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Religious murals: Work ‘that shall be prayer’

13 August 2021

After the restoration of Kitty Milroy’s first mural, Nick Seversway recounts the story of her lost chapel decor

Archive photo of Milroy’s mural at St Elphin’s School, Darley Dale, near Matlock, destroyed in 1940

Archive photo of Milroy’s mural at St Elphin’s School, Darley Dale, near Matlock, destroyed in 1940

THIS spring, the conservation of the striking murals at St Mark’s, Upper Hale, Farnham, was completed. They can now be once again admired as truly magnificent works of art. The story could have been very different, however. Their creator, the muralist Kitty Milroy, had been all but forgotten.

Much of her work had been destroyed, and her remaining work was threatened by obliteration. It is now fitting that her skills as an artist should be rescued from obscurity, her reputation be restored, and her story be told.

Eleanor Catherine “Kitty” Wallace Milroy, the daughter of a clergyman, was born in 1885 in Newnham, Hampshire, but lived almost all her life in the Farnham area. From 1906 onwards, she enrolled in various classes at the prestigious Slade School of Art — a renowned centre for innovation in mural art — which had recently opened its doors to female students.

Between 1911 and 1920, Milroy undertook her first big project: to glorify the chancel of her own parish church, St Mark’s, by creating the wonderful murals that can be seen there today. By 1921, she had moved on to a second project, at St Elphin’s School, Darley Dale, just outside Matlock, in Derbyshire.

The origins of the Derbyshire work lie in Truro, Cornwall, where Milroy’s sister, Lilias Margaret Wallace Milroy, had taken up the post of head teacher of the Truro Church High School in January 1908. By coincidence, the Truro County School for Girls — a non-denominational school — also had a new headmistress that term: Margaret Flood.

When Flood took up her new post, her duties included teaching maths, in which she had experience, and also geography, in which she did not. Lilias, who was a specialist in geography, gave Flood lessons in skills such as map-making, and a warm bond of friendship formed between the two headmistresses which was to last their lifetimes. Both eventually retired to Glastonbury, where they lived next door to each other.

Before her Truro appointment, Flood had acted as assistant teacher at the School for the Education of Daughters of the Clergy, in Warrington, where her own mother taught. When the school moved from Warrington to Darley Dale, in 1904, and was renamed St Elphin’s School, Flood’s mother moved with it.

After the incumbent head died, Flood took up the reins as a temporary measure until her daughter, who had been offered the headship, was able to take over. Although it had always played a pivotal part in the life of the school, Flood described the original school chapel, in an unpublished booklet, “Chapel Chronicle 1904-16”, as “a wood and iron structure which had the drawbacks of a tin tabernacle in heat, cold, rain and wind”.

Clearly unsatisfactory, an old stable was converted to serve as the new chapel in 1916, and gifts and donations were provided for its enhancement. An enthusiastic conversation can be imagined between the two friends, Lilias and Margaret, when the idea occurred to them of drawing on Lilias’s sister Kitty’s talents, after her achievements at St Mark’s, for the adornment of the new chapel.

In 1921, Milroy began an ambitious scheme for the chapel based on the theme of the sanctification of work, the first composition for which was painted in the summer of that year. This was a depiction of the crucified Christ silhouetted by a mandorla of light, which the Bishop of Warrington later described as “one of the most beautiful representations of the crucifixion because it showed Our Redeemer as a young man — a fact so often forgotten by artists”. At Christ’s feet, angels and men were seen worshipping him.

A detail of the lost work at St Elphin’s School

AS SHE had at St Mark’s, Milroy departed from traditional religious themes to depict people and scenes from contemporary life. In Flood’s remembrances, the murals were based mostly on lines from two hymns: “Work shall be prayer, if all be wrought as thou wouldst have done” (from “Behold us, Lord, a little space”) and “The voice of prayer is never silent” (from “The day thou gavest”). Reflecting this theme, the scenes on the east wall behind the altar and surrounding the crucifixion showed everyday people doing their everyday work.

Among the images were Motherhood and the Home and, below it, A Woodman. To the right, there were Weavers and A Shepherd and his Flock. On the north wall were Fishermen with Nets painted above the organ, and A Scientist in the Laboratory; on the south wall, A Seamstress and A Teacher with her Class. On the west wall, two scenes were Ploughing and Reaping.

Flood describes the ceiling paintings as “mainly symbolic. The cross formed the centre intertwined with a circle, its arms reaching to the four points of the compass.” Also depicted were constellations suggesting the four quarters of the heavens, the Great Bear, the Southern Cross, the star in the east, and a new moon setting.

The north and south ceiling slopes were decorated with scenes of worship. The decoration incorporated vine and oak leaves, while the chancel arch was festooned with fruit and flowers, and a recurring theme of the cross.

Between 1921 and 1931, Milroy divided her time between home and Darley Dale. Perhaps the strain of the endeavour contributed to a period of ill health between 1925 and 1927, which made her reliant on the help of two friends to complete the ceiling paintings.

The effort must have felt worth while, however, as the work was well received and loved. A celebration and dedication was held on 19 July 1931, presided over by the Bishop of Warrington before the whole school, staff, and sisters and friends of the artist, and the artist herself.

The Bishop spoke of the paintings as “ten years’ work of love by the artist”, and went on to say that “their value lay not only in their beauty, harmony and restraint, but also in their testimony to the value, the beauty and wide range of work.”

St Mark’s, Upper HaleTwo of Milroy’s mural figures at St Mark’s, Upper Hale, Farnham

BY 1931, Milroy’s future success should have been assured, but the joy of that evening was short-lived. Less than a month later, on 10 August, her mother, Mary, died, and their home, the Oast House at Upper Hale, was relinquished.

Yet more sadness was to follow. In 1933, Flood, who had been such an enthusiastic guiding force throughout the wall-painting project, retired as headmistress of St Elphin’s. The expansion of the school under her successor, Miss Hudson, meant that the chapel was no longer large enough for its needs. During building extension work in 1940, the east wall was destroyed. With it, Milroy’s entire mural scheme was obliterated, less than a decade after completion.

In a restrained comment on the tragedy, Flood remarked: “Miss E. C. Milroy beautified the walls of the Chancel and Sanctuary with a series of mural paintings between 1921 and 1931. These paintings to the great regret of many who had received inspiration from their message were destroyed in order to meet the needs of the present girls, who had outgrown the capacity of the Chapel. There is no doubt that the present building is beautified and dignified.”

One can only imagine how badly Milroy was affected by this series of misfortunes. She did not carry out another big commission. Although she had a small studio on land at the end of Highlands Road, Heath End, Farnham, and some watercolours survive from that period, she was never to fulfil the promise suggested by her early mural work.

In 1945, it must have been a further sadness for Milroy, now 60 years old, to witness her surviving mural at St Mark’s becoming increasingly damaged by water infiltration. Although restored by another local artist, Evelyn Caesar, under Milroy’s guidance, the paintings continued to deteriorate over the years, and it was even suggested that they should be painted over — a prospect, thankfully, averted by a revolt in the parochial church council.

By the time of her death, in 1966, the murals were a sad shadow of their original glory, and Milroy may well have considered herself a failure, and resigned to a fate of oblivion. Now conserved and cleaned, however, the paintings at St Mark’s testify once more to the brilliant artist that she was, and demonstrate how deserving she is to be celebrated not just in Farnham, but nationally.

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