Review
Art
Culture
7 min read

The visionary artists finding heaven down here

Jonathan Evens explores a tradition of visionary artists whose works shed light on the material and spiritual worlds.

Jonathan Evens is Team Rector for Wickford and Runwell and Area Dean of Basildon. He is co-author of The Secret Chord, and writes regularly on the visual arts and The Arts more generally.

An angelic figure meets a human above a cornfield beyond which is a power station.
Roger Wagner, Abraham and the Angels, 1986.

Everywhere is Heaven is an art exhibition of work by Stanley Spencer and Roger Wagner at the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham. It’s the English village where Spencer lived most of his life and which he described as a “village in heaven”. ‘Everywhere is heaven’ is also a description of sacramental theology and a theme for British Visionary artists from William Blake to the present day.  

Everywhere is Heaven is the gallery’s first collaboration with a living artist. Wagner has been deeply inspired by Spencer’s paintings, viewing Spencer as being “an artist who seemed to be doing exactly what I wanted to do”.  

The work of these two artists has been brought together, in part, because both work in the tradition initiated by the visionary poet and artist, William Blake. 

Both artists have been described as “visionary geniuses”, each seeking to evoke the mystical in everyday experience. Spencer depicted Cookham as ‘heaven on earth’ writing that “After steeping myself in the Bible I began to realise certain things equally inspiring to love, outside the Bible”.  

This was the point when the holiness of things began to strike him meaning that he “became extremely busy, first at the front door and then at the side and back entrance of the Kingdom of Heaven, a place long familiar to me, but not in this new and significant way”. This was because “art seemed the only thing which revealed Heaven”. Similarly, Wagner, in paintings such as Abraham and the Angels or Walking on Water III, also evokes biblical happenings in contemporary settings. Exhibition curator Amanda Bradley Petitgas writes that “Wagner’s very human, sympathetic, biblical figures … inhabit our own modern world; we find Peter walking on the water in front of Battersea Power station, or Abraham quietly contemplative in front of Sizewell A nuclear power station”. 

Stanley Spencer: John Donne arriving in Heaven 1911.

A painting of a group of figures in long vestments.
Oil on canvas, 37 x 40.5 cm. Fitzwilliam Museum Cambridge.

Both are united by a love of “metaphysicals”, as Spencer described the metaphysical poets, with John Donne and Thomas Traherne, a theologian who wrote with a visionary innocence and found mysticism in the natural world, being particular influences. The title of the exhibition references Spencer’s own words about his painting, John Donne arriving in Heaven, and his description of the four figures facing in all directions because “everywhere is heaven so to speak”. Bradley Petitgas writes “that both Spencer and Wagner’s visionary innocence and the ability to find mysticism in the natural world” echo that found in the work of Traherne. While also noting that Wagner’s “deeply Christian paintings are founded on iconographical orthodoxy, each one a balanced expression of quiet beauty and accessible humanity – ‘heaven in ordinary’, to cite George Herbert”, another metaphysical poet who is key to Wagner’s vision. 

The visionary tradition 

The work of these two artists has been brought together, in part, because both work in the tradition initiated by the visionary poet and artist, William Blake. As Anthony Mould writes, “These are two painters that combine a type of Englishness to be found in William Blake’s ‘ancient time’ within a ‘landscape’ of their own familiarity”. The artist Betty Swanwick once described being part of "a small tradition of English painting that is a bit eccentric, a little odd and a little visionary". This is a tradition that begins with Blake and continues through Spencer to contemporary artists like Wagner. In briefly exploring this tradition further I shall introduce some of the other artists who also engage with their ideas and approaches. 

A recent exhibition William Blake: Prophet Against Empire argued that Blake “responded to the tumultuous times he was living through as he witnessed the expansion of the British Empire, American Independence and the French Revolution” with “imaginative images and texts that resonated with this changing world” and which took a “critical stance against the Age of the Enlightenment with its emphasis on science and reason”. “Drawing on his deeply felt religious beliefs, Blake criticised empire, slavery and social inequality through his work” in order to create “an alternative universe that celebrates the imagination and communal kindness, where we can also rekindle our connection with the world around us”. 

Blake’s visions were of spiritual reality breaking into the material world, so Christopher Rowland writes that the turbulent years of Blake’s life informed “his prophetic understanding of history”. His prophetic images and texts “were ‘prophetic’ not because Blake sought to predict what was going on—indeed they were written following these events”, rather, “he sought to plumb the depths of the historical and social dynamics which were at work in them”. Blake was “part of a tradition of radical non-conformity in English religion, with different ways of reading the Bible” which linked “the personal and the political”. Blake’s vision ultimately was one of building Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land. 

