Coventry Cathedral, 1 Hill Top, Coventry, CV1 5AB
10 am – 4pm Monday to Saturday
12 noon – 3 pm Sunday
Please check the Cathedral website in case there are services or other events that may result in temporary closures during these times
Events at Coventry Cathedral
Tuesday 28 September
Lunchtime In Conversation with John Neilson and Chair of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, Professor Ann Sumner, on John’s recent publication The Inscriptions of Ralph Beyer.
Professor Ann Sumner Chair of the Methodist Modern Art Collection talks to author and lettercarver John Neilson about his recently published book The Inscriptions of Ralph Beyer. The discussions will focus in particular on the Son of Man Tablet of the Word at Coventry Cathedral, for which the Methodist Modern Art Collection owns a preparatory drawing currently on loan to the Cathedral as part of the City of Culture, Stories of Change: Hope, Faith, Love Art Trail. Beyer came to Britain as a refugee aged 16 from Nazi Germany and Neilson’s book outlines his career and contextualises his major commission to create the large scale Tablets of the Word in Coventry Cathedral. Booking essential. Opportunity for acquiring signed books by the author afterwards the Cathedral Bookshop.
Stories of Change: Hope, Faith and Love
The Methodist Modern Art Collection is one of the Methodist Church’s greatest treasures. This outstanding collection of Christian art has particular strengths in British 20th-century Modern artists including works by Edward Burra, Elisabeth Frink, Patrick Heron, Ceri Richards, Graham Sutherland and William Roberts. The Collection has continued to grow, since its foundation in the 1960s, with innovative acquisitions from the 1990s onwards.
Just as John Wesley, who inspired the Methodist Movement, travelled around the country preaching, so the Methodist Modern Art Collection is not rooted in one place. From the beginning it was conceived as a travelling collection with strong educational links, and has been touring for many years to chapels, churches, cathedrals, museums, galleries and educational establishments, where it has inspired worship, enthused Mission, amazed visitors, and encouraged many supporters and enthusiasts. This unique Collection has recently undergone a programme of conservation and re-framing, to ensure it is preserved for future generations. This is the first time it has been seen by the public in over two years.
Re-launching the Collection during the City of Culture year in Coventry, and opening the Art Trail Stories of Change: Hope, Faith and Love with works on display in the Cathedral itself, set among outstanding masterpieces of 20th-century religious art, is particularly appropriate, as the Collection was begun in 1962, the year that the Cathedral was consecrated. Four works are hung at the Cathedral, all creating new dynamic dialogues between these paintings and the outstanding interior of the Cathedral with its related artworks. This is followed by a trail across the city, and beyond, enabling the exploration of the Collection in depth within the context of the communities who are hosting the trail, along with their responses to the works, at a time of recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.
An innovative Art Trail for Coventry – Stories of Change: Hope, Faith and Love
The Church of England’s post-war response to church artistic commissioning is well known; epitomised by the brilliant architecture and art commissioned by the architect Sir Basil Spence at Coventry Cathedral. The Methodist Church’s engagement with post-war British religious art is less well known and, historically, art commissioning has not been at the forefront of non-conformist church activities. The unique story of the formation of the Methodist Modern Art Collection, from its foundation in 1962, is told in this trail, demonstrating how it has grown to include more artists from other parts of the world, to reflect multicultural Britain. Today it also plays a role in post-Covid recovery, offering moments of contemplation and healing.
For nearly 60 years these works have surprised, delighted and enthused many hundreds of thousands of people who have seen and appreciated them in churches, cathedrals and art galleries across the UK. We hope, here in Coventry, visitors will take the opportunity to engage with these works anew and follow the trail from the Cathedral, to Methodist Central Hall and onwards to Earlsdon Methodist Church, Balsall Common Methodist Church and Saint Mary and All Saints Church at Fillongley (a longstanding and successful example of a Local Ecumenical Partnership between the local Anglican and the Methodist churches). In all of these venues we hope they discover more about these significant paintings and their message of hope, faith and love.
