Lost Saxon Art in the Heart of Sussex

St John the Baptist, Clayton, West Sussex
St John the Baptist, Clayton, West Sussex

For many years the remarkable wall paintings at the little known Saxon church, St John the Baptist, Clayton, West Sussex, were thought to date from the 12th century. This established view is being challenged and although opinion remains divided it seems increasingly likely that they are late Saxon, dating from the mid-11th century.

The wall paintings and chancel arch at St John the Baptist, Clayton
The wall paintings and chancel arch at St John the Baptist, Clayton

To explore this I meet my friend, Professor Robin Milner-Gulland, at Clayton. For some time Robin has been a leading voice in promoting the arguments for re-attributing these wonderful paintings to the late Saxon period. He believes that it is likely they were painted in the mid-11th century, before the Norman Conquest in 1066. From the time of Alfred the Great in the 9th century the Saxon kingdom of Wessex, of which we were a part, was a centre for the arts with influence drawn from France and the Holy Roman Empire.

Professor Robin Milner-Gulland admires the frescoes at Clayton
Professor Robin Milner-Gulland admires the frescoes at Clayton

The church at Clayton sits in the folds of the South Downs National Park beneath the Jack and Jill windmills. The interior of the church is painted with some of the finest and most important fresco wall paintings in the country. There is a majesty and fluidity in the elongated figures whose tunics have a rare quality of movement and softness. The scheme is beautifully worked out representing stories from the Bible’s book of Revelations. Indeed, the church is believed to have originally been dedicated to All Saints. Unusually the artist predominately used lime white in the tunics which gifts the figures with a luminous quality. There is some charcoal used which can appear blue to us after the passage of time. The red and yellow ochre hues unite these frescoes with the churches at Hardham, Coombes and Plumpton and are common to most early wall-paintings.

Frescoes are wall paintings painted directly on to plaster while it is still wet. The artist has to work quickly and as the plaster dries the pigments and image are fixed. Robin explains “The quality of the Saxon mortar has given these wall paintings an outstanding durability.”

The depiction of Christ the King above the chancel arch is exquisitely conceived. Jesus sits enthroned with His arms raised in blessing within an oval shaped border known as a mandorla. Supported by two winged angels Christ is flanked by saints who appear to move about in easy conversation with one another. I also love the image of the New Jerusalem descending from heaven so that God will live among us once again in a new and perfected creation with no more suffering and injustice. The hexagonal city is finely executed.

Robin says “It is generally accepted that the fabric of the church is Saxon in its construction and proportion.” I remark on the height and the finesse of the chancel arch. He responds “There is a grandeur at Clayton. The walls are over twenty feet high and the chancel arch is awe-inspiring.” He continues enthusiastically “The overall processional composition, the ornamental borders, especially the lower palmettes dividing the scheme on the chancel wall, the movement in the folds of the massed hierarchical figures’ clothes and the lack of a hard outline in the depiction of many of them, all indicate a date in the 11th century” The compositional scheme certainly shows a cohesive sensitivity to the architecture of the interior.

‘Christ in Majesty’ fresco
‘Christ in Majesty’ fresco

Eve Baker worked to conserve these frescoes. Importantly she discovered that they were painted as true frescoes whilst the plaster was still wet and are the lowest layer of plaster on the wall surface. Robin suggests that it is unlikely that the church would have been left un-plastered after its completion. If, as seems likely, this is the case then the wall-paintings are contemporary to the building and are late Saxon. Those academics who argue that these paintings are later, from the 12th century, are suggesting that Clayton was later plastered some fifty to a hundred years after the church’s completion and painted in an earlier archaic style. To my mind their argument is unconvincing.

‘The New Jerusalem’ fresco
‘The New Jerusalem’ fresco

For me, when Baker’s conclusions are combined with the early style of the composition, and its depiction of the figures, it highlights the characteristics and influence of the Anglo Saxons in the painter’s hand.

