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Monday, January 17, 2011

Berwick Church: Bloomsbury Baby!

If any readers of this blog ever find themselves meandering about in East Sussex they could do a lot worse than to visit the wonderful Bloomsburyfied church at Berwick. This is where we were only last week and as well as having splendid views of the South Downs, the inside of the church is literally plastered in the bold, beautiful and thoughtful work of Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Quentin Bell.

Like nearby Charleston House, where the artists lived, there is hardly a scrap of blank space that goes unpainted. Regular readers may remember that I am fascinated by the so-called Bloomsbury interiors – that is to say the unconventional things which members of the Bloomsbury group did with the inside of their houses. This is also a Bloomsbury interior – but a public one and a religious one which shows these artists to be even more inventive and remarkable than I thought before. Grant and Bell were not at all religious, of course, but they did not belittle their religious subjects. They really knew how to use space and how to adapt and co-exist with the world around them.

As far as I can tell, Duncan Grant did most of the painting and in particular, he is the creator of the depiction of “Christ in Glory” on the chancel arch. He combined religious images with local landscapes to powerful effect. Thus, below Christ and the angels rolls the Sussex countryside and the scenes and faces of local life are all around the church. The murals were painted during World War II and below Christ and the angels sit, on the left three local servicemen in their uniforms (one of whom died before the war was out), and on the right the Bishop and the Rector who commissioned and supported the murals. Painting patrons into pictures was of course a strong feature of Italian renaissance art and the Italian influence on these murals was what struck me immediately. They feature so much that is English but in some ways, they are very foreign. They seem to be two things at once, without losing the essence of either.

Vanessa Bell followed Duncan Grant’s lead in her depiction of the Annunciation in which Mary and the angel Gabriel (posed, incidentally by the writer Angelica Garnett and Chattie Salaman) sit against a backdrop inspired by the gardens at Charleston House. Again, the familiar and the foreign, the sacred and profane, the timeless and the contemporary are placed within one frame and the result is startling. As you will see from this post, I got a bit overexcited with my picture taking....

And if that was not enough excitement for one day, my husband (who is himself becoming something of a master grave-finder having, only last year found Diana, Unity, Pamela and Nancy Mitford) spotted the grave of Cyril Connolly, which rather inspires me to finally read his book Enemies of Promise, itself a long term resident of my TBR pile. For another, more misanthropic day methinks...


  1. Thank you for posting these beautiful photographs, Hannah! What a fantastic place. I will be making a beeline to see it, and Charleston, when I return to England!

  2. Very beautiful! I don't blame you for taking a lot of pictures. :)

  3. What an interesting post - I live in Surrey so a trip to East Sussex is not beyond the realms of possibility! Is Charleston open to the public? And how wonderful to find Cyril Connolly's gravestone. He has been on my 'authors to read' list for a while now (along with all the others!) so will be very interested to read your review.

  4. Thank you so much! I am not likely to be passing there, so it is lovely to be able to share the experience via your words and photographs. The Bloomsbury group constantly draw me back to themselves. How could they manage to live in their own way and change so much around them; such courage at that time. The paintings are beautiful and fitting and I love your enthusiastic photography.

  5. What lovely photos. I love going inside old churches so much history and beauty.

  6. Thank you all for your visitations and comments, in particular....

    Rachel - you are most welcome! It was such a pleasure to go there. I have visited Charleston but on a separate occassion, however I am pretty sure that they are close enough that you can easily do both in one day. The church is open everyday in daylight so check the Charleston times when you are back in blighty and in need of a Bloomsbury fix!

    Heidenkind - ha! thank you. I was thinking that I need a support group to help with the picture taking addiction.

    Alison - yes yes yes Charleston is definately open to the public - they have a website and if I remember rightly they are only open for part of the year. they also run a literary festival there I think during the early summer which I would love to go to some time. If you live in Surrey (which I do too - but only until next Monday!) they these places are a must. Hope that you get there and thanks so much for the comments.

    Daniel - thank you so much, glad that it is appreciated.

    Aguja - yes they realy give pause for thought don't they. this church suprised me more than any of the paintings at Charleston. I was so impressed...

    Diane - really glad that you like. This church has special lighting rigged up so that you can see them properly as well which is a plus!

    Thank you all and happy Wednesday!

    Hannah xxx

  7. The church looks quite fantastic! Reading up on the Bloomsbury Group here on your blog has kindled my interest too. The group dynamic is fascinating! I have ordered Pershephone's Cheerful Weather for the Wedding :) I would dearly love to visit Charleston House and this church. Maybe the next time I am in that part of the world.

  8. Oh my gosh! I just wrote a book report on Charleston - I hadn't known about the church until I read it. Lucky, lucky, lucky you to be able to visit both. But I sure do thank you for this post and the pictures.

  9. Hi Vaishnavi - it is fantastic - I know that you would enjoy it!
    and Nan - thank you for visiting and commenting. I am really glad you lied the post and being introduced to Berwick Church!
    Bon weekend all

  10. I read a very good biography of Cyril Connolly not long ago: "CC A Life" by Jeremy Lewis, because he was a figure who repeatedly cropped up in various book trails. I did start reading Connolly's novel The Rock Pool, but found it hard going. Maybe that just wasn't his best genre.

  11. What a beautiful chapel and what a great story about it's artwork. Thanks for the lesson!

  12. Deborah - thank you so much for your comment and for your email. I don't think that CCis that easy t read which is maybe why have been putting him off a bit!

    Lisa - you are most welcome. It is a lovely lovely place...

    thanks for your visits