ST ALBAN the Martyr, Holborn; St John’s, Waterloo; St Ethelburga’s, Bishopsgate; Chichester Cathedral; and St Elisabeth’s, Eastbourne — the roll call of churches that house murals by the prolific German-born artist Hans Feibusch (1898-1998) is impressive. He worked in some thirty Anglican churches (including Ely Cathedral, where he worked as a sculptor), and produced more than 40 public murals, some for civic patrons such as Newport Town Hall, others for domestic houses, but most of them for churches.
At his death, he bequeathed his studio collection to Pallant House, Chichester, from which 17 drawings have been selected for a show that neatly complements Simon Martin’s ground-breaking exhibition of neo-Romantic and Expressionist British art, “The Mythic Method: Classicism in British Art 1920-1950” (to 19 February). They also show how inventive Feibusch was as an artist.
His Baroque Expressionist style and distinctive palette of soft mauve, pink, and orange, learned from his first-hand study of Italian Quattrocento painters such as Masaccio and Piero della Francesca, found favour almost as soon as he came to Britain as a Jewish refugee (September 1933), one of more than 210 artists who would find a ready welcome here in Britain in the years of the Third Reich.
As a teenager, Feibusch had served in the German army with a heavy-artillery regiment on the Russian Front, before giving up medical training to study art in Munich and Frankfurt. In 1921, he won a Rome Scholarship, and in 1930 the German State Prize for painters from the Prussian Academy of Art. His Zwei Schebende Figuren (”Two floating figures”) was selected for Hitler’s infamous Munich exhibition of “Degenerate Art” in 1937.
By then, he was well-established in England. In his first year, he designed one of the advertising posters for a petroleum company (his 1933 lithograph Architects prefer Shell is currently on show upstairs), and in October 1934 he was elected to the innovative London Group, a consortium of artists founded in 1913, following his successful one-man show at the Lefevre Gallery.
This gave him a ready entrée to the artistic world and the London scene. Those connections allowed him to paint murals for James Laver, the man who famously made the study of costume respectable at the V&A, and the architect E. Maxwell Fry, in 1934 and 1936 respectively.
The classical model of the murals, depicting the mythical subjects of Diana and Actaeon and Apollo, Dionysus and Helios, are glimpsed in contemporary sepia photographs. Something of their fluidity can also be gauged from his drawings alongside.
His first mural commission came, by way of Maxwell Fry, for the New Methodist Hall at Colliers Wood in 1937. The Footwashing was reproduced in The Times and spotted by Kenneth Clark (then Director of the National Gallery), who drew it to the attention of Bishop George Bell of Chichester.
Although it was not until New Year’s Day, 1940, that the Bishop and the artist met, the association proved richly beneficial for both, and gave Feibusch his first Anglican commission (St Wilfrid’s, Brighton), which was followed by the extensive cycle of Pilgrim’s Progress, now apparently facing an uncertain future, in the crypt of St Elisabeth’s, Eastbourne.
His Chichester connections brought him the chance to paint a mural, Jacob and the Angel, in the first post-war rebuilt rectory in London for one of the last serving pluralists, Charles Mortlock,
Canon Treasurer of Chichester, at
St Vedast’s, Foster Lane. Most of his commissions, however, came from working hand in glove with the architect Thomas Ford, who was the war-damage surveyor in the diocese of Southwark, both in the diocese and elsewhere, at St Peter’s, Bexleyheath, and St Michael and All Angels’, Harrow Weald, for instance.
In 1965, Feibusch became a Christian, worshipping at S Alban’s, Holborn, until 1995, when he renounced Christianity. Unable to accept the doctrine of the Trinity,
he was buried according to the rite of his Jewish forbears.
Pallant House staged a major retrospective of his work in 1995-96, to mark the 60th anniversary of his studio. The present show, on a much smaller scale, brings together drawings that show his characteristic style to good effect, the sinuous forms turning up on the east wall of chancels as often as in coffee houses and town halls. It provides a delightful excuse, if that be needed, to visit Chichester, and its cathedral (paintings of 1951), and to focus on one aspect of Bishop Bell’s enlightened patronage.
Three further Feibusch drawings have been loaned from Chichester to the current exhibition, shown for free, in William Waldorf Astor’s home at Two Temple Place. In the winter exhibition there, the Bulldog Trust has brought together four decades of British art from nine Sussex galleries and museums, including Charleston and Farley House, West Dean, and the Ditchling Museum of Art.
Dr Hope Wolf, in the footsteps of Gabriel Josipovici at the University of Sussex, shows what happened to Modernism broadly from the reign of the King-Emperor Edward VII to the end of the Second World War, in a regional context.
As well as a version of the Noli me tangere in Chichester Cathedral, in which the Christ the Gardener appears hatless on a staircase above the Magdalene’s head, and a drawing of a figure for the Eastbourne Pilgrim’s Progress cycle, there is a full sketch for the Nativity triptych from the long-closed church St Wilfrid’s, Elm Grove, Brighton.
The central panel shows the first two shepherds approaching from Christ’s right, led by angels. Mary sits imperiously in a lean-to shack, while Joseph appears to cower behind the wall of the byre. The outer panels depict the annunciation to the shepherds, in which an airborne figure spirals down towards earth and the arrival of the kings, their orange, mauve, and olive robes contrasted with the rocky landscape and the warm-pink sky.
”Hans Feibusch: The Unseen Drawings” is at Pallant House, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, until 5 March. Phone 01243 774557. www.pallant.org.uk
”Sussex Modernism: Retreat and Rebellion” is at Two Temple Place, London WC2, until 23 April. Phone 020 7836 3715. www.twotempleplace.org