Eric Gill, Art and Architecture in Sussex

Woodbarton, designed by the artist Eric Gill in 1920
Woodbarton, designed by the artist Eric Gill in 1920

Woodbarton is a hidden artistic jewel in the heart of Sussex. The house is being offered for sale on the open market for the very first time since it was built in 1920. It was designed and decorated by the famous Ditchling based artist, Eric Gill (1882-1940).

Eric Gill was born in Steyning, West Sussex, in 1882. In his formative years he lived both in Brighton and Chichester. In 1900 he moved to London to train as an architect with the firm W. D. Caroe. Gill became ever more disaffected with this path. He studied stonemasonry in Westminster and calligraphy at the Central School of Arts and Crafts. By 1903 Eric Gill had given up his architectural training to become a calligrapher, letter-cutter and monumental mason.

In 1907 Eric Gill found himself drawn back to Ditchling in Sussex. Together with a group of fellow artists Gill worked within the Roman Catholic Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic at Ditchling. These artists lived in community with their wives, children, associates and apprentices. They upheld the principles of the artisan artist. Their work and lives were framed by the monastic rhythm of prayer. Thanks to their work this Sussex village became a centre for the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic was founded by Eric Gill, Hilary Pepler and the English poet and artist, Desmond Chute (1895-1962).

Eric Gill brought his artistic and architectural skills to bear when he designed Woodbarton for his associate Desmond Chute.

The house sits confidently in its generous gardens, surrounded by open countryside with stunning views. An old brick path leads past the studio to a welcoming front door which, it is thought, might be the work of the Arts and Crafts designer and architect, Ernest Gimson. That this home was designed by the artist Eric Gill for an artist becomes quickly apparent as the light breaks into the generous hallway. The qualities of light and welcome run through the whole house.

Eric Gill’s carved and painted stone Lavabo in the hall
Eric Gill’s carved and painted stone Lavabo in the hall

The Christian foundations of the Guild of St Joseph and St Dominic is visible in the carved and painted stone Lavabo by Eric Gill, which is set into the hallway’s wall. It would have contained Holy water for a priest to ritually wash as a sign of inner purity before celebrating the Mass, and for members of the Guild and visitors to bless themselves.

A detail of Eric Gill’s carved stone fireplace in the sitting room
A detail of Eric Gill’s carved stone fireplace in the sitting room

The sitting room is arranged around a fireplace which is framed by a stone carving with a central cross, again by Eric Gill. The stone was originally made for Westminster Cathedral where Gill carved the Stations of the Cross. It was broken in transit and was therefore installed at Woodbarton.

There are stone panels carved with meditative inscriptions by Gill and others set into some of the walls of the house.

Desmond Chute only lived at Woodbarton for a few years before leaving for Rapallo in Italy for his health. Chute would be ordained as a Roman Catholic priest in 1927. After he left, the house became the home of the Guild’s treasurer, Eric Gill’s brother-in-law, Charlie Walters and subsequently the weaver, Valentine Kilbride.

The entrance hall at Woodbarton
The entrance hall at Woodbarton

In 1983 the Guild was wound up and Woodbarton was bought privately by the artists, Edgar and Jennifer Holloway. When they arrived there was no plumbing and only an outside toilet and single cold water tap. This artistic couple set about modernising the house to create the comfortable home and studio, in which to live and work, which you see today.

With its three bedrooms, reception rooms and studio the fortunate buyer of Woodbarton will acquire a generous and charming home. This exceptional house forms part of an important story in the history of both the Arts and Crafts Movement and Modern British Art here in Sussex. It provides a remarkable opportunity to live with exceptional art-in a beautiful setting.

The property is being marketed by Clifford Dann with a guide price of £800,000. Partner, Michael Hudson, understands the importance and qualities of this unique property. For more information contact Clifford Dann’s Ditchling office on 01273 843344 or email ditchling@clifforddann.co.uk.

