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Church Patronage in Post-War Britain

A series of commissions brought modern art into the heart of the church

Abstract orange crescent on base. Thorn like objects on all surfaces.

Graham Sutherland, Thorn Head, 1947, Oil on canvas, Pallant House Gallery, Chichester (Hussey Bequest, Chichester District Council, 1985) © The estate of Graham Sutherland

The Second World War presented the Church of England with a spiritual crisis.

Is response to this, some church leaders saw the commissioning of new works of art for churches as a way to reaffirm cultural values after the end of the war. This led to an exceptionally rich time in the production of religious art for the modern age

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Following the brutality of the Second World War, Dr George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (1929-58) believed that culture was the key to re-establishing civilised values . To this end, he commissioned artists to decorate the churches in his diocese. One such artist was Hans Feibusch, an exiled German Jew who had learnt mural painting in Frankfurt.

Walter Hussey (1909-1985), the Vicar of St Matthew’s in Northampton from 1938-55, adopted a more pioneering approach to Church patronage of the arts. In 1944 he asked Henry Moore to sculpt a Madonna and Child. The response to Moore’s radical sculpture was divided and fuelled a debate about the role of modern art in the Church, yet it also paved the way for projects such as the reconstruction of Coventry Cathedral after its partial destruction during the war. As part of this, Graham Sutherland was commissioned to create a tapestry. Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph is reputed to be the largest tapestry made in one single piece (23 by 12 metres). Hussey went on to ask Graham Sutherland to paint a Crucifixion for St Matthew’s.

In 1955 Bishop Bell offered Hussey the position of Dean at Chichester, where Hussey commissioned several major modern artists to produce work for the Cathedral. These included the altarpiece Christ appearing to Mary Magdalen (1961) by Graham Sutherland, the magnificent altar tapestry by John Piper, a lectern and pulpit by the sculptor Geoffrey Clarke, a set of copes by Ceri Richards, a stained glass window by Marc Chagall and the Chichester Psalms by the composer Leonard Bernstein.

The Hussey Bequest includes a number of studies for some of these important examples of modern religious art.

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