This Art Trail provides information about the works that can be found at each location and how the local community responded to these, as well as explaining how to navigate the trail from the city centre out into the delightful villages nearby. A printed leaflet will be available at each of the venues.
The artists represented in the Collection may have been war artists like Graham Sutherland, or refugees like Ralph Beyer, or brought up during World War 2 on the Home Front like Elisabeth Frink. For those artists who experienced war directly, whether serving or on the Home Front, many found solace in representing Christian themes in the post-war recovery years.
During our time of recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic, we can draw parallels with the post-war years of recovery and re-building, for which Coventry is so well known. The impacts of the pandemic are felt in many different ways and the Collection has real potential to provide space for moments of healing and contemplation this autumn.
All the venues will have a naturally 'hushed' atmosphere to allow visitors space to reflect quietly on the works displayed. Some venues may also offer further support and activities, such as the Prayer Stations at Earlsdon Methodist Church. There will also be opportunities to engage with therapeutic arts-based activities responding to the works and informative lectures and talks, shedding new light on, and interpretations of, key paintings.
For further information on these activities please visit: www.methodist.org.uk/cityofculture
Each time the Collection is loaned, the different communities who host it develop new dialogues with the artworks. Prior to borrowing paintings for this Art Trail, local churches around Coventry and Nuneaton encouraged congregations and their leaders to contemplate these works in imaginative ways, often during lockdowns. They had detailed discussions, using them to inspire prayer. This Art Trail now includes their many of their dynamic responses, creating new dialogues for the City of Culture.
Artists in residence at Methodist Central Hall: poet Emilie Lauren Jones, community artist Nikki Bovis-Coulter and digital artist Emily Tyler have all responded to the Collection and their work is also on view at Central Hall. Emilie’s poems are included in this Art Trail information.
The Revd Stephen Willey, Minister at Central Hall commented: “It is exciting to see our mission to nurture and celebrate faith, hope and love coming to life in Coventry this year through these artists.”
History of the Collection
This unique Collection began in the early 1960s as the inspired initiative of Dr John Morel Gibbs (1912–96). Gibbs was a Methodist layman who came from a wealthy Penarth shipping family in south Wales. His father, Major John Angel Gibbs, died in action in World War 1. John Morel Gibbs was very much raised in the shadow of war and, after taking a law degree at Cambridge, followed by a PhD in child psychology, became a conscientious objector in World War 2. He went on to become Vice President of the Methodist Church in 1959. By the 1960s Gibbs had concluded that the Methodist Church had failed to engage with contemporary high-quality religious art, which could make a genuine contribution to the life of the Church. He determined to rectify the situation.
Working with the local Methodist minister in Penarth, the Revd Douglas Wollen (1909-1998), who wrote as an art critic for publications including The Times and The Methodist Recorder, Gibbs acquired some outstanding examples of British 20th-century art. These were all chosen to illustrate aspects of the Gospel narrative, from the Nativity to Pentecost.
Some acquisitions were by established artists, such as William Roberts or Graham Sutherland, others were by relatively unknown artists just at the beginning of their careers. Wollen and Gibbs visited Bond Street galleries when they were in London for Methodist meetings to view potential acquisitions, and sometimes bought directly from artists after studio visits, occasionally commissioning works, or buying at auction. The 1960s were a time of energy and optimism, as well as recovery from World War 2, and the initial purchases echo the social and creative developments of the decade. There is a strong Welsh flavour to a number of early acquisitions, reflecting the fact that the original founders were based in south Wales, with works by Ceri Richards, Euryl Stevens and Michael Edmonds (based in Penarth at the time). From the outset there was a genuine desire to reflect innovative approaches to subjects and to look beyond European traditions. One of the first paintings to be acquired was by Francis Newton Souza, an Indian artist of international fame, living in London at the time.