By Rupert Toovey, a senior director of Toovey’s, the leading fine art auction house in West Sussex, based on the A24 at Washington. Originally published in the West Sussex Gazette.

The Nativity Painted at Berwick, Sussex

The decorative painted scheme in the Renaissance style at Berwick parish church

With Christmas approaching, I have come to see the remarkable painted interior at St Michael and All Angels church at Berwick in East Sussex. I want to reflect once again upon Vanessa Bell’s beautiful depiction of the Nativity.

The fine decorative scheme was commissioned by Bishop George Bell of Chichester. Bell was a great patron of the arts. He wished to see churches once more filled with colour and beauty. Eternal truths would be proclaimed anew in modern art, poetry and music. More people would be drawn into the Christian community by the revival of this old alliance and renewed vitality. Bell founded the Sussex Churches Art Council. Relying on generous patrons, like the famous economist John Maynard Keynes, he began to commission work. Keynes was a frequent visitor to Charleston, where Duncan Grant had a great influence on his artistic sensibilities. Visitors to the Bishop’s Palace in Chichester included Gustav Holst, Vaughan Williams, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and T.S. Eliot.

The Revd. Rupert Toovey admiring Vanessa Bell’s Nativity at St Michael and All Angels church, Berwick, East Sussex

During the summer and autumn of 1940 the Battle of Britain was fought over the skies of Sussex. The Luftwaffe failed to defeat the R.A.F. but the Germans continued the Blitz into the May of 1941. Against this backdrop, Bishop Bell commissioned Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell to paint St Michael and All Angels. The parish church at Berwick is just a few miles from the artists’ home at Charleston.

Writing to Angelica Bell in 1941, Vanessa Bell proclaimed that Charleston was “all a-dither with Christianity”. Large panels were prepared to be painted on in the barn at Charleston. Family, friends and neighbours were used as models.

Initially the project met with local opposition but Kenneth Clark and Frederick Etchells acted as expert witnesses and the scheme was accepted. At the time Kenneth Clark was director of the National Gallery in London and Surveyor of the King’s Pictures.

The visitor today is met with a scheme of paintings in the Renaissance style. They depict scenes from the New Testament, which include the Annunciation, Christ Crucified and Christ in Majesty.

Vanessa Bell’s Nativity sets the familiar Christmas story of the birth of Christ in the folds of the Sussex Downs. The scene is painted in a barn beneath the Firle Beacon. Local shepherds posed for the panel. Their distinctive shepherds’ crooks are typical of those made at Pyecombe since medieval times. Vanessa’s daughter, Angelica, is depicted as Mary. St Luke writes: “Mary treasured all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Here Mary looks on, preoccupied with her thoughts. Many people have suggested that the baby Jesus is reminiscent of Vanessa’s son Quentin, but I have often wondered if she was thinking of her older son, Julian. Julian Bell, a poet, had been killed in the Spanish Civil War. Peter Durrant, a local farm worker, is painted as Joseph. He lost his left arm as the result of an accident in which he fell from a wagon. To his right are three children, who worship at the crib in their school uniforms. They are Ray and Bill West, sons of the Charleston gardener, and John Higgens, son of Grace, the housekeeper. The stable is lit by a lamp at the foot of the composition. The lamb below is a symbol for Jesus, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.

Berwick’s Nativity brings to life this timeless, much-loved and familiar story, placing it in the heart of Sussex. It also remembers the joys and sorrows, and the hopes and fears of this community of people. Like the first Christmas, the season remains a time of gathering, reflection and remembrance. A time of shared memories and stories.

The Rector, the Revd. Peter Blee, will be celebrating a candlelit Midnight Mass, which starts at 11.30pm on Christmas Eve, and a Family Holy Communion at 11.00am on Christmas Day. St Michael and All Angels is one of my favourite places to stop and pray when I am in the east of our county. My thanks go to the Revd. Peter Blee and his congregation, who make this a living, prayerful place of pilgrimage for us all.