Using the methods of contemporary art criticism, I think there is an increasingly strong argument for questioning the previously accepted view that the paintings at Clayton, Hardham, Coombes and Plumpton were united in their stylistic qualities and influences by the Benedictine Cluniac priory at Lewes. Whilst there are similarities there are also significant differences.

I am more and more convinced that these churches, once known as the ‘Lewes Group’, contain frescoes from the Saxon period and I look forward to returning to Hardham, Coombes and Plumpton in the New Year to re-examine the examples there.

This weekend the church celebrates the Feast of Christ the King and celebrates his authority. How fitting that this is so wonderfully depicted at St John the Baptist, Clayton. There will be a service of Holy Communion celebrated there this Sunday, 23rd November at 11.15am, where you can worship and inhabit this remarkable Church and its frescoes, as people have done since Saxon times. The church is usually open during the day and is one of my favourite places to stop and pray. Our thanks should go to the Revd. Christopher Powell, the churchwardens, Jill Rogers and Jim Coppen and the congregation who make this a living, prayerful place for us all.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 19th November 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Outside In Christmas Charity Event at Toovey’s

This year, Toovey’s have chosen Pallant House Gallery’s pioneering project Outside In as the nominated charity for its Christmas Private View and Charity Auction. During our Christmas Private View on Monday 1st December 2014, Toovey’s, in collaboration with Pallant House Gallery, will be holding a charity auction of promises with a selection of exclusive lots to bid on, including a week’s break on the beautiful classic motor sailing yacht ‘Barracuda’, moored in Palma on the lovely island of Majorca.

The night will also host a Christmas Tree of Delights with gifts available for £20, £50 and £100 for those who would like to donate. As a backdrop to the evening and also in support of Outside In, a selling exhibition of works by acclaimed Sussex-based artists from Moncrieff-Bray Gallery will be on show and this will continue to run through the auction week at Toovey’s until Friday 5th December. Works available to purchase will include an oil on linen, titled ‘Clouds over Jura from Islay’, by Oona Campbell and two fine art photographs by Deborah Gourlay.

Oona Campbell's 'Clouds over Jura from Islay' available for £4200 in the selling exhibition to raise funds for Outside In

A selection of twelve works by award-winning Outside In artists will be on display on the evening too. These twelve works will be offered in Toovey’s Fine Art Auction on Wednesday 3rd December 2014 at 10am to raise further funds for Outside In. Danielle Hodson, David Jones, Jasna Nikolic, Kate Bradbury, Kwei Eden, Manuel Bonifacio, Matthew Sergison-Main, Michelle Roberts, Nigel Kingsbury, Peter Andrews and Phil Baird are the list of names all contributing to this auction.

Click on a thumbnail below to see full image

Outside In LogoOutside In was founded in 2006 by Pallant House Gallery to provide opportunities for artists with a desire to create who see themselves as facing a barrier to the art world for reasons including health, disability or social circumstance. The goal of the project is to create a fairer art world, which rejects traditional values and institutional judgements about whose work can and should be displayed. For more information visit the Outside In website by clicking here.

About Outside In, Toovey’s director Rupert Toovey commented: “It is really exciting to see traditional values and institutional judgements challenged, for people to be empowered and gifted with expression, rather than exclusion. I am delighted to be supporting this important work.”

If you would like a catalogue for the exhibition and auction, with more information about the works and artists, please contact Toovey’s or Pallant House Gallery.

Sussex History, Heritage and Culture and the Local Community

My cousin Colin De La Haye digging the early Jersey Royals with his Polish team
Rupert's cousin Colin De La Haye digging the early Jersey Royals with his Polish team

“Our Sussex history, heritage and culture are vital to the health and prosperity of our local community”

Our culture and heritage is vital because it provide us with a common narrative, a shared story. It gifts us with a sense of identity. It builds and makes strong and healthy communities.

Visiting my family in the Channel Islands I have been reminded how important my knowledge of Jersey history is to me. Limited as it is, it allows me to celebrate the island’s past and present and to belong.