The first works were purchased in 1962, ahead of a hugely ambitious touring exhibition which ran from July 1963-September 1965 and was entitled The Church and the Artist, with new works joining as they were acquired. It was shown across the country including at major galleries such as Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, the Walker in Liverpool, Manchester City Art Gallery, the Laing in Newcastle, the Graves in Sheffield, and Turner House in Penarth, part of the National Museum of Wales at the time. The tour included one school, Kingswood in Bath, one college, Southlands in London and just one cathedral, in Portsmouth. Overall 107,000 people saw the Collection at 30 venues. The exhibition was received enthusiastically by the public, and local and religious press, but barely picked up by the art press. There were just seven mentions in national newspapers, and while there was brief coverage by the BBC with a programme Seeing and Believing, aired in January 1964, overall the reception was muted in contrast to the more controversial response to the opening of Coventry Cathedral.
After the first exhibition tour, the Collection was housed at Kingswood School in Bath, where it was administered by the then Methodist Education Committee. From the early 1970s, it was distributed between a number of Methodist schools, before being reunited again at Southlands Teacher Training College in the late 1970s. Eventually, after a conservation programme, the Collection was relaunched in the 1990s as a touring exhibition once more. Appropriately, the first exhibition was at the Turner House Gallery in Penarth. Exhibitions then continued from 1992, when it was shown at St Giles in Oxford, and in 1993 at The Maltings in Farnham, Surrey and Winchester Cathedral. The Collection began to grow once more with the commission of the Adams watercolour Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, in 1991, currently on display at Earlsdon Methodist Church.
There was a general revival of interest in British 20th-century art in the 1990s, when a national poll elected Coventry Cathedral as the nation’s favourite 20th-century building, embraced by the public as a symbol of reconciliation and peace. Works such as Patrick Heron’s Crucifix and Candles: Night 1950 were acquired and, in 1997, a new working group was set up by the Methodist Church to manage the Collection, chaired by John Newton Gibbs, son of the original founder. He recognised the potential power of the Collection to support Mission and provided inspired leadership for the next 20 years. This group oversaw further expansion of the Collection in the 2000s, particularly with works by women artists such as Susie Hamilton, Ghislaine Howard and Maggi Hambling, as well as more works by international artists.
The resulting Collection of over 50 works continues to grow and still, on occasion, reflects its Welsh roots. In 2011 a work was commissioned by Clive Hicks-Jenkins, who was born in Newport in 1951. Work is also still donated, for example, Crucifixion, a watercolour by Michael Edmonds, was acquired in 2015. During the period 2016-2018, the Collection was seen by nearly 80 thousand visitors.
The Management Committee is committed to curating exhibitions which are relevant and contemporary for our audiences. Exhibitions which address issues such as peace and reconciliation; the current refugee crisis and the affirmation of Dalit people, embracing equality, diversity and inclusion whenever possible. In this trail the artworks also reflect the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and ensure a role in the healing process.
Taking the Art Trail:
We suggest that you park at Memorial Park in Coventry, then walk to the city centre or use the Park and Ride bus to the Cathedral. Coventry train station is close to the city centre.
Start by visiting Coventry Cathedral itself, it is then a short walk to Central Hall. Earlsdon Methodist Church is also within walking distance.
To continue the trail you will need to drive or take the train to Balsall Common (alight at Berkswell Station, and walk west for 500 yards to the church).
Fillongley can be reached either by car, or by bus from Pool Meadow Bus Station in Coventry City Centre – the 735 operated by Coventry Minibuses runs daily.
Sarah Middleton The Methodist Modern Art Collection in Wales
Roger Wollen Catalogue of the Methodist Church Collection of Modern Christian Art, 1988
Roger Wollen Seeing the Spiritual – A Guide to the Methodist Modern Art Collection with introductory contributions by Richard Cork, Graham Kent and Ann Sumner, 2018
The Art Trail begins with the four works on loan to the Cathedral, undoubtedly one of the most important post-war public buildings in Britain, offering a fusion of 20th-century art and architecture. The architect, Sir Basil Spence, commissioned work from Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Ralph Beyer, John Hutton, Jacob Epstein, Elisabeth Frink and many others – often selecting less well-known or early career artists. Displayed in this outstanding interior are four Methodist Modern Art Collection works, all carefully selected and purchased by John Gibbs, and the Revd Douglas Wollen, his artistic adviser, in 1962 or 1963. This was at the very same time that the artistic commissioning at Coventry Cathedral came to fruition, with the consecration of the building in the presence of the Queen on 25 May 1962. From that time, it became the inspiration for a ministry of peace and reconciliation that has reached out across the entire world.
