Pryor's
atrium installation, God's Wrath, which takes for its
inspiration a key work in the collection, Spencer's Angels of
the Apocalypse. Pryor, who also contributed to the rectangles,
cross shapes, and primary colours of the exhibition hang, which
frame the works in the modernist concrete spaces of The Wilson,
translates a religious narrative into a secular framework in order
to "understand the original narrative in a way that is not stale or
Conceptual art, from Paul Thek to Damien Hirst and beyond, tends
to use religious narratives in this way, and one of the weaknesses
of the Ahmanson Collection is that, in the collection itself, does
not engage with this development.
A second frame for understanding this collection is to see the
mid-20th century renewal of interest in religious art as having two
approaches to ecclesiastical commissions.
The first includes artists, such as Eric Gill, who formed
societies or schools for the creation and promotion of religious
art. The exhibition features a comprehensive range of work from
Gill's Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic (mirrored in France by the
Ateliers d'art Sacré and in Switzerland by the Groupe de Saint-Luc
et Saint-Maurice), through the inclusion of a book of engravings
for the St Dominic's Press, and a design for St Peter the Apostle,
Gorleston-on-Sea, which was the summation of Gill's radical ideas
The second approach focused on commissioning, as Canon Walter
Hussey put it, "the very best artists I could". In the UK, this was
the approach of Bishop George Bell and Hussey, while on mainland
Europe the Dominicans Marie-Alain Couturier and Pie-Raymond Régamey
made this the focus of their work.
Here we see this approach in works commissioned from
Epstein, Hepworth, Christopher Le Brun, Moore, and Sutherland.
In France, this approach led to a predominance of abstract art.
Here, however, the focus remains primarily on figurative work. The
only abstract images included are strong works by Peter Lanyon and
Joe Tilson for the Tate Gallery's 1958 exhibition "The Religious
The poster image for the current exhibition is a pink Craigie
Aitchison crucifixion, but, if you are not already convinced that
this is an exhibition to visit before these British works return to
the US, this painting's companion is an absolute gem. Completed
just a year before his death, Body of Christ (Red
Background) is an example of the spiritual depths of modern
art, with its full-on expressive use of colour combined with the
stripped-back minimalism of its imagery. Christ is the cross, the
cross is the wound at the heart of the canvas, and this gash in the
blood-red background is the point at which light enters the
As Ahmanson says, this is art that creates sacred space by
taking you "somewhere beyond yourself and outside of your own
"Still Small Voice: British Biblical Art in a Secular Age
(1850 - 2014)"is at The Wilson, Cheltenham Art Gallery and Museum,
Clarence Street, Cheltenham, until 3 May. Phone 01242