Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain, by Peter Webster

by
10 August 2018

Hussey’s style of artistic patronage is a one-off, says Nicholas Cranfield

IN THIS expensive book, Peter Webster takes Walter Hussey (1909-85) as the leading ecclesiastical patron of the arts in the period bridging Neo-romanticism and Modernism. Both at St Matthew’s, Northampton, where he succeeded his long-serving father in 1937, and later as Dean of Chichester for 22 years from 1955, Hussey found opportunities to foster music and art.

Webster makes extensive use of the papers of his subject, which, like Hussey’s personal art collection, are housed at Pallant House in Chichester. He claims that he is not writing a biography, for which there is little need, as Hussey is centre stage in his own pompous Patron of Art (1985). Seemingly, he has not consulted Giles Watson, whose 1998 doctoral thesis (ANU Canberra) examined “Catholicism in Anglican culture and theology” throughout the crucial Northampton years.

A portrait emerges from the cited letters of an assiduous and, at times, ingratiating arriviste who made telling use of acquaintances with a mixture of benevolent blackmail and undaunted snobbery to satisfy his own artistic bent.

The Northampton church’s Golden Jubilee in 1943 gave Hussey junior the excuse to put together an arts festival in a war-torn provincial town. William Walton, who had written for the 1937 Coronation of the King-Emperor, was asked for a choral anthem, but refused, twice. Next, Benjamin Britten was approached; he obliged with Rejoice in the Lamb. Hussey then commissioned Michael Tippett for a fanfare and later asked the composer for the score as a personal gift.

And so on. The names roll by and were clearly meant to impress. Henry Moore carved the striking Madonna and Child that unsettled those of a more tender disposition. Three years later, the Roman Catholic artist Graham Sutherland painted his large Crucifixion for the opposite transept, a work that was all too aware of the harrowing photographs taken in the recently liberated concentration camps (Arts, 20 July).

Abc televisionDean Hussey and the fashion and costume designer and historian Stella Mary Newton judge a religious-painting competition for ABC TV’s The Sunday Break (“A Sunday Club for Teenagers”), which went out on ITV on Sunday evenings from 1958 to 1965

The services of Edmund Rubbra, Lennox Berkeley, Gerald Finzi, and Kirsten Flagstad were brought into play. T. S. Eliot and Cecil Day-Lewis turned down the accolade, and W. H. Auden deliberately suggested a fee that was more than Hussey could comfortably afford (£25), asking that it be paid to a charity (Oxfam).

At Chichester, the cathedral community did not get to cross the Deanery threshold half as often as “the good and great” from beyond the city. Visiting preachers from right across the diocese were rarely given a cup of coffee, while laymen from elsewhere got to stay in the Deanery.

Hussey was warned by a well-wisher that the regular procession of younger men into his home was subject to gossip, and he increasingly absented himself from the Deanery to spend time in London with unmarried friends.

By his claiming acquaintance and using his position as a senior churchman, his “patronage” continued, but could never become a more general model for the Church, as it remained the inverted hero-worship of one man. Architecture and drama (and, one might add, photography) were singularly overlooked, and even at Chichester there was little overall planning or methodical programming.

Did Hussey have any theological understanding to underpin the commissioning process, or was he, as Trevor Beeson suspected, a Christian Platonist in whom “art and music, rather than the redemptive message of the gospel, now nourished his soul?” Did it matter when the Daily Mail had accorded him (in 1965) the dubious sobriquet of the “swinging dean”?

Canon Nicholas Cranfield is the Vicar of All Saints’, Blackheath, in south London.

Church and Patronage in 20th Century Britain: Walter Hussey and the arts
Peter Webster
Palgrave Macmillan £72
(978-1-137-36909-3)

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