THERE is a remarkable and uplifting dimension to the Evelyn Gibbs exhibition at Nottingham Castle. Gibbs (1905-91) was evacuated to Nottingham with Goldsmiths’’ College in 1941, and remained in the city until 1960. Trained at the Royal College of Art and the British School of Art in Rome, she was a commissioned war artist on the home front and a founding member of the Midland Group of Artists.
The exhibition focuses on work made in her twenties — chiefly etchings and engravings — and the wartime paintings. Several of the engravings have a religious theme. The etching The Good Samaritan depicts the exhausted figure of the wounded man on his back, dramatically collapsed over the verge of the road. One arm is trapped stiffly by his side, the other flung outwards. His tormented face is darkened. A bent and kneeling figure is examining his wounds; another stands watching.
The line of Gibbs’s figures is equally expressive in The Expulsion, where Adam displays a submissive and almost childlike remorse as Eve takes him by the hand to lead him out of Eden. His head is bowed, his back is hunched, and his back leg is dragging. Eve’s other arm is across her chest in a belated attempt at modesty. The engraving The Adoration of the Shepherds is striking for its depiction of Mary as a young woman in modern dress, sitting upright and thoroughly composed. Her knees are turned outwards so that the baby rests naturally between them.
The wartime work is powerful stuff, and the pictures in the Castle exhibition have not been on display since the era in which they were made. The city’s Raleigh cycle factory was turned over to munitions in the Second World War, and the five remarkable drawings of The Press Shop (1943), mainly in charcoal, ink and gouache, depict women working heavy machinery. Ugly, menacing iron dominates the space. But the figures of the women are dignified and womanly. While doing men’s work in this industrial plant, they remain distinctively feminine.
Gibbs, an educationist, strongly believed that art should not be shut away in galleries. Servicemen’s canteens and working men’s clubs were among those that responded to the Midland Group’s offer of large-scale works, and so was the medieval church of St Martin of Tours at Bilborough, on the outskirts of Nottingham. The Rector, the Revd W. H. Marshall, asked for a mural for the chancel, and Gibbs’s design for The Annunciation was chosen from several submitted.
With the same beauty and line of the engravings, and using a sketchy, brush style, she painted Mary on the left and Gabriel on the right. The Italian influence from her time in Rome is apparent: the figures are painted into the local setting, with St Martin’s Church behind Gabriel and the outline of Wollaton Hall, a Tudor mansion near by, visible on the horizon. Behind Mary is the distinctive tithe barn that stood on Church Farm, now a community centre.
The paintings were made in 1946. St Martin of Tours, dating back to 1356, had twice been restored by the Victorians. From the 1930s onwards, the church was swallowed up in the sprawling estate that sprang up around it, and the building became invisible from any main road. In 1972, a brick-built, flat-roof extension was added, bigger than the original church and serving to hide the medieval building even further from view. A suspended pine ceiling was built across the chancel. The north chancel wall was taken out, and the stained glass of the east window was broken up and discarded. Pine boards were used to cover the fine barrel-vault ceiling.
“It was all orange and pine and vinyl,” remembers a former churchwarden, Hilary Wheat. “Different orientation for worship, open-plan altar, no communion rail, big chunky candlesticks, polished concrete floor . . . and, actually, we loved it.” Because the nave was difficult to heat and the space was no longer needed, it was curtained off. The murals were dealt a fateful blow. The suspended ceiling covered from view the top two-thirds of the paintings. The lower third was painted over with layers of emulsion.
In the passage of time, they were forgotten. The church fell into disrepair in later years, a casualty of persistent vandalism, an ageing and reduced congregation, and a lack of regular maintenance. Barbed wire shrouded the medieval porch; paint peeled off the walls; the flat roof leaked. In 2008, the tower, erected in 1420, was declared at risk.
Mrs Wheat, who had returned to the area and to the church, set about fund-raising to restore it. English Heritage awarded a grant under the urgent-repairs scheme for the replacement of the parapet, the installation of new drainage, and the re-plastering of the nave.
In 2009, the electrics were condemned. Summoned electricians, finding no obvious access to the roof area above the suspended ceiling, unscrewed boards and hauled themselves into the space. Mrs Wheat, standing below, asked whether the paintings were still visible. They were. At some point in time, Gabriel had acquired a pair of scribbled spectacles and a beard, and Mary some big eyelashes.
Events moved fast as the idea of restoring the paintings took shape. The church had no money and was living on a shoestring. With the restoration of the tower beginning, English Heritage recommended getting a conservation report from the Church Buildings Council, which led to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) and the involvement of the Society for the Preservation of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), which urged the restoration of the footprint of the medieval church.
And that was done. The church is breathtakingly beautiful now, serene with an almost monastic simplicity. Against the whiteness of the walls, the stone floor, and the clear glass of the east window, the restored paintings arrest with their colour. When Tobit Curtis, the lead conservator, took off the emulsion from the lower third, almost all the painting had been destroyed. Only visible were Gabriel’s knee and dress, Mary’s fingers, and the point at which her sleeve joined her wrist. The top half of the painting gave the colour match; a 1960s wedding photograph gave other vital clues that enabled him to recreate the picture in its entirety.
The project was a runner-up in the HLF’s Angels Award in 2014, and won the SPAB John Betjeman award the following year. The work has been a catalyst for the re-energising of both church and community. For Pauline Lucas, Gibbs’s biographer and holder of her archive, it has fulfilled a lifetime determination to get the artist’s work on exhibition in the city.
Four young out-of-work men from the neighbourhood were taken on and trained, and worked on the restoration. The HLF grant to the church has enabled three years of creative activities under the Hidden Treasures project, designed to put the church on the map, open it up for wider use, and help people in the community discover their talents.
Mrs Wheat is the project manager for Hidden Treasures. Paying tribute to all those who have worked and continue to work on it, she reflects with joy: “I think the paintings have a life of their own. They were desperate to come out, and so many strands have come together as result.”
“Evelyn Gibbs in Peace and Wartime” runs at Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Lenton Road, Nottingham, until 9 October. Phone 0115 876 1400.