Stanley Spencer

I,together with about 200 other people, went to a Gresham Lecture earlier in the week at the Museum of London given by Lord Harries,formerly Bishop of Oxford.It was called “Understanding Faith through the eyes of Stanley Spencer”.The quality of the lecture isn’t what makes me write about it.The thought it triggers relates to the challenge for the commentator on 20th C art in commenting sensibly on religious art.How many people writing today about modern art  are qualified to do so?It is a bit like finding commentators who are still au fait with the Classical world–an increasingly rare attribute.

Yet a number of the key artists of 20th C Britain painted religious subject matter:Spencer, Graham Sutherland,Cecil Collins,Tristram Hillier and David Jones are examples.(Even Francis Bacon could be approached from this direction).The temptation to treat their choice of subject matter as eccentric is yet another example of imposing the wrong tests on work from an earlier period.Those artists brought up in the first half of the century may well have found themselves exposed to a great deal of religious experience,either at school or at home.A picture by Spencer of the Resurrection may have been eccentrically executed,but his choice of subject matter simply follows many hundreds of years of religious art in the wider European tradition.Religious art in 20th C  Britain is an important piece of the jigsaw and those of us brought up in a different environment need to work hard to accommodate and understand it.