Enjoying art for faith’s sake

IAN COLLINS Although Methodism might conjure up an image of white walls in bare halls, the church has put its faith in some amazing paintings. Ian Collins welcomes their exhibition in Norwich Cathedral.

IAN COLLINS

Forty years ago, a spirited chap called Douglas Wollen was enjoying a spending spree when in London on Methodist Church business.

This Methodist minister and writer on the visual arts had been charged with amassing a collection of contemporary religious pictures – and he embarked on his "Bond Street crawls" with relish.

The result was a small, ongoing collection – still only 38 works in all – which packs a most powerful and poignant punch.

Low church meets high art in a display now unveiled (so to speak) in Norwich Cathedral by Norfolk's hermit nun and celebrity art historian Sister Wendy Beckett.

Mr Wollen bought extremely well, gathering major works by famous and obscure artists alike. Although he loved art for art's sake, he knew that every picture really does tell a story – and in his chosen works, a religious text was brilliantly explicit.

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There was a nice irony in that a collection of cutting-edge art was also turning back to the teachings of the early church – whose messages were transmitted to illiterate congregations largely by pictorial means.

Even the humblest medieval parish church was a magnificent art gallery, with images that were either majestic or menacing to reveal the rival eternities of Heaven and Hell.

With the Reformation – so extreme in East Anglia – came more than a century of devastation. Church art which was not smashed was whitewashed over.

Now Mr Wollen and the enlightened spirits of modern Methodism have restored the highest purposes of art, and celebrated human creativity.

There are two absolutely stunning images in the cathedral show, one being a crucifixion scene with a hideously baying mob. It's a 1920s masterpiece by reclusive artist William Roberts.

The second is a vast and crowded watercolour by another hermit and invalid, Edward Burra. His The Pool of Bethesda, completed in 1952, shows a ghoulish scene in which Christ is cast as a mad shaman bidding to deliver a raving company from afflictions likened most uncomfortably to the evil eye.

But every work holds its place in this amazing collection.

The smallest image is an Eric Gill study of the Annunciation which resembles an illuminated letter from a medieval manuscript but was in fact a design for a magic lantern slide.

A 1956 Pieta drawing by East Anglia's late great Elisabeth Frink exudes infinite tenderness in the wake of grotesque violence – also confirming that sculptors can be the finest draughtsmen.

Graham Sutherland's oil of The Deposition, executed in 1947, clearly likens the body of Christ to a Belsen victim.

Roy de Maistre and Ceri Richard offer sharply contrasting views of The Supper at Emmaus and John Reilly rises above the Neo-Romantic movement of the 1950s with a trio of pictures resembling designs for stained glass windows.

There are two superb ink drawings of the Crucifixion by Georges Roualt – whose thick black outlines (again recalling the lead edges of stained glass) echo across several other canvases. He was a hugely influential figure.

A name new to me is that of Eularia Clarke, who claimed kinship with a long line of artists (including Gainsborough) and parsons.

"I knew no religion except polite formalities," she wrote in 1968. "Yet I was obsessed by it and trailed round after 'High' services, wondering what it was all about."

On the evidence of her two pictures displayed here, she became a remarkable visionary painter and possibly a mystic.

All praise to the organisers of this show – Norfolk Methodists Colin Sleath and the Rev Pauline Greasley, who worked closely with artist and Ranworth vicar Philip McFadyen, the bishop's officer for visual theology.

Canon McFadyen says: "These marvellous pictures offer a clear statement of the word made flesh. They connect with both modern culture and ancient teaching.

"And perhaps the greatest thing about this collection is that it has no permanent base, but tours the country in the footsteps of the Wesley brothers."

A Brush with Faith: Pictures from the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art is in Norwich Cathedral until May 15. Open daily 9-5. Admission free.

A lecture entitled Graham Sutherland: Church Artist and Man of Fire will be given by Tim Egan, of the National Museum and Gallery of Wales, at Prior's Hall, The Close, at 8pm on Sunday. Tickets £3, including glass of wine (from 01603 218323 or on the night).

Philip McFadyen will lecture on art and artists in the cathedral exhibition at Chapelfield Road Methodist Church tomorrow evening at 7.30pm. Admission free.

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