Gibbs and Wollen, with their interest in contemporary religious art, must have been very aware of the Coventry project. The national response to the new building was mixed, with some finding it too progressive, while many others embraced the contemporary approach. There is no evidence that either man visited the Cathedral, although John Gibbs’ brother James recalls volunteering there.
The large-scale Pietà drawing by Elisabeth Frink, whose work is represented in the Cathedral by the famous bronze eagle on the lectern, was one of the first works to be acquired for the Methodist Modern Art Collection. It was purchased by Wollen from the Waddington Gallery in September 1962. In January 1963, Wollen also acquired from the Lefevre Gallery the powerful large watercolour depicting The Pool of Bethesda by Edward Burra, which was included in the first national tour of the Collection in July 1963. The Ralph Beyer drawing is a study for one of the Tablets of the Word in the Cathedral. It was also purchased by Gibbs in 1963, but maintained in his own private collection until 1990, when he presented it formally to the Collection. Graham Sutherland’s The Deposition, probably the most famous work in the Collection, was acquired on 4 December 1963 at auction at Sothebys.
While there are many parallels between the Methodist Collection and Coventry Cathedral, there is one further direct link. In 1988, the John Gibbs Charitable Trust purchased at auction a bronze maquette for St Michael and the Devil by Jacob Epstein, which adorns the wall beside the entrance of the Cathedral Church of Saint Michael, more commonly known as Coventry Cathedral. The maquette was lent to Wesley House in Cambridge on long-term indefinite loan, shortly after it was purchased. It was loaned to some of the venues of the original tour of 1963-1964, so the public would have been able to make that direct link themselves with the Coventry commissioning. It was last exhibited with the entire Collection in 1990 at an exhibition at Turner House in Penarth.
Graham Sutherland The Deposition, oil on canvas, 1947
In the post-war period Sutherland was widely regarded as the most important painter in Britain. The artist was drawn to harrowing scenes of the death of Christ from 1944, when he was commissioned to produce a large scale Crucifixion for St Matthew’s, Northampton. The Collection’s example is much smaller, but is nevertheless a powerful, haunting image. Christ is depicted in abstract form, lying unsupported on top of the lidless tomb, and the influence of Picasso is reflected in the Cubist rendering of his face.
Sutherland served as a war artist, recording the devastating bomb damage of the Blitz in London and damage in south Wales. Here, in this penetrating depiction of Christ’s Deposition, Christ’s body recalls the emaciated figures of concentration camp victims which were shown at cinemas and in contemporary leaflets, these images haunted Sutherland after the end of World War 2. The artist had converted to Catholicism in 1926 and he considered the Deposition of Christ “the most tragic of all themes”, though one that inherently spoke of “the promise of salvation”, suggesting that even in the bleakest moments of suffering, there is always Hope, a theme reflected throughout this Art Trail.
The small Methodist Deposition is displayed close to the vast magisterial tapestry Christ in Glory in the Tetramorph, commissioned by the architect, Sir Basil Spence, just a few years later, in 1951. The inclusion of a tapestry in the new cathedral was an integral part of the overall concept for the interior, a dominant feature which would hang against the back wall of the Lady Chapel. Sutherland submitted designs depicting the risen Christ, surrounded by the symbols of the four Evangelists, as described in the Book of Revelation. Over the next ten years, Sutherland made studies of each part of the tapestry in detail, until he and the Cathedral Reconstruction Committee were happy with the design. Many of these studies are held in the Herbert Art Gallery.
Sutherland’s work is believed to be one of the largest continuously woven tapestries in the world (78 by 39 feet, the size of a tennis court). It was woven in France by Pinton Freres of Felletin near Aubusson – 12 weavers took two years to make it. Direct comparisons can be made with the crucifixion at the base of the tapestry and the small Methodist Deposition. It was originally planned as a Pietà, but Sutherland persuaded the Cathedral Reconstruction Committee that a Crucifixion would be more appropriate.
