2006 : BBC Radio 4 ‘Divine Art’, Interview With Brian Sewell (15 min transcript)

Art historian, Brian Sewell’s personal exploration of the relationship between the Church of England and contemporary artists. Brian steps away from cathedrals and visits Christ Church in Kensington, London, to reveal how a particularly torturous painting of The Crucifixion by Royal Academician Anthony Whishaw ended up being on display in this small backwater church.

Presenter : We join the artist historian, Brian Sewell, in the third programme of the series ‘Divine Art’ where Brian continues his personal exploration of the relationship between the Church of England and contemporary artists.

Today, Brian is visiting Christ Church in Kensington, London.

Brian Sewell : We have so far looked at works of art in great cathedrals but historically, art is to be found in the smallest of churches too. Indeed Europe is littered with isolated masterpieces in remote and unexpected places, some of them of great antiquity, some much venerated. Today however, I want to consider a modern painting only recently adopted by a backwater church that quietly serves a very local congregation. It’s not in the far-off wilds nor is it one of the many friendless churches that have been cut off by change. It is in instead a small Victorian church dedicated to Christ himself in a cul-de-sac in Kensington, to all intents and purposes as much a village church as any in the country. In it is a painting, painted a few years ago by a local artist who is not only local but a lively Royal Academician too and now one of Britain’s most subtle, uncertain and important abs tract painters. The painter’s name is Anthony Whishaw RA. I’ve come first to see him in his studio, to see what his more recent work is like. So here we are. Anthony, (Hello.) it’s me. (Welcome.)

Anthony Whishaw : I’m an artist that doesn’t do the same kind of thing all the time – I work in series – and I’m not interested in making a recognisable kind of product or anything like that. I started off doing a lot of figurative work and moved through abstract expressionism to a difficult state in a way whereby I’m very interested in visual ideas, I’m very interested in the abstract qualities, but I am still also interested in experience or the idea of an experience. This reflects itself in a lot of the landscapes in the studio. I’ve got one there which is about early spring light filtering through a coppice.

Brian Sewell : What strikes me with the work still under revision, you use the same ideas, you explore, you go on pushing for what it is, whatever the ‘it’ may be. We have a brown and black Canabres picture, the Spanish village which is deserted, and you pick up exactly the same format, raise the pitch so that it’s a white and grey, not an emphatically black picture at all, and convert it into a flood. And it’s all part of the Inquisition – and you’re interested in Spanish painting and I see you, as a painter, as a sort of Spanish inquisitor and you’re never satisfied with the answer. There’s always another answer, there’s another gloss to be drawn out by screwing the rack, another ratchet.

Anthony Whishaw : I find more recently in the last 10-15 years, my work is more about the natural forces that lie behind land or waterscapes. They happen in the most unusual way because I never want to know what a work’s going to be like. All these wiggly images which represent water and movement came from a small playful drawing which I then made bigger and bigger and smaller and smaller; they are not just abstract, and I was pleasantly reassured on a rainy day to see the wind ripple a puddle. As far as I can, I want each work to have a different visual idea, each with its own set of rules, as it were, which I don’t really discover until the work is nearly finished.

Brian Sewell : We’re looking at pictures which were done at the height of your maturity because I don’t think one’s maturity fades away; I don’t think one slips into a sort of dotage. And so what we shall do when we go into the church, which is just around the corner, is see something which takes us right back from the mid 70’s to the mid 20’s. We go back half a century to see what things were like then.

Brian Sewell : Here we are, two minutes away from your studio, puffing and blowing with the exertion.

Anthony Whishaw : About 50 years ago, I gave another painting to the church which is the Last Supper. It’s just above this door here.

Brian Sewell : It’s rarely essentially the shape of the table – long table and most figures are on the other side of it. It’s rather difficult to decide whether Judas is to the left or the right and on our side of the picture. And there’s a little cloth under a dish in which there are two fish and the cloth does a very clever, subtle thing of dropping over the forward edge of the table and it’s because you have an object on the spectators side of the table that it draws you in.

Anthony Whishaw : The intention was that everybody was a potential Judas in it which is probably not theologically correct, Christ is not in the middle, he’s on the left.

Brian Sewell : But the extraordinary thing here is that, roughly 2,000 years after the event, you are bending it with timelessness as part of its permanence.

Brian Sewell : It is particularly suitable, in that this is a church dedicated to Christ himself and here is a picture of nothing but Christ. It’s concentrating on the central body of the central figure that it isn’t remote…

Anthony Whishaw : …yes, because it’s about pain and forlornness.

Brian Sewell : You’ve lived in the area for a very long time.

Anthony Whishaw : Yes, since ’56.

