Bloomsbury In Berwick
by Robert Veitch
Tucked away at the foot of the South Downs is a small church illuminated with murals from the residents of Charleston. Robert Veitch investigates.
Reverend Peter Blee is a quietly spoken, thoughtful man who appears to be at one with his environment. His church, St Michaels and All Angels in Berwick lies atop a tiny hill at the end of a int walled passageway. It’s over 900 years old and Grade I listed. To wander around the churchyard is to amble peacefully through history.
At the outbreak of World War II, the church interior was typical of the time, namely whitewashed walls and stone. Decorating church interiors with art works had become largely forgotten after The Reformation. It was Bishop Bell of Chichester who commissioned the artists, Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell in 1941. As members of the Bloomsbury Set, the American Dorothy Parker remarked, “They lived in squares, painted in circles and loved in triangles.”
Though viewed as ‘avante garde’ their Berwick work would be traditional, a ‘decorative scheme’ creating an environment rather than a series of paintings. The art reflects the local landscape, people, and a way of life under threat at the time. Vanessa Bell, the sister of Virgina Woolf noted, “What a wartime occupation, it needed Hitler to bring such things to pass.”
The plasterboard appears to be standard 8×4 sheets, but their origin remains unknown. Peter told me painting took place at Charleston, after which the boards were brought to Berwick and secured to wall mounted battens. Look closely and plasterboard nails can still be seen.
During the War, several leaded glass windows were destroyed by a bomb, which detonated nearby. Replaced with clear plate glass, it adds a charming other-worldliness to the place.
Two seasonal works stand out. Vanessa Bell’s, ‘The Annunciation’ – the meeting between angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, featured her daughter posing as Mary.
On the opposite wall is ‘The Nativity’, also by Vanessa Bell. It was painted after Virginia Woolf had taken that fateful walk into the River Ouse and her brother Julian had been killed in the Spanish Civil War. Mary appears lost in her thoughts. In the background is Mount Caburn.
To secure the art for future generations, the church interior requires a stable environment. The plan is to install roof insulation and sustainable under floor heating utilising boreholes. “Humidity control is key to controlling the environment and avoiding fluctuations,” according to Peter.
A failure to restore the paintings will see them deteriorate beyond recognition; even today flaking paint is clearly visible, highlighting the thin line between art and extinction. Peter indicated wax and varnish from preservation attempts in the 1960’s needs removing because it’s proved more harmful than helpful. Salt eruptions in the paint exist, whilst evidence of mould and dirt need eliminating.
Peter is keen to publicise the fundraising plans for the ‘Saving Berwick Project.’ A National Lottery application is now in it’s second phase. If the £600,000 grant is approved the church will still need to raise £250,000 themselves… of which a heart warming £100,000 has already been donated. Preservation works will be in situ, on scaffolding platforms, which might make the Sunday Service unique for the congregation.
The church has around 10,000 visitors each year. “Our conservation project will invite small groups of vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals to enjoy this quiet and reflective place,” Peter revealed. “Schools and universities will also be welcomed, as will the artistic community.”
Peter Blee became Rector of St Michaels and All Angels in 2003. He was born a Sussex boy, left for a while, but has “come home now.” His book ‘The Bloomsbury Group in Berwick Church’ “took a few years to write,” but is part of the fundraising project.
The Bloomsbury link will continue, as Quentin Bell’s son, the Lewes based Julian, has been commissioned to decorate the Reredo behind the altar.
St Michaels and All Angels is a quiet, enchanting place and at its heart is the constant calm serenity of Reverend Peter Blee.
St Michael and All Angels is open daily.