Common narratives bind communities together. The story is on-going. It changes and evolves as people come and go. Jersey has long embraced migrant labour from across Britain, from Madeira and now from Poland especially in the finance industry and farming. Many of these peoples have returned home, many have stayed and made a life there.

Rupert Toovey and Frank Falle in conversation by Archirondel’s Jersey Round Tower
Rupert Toovey and Frank Falle in conversation by Archirondel’s Jersey Round Tower

My father-in-law, Frank Falle, is a passionate and well regarded Jersey historian. As we walk along a favourite beach in the October sunshine he reminds me that Jersey has often found herself under attack. The Vikings invaded and settled there under the leadership of Hasting. Some historians believe that he gave his name to the town of Hastings in Sussex. In the 18th century French invaders were defeated by Major Peirson whose death during the battle in the centre of St Helier was recorded in the oil painting by John Singleton Copley. The Jersey Round Towers, like the one at Archirondel, are forts which were designed to defend the island and are found around Jersey. In the Second World War the German’s invaded, occupied and fortified the Island.

For many years Frank has run courses on Jersey history and has built a community of historians. I ask him how many of them are from old Jersey families like his. He responds enthusiastically saying “Most of the people on my courses are people who have come to live in Jersey in recent times. They’re proud of Jersey’s history and the place where they have made their lives”. We go down to The Jersey Museum to see the ‘Jersey Hoard’ where we find Reg Mead who discovered this ancient hoard of coins with his colleague Richard Miles. Reg is a man gifted with humble enthusiasm. It is quickly apparent that he has a deep sense of service and responsibility to the Island he has called home since he moved to Jersey in 1976. “I came to the Island to teach having worked as a satellite systems electronics engineer” he explains. Reg is the past President of the Jersey Detecting Society. I ask Reg what drove him forward over all the years he has been a metal detecting enthusiast. He responds “It’s nothing to do with the money. This discovery represents thirty years of hard work often in the pouring rain! The coins were very deeply buried. We had to use a metal detector used to discover Hurricanes, Spitfires and deep finds” Reg’s skill with electronics and his love of history have been important to the success of this find. The reward for their dedication will be shared with the land owner, though the farmer’s name and the field are being kept a secret. But for now Reg is working with a team of archaeologists to preserve, identify and record the hoard using the latest three dimensional mapping technology. Reg explains “Once the hoard has been broken down into its component parts we will be able to show where each coin was located in the mass.” It is Europe’s largest discovered hoard of Celtic coins numbering some 70,000 examples.

Reg Mead with the ‘Jersey Hoard’ at the States funded Jersey Museum
Reg Mead with the ‘Jersey Hoard’ at the States funded Jersey Museum

Reg Mead and Richard Miles have written themselves into Jersey’s history and added to the richness of its future story. The work on the hoard is on full public view at the Jersey Museum. The Jersey Museum is funded by the Island’s government. The States of Jersey understand the importance of history, heritage and culture to the local community in terms of its identity and also the enormous, positive economic impact it has on their economy and employment.

Our Sussex history, heritage and culture are equally vital to the identity, health and prosperity of our local community. History, heritage and culture is a major contributor to our local economy and will continue to provide us all with a common narrative. Like me in Jersey it will allow those who move to West Sussex to belong and add to the richness of our evolving local identity. Our community and quality of life is something which should never be taken for granted. If we are to preserve our county’s distinctive identity and quality of life it is important that our local politicians continue to understand, value and support our museums and art galleries. It is work that only government can do and they are deserving of our thanks for their support and continuing investment.

By Revd. Rupert Toovey. Originally published on 12th November 2014 in the West Sussex Gazette.

Famous Picasso Painting Returns to Sussex

Pablo Picasso, Weeping Woman (Femme en pleurs), 26th October 1937, oil on canvas, Tate. Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of tax with additional payment (Grant-in-Aid) made with the assistance from the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Friends of Tate Gallery, 1987, © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2014

A remarkable exhibition opens this weekend at Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. At its centre is one of Pablo Picasso’s most remarkable pictures: ‘Weeping Woman’. The painting was originally owned by the famous writer, artist and patron Roland Penrose, who made his home at Farley Farm House, near Chiddingly in East Sussex.