Samuel Palmer knew Blake and was part of a group of artists known as ‘The Ancients’ who were his followers. Simon Court writes that as “deeply religious man, Palmer understood himself to be using his heightened perceptions to reveal (at least partially) a divine reality in nature” so that the Kent landscape of Shoreham, where ‘The Ancients’ were based for ten years, “becomes a little heaven on Earth”. David Jones, a contemporary of Spencer, spent his life creating poems and paintings that re-call before God events in the past so that they become here and now in their effect on us. He wrote of the Mass or Eucharist as being to do with the re-calling, re-presentation and re-membering of an original act and objects in a form that is different from but connected to the original act or object that is being recalled. His poems and paintings mirror the action of the Mass and so create a world that is a Eucharist. Fiona MacCarthy suggests that Jones combined the visual and verbal with a “creative intensity not seen in Britain since the time of William Blake”. 

Among contemporary artists working within this tradition is Greg Tricker whose profound and simple style of paintings follows in the mystical and sacred tradition of art akin to the work of Georges Rouault and Cecil Collins. Qualities of myth, echoes of the Folk Art Spirit and elements of the circus feature in his work, which he often presents in themes; notably Paintings for Anne Frank, The Catacombs, and Francis of Assisi

In understanding the ideas and approaches of artists in this tradition, including Spencer and Wagner, we need to turn to sacramental theology. Sacraments are things of the Church which are set apart and made holy. A sacrament is a pledge of God's love and a gift of God's life. Jesus took earthly things, water, bread and wine, and invested them with grace. A sacrament is therefore an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace. As a result, each day can be a sacrament if we practice a way to live life by recognising that God is present in each and every moment and with a selfless abandonment to God as a means of achieving grace and conquering pride and ego.  

The Celtic Christians had this sense of the heavenly being found in the earthly, particularly in the ordinary events and tasks of home and work. They also sensed that every event or task can be blessed if we see God in it. As a result, they crafted prayers and blessings for many everyday tasks in daily life. The French Jesuit priest and writer Jean Pierre de Caussade spoke about 'The Sacrament of the Present Moment' which, as Elizabeth Ruth Obbard writes: “refers to God's coming to us at each moment, as really and truly as God is present in the Sacraments of the Church ... In other words, in each moment of our lives God is present under the signs of what is ordinary and mundane.” The philosopher, Simone Weil, stated that this kind of looking, which is the way in which artists such as Spencer and Wagner look, is prayer: “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love.” “Absolutely unmixed attention”, she claimed, “is prayer”.  

When we pay attention to life in this way, we are, like Spencer, Wagner and other Visionary artists, looking with expectancy for a revelation of the divine in the ordinary sights, events, tasks and people that surround us. We are, in essence, praying the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as in heaven”. Indeed, not just praying it but living and being the Lord’s Prayer. That is sacramental theology, and it is what characterises the vision of Spencer, Wagner and other Visionary artists; as a result, in their eyes, everywhere is heaven.  

 

Everywhere is Heaven: Stanley Spencer & Roger Wagner, until 24th March 2024, Stanley Spencer Gallery, Cookham. 

Article
Art
Culture
1 min read

St Kilda: sketching sanctuary and struggle

A remote Scottish island’s many meanings catch an artist’s eye.

Alastair Gordon is co-founder of Morphē Arts, a painter and art tutor at Leith School of Art. He works from his studio in London and exhibits across the UK, Europe and the US. 

An artist holds a sketchbook while standing overlooking a deserted village by a bay, sided by jagged cliffs.
Sketching on St Kilda.

Nestled amidst the tempestuous waters of the North Atlantic Ocean, the islands of St Kilda stand as a testament to isolation unparalleled in the British Isles. Located miles out from the Scottish mainland, the islands form an archipelago that rises defiantly, resembling a fortress of solitude amidst the tumultuous waves. 

In 1930, the islanders made a heartfelt plea to be evacuated from their beloved home, as the challenges of survival had become insurmountable. This marked the poignant conclusion of a remarkable two thousand years of human existence on the islands and no permanent community has been established since. Presently, St Kilda stands as a wild and desolate terrain, teeming with a diverse array of wildlife. Amongst the rugged slopes, one can witness the unexpected presence of wild sheep, descendants of the original livestock once cared for by the community. Following the evacuation, the sheep were left to roam freely, adapting to their newfound freedom. Isolated from the outside world for countless centuries, the islands have even given rise to their own unique subspecies of mouse and wren, a testament to the extraordinary resilience of life in this remote haven. 

It took me three arduous attempts, spread across consecutive years, to finally set foot on the elusive Hirta, the main island in a cluster of islets and sea stacks known collectively as St Kilda. Access to this remote wilderness is only granted during the warmer months, and my previous endeavours had been thwarted by relentless bouts of stormy weather. However, these failed attempts only served to intensify my determination, turning the eventual arrival into a pilgrimage of sorts, where the sweet taste of success was amplified by the challenges overcome. 

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. 