The Reverend Canon Kathryn Fleming is the Cathedral’s Canon Pastor with the brief “to nurture the Cathedral community (in its widest sense) as a reconciled and reconciling people”. She has responded to Sutherland’s The Deposition as follows:
“Christ seems broken, the jagged angles of his limbs, and curve of his whole body contrasting with the stark solidity of the cross.
Yet in this moment of death, the tomb seems almost to cradle him. The painting brings us into the world of Bach’s St John Passion, where ‘Sleep well’ does not seem the wrong thing to say, although this sleep is death.”
Edward Burra The Pool of Bethesda, watercolour on paper, 1951-1952
Image not available due to copyright restrictions.
This large-scale watercolour depicts Christ healing a man who had waited for nearly forty years by the crowded pool at Bethesda, surrounded by sick and ailing figures, in all their agony, waiting for the moving of the water for their hoped for cure. Jesus instructs the man to stand up, take his mat and walk. He is seen in the right foreground, rolling up his bed as he is healed (John 5:2-13). This composition and portrayal of the sick individuals appear to have been influenced by shocking images of concentration camps which the artist would have seen in news films at the cinema at the end of World War 2. It has also been suggested that the strong pools of light are reminiscent of search lights in the concentration camps.
Burra is a key figure in the development of 20th-century British art. He suffered from rheumatoid arthritis from childhood, enduring constant pain, so chose to work in watercolour rather than oils, finding the medium easier to deal with. He created this large watercolour by putting together several sheets of paper, thus demonstrating his masterful approach to the medium of watercolour and his use of rich deep saturated colours. It is impressive, not only in scale, but in dramatic tension.
This is one of a group of large watercolours of Biblical scenes which Burra painted in the early 1950s, as Britain re-built after World War 2 – his other dramatic subjects included Judith and Holofernes (1950-1951), Christ Mocked (1950-1952) and The Expulsion of the Moneychangers (1950-1952).
Burra’s work is not represented at Coventry Cathedral – perhaps Basil Spence thought that a watercolour might fade. This work was acquired for the Methodist Collection in January 1963 by the Revd Douglas Wollen from the Lefevre Gallery in London and toured in the first ever exhibition of the Methodist Modern Art Collection later that year. It is seen as one of the most powerful works in the Collection, illustrating an intense personal vision.
It seems entirely appropriate, with its references to WW2, and its representation of suffering and the healing powers of faith, to loan it to Coventry Cathedral following the great losses, pain and suffering of the pandemic.
At the lectern
Elizabeth Frink Pietà, Black ink, wash and watercolour, 1956
Elizabeth Frink’s Pietà is an outstandingly powerful drawing which reflects both the strength and vulnerability of Christ, focusing on the detail of his head and upper body as he is lowered from the cross. It is one of her early works, a large drawing which reflects the artist’s preoccupation with death. The Virgin is not represented, as in the traditional Pietà, but the focus is entirely on the dead Christ, still crowned with thorns.
The artist’s imaginative world was quite radically affected, if not fully formed, by World War 2. Born in 1930, into a Catholic family, she was nine when war broke out. Her father served at Dunkirk as a professional soldier, and saw much action elsewhere. Her formative years were spent growing up near an airfield in Suffolk, where bombers often returned to base in flames. At 15, she watched the first appalling pictures of Belsen at her local cinema. Her earliest drawings, even before she went to Chelsea School of Art in 1949, were powerful, but grim in tone: wounded birds, apocalyptic horses and riders, falling men. Many of her drawings are large in scale and she recalled “I am incapable of making little drawings, I always draw big”. This impressive Pietà was created when she was 26, at the outset of her career.