The exhibition, titled ‘Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War’, is the first to focus on the artistic response of British visual artists to this conflict and the common voice and influence they found in continental artists like Pablo Picasso and Joan Miro.

Roland Penrose helped to bring Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ to Britain. Its powerful depiction of the destruction caused by the German bombing of the defenceless town of the same name had a profound impact on the public and artists when it was shown in Britain in 1938 and 1939. Roland Penrose bought ‘Weeping Woman’ from Picasso. Painted by the artist in 1937, it is an iconic work which contains an innate and powerful response to the horror of the Spanish Civil War. ‘Weeping Woman’ was exhibited alongside ‘Guernica’ in Britain.

Quentin Bell, May Day Procession with Banner, 14 July 1937, oil on canvas, The Farringdon Collection Trust, © Anne Olivier Bell

The Spanish Civil War was described by Stephen Spender as ‘the poets’ war’. It was recorded by writers like George Orwell in ‘Homage to Catalonia’ and Ernest Hemmingway in ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’. Hemmingway described the Spanish Civil War as ‘the dress rehearsal for the inevitable European war’. Simon Martin, exhibition curator and Pallant House Gallery Artistic Director, comments: “This was a civil war with an international dimension.” The British government signed a non-intervention treaty and was officially neutral. For many British artists and writers, however, the civil war went beyond an internal conflict between the democratically elected Republicans and General Franco’s Nationalist rebels. For them and many others in Britain, the civil war represented the wider battle against Fascism. “Many artists were concerned about the appeasement,” Simon explains. In scenes reminiscent of Quentin Bell’s painting ‘May Day Procession with Banner, 14 July 1937’, artists like Roland Penrose, F.E. McWilliam and Julian Trevelyan marched in the 1938 London May Day Procession to protest at our government’s policy of appeasement. They wore masks, made by McWilliam, caricaturing the Prime Minster, Neville Chamberlain. Simon Martin notes: “You will find one of the masks in the exhibition. There is an obvious and very palpable fear expressed in these artists’ works, a fear that the rise of Fascism in Germany, Italy and Spain would lead to something which would much more directly involve Britain.”

F.E. McWilliam, Spanish Head, 1938-9, Hopton Wood stone, The Sherwin Collection, © Estate of F.E. McWilliam

Against the backdrop of these internationally turbulent times, the artists’ response is personal and charged with emotion. I ask Simon about this quality. He pauses for a moment and replies, “It is rare to work on an exhibition in which so much of the work is about deeply held matters of politics and conscience. Their response provides a deeply moving articulation of this story of human tragedy, refugees, political prisoners and victims of bombing.” These themes are powerfully reflected in this exhibition.

The show reveals to the viewer the effect of Picasso’s imagery on British artists. Take, for example, the surrealist Hopton Wood stone sculpture ‘Spanish Head’ by F.E. McWilliam. Here the mouth and eye of a head are distorted, reflecting the destructive power of this war. Henry Moore’s ‘Spanish Prisoner’, again influenced by Picasso, is equally disturbing in its depiction of human suffering.

‘Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War’ contains not only paintings, prints and sculptures, but also banners, photographs and ephemera, which bring to life the role of British artists in this civil war in a foreign land. It marks the 75th anniversary of the end of the Spanish Civil War in 1939.

The timing of this exhibition’s opening is particularly poignant as the nation pauses this weekend, on Remembrance Sunday, to remember those who have fought and given their lives for our country and freedom.

‘Conscience and Conflict: British Artists and the Spanish Civil War’ runs from 8th November 2014 to 15th February 2015 at Pallant House Gallery, 9 North Pallant, Chichester, PO19 1TJ. For more information go to www.pallant.org.uk or telephone 01243 774557.

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