The Meaning of Christmas defined by a Mother’s Love for her Child

Manner of Francesco Salviata (1510-1563) – Madonna and Child, 18th century oil on canvas © Toovey’s 2020

The image of the Madonna and Child is timeless and its Christmas story still speaks to us across the millennia.

The depiction of the Madonna and Child you see here is an 18th century copy of the 16th century oil on panel by the Renaissance Mannerist Francesco Salviati (1510-1563) which hangs in the Musée Granet in Aix-en-Provence. Salviati (also known as Francesco de’ Rossi) was born and worked in Florence. His apprenticeship concluded under the remarkable Andrea del Sarto in 1529-1530. In 1531 he left for Rome where he was reunited with his former Florentine master Baccio Bandinelli. Together they worked on the frescoes depicting the Life of John the Baptist in the Palazzo Salviati for Cardinal Giovanni Salviati whose surname Francesco took on.

In the 16th century, as in earlier times, paintings, frescoes and carvings often contained complex iconography and were frequently used as teaching tools. In this depiction, the Christ Child embraces the Virgin Mary. His right hand is raised in a symbol of blessing as his mother supports him. Mary holds in her hands a veil symbolising their innocence and obedience to God’s will. To the right in the sky above them a winged angel holds a cross alluding to God’s plan for the redemption of humankind through the Crucifixion which is to come. The stylized landscape frames the Marian blue of her cloak. The expressions and gestures of this devoted mother and her child, combined with the delicacy of line and composition, create an effect which is extraordinarily naturalistic and tender.

The painter’s scene is filled with rhythm and beauty, allowing us at once to discern love and authority. Mary’s response to God’s calling and love is acceptance, obedience and service. Her example continues to inspire us.

As you read this I and millions of other Christians across the country will be preparing to celebrate that very first Christmas when God came among us as a baby in a manger. His parents were displaced and without their home.

People over the ages have often talked of value in terms of the material; by this standard, Mary and Joseph had little and yet they knew that they had been richly blessed. They shared the gift of their child with the world. This gift was so precious, so valuable that even the heavenly host of angels rejoiced and praised God. What was being celebrated was love.

Most of us have been expectantly preparing for Christmas as we anticipate the arrival of loved ones, or journey, like Mary and Joseph, to our ancestral homes (whether grand or modest). These shared moments will be particularly precious after the separation caused by Covid-19. Our processions towards Christmas day will be different and particular this year.

As we give and receive gifts this Christmas I hope that like Mary and Joseph we will be inspired to share what we have with the world through acts of generosity, kindness and concern for the needs of others, especially the displaced and the homeless. The message of Christmas is that true value is defined by love and service to others.

It remains for me to wish you and those you love a very happy and blessed Christmas. Keep safe.

Easter, A Time for Renewal and Hope

Chichester Cathedral and the Bishop’s Palace

Christians across the country will celebrate Easter this Sunday – it marks a time of hope, renewal and rebirth in the face of suffering and human tragedy.

With our church buildings temporarily closed to counter COVID-19 I thought I would take you inside Chichester Cathedral as Easter approaches. Pilgrimage spaces can decipher or inform our perceptions of the world gifting us with an experience of the numinous.

Sir Basil Spence, who designed and oversaw the building of Coventry Cathedral after the Second World War and the campus buildings at Sussex University, described the South aisle at Chichester Cathedral as one of the most beautiful in Europe. At the east end is the St Mary Magdalene Chapel with Graham Sutherland’s vibrant oil on canvas ‘Noli me tangere’ (touch me not).

The Very Revd Walter Hussey, famous as both a patron of the arts and as Dean of Chichester Cathedral, had commissioned Sutherland to paint a Crucifixion at St Matthew’s, Northampton in the 1940s and had hoped the artist would do something at Chichester.

Graham Sutherland’s ‘Noli me tangere’, painted in 1961, in the St Mary Magdalene Chapel, Chichester Cathedral

A Roman Catholic, Sutherland’s art was inspired by his faith.

As we enter the south aisle from the west end Sutherland’s ‘Noli me tangere’ initially strikes you with the quality of a distant medieval, enamelled jewel. As we process towards this work we are drawn into the intimate narrative described in chapter 20 of St John’s Gospel. Arriving at the chapel we become aware that the painting depicts the moment on that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene becomes aware that she is in the presence of her risen Lord who has just spoken her name. As she reaches out to touch him his gesture stops her. The painting holds in tension Mary’s joy and the pending separation of a different kind.

The angular composition of the figures, plants and staircase allude to the suffering and cruelty described in the Passion narratives which lead up to and include Jesus’ crucifixion. At the centre of the painting Jesus Christ is dressed in white symbolising his holiness and purity. Christ’s finger points towards God the Father symbolising His presence. Mary may not touch Jesus. The artist invites us into this liminal moment in the story so that we, like Mary, might acknowledge Jesus, our creator, teacher and friend, as advocate and redeemer of the whole world.

Sutherland displays sensitivity and humility in the intimate scale of the painting which encourages us to rest in this sacred space.

The Passion narratives and Easter story provide a hope filled framework for a generous self-giving discipline inviting us to respond to God’s love with love for him, for ourselves and for others. Where we respond with acts of care, compassion and respect for those close to us and those we meet along the way we renew and give new life to our communities and our nation as we work for the common good.

With our church buildings temporarily closed I will be joining the online 10.30am Easter Sunday Eucharist led by the Bishop of Chichester, the Rt Revd Dr Martin Warner. From his private chapel those familiar Easter words will be proclaimed ‘Alleluia! Christ is risen. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!’ To find out more and to join the online services from the Cathedral visit www.chichestercathedral.org.uk/worship/holy-week-and-easter.

I hope that you and those you love remain safe this Easter and in the weeks to come.

 

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.