The Methodist work is displayed close to Frink’s famous Eagle for the lectern, another early work by the artist, which arguably launched her career. Basil Spence, the architect of the Cathedral, approached the young sculptor in 1962. The pulpit and lectern were some of the last things to be designed and Frink created a magnificent eagle, focusing on the heroic nature of the eagle and its association with courage and strength, as well as offering hope and reconciliation in post-war Britain, The final cast in bronze with a gold patina was reportedly considered by the artist to be one of her finest works. Other commissions in the Cathedral by Frink include the bishop's mitre above the throne, and the symbol of the Holy Spirit in the form of a flame over the provost's stall.
Canon Kathryn reflects on this work:
“Christ is alone here in death, not held in the loving arms of his mother, who is so often included in pieces entitled Pietà.
The word Pietà means, literally, piety – or compassion. Who could not feel compassion, looking at that face? The painting invites me to place myself where Mary might have been, to bear that weight of love and loss in the broken body of her son.
Were you there when they laid him in the tomb?”
Ralph Beyer The Son of Man is come, pencil drawing, 1961
This small drawing is an early design for one of the large-scale Tablets of the Word in the Nave at Coventry Cathedral. This is the first time it has been displayed so that it can be compared directly with the finished tablet. The eight tablets were made of White Hollington Sandstone and commissioned by Spence. The Son of Man is Come is taken from Luke 19:10, but the image references John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep”. Jesus is shown as the Good Shepherd caring for a sheep. The drawing hints at the stonework on which the design was to be rendered.
The artist came to England as a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1937, aged 16. He studied sculpture under Henry Moore at Chelsea School of Art, and was influenced by the artist and poet David Jones, before serving in the British Army during World War 2. He was selected to create almost all the lettering for Coventry Cathedral, from the foundation stone to the baptismal font, as well as the famous ten stone panels the Tablets of the Word, ensuring consistency across the interiors. Of the Coventry Tablets, Beyer wrote that he was concerned “to evolve letterforms and symbols in the language of the art of this century. To give letters, words, sentences a fresh vitality, greater force, and to express their meaning with the utmost urgency ...” Having seen the initial drawings, such as this one, Spence encouraged Beyer to make the lettering bigger and bolder, and the artist reluctantly agreed.
Beyer had taken inspiration from early Christian inscriptions and symbols in the Roman Catacombs, influenced by two books written by his father, Oskar Beyer. Although his father came from a long line of Protestant pastors, he was half-Jewish, and his mother died at Auschwitz. His early childhood was spent in Weimar Germany where his father’s wide interests ranged from the art of the Catacombs to Modernist architecture. This had a huge impact on him, and he thus straddled both German and British traditions in lettering. His style of carving was also considered somewhat unconventional. His work at Coventry is an example of the great contribution refugee artists have made to British culture.
Towards the right of the lettering, the giant Good Shepherd is shown with a sheep over his shoulders, a representation also found in the Roman Catacombs, and a common way to represent Christ before the Crucifixion image dominated. Luke’s Gospel records that when a shepherd finds a lost sheep: “he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices” (Luke 15:5). The texts themselves were selected by the Cathedral Provost but Beyer was responsible for all aspects of the lettering design and he ensured that no two letters were identical. He worked on the lettering in situ, even before the roof of the Cathedral was finished, sometimes protected from the elements by an awning. This tablet stands out as one of the most impactful in the series because of the large-scale figure of Christ as the Good Shepherd. The small drawing in the Methodist Modern Art Collection underlines the planning process in creating such dramatic works as the Tablets of the Word and the Good Shepherd message brings particular comfort for many at this time of healing in the country.
Canon Kathryn reflects on this work at this time of post-Covid recovery:
“Words and image so familiar in this Cathedral that perhaps we no longer see them, yet in this sketch the strong lines of the lettering seem to emphasise the strength of the shepherd even more than when we see them etched in stone.
This sheep is held firmly, his safety assured – yet the cross that is to come is outlined in the shepherd’s body, a reminder of the cost of rescue. Though we are told that the good shepherd rejoices in finding the lost sheep, there is more exhaustion than joy here. The search will not end until all have been found and carried home. No-one will be overlooked, left stranded.”
Images above from the Methodist Modern Art Collection © TMCP, used with permission. www.methodist.org.uk/artcollection
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