I wish you all a very happy and blessed Christmas!

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 24th December 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Andrew Bernardi Brings ‘1696 Stradivarius’ to Sussex

St Mary’s Storrington

Over the centuries, it has always been the gift of great artists and composers to reflect upon the world we all share and to allow us, through their work, to glimpse something of what lies beyond our immediate perception. It is my experience that truly great music and art, like faith, has the power to transform our human experience of the world – to inspire us.

The Lord High Sheriff of West Sussex, Jonathan Lucas, with Andrew Bernardi and the ‘1696 Stradivarius’ at Pallant House Gallery

I was delighted to spend much of this last weekend in the company of my great friend Andrew Bernardi at my home church of St Mary’s, Storrington Shipley Arts Festival concert, and at Pallant House Gallery, Chichester for the launch of the ‘1696 Stradivarius’.

Andrew and I both passionately believe that the arts have a tremendously important role in creating community and identity by providing a shared cultural narrative.

With his usual enthusiasm Andrew remarks: “For some fifteen years now I have had a vision as a violinist to acquire an outstanding instrument. I would never have dared to think that today I would be playing the 1696 Stradivarius.” For Andrew it has been an extraordinary journey of courage and determination to acquire this violin and to bring it to Sussex. He acknowledges the generosity and importance of his investors who have made this possible.

Stradivarius made some six hundred violins during his lifetime many of which now reside in museums and bank vaults. It is a rare and marvellous thing to hear the exquisite tone and range of this extraordinary instrument in the hands of a virtuoso musician like Andrew. He is clearly profoundly moved by the experience.

I am grateful that another of my great friends, Jonathan Lucas, the High Sheriff of West Sussex, is at the gallery to celebrate this moment. Jonathan shares our enthusiasm for celebrating and building community. He has a background in choral music having sung in choirs at Cambridge, London and elsewhere. His love and passion for music is expressed as he says, “Andrew’s remarkable contribution in bringing the 1696 Stradivarius to Sussex will provide an unprecedented focus for music and the arts and the opportunity to build up this fantastic community in our county.”

The concert program at Pallant House Gallery was a celebration of the Stanley Spencer exhibition on a theme of reconciliation with music from Sussex and Germany. For me the most moving was ‘The Lark Ascending’ by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The piece was completed the day before the outbreak of World War One. Vaughan Williams soon enlisted as an orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps reflecting something of Stanley Spencer’s own experience of the war. There is such beauty in this piece as the music gathers and invites us to join with the lark as it rises, falls and turns as though in the soft folds of the Sussex Downs. It never fails to move me. Several of his folk songs came from the fields around Horsham and Monks Gate which he frequently visited. ‘The Lark Ascending’ was amongst the first pieces of music he returned to after the war. It was inspired by the poem of the same title by George Meredith. The following extract from that poem appears on the score:

Stanley Spencer – ‘Tea in the Hospital Ward’ © the estate of Stanley Spencer, 2013. All rights reserved DACs, National Trust Images/John Hammond

He rises and begins to round,
He drops the silver chain of sound,
Of many links without a break,
In chirrup, whistle, slur and shake.

For singing till his heaven fills,
‘Tis love of earth that he instils,
And ever winging up and up,
Our valley is his golden cup
And he the wine which overflows
to lift us with him as he goes.

Till lost on his aerial rings
In light, and then the fancy sings.

As you know, I have long advocated that Sussex was a centre for art and music in the Modern British period. With the Shipley Arts Festival under Andrew Bernardi’s directorship and the work of Pallant House Gallery, Sussex, it would seem, is entering a period of renaissance.

When I suggested a fund raising concert to bring together the Shipley Arts Festival and Pallant House Gallery, Andrew Bernardi and I could not have known that it would see the launch of the ‘1696 Stradivarius’. But people who are passionate about music and art should come together, united in celebration of our rich Sussex heritage. I am proud that Toovey’s sponsors these two vital cultural assets in our community.