Brian Sewell : So you gave the first picture very soon after arrival here. The crucified Christ was donated almost half a century after the first gift. The reception was very different; I wonder how you felt about that.

Anthony Whishaw : I, in a way, quite like that it should be contentious, that it should make people a little bit upset maybe but, having got a painting here already, I felt – you know, I was looking through my paintings – and I just felt that I would like it to have a home, like I do with a lot of my works and so I thought, well I’ve got one here, I’d like to see if they would accept another one.

Brian Sewell : I think that The Crucifixion is here because there is an essential brightness about it. A Last Supper could be anywhere but that very difficult picture – and I have to stress how difficult it is, it isn’t beautiful, it’s a cruel picture – it’s an exploration of something which is one of the most appalling ways of inflicting death on anybody. That’s what it’s about. This is not Christ triumphant, this is not Christ resurrected, this is not Christ received into heaven; it’s Christ at the nadir of his life.

Brian Sewell : Inside Christ Church, we find the curate, Canon Andrew Pearson. What made you so passionately concerned to get this picture here?

Canon Andrew Pearson : I just felt that we had been made a wonderful offer by Tony and what we must do as a church is consider it very methodically and we did. And over quite a long period of time, we examined the painting, we discussed it, and eventually, we had a democratic vote on it in the church, which was quite close it has to be said, but it was slightly more in favour and hence that’s why it’s now hanging in Christ Church.

Brian Sewell : You said half the congregation – almost half the congregation – was against acceptance.

Canon Andrew Pearson : Well we did have people upset, I have to say that, and it wasn’t an easy time.

Brian Sewell : How did you move people into adopting your view?

Canon Andrew Pearson : I suppose I tried not to do that because I felt if I had tried to do that, it would have been counter-productive and really, when people did ask my opinion, I think I can truthfully say on the whole I was fairly reluctant to give it. I wanted it to be their decision – whatever I may have prayed privately, whatever I may have felt privately, I don’t think I was pushing it in that sort of way.

Brian Sewell : No, but that was not really what I was suggesting. But I understand that numbers of the congregation went off to Anthony’s studio – just decided this morning…

Canon Andrew Pearson : absolutely, yes. Well that was very encouraging and when we went to Anthony’s studio – at first about fifteen of us went – about two-thirds were definitely happy with the painting. But there was, even at that stage, some resistance which then developed a bit stronger later, but at every stage, there was always a good number of voices raised in favour of the painting so that kept the momentum going.

Brian Sewell : Well here we have a member of the congregation, Julie Easton, who was baptized in the church, married in the church and will presumably be carried off eventually in the church. And you, I understand, have been a valiant supporter of the acceptance of this gift. Tell me why you felt so strongly?

Julie Easton : Well, both on seeing the Last Supper many years ago and now taking the two together, they both, for me, go to the very heart of the Christian message which is less about the narrative than about the meaning and while the painting of the Last Supper was not such a break with the tradition of Christian painting, here in The Crucifixion, we have none of the usual if I may describe them as distractions; the hands and feet with nails, the crown of thorns, all of which are very emotive. In both paintings we have an illustration of what the Christian message was; that we all have it in us to be as Christ was and rarely do any of us match up to that.

Brian Sewell : There are, I know – I have met them – people who believe that in order to paint the crucified Christ you have to be a Christian and so on.

Anthony Whishaw : I suppose a lot of painting, or sculpture for that matter, is actually identifying with the topic, you have to be involved in some kind of way.

Brian Sewell : That’s it, it’s identifying.

Anthony Whishaw : So it’s just projecting one’s imagination.

Brian Sewell : Right at the very beginning when you were only a figurative painter, what drove you to paint Christ crucified?

Anthony Whishaw : Well I think it would go back to identifying with the subject because, at the same time as I was painting bullfights, I was imagining the actual agony felt by both the bull and the matador. It was something that seemed to be happening maybe at the same time. Identification with the subject was very, very important.

Brian Sewell : When you look at a great piece of sculpture in a medieval cathedral, you know that it’s there; it’s been there forever and nobody’s going to question it. But there are problems in terms of acquisition and acceptance and so on when you count contemporary works of art. We have seen here at Christ Church a democratic process where given time, it has been possible to install in this very pretty little village church a work of art which, at first glance, I would have said the congregation was likely to loathe; it’s too direct. And yet, if you give them time, if you let them become accustomed to a work of art that is difficult, eventually it permeates the mind; it’s like osmosis. I don’t mind betting that in 10, 15, 20 years time, there wouldn’t be a single member of this congregation that would let this picture go if Charles Saatchi came in and said I’ll give you £25,000 for that. Everyone would say no and there’d be a sense of outrage. The congregation will come to love it.