Stories of Courage and Duty Bound Up with Art at Berwick Church

Vanessa Bell’s Nativity at Berwick Church

This week we commemorate the 80th Anniversary of the D-day landings and give thanks for the courage and bravery of our service men and our allies in their defence of freedom, justice and righteousness in the face of Nazism. I am returning to Berwick Church in East Sussex where two of the scenes in the decorative scheme speak into this moment in our long Island history.

As the storm clouds of war gathered over Europe British artists and writers stood in protest against our nation’s appeasement of fascism. Many chose to fight in the Spanish Civil war against the Fascists. Amongst these was the English poet Julian Bell. He was the eldest son of the Bloomsbury and Charleston artist Vanessa Bell and her art critic husband Clive. In 1937 Julian volunteered as an ambulance driver. He was fatally wounded by bomb fragments on a stretch of road just outside Villanueva de la Cañada and died aged just 29.

In 1940 as the Battle of Britain was being fought above the skies of Sussex Bishop George Bell commissioned Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant to paint the scenes we see at Berwick Church today.

Vanessa’s depiction of the Nativity in the Sussex Barn at Charleston with Firle Beacon behind is filled with allegory. Jesus is depicted as the Lamb of God in the foreground his light in the world spilled onto the scene by an old lantern. The Sussex trug is filled with vegetables hinting at the abundance of God’s love for us. Vanessa and Duncan Grant’s daughter Angelica is painted as Mary with the infant Christ upon her lap. There is a sense of longing in Mary’s face. Perhaps Vanessa is reflecting upon the loss of Julian and Christ’s promise of resurrection and eternal life.

Douglas Hemming and his fellow service men painted at Berwick Church

Above the chancel arch Duncan Grant paints Christ in Majesty. The downland scenery below enfolds figures of the time. To the right is the patron Bishop Bell and the Rector of Berwick. To the left a local airman, a sailor and the soldier, Douglas Hemming, who was killed near Caen in June 1944 soon after D-day.

These paintings are bound up with personal stories of courage, duty, love and loss in the defence of freedom, and righteousness. I hope in the coming days each of us will find time to reflect and give thanks for the courage and example of all those who fought in the D-day landings. Those whose courage and sacrifice have blessed us with freedom and opportunity.

When History Becomes the Stuff of Legend

Pleasure craft of a type that went to Dunkirk painted by the Sussex artist Ronald Ossory Dunlop after the war, image © Toovey’s

There are moments in the procession of the our long island history which in their re-telling have become the stuff of legend and which define the character of our island people. They have inspired our writers, artists and leaders.

It was Shakespeare in Richard II who, alluding to the Divine Right of Kings and England as an earthly paradise, gave these dying words to John Gaunt, The Duke of Lancaster…

“This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,

This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars.

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”

It was King Alfred the Great who first to commissioned and personally translated many of the world’s great Christian and classical texts from Latin into Old English more than half a millennium before the Reformation. He hid from the Viking hoards in the marshes of Athelney in Somerset and emerged to defeat their armies. |His actions have become part of our nation’s folklore and the stuff of legend.

As the 80th Anniversary of the D-day landings approaches I have been reflecting on another moment in our nation’s history when we stood alone in the face of almost certain invasion and defeat. Our army of some 338,000 men were surrounded by Hitler’s forces and under constant attack on the beaches at Dunkirk. Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay had formulated and begun planning the evacuation of The British Expeditionary Force on the 20th May 1940 assembling a flotilla of more than 800 civilian pleasure craft to be sent across the channel. He called it Operation Dynamo. The boats sailed from Ramsgate on the 26th May 1940 rescuing almost all of our soldiers. They became known as the Dunkirk Little Ships. It was the stuff of legends. Ramsay would be made Commander in Chief of the Allied Naval Forces for Operation Neptune, the naval part of Operation Overlord – the D-day landings.

Sir Winston Churchill, image © Toovey’s

Speaking to the House of Commons on 4th June Winston Churchill invoked our long island history and said ‘…we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…’ The Battle of France was ending the Battle of Britain was about to begin.