For details of the remaining concerts in this year’s 2014 Shipley Arts Festival go to www.bmglive.com/shipley-arts-festival. The ‘Stanley Spencer Heaven in a Hell of War’ exhibition at Pallant House Gallery continues until the 15th June 2014. For more information on this exhibition and the gallery’s remarkable permanent collection go to www.pallant.org.uk or telephone 01243 774557.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 5th June 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Medieval Easter Frescoes at St Mary’s, West Chiltington

The 13th century medieval cycle of Easter frescoes at St Mary’s
The 13th century medieval cycle of Easter frescoes at St Mary’s

The frescoes at St Mary’s parish church in West Chiltington, Sussex, were uncovered in 1882. Contemporary 19th century records note their excellent colour. Conservation work was not undertaken until the 1930s.

Frescoes are wall paintings, painted directly on to the plaster while it is still wet. The artist has to work quickly as the pigments and image are fixed as the plaster dries. This technique was used throughout the Renaissance in Italy and elsewhere.

Amongst the earliest paintings at St Mary’s is the cross motif, formed from an endless rope knot. This beautiful cross is easily missed and forms part of a circular medallion in the recess over the east end of the south aisle. Such crosses are known in Roman mosaics and wall paintings. In Sussex, the pavement at Fishbourne Roman Palace contains a similar emblem. However, its significance at West Chiltington remains unknown. This Celtic cross design has been reinterpreted for the 21st century in the new porch with its glass doors. The Reverend David Beale, Vicar of St Mary’s, remarks: “I love the way that the newest part of the church is linked with the oldest by this cross and bears witness to Christians in this building for almost 900 years.”

The Reverend David Beale, Vicar of St Mary’s, West Chiltington
The Reverend David Beale, Vicar of St Mary’s, West Chiltington
The 12th century cross at St Mary’s
The 12th century cross at St Mary’s

On the north side of the arcade in the nave is a cycle of frescoes, which tell the story from Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on a donkey as the crowds lay palm leaves before him, to his resurrection on the first Easter Day. Illustrated here are depictions of the Last Supper, Christ washing the feet of his disciples, the betrayal of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane by Judas Iscariot’s kiss, the flagellation of Christ, the carrying of the cross and the crucifixion. The scenes are portrayed within a series of three painted, lobed arches resting on slender columns and capitals. The influence of the Gothic can be seen in the figures, whose fluidity conveys genuine humanity. Compassion and suffering are clearly discernable in the depictions of Christ and contrast with the expressions on the faces of his tormentors. The directness of these paintings still powerfully communicate these familiar Gospel narratives in their now faded hues. I ask David what effect these medieval fresco drawings have on him and those who visit this place week by week to worship or pray. “They have a remarkable ability to connect people with their stories,” he answers. “This place is steeped in centuries of prayer; it is fascinating to observe how this and the pictures still cause people to pause in wonder. I suppose it should be unsurprising really in our visual age.”

We have become used to the soft hues of stone and white lime wash in the majority of our churches but St Mary’s, with her faded frescoes, allows us to experience something of the extraordinary effect that these Pre-Reformation paintings would have had on Sussex people some 800 years ago. David concludes, “It’s wonderful to glimpse how rich and colourful many of our churches would have been in the 12th and 13th centuries.”

This remarkable group of colourful frescoes reside in a working building at the heart of its community and speak of a narrative common to us all. St Mary’s, West Chiltington, is open every day and is one of my favourite places to stop and pray – a generous punctuation mark in a busy day. Treat yourself and try it! Easter services will be held at 2.00pm on Good Friday with Holy Communion on Easter Sunday at 8.00am and 10.00am. All are welcome. For more information go to www.stmaryswestchilt.co.uk

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 18th April 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Eric James Mellon (1925-2014)

Eric James Mellon
Eric James Mellon painting a pot in his studio

It was my great pleasure to count the internationally acclaimed, Sussex-based artist Eric Mellon as my friend. Eric is most famed for his work as a potter and his pioneering use of ash glazes, but he also worked as a painter and printmaker. Eric was both artist and artisan.

