A commentary on the collection by Dickon Hall
It is remarkable to see the extent to which the paintings of the Methodist Art Collection demonstrate the enduring power and presence of Biblical and Christian subject matter within art even across a period when society in general has been perceived to have become increasingly secular. There has certainly been no compromise in the quality or the range of work acquired to enable this concentration; not only does the collection include the work of a number of the most significant British artists of the period, such as Graham Sutherland, Elizabeth Frink, Patrick Heron, Ceri Richards and William Roberts, it also demonstrates an ongoing engagement with the evolving dialogues of twentieth century art, where alongside radical innovations that have challenged modes of expression, there has also been the search for the same enduring and complex spiritual understanding that has continued to push great artists to make images that transcend the specific qualities of their own time and the understanding of their own age.
The language of modernism which at the beginning of the twentieth century had arguably, in the hands of certain artists, become closely aligned with mechanisation, de-humanisation, urbanisation and at times even destruction, can be seen in images such as William Roberts’ Crucifixion, to have taken on less straightforward formal applications and become the means through which the deeply human situations of despair, pain and the need for regeneration and redemption can also be depicted.
The Methodist Art Collection confirms the degree to which this engagement with Christianity has been renewed throughout the last century within visual art. Although some works date from the early decades of the twentieth century, the initial core of the collection was formed in the post-war period in which there was a striking resurgence of Biblical subjects and references within British and Irish painting, as if the vast narratives of suffering, hope and redemption that are presented within both the Old and New Testaments provided the only appropriate and coherent context in which the events of the war, and the deep fears that is had thrown up, could be addressed and perhaps survived and resolved.
This can be seen beyond any particular group of artists or any region. For example, a response to the post-war, atomic age through an engagement with Christianity emerged in Ulster painting in the 1940s and 1950s, where there had been little pre-war tradition of religious art. Basil Blackshaw located the Crucifixion within his native County Down landscape, Nevill Johnson found echoes of the Bible within apocalyptic shoreline landscapes, while Colin Middleton charted his journey through internal and external suffering and doubt through a wide-ranging use of Biblical titles and ideas between 1939 and 1957.
As with these artists, the personal faith of those who made these images in the Methodist Art Collection is sometimes ambiguous. Some works evoke a sense of struggle, pain or doubt, while in others there is a clear expression of faith at the heart of the work. The range of responses to Biblical events that we experience within the collection is in itself, therefore, illuminating. This can be confrontational, as in the manner in which William Roberts conveys the pain and relentless violence of the Crucifixion in its most public aspect, or as Edward Burra emphasises the despair and sickness that Christ confronted and healed. In other works the public acts of Christ become present day celebrations, as in Eularia Clarke’s The Five Thousand. Many artists convey a highly personal and private relationship with these events, as we see in the tightly focussed and unflinching, yet uplifting, visions of Christ depicted by Georges Rouault or Elisabeth Frink. Some emphasise a transcendence over life and death, as in Maggi Hambling’s Good Friday: Walking on Water or Susie Hamilton’s Ecce Homo.
Running through much of the collection is the artists’ awareness of the historical tradition in which this iconography places them. Patrick Heron references this lineage in Crucifix and Candles: Night (1950) but questions whether, despite this connection, his selection of certain objects places the artist in any relationship with the meanings behind these earlier works. Ceri Richards, however, appears to have felt strongly engaged in taking up the subject of The Supper at Emmaus, which again placed him in a significant artistic tradition. His complex formal arrangement and expressive use of colour is ambiguous but quietly powerful, and almost avoids a sense of narrative without excluding the meaning and associations of this event.
Works such as these raise an interesting aspect of the meaning that can become implicit in a depicted object through a particular Biblical reference, so that the spiritual is expressed through the physical. Is it possible for Heron’s cross and candles not to take on a meaning beyond their physical identity, given the context in which they were painted, or the context in which they are viewed, so that this might, even with a certain ambivalence, in itself achieve a transcendence of the limited nature of a simple physical object through the painted image?
It might be argued that this re-focusing on Christianity was an element of the nostalgia for a vanishing pre-war world that emerged in the wake of both world wars. The Christian tradition in British art was both transcendent and communal, with an identity that related to William Blake, for example, as well as to the churches that, spiritually, socially, architecturally and historically lay at the heart of many communities, large and small. This sense of a shared heritage must have been particularly powerful at a time of threat and with the risk of social fragmentation, but the universal vision that is actually at the heart of the works within the Methodist Art Collection demonstrates a much broader sense of the Christian Church in an historical and a contemporary context.
The Methodist Art Collection can act as a short history of modern British art, broadening one’s knowledge of major figures from this period with renewed insight into their work that is often personally revealing. It will introduce the viewer to the work of lesser known or younger artists within a particularly stimulating context, demonstrating the active continuation of the collection. It is also, however, a profound and emotional experience in the manner in which it connects us, immediately and powerfully, to these most resonant and recognisable images and to these deep spiritual experiences, and acts as a reminder, as Richard Cork wrote, that “all great art is essentially an act of faith, Christian or otherwise”.
 Richard Cork, ‘Foreword’, Roger Wollen (ed.), A Guide to the Methodist Art Collection, Trustees of the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art, 2010, p.5
Dickon Hall is an art historian living in Northern Ireland. He has written books on the artists Colin Middleton and Nevill Johnson.