St. Bloomsbury’s – Duncan Grant’s Sussex Church paintings

Last week, I visited the little 12th Century church at Berwick just a few miles away from my home in Lewes, East Sussex. We are so blessed with medieval churches around here that it is easy to take them for granted. The Berwick church is unusual though for its interior decoration by a bunch of sinfully and mostly godless artists who were part of the now much loved Bloomsbury Group. All looks perfectly orderly and very Church of England from the outside but, if you dare, go inside and see what those bohemian Bloomsbury painters got up to when left to their own devices between the years 1941 and 1944.

Well, yes, religious murals in the Italian manner – what’s so shocking about that you ask. Christ in glory and in glorious technicolor as if the English Reformation had never happened and our churches even in 1941 were all decorated like Italian basilicas by the hands of sinners and commissioned by a holy bishop no less. You can see the good bishop painted on his knees to the right of the arch. This is the work of Duncan Grant, probably the most talented of the Bloomsbury painters who lived in a ménage à who’s-counting in a rented farmhouse down the road at Charleston.

Young Duncan Grant (1885-1978)

Duncan Grant may have just been too good looking to have fulfilled his artistic potential but his murals here in Berwick show his reverence for Renaissance art, both aesthetically and erotically, best seen in his rather jolly Crucifixion placed high up on the West wall.

Apparently modelled by a painter friend who was strapped naked to an eisel in the artist’s study, it is also named The Victory of Calvary with Christ shown not in agony but in triumph. I was not so sure that that expression was so much triumph as “Can I come down now I fancy a drink?” The rather jauntily draped bath towel was added later after members of the congregation complained that the naked image was too “fleshy” for morning service.

The Victory of Calvary by Duncan Grant

Fleshiness was definitely an interest of Duncan Grant even in old age when he became the living equivalent of Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray. I wonder if there is a handsome Duncan somewhere in the attic at Charleston farmhouse.

Old Duncan Grant (1885-1978)

The then Bishop of Chichester, the saintly George Bell, was an admirer of medieval murals and of modern art so, as he was a friend of Duncan Grant’s auntie, he came up with the idea of enlivening some of Sussex’s more neglected churches with a dash of colour.

George Bell, Bishop of Chichester (1883-1958)

It was a brave and imaginative idea but, sadly, it was only put into practice in Berwick church. Maybe, in the end, it was just too shocking for those Church of England congregations not known, even today,  for their radicalism or social liberalism. 

The pulpit is probably my favourite painting here – fruit by Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell (no relation to the Bishop), flowers by Duncan Grant to a design by Vanessa’s and probably his daughter Angelica Bell. Angelica was brought up as the daughter of Vanessa’s husband, the art critic, Clive Bell who also played happy families at Charleston but let’s not go there it all gets much too complicated.


Annunciation by Vanessa Bell

Vanessa is the model for the Virgin Mary in her mother’s Piero della Francesca-inspired but decidely sub-Piero della Francesca Annunciation where the Angel Gabriel appears before Mary in the garden at Charleston farmhouse.

 Vanessa Bell (1879-1961)

There is also a painting by Vanessa’s son, Quentin Bell, who was also, rather shockingly, the son of his mother’s husband, Clive Bell. The painting is less than a triumph but it is amusing to see the Sussex Downs with its chalk pit transported to biblical Emmaus.

The Supper at Emmaus by Quentin Bell

The interior of Berwick church may not be filled with great masterpieces of Twentieth Century art but it is a charming memorial to some very entertaining artists who lived interesting lives in a period in English cultural history when, if you came from the right social class, it felt like anything goes. It came and went but for the congregation of Berwick church, their work must act as a reminder that we here on Earth are all sinners.

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