Bloomsbury-decorated English church again a focus of aesthetic dispute

Barbara Lewis
·2-min read

By Barbara Lewis

BERWICK, England (Reuters) - Eighty years after British artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, sister of novelist Virginia Woolf, stirred local passions with a commission to decorate an English village church, feelings have flared anew.

As modern artists associated with the Bohemian Bloomsbury set, Grant and Bell were not every villager's choice for the job and they only got the go-ahead after a church court hearing in 1941.

Their depiction of religious scenes and idyllic countryside have since become revered as a unique example of decoration in an English church that attracts international visitors.

As the church at Berwick in East Sussex prepares to celebrate a new commission by Bell's grandson Julian Bell, the issue is not the art itself but a project to remove Victorian pews and floor tiles as part of wider renovations, including underfloor heating to protect the paintings from damp.

Those against the removals are concerned that what they regard as destruction is happening across the country as "the ecclesiastical exemption" allows the conversion of churches into flexible community spaces.

Particular to English law, the exemption enables the Church to bypass elaborate consent processes normally required before any alterations can be made to exceptional historic buildings listed as Grade 1, such as Berwick Church.

Simon Watney, an art historian, who knew Grant for the last decade of his life and has written a monograph on the painter, said he did not oppose appropriate modernisation, but in this instance it would destroy heritage.

"Berwick is very fortunate to still possess pews which reflect inherited local skills of carpentry and craftsmanship. The men who made these pews sat here with their families all year round," he told Reuters.

Others say the changes are positive.

"I believe Vanessa and Duncan would have welcomed the present alteration," said Julian Bell, whose altar screen is expected to be inaugurated in April, COVID-19 permitting.

"They would be well aware that churches are bound to modulate and evolve through time," he wrote in an email.

A church spokeswoman said in an email the church authorities were expected to take a decision over the coming months.

(Reporting by Barbara Lewis; Editing by Gareth Jones)