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The Bloomsbury Group in Berwick Church by Peter Blee

26 May 2017

Nicholas Cranfield on a Sussex church’s 20th-century decor

The Bloomsbury Group in Berwick Church: The decorative scheme by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell

Peter Blee

St Michael and All Angels, Berwick, £15 plus £3.50 p&p




IN THE early years of the Second World War, the Hon. Mrs Sandilands ran a jam-making group in a sleepy farming village on the South Downs. She also served on the PCC of St Michael and All Angels, Berwick, and in August 1941 she objected to a decorative scheme of murals that were designed by local residents who were members of the “Bloomsbury Group”.

Her concern, set aside at a con­­sistory court, was that “Berwick Church might become a centre of attraction for sightseers and entirely spoil our quiet little rural village.”

Bishop George Bell had made no secret of a wish to establish a closer link between the Church and practis­ing artists in his 1929 enthronement sermon at Chichester. Writing in August 1942 in The Studio, he had pointedly argued that ancient churches “must serve a living pur­pose, and in doing so, necessary changes must be introduced”. Bell was also keen to encourage proper employment for artists in the war years.

At the prompting of Sir Charles H. Reilly, professor of architecture at Liverpool (1904-33), Bell ap­­proached several muralists with the idea of reviving the medieval tradi­tion of decorating church interiors, including the art historian Ernest Tristram (1882-1952), for St Elisa­beth’s, Eastbourne, Hans Feibusch (Arts, 10 February), and Duncan Grant.

Writing in The Listener (24 June 1931), John Piper had heralded Grant as “a painter for his own time, which means that in fundamentals he is ahead of it: not a preacher but a prophet. Indeed, no British artist has ever preached or prophesied more.”

How much the Bishop knew about the ménage at Charleston farmhouse and the relationship between the artists living there is not clear and is not the subject of this book, which handsomely replaces the earlier guide that Richard Shone wrote for an exhibition at the Towner Gallery, Eastbourne, back in the summer of 1969.

Peter Blee has written enviably of his church, where he has been priest since 2003. He modestly describes this as a guidebook, but it is much more than that, and is beautifully illustrated throughout with the preparatory sketches con­sidered alongside the completed paintings.

There are few slips; no diocesan chancellor could have summoned any consistory court on 31 Septem­ber; and Grant cannot have sketched murals by Piero della Francesca in Siena, where there are none.


The Revd Dr Nicholas Cranfield is Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

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