Firstly – to continue where I left off, with John Ward’s murals in Challock Church.
I nearly modelled for John Ward, not long before he died. I met him and arrangements were made, but then he was unwell and it was postponed; then I moved to London and the postponement became indefinite, and then he passed away. I remember him as a lovely old guy, as deaf as the proverbial post but full of joie de vivre nonetheless. I have to say, too, that a lot of the time I didn’t like his work; cool and academic and a tad whimsical, it just wasn’t my cup of tea, though I could see it was marvellous draughtsmanship technically. I suppose for someone who makes most of their living as a portraitist it must be very easy to slide into playing it safe, to be sure of pleasing the clients – many of whom one may find tiresome in the extreme, but still have to charm.
I didn’t know until this weekend just past that he also painted murals in the church of St Cosmas and St Damian, which stands in a wooded valley on the outskirts of the tiny village of Challock Lees in the Kentish stretch of the North Downs. An old friend of my mother’s decided to take us to see them at the weekend.
He painted a rather over-tidy sequence in the Chancel in the 1950s, but then came back in 2000 to produce, with his friend Gordon Davies, a huge painting depicting Christ’s entry into Jerusalem, set in the local Kent landscape, along the whole north wall – with the Challock Lees’ annual Summer Goose Fair standing in for Jerusalem at Passover, and local people in contemporary clothes crowding the scene. It sounds twee, but it isn’t. It works. The figure work is fairly conventional, but what makes the whole vast spread of the painting sing is the mass of details – the magnificent tree overarching the whole composition, and the animals, birds and insects amidst the foliage; the giant angel releasing little winged leaf-spirits into the air from abreast of the west wall; the classic Victoria sponge on the cake stall at the fête, the cat lurking under the table, the child clutching a teddy bear, the key to the church lying on the table in front of the current vicar, the girl caught just lowering her camera from taking a snapshot of Jesus passing by. The whole thing is packed with all the richness of life and painted with all the love of a long life richly lived. There is nothing chilly or academic here, the painting is very free, and full of delight, with the flowers of every season scattered over the whole. And, too, this is a world with no hierarchy. The vicar is as worthy of grace as the lapwing. And quite right too.
Mind you, if you want really great twentieth century art in a Kent church, then head for Tudeley, near Tonbridge. John Ward’s murals are lovely, but Marc Chagall’s stained glass windows in All Saints, Tudeley are simply astonishing. The first time I went there I wandered around the church crying with delight. Admittedly I cry easily, but usually that is at the theatre or over a book (or at funerals – I’m one of those people who always cry at funerals), or in some other situation when tears are being intentionally provoked. Not simply from being immersed in the pure perfection of colour and the miracle of light. Not from the seven days of creation in Chagall-esque imagery, complete with flying donkey…
In fact, if you only ever go to one Kent church, make it Tudeley; you will be blown away.