Terry Grimley looks at a collection of modern religious art and examples of fine printing...
After dominating European art for centuries religion was relegated to a bit-part in the 20th century. Artists for whom Christian iconography was central, like Stanley Spencer, came to be seen as eccentric loners.
While this was true across Europe, Britain was a special case. Since our puritan revolution did its best to erase all traces of a native religious art, its golden age here coincided, curiously enough, with the railway age.
In the last century major British artists occasionally made references to Christian themes, and there were some initiatives from the Church of England to encourage them. The commissions given to Henry Moore and others by the Rev Walter Hussey are well known examples, but the biggest is Coventry Cathedral, which became a showpiece for leading modernists like Epstein, Piper and Sutherland at the end of the 1950s.
But it didn't spark a general revival, and it is evident that anyone starting a collection of modern Christian art at the time Coventry Cathedral was consecrated will have ended up with something which has only an oblique relationship with the main trends of later-20th century art.
In fact, someone did start such a collection in that year - 1962 - although I had never heard of the Methodist Art Collection before the exhibition Matters Of Life, now showing at the Waterhall Gallery. It was started by Dr John Morel Gibbs, who was concerned by the poor quality of religious art at that time, with assistance from Douglas Wollen, an art expert who was also a Methodist lay preacher.
Now based at Oxford Brookes University, the collection is still small enough (just 38 works) to fit in its entirety into the Waterhall, and a very curious mish-mash it is. It mixes some familiar names such as William Roberts, Elisabeth Frink (whose name is misspelt on two labels), Patrick Heron and Eric Gill, with numerous unknowns whose obscurity in many cases is clearly well-deserved.
John Reilly's Cain and Abel (1958), for instance, is painted in a 1950s espresso bar-modern figurative style which recalls the once fashionable French painter Bernard Buffet and now looks horribly dated (two other paintings by Reilly are even worse). Worse still are the kitsch aluminium reliefs showing the Four Stations of the Cross by Frank Roper (1963).
Much the most interesting of the unknowns is the Birmingham-born Francis Hoyland (born 1930), whose polyptychs - paintings divided into several scenes like an altarpiece - show biblical and domestic scenes or, in the case of of his Nativity Polyptych, the Three Wise Men backpacking through the Lickey Hills. These are painted in a rough but spontaneous figurative style and have an impressive quiet sincerity about them.
Among the well-known names, William Roberts' The Crucifixion is probably the best painting in the collection, showing this former Vorticist in his contorted figurative style of the early 1920s. Otherwise there is hardly anything which significantly predates the start of the collection, the other major exception being an Eric Gill drawing from 1912.
There are two characteristic watercolours by Edward Burra (one, The Agony in the Garden, a response to the Spanish Civil War and the rise of fascism, has been added to the exhibition from the Museum & Art Gallery's own collection), Ceri Richards' The Supper at Emaus is an interesting study for an altarpiece at St Edmond Hall, Oxford, but a small and early Patrick Heron, Crucifix and Candles, Night seems marginal both to the artist's work and to the collection.
It seems that in more recent years there have been attempts to reenergise the collection. A lively watercolour by Norman Adams, Christ's Entry into Jerusalem, was commissioned for it in 1991, but the indifferent quality of works added since the turn of the millenium suggests that its purchasing power is no longer what it was.
The tradition of craftsmanship reflected in Ralph Beyer's pencil study for his stone Tablets of the Word at Coventry suggests a link to the exhibition of fine printing currently showing at the RBSA, though as it happens religious themes are hard to find there.
Exhibiting books is quite a departure for the RBSA and browsing through them is far more time-consuming than looking at pictures, so if you manage to see it before it closes this weekend set aside as much time as possible.
The dispay of artists' books on the first floor is so low-key that I actually failed to spot it at first, and the books themselves are a disappointment. The real gems are on the top floor, where some truly luxurious
aesthetic treats await in the limited editions of publishers like the Fleece Press and the Inky Parrot Press.
The book I most wanted to take away with me (and you can, for a mere £232) was Fleece's stunning The Inward Laugh: Edward Bawden and His Circle, which after looking through it for ten minutes left me with a heightened regard for this long-lived, versatile and easily taken-for-granted English artist and designer.
But there are also some striking delights from Inky Parrot, including Artists and Writers of the Dorset Coast and Shadowlands, a wonderful evocation of the silent cinema in prints by Frank Martin.
* Matters of Life is at the Waterhall Gallery, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, until May 28 (Mon-Thur 10am-5pm, Sun 12.30pm-5pm; admission free);
Cover to Cover: A Fusion of Art and Text is at the RBSA Gallery, St Paul's Square, until Saturday (Mon-Wed, Fri 10.30am-5.30pm; Thur 10.30am-7pm, Sat 10.30am-5pm; admission free).
There is a bookbinding event with Tom Sowden on Saturday 11.30am-3pm: £20 (£15 for Friends). Details on 0121 236 4353.