Over many years Eric strived to be able to transfer drawings onto his predominantly stoneware pots and dishes. He was always counter-cultural and believed strongly in the importance of narrative and fine drawing. His subjects drew on his Christian faith, stories from classical antiquity and his pleasure in the world around him. He also delighted in the human body, particularly the female form, which he depicted with honesty and fondness.

Eric James Mellon Jessica in a Hat
Eric James Mellon - 'Jessica (in a Hat)', stoneware bowl with brush-drawn decoration and bean-ash glaze, 2005
Daphne and Apollo by Eric James Mellon
Eric James Mellon - 'Daphne and Apollo', stoneware pot with brush-drawn decoration and Philadelphus-ash glaze, 2005
Chalice by Eric James Mellon
Eric James Mellon – stoneware chalice with brush-drawn decoration and bean-ash glaze, 2011

Years of research and experimentation into ash glazes brought him worldwide recognition as an artist, a ceramicist and a scientist. The ash glazes, especially those created with the ashes of certain bushes, prevented the lines of the brush drawings on his ceramics from bleeding during firing.

For Eric, his art was his calling. He embraced this path and everything in his life was bound up with it. Eric would recall how as a boy all he wanted to do was “to be an artist and to draw and paint”. At the age of 13 he won a place at Watford School of Art, where he studied until 1944. From 1944-1947 he attended the Central School of Arts and Crafts, where he met his lifelong friend, the Arundel-based artist Derek Davis. It was with Derek at a party held for art students that Eric met his wife-to-be, Martina Thomas. Martina was passionate about fine art and worked as a painter while Eric brought art and craft together through his pottery, drawings and prints. In the early 1950s he set up an artistic community at Hillesden, Buckinghamshire, with Derek Davis and fellow artist John Clarke. It was in 1951 that he began working increasingly as a potter. He married Martina in 1956. She was a gifted and talented artist and exhibited at the Royal Academy. They had two children, Martin and Tessa.

Eric, always an enthusiastic and generous teacher, ran summer art schools for some thirty years. In 1958 he set up a pottery at his home in West Sussex, where he worked for 56 years. To visit Eric’s studio and home was to be exposed to a lifetime of artistic endeavour and a riot of pottery, paintings and prints. He would say: “When I get up in the morning, I want, by the end of the day, to have created something new.”

Often we compartmentalize our lives but with Eric art and existence intermingled; for him, work and life were one. So when you visited him, he would hold you with that particular care, keen to know about you and your news. Fondly and inevitably, though, your life in that particular moment would become bound up with his vocation – his art – for it was this that rooted him in this life. Later, in 2011, Eric wrote, “It takes many years to learn to draw, but eventually the pencil becomes a friend and, in a few minutes, moments in life can be recorded; these I call ‘frozen time’, as the sketches are no longer mere drawings.”

Eric came to the service at which I was ordained as a priest and informed me that he had made me a chalice. The symbol of Christ he drew upon it was, he said, designed to speak to all. It reflected the importance to him of communicating narrative. When I next called at his home, he presented me with it. I suggested that we celebrate a home communion there and then. Eric’s broad smile crossed his face and he accepted. We used his potter’s wheel as an altar, anointed the chalice with holy oils for use and celebrated our Eucharist.

Eric, in the foreword to ‘Pages From My Sketchbooks’, wrote: “Pages From My Sketchbooks records the joy of new life, the anticipation of pregnant women, the sadness of terminal illness, and the incredible moment when life departs the body into eternity… an artist records his life and shares it with everyone who cares to look.” His relationships with his family and friends sustained him at the end, as they had done throughout his life.

Eric Mellon’s work has been exhibited and acclaimed around the world, fitting recognition for this generous and gifted Sussex artist, who died on 14th January this year.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 5th March 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.