Controversial Moderns - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Controversial Moderns

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Sacred Traditions and the Arts

Controversial Moderns

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London

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  • Monday 22 May 2017
    PLEASE NOTE: This Date Has Passed
    6:00 pm - 7:30 pm

    Research Forum Seminar Room, The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 0RN

Speakers include

  • Dr Naomi Billingsley - Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute, University of Manchester
  • Dr Hana Leaper - Paul Mellon Centre Fellow and Deputy Editor of British Art Studies

Organised by

  • Professor Ben Quash - King’s College London
  • Dr Scott Nethersole - The Courtauld Institute of Art

Dr Hana Leaper – Eden in Sussex: Atheist Moderns and the Berwick Church Murals

During the Second World War, the question of the role of the Christian church in contemporary society was becoming increasingly prescient. A number of formerly avant garde Modernists, as well as several younger artists whose practice had never been in conflict with their faith including David Jones, Sybil Andrews, and John Piper, were producing work that explored their spirituality in a Modernist idiom. Dr George Bell, Bishop of Chichester between 1929-58, believed that engaging with the creators of contemporary culture was key to both revitalising the church and promoting civilised values in wider society. He became the patron of a number of schemes commissioning contemporary artists to decorate churches, and in 1940 commissioned the Charleston artists to design a mural project for Berwick church.

This paper will discuss the realisation these unique works within a framework of Bell and Grant’s pacifism, their adoption of rural life and decoration of Charleston, and combination of the secular and religious, ancient and contemporary. These works force us to consider these atheist artists’ relationship to Christianity and community, and the role of the physical body of the church in rural parishes during this period.

A major theme will be the contention between dissenting voices in the local community, and the support from the church and artistic establishments that overrode these concerns. The case was fought out in court and involved extremely high profile figures, including Kenneth Clark, during a time when most national resources were dedicated to the war effort. What was at stake in promoting or opposing these works in this tiny county church, and why was this project so high on the cultural agenda?

Hana Leaper is the Paul Mellon Centre Fellow and Deputy Editor of British Art Studies. Prior to her role at the PMC, Hana worked at Charleston with materials from the Angelica Garnett Gift, and this paper is based on this research.

Dr Naomi Billingsley – ‘Magnificence’ or ‘mockery’? The Piper Tapestry of Chichester Cathedral

On 29 March 1955, George Bell wrote to Walter Hussey: ‘I look eagerly forward to our … how glad I am that you whom I so wanted to have a close association with this Cathedral should have the bet association of all as Dean!’ As Dean of Chichester Cathedral between 1955-77, Hussey continued Bell’s work in the Diocese of Chichester as a patron of the arts.

Of his three major permanent commissions for the interior of the Cathedral, the most prominent was Hussey’s scheme for a new reredos for the high altar. John Piper was chosen to devise a design to adorn the sixteenth-century Sherburn screen behind the sanctuary. The brief: to inject colour into the space. The result, a vibrant seven-panel tapestry on the theme of the Trinity, certainly met that aim, and Hussey was delighted with the result. Not all Cicestrians agreed.

This paper will discuss the controversy surrounding the installation of the tapestry in 1966. Points at issue included not only the dramatic colours of the Piper’s design, but also his use of symbols and the finance of the piece. The paper will draw on correspondence in Hussey’s papers to explore the story of the tapestry’s early reception. It will conclude by sharing perspectives on the tapestry of some current Cicestrians.

Naomi Billingsley is a Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the John Rylands Research Institute, University of Manchester. She is also a visiting research fellow at ASK. Naomi was previously Bishop Otter Scholar for Theology and the Arts in the Diocese of Chichester; this paper is based on research carried out in that role.

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