As St Kilda emerged on the horizon, it appeared like a jagged tooth or a mystical axis mundi, a place where the earthly and spiritual realms intersect. Despite its wild and untamed nature, the island is paradoxically dominated by the imposing presence of the Ministry of Defence. Strange listening devices and radars loom over the cliff tops, as if engaged in a silent conversation with the world beyond. Stories of St Kilda often carry an air of romanticism, but the reality of island life was harsh and unforgiving. 

As our boat ventured into the circular embrace of St Kilda, a sudden stillness descended upon the waters, transforming the surroundings into an idyllic oasis of tranquillity. The island, formed from the remnants of a volcanic eruption, boasts a natural harbour in the shape of a perfect circle, its walls rising like a majestic amphitheatre to a towering height of 426 metres, equivalent to the Empire State Building, before plunging abruptly into a sheer drop.  

The village, consisting of a single street lined with stone cottages known as Black Houses, was the epicentre of island life. Daily existence revolved around the rhythms of fishing, agriculture, and church. Each morning, the island parliament convened to allocate the day's tasks, which often involved harvesting birds, tending to livestock, and repairing nets. Every year, the men of the island would scale the treacherous cliffs with nothing more than homemade ropes to gather the young birds from their precarious nests, while their protective parents swooped and dived in an attempt to thwart such pillaging. Winters were harsh, and the traditions of the church were strict. Missionaries were sent to the island to minister to the faithful, imposing a rigid routine of spiritual disciplines that seemed to serve as both law and religion.  

Upon reaching the shore, we were greeted by the island steward, one of only two current inhabitants of the island and resident only in the warmer months. Unless, of course, one counts the Ministry of Defence, whose enigmatic presence permeates every corner of the island. Their satellite dishes and listening posts loom ominously, as if engaged in some clandestine communication with an unseen realm, shattering the illusion of complete wilderness.  

Standing at the water's edge, I found myself contemplating the concept of an island as a unique form of solitude, a refuge or retreat, perhaps even a hermitage or prison. It brought to mind the image of Superman in his fortress of solitude or Edmond Dantès, a victim of misfortune, imprisoned and abandoned until the idea of the Count allowed for a rebirth. 

But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world 

As a child, I often sought solace on islands during family holidays. There was something about the encircling presence of land surrounded by water that evoked a sense of tranquillity, a sanctuary away from the worries of the world. A sacred space where a weary soul could commune with the divine.  

As I ascended the steep walls of Hirta, my camera in hand and sketchbook tucked under my arm, I couldn't help but feel a sense of purpose. I felt like one of those Romantic painters of the previous century who attempted to bring a taste of the natural sublime to the city dwellers, trapped in their concrete jungles and smog-filled air. In that moment, I released mine is not the task of modern-day Romantic painter, venturing into the wilderness to capture moments of awe-inspiring beauty but to chronicle the mundane moments of domestic sublime as witnessed by this landscape through centuries of human inhabitation. The images I captured and the sketches I made now form the basis of new paintings to feature in an upcoming exhibition at An Lanntair gallery in Stornoway.  

But as I continued my climb, I couldn't help but question the romantic notions that had fuelled my journey. The landscape itself remained indifferent to my perception of it. It cared not for the grand narratives I projected onto its rugged terrain. It simply existed, unyielding and unapologetic. 

And what of St Kilda? Was it truly an idyllic haven, shielded from the political and ecological pollutants of the outside world? Or was it a fortress of solitude, where harsh regimes and a cruel climate ruled? Perhaps it was an oxymoron, embodying both extremes simultaneously. 

As our boat sailed away from the island, I found myself pondering the reality of life on St Kilda. What was it truly like to inhabit such a remote place? At times, I allowed my imagination to wander, envisioning a utopia where crime was unheard of, where the absence of policing was a testament to the inherent goodness of humanity. But deep down, I knew that this fantasy was far from the brutal reality faced by those who eked out a living on the edge of the world. Life on St Kilda must have been a constant struggle, a battle against the elements, made bearable only by the flickering hope of a better future. 

As I packed away my camera and sketchbook, I couldn't help but feel a sense of gratitude for the opportunity to glimpse into the past, to touch the remnants of a forgotten world. The exhibition I will present in Stornoway will be more than just a collection of art; it will be a tribute to the resilience of the islanders, not just in St Kilda but across the Outer Hebrides in times of hardship, to their ability to find beauty and hope in the harshest of circumstances. And as I prepare to share their story again through painting, I hope that it will serve as a reminder of the fragility and strength of the human spirit, even in the face of isolation and adversity. 

 

Alastair Gordon is an artist based in Edinburgh and London. His new exhibition of paintings opens at An Lanntair in Stornoway, Isle of Harris 31 May 2024. The exhibition coincides with a parallel two-person exhibition with Elaine Woo MacGregor opening the same night at Cynthia Corbett Gallery, London.