Campaign from on high at St Jude’s

by
31 July 2015

A war-memorial mural in Hampstead Garden Suburb shows the influence of its times, suggests Alan Walker

Henry Benedict Walker

Commissioned: the west dome up close

Commissioned: the west dome up close

ALTHOUGH the Lady chapel of St Jude-on-the-Hill, Hampstead Garden Suburb, contains a list of the fallen — between images of Martha and Mary, and beneath a foundation stone by Eric Gill — it is the decoration of the chapel as a whole that is the parish’s First World War memorial; and the memory of the fallen is primarily, and surprisingly, commemorated through images of women.

The murals (which would eventually fill the church) are the work of Walter Percival Starmer (1877-1961), the son of a Congregationalist minister who trained at Norwich and Birmingham schools of art.

In an apparent revision to the original scheme of 1919, whereby the Lady chapel was to be decorated with representations of women from the Bible, the west dome was filled with portraits that were — in the words of the artist — illustrative of various types of women who had laboured in various spheres for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God; as witnesses for right, as they conceived it; and for the extension of righteousness among men.

The intention was to suggest the continuity of efforts towards this end through the Christian ages.

Starmer said that they were mainly types, with the odd well-known figure for emphasis, but the majority are, in fact, portraits of identifiable female saints and heroines from Christian history.

Some of them were recently deceased. These include the anti-vivisectionist and suffragist Frances Power Cobbe (d. 1904); the social reformer and women’s-rights campaigner Josephine Butler (d. 1906); the philanthropist and supporter of animal causes Angela Burdett-Coutts (d. 1906); the executed nurse Edith Cavell (d. 1915); a Scottish doctor and suffragist who had established all-women medical units and who served in Serbia (where she was captured) and Russia, Elsie Inglis (d. 1917); and Agnes Weston (d. 1918), who had dedicated her life to the welfare of the men of the Royal Navy.

 

THE prominence given to the portrait of Joan of Arc is noteworthy. It is her image that confronts the visitor or worshipper as they enter the chapel.

Joan, of course, had fought the English. The English had been responsible for her trial and execution as a heretic, and her image had been deployed by the Catholic League in the 16th-century wars of religion against Protestants. Furthermore, she had just (in 1920) been canonised by the Roman Catholic Church.

Although Joan had become a symbol of resistance to German militarism, her presence in St Jude’s probably owes more to the part she played as an inspiration and symbol for the women’s-suffrage movement in England.

From at least the turn of the century, she had regularly appeared not just on posters and placards, but in person, at suffragist events and demonstrations, when a participant would be detailed to don sword and armour in the battle for the vote.

She had led the Women’s Coronation Procession (a demonstration in favour of women’s suffrage) through the streets of London on 17 June 1911, a week before the coronation of George V. On 3 June 1913, Emily Wilding Davison saluted the statue of Joan of Arc at the Women’s Suffrage and Political Union summer fair, with Joan’s own last words: “Fight on, and God will give victory.” The same words appeared on Davison’s grave — after she had died beneath the King’s horse at the Derby.

Moreover, as a leader of men, Joan would have had a particular appeal to the “chairman” of the St Jude’s war-memorial ladies’ fund-raising committee, Mabel St Clair Stobart (1862-1954), who was almost certainly responsible for the selection of the eminent women.

 

IN 1907, in order to demonstrate what she called “women’s national worthiness”, Stobart had founded the Women’s Sick and Wounded Convoy Corps to facilitate the wartime movement of the wounded from field hospitals to the base hospitals behind the Front. By “worthiness” she meant for the vote. When all was said and done, she wrote, it was the war work which women in all spheres of life performed so admirably that made it at last impossible for the vote to be further denied.

At the time of the painting (and from 1918), only certain women over the age of 30 had the vote; it was not until 1928 that it was granted on the same terms as men — to all over 21.

The Lady chapel’s mural scheme became much more than a war memorial: it was a celebration of the contribution of women to the Church and nation, but also part of the continuing campaign for universal adult suffrage.

 

The Revd Alan Walker is the Vicar of St Jude-on-the-Hill. His illustrated Walter P. Starmer Artist 1877-1961 (978-0-9569518-1-6) was published by the church, with the support of a grant from the Hymns A&M trust.

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