“During my childhood and growing up no attempt was made to develop the artistic, musical and literary side of life.”
I had an encounter with Benn which suggested that. The magazine Artists and Illustrators interviewed him for its March 2006 issue to ask him about a favourite painting. He chose one by my great-grandfather. The Wikipedia article on George Clausen isn’t very good, so that is a link to one of my own posts.
“The English People Reading Wycliffe’s English Bible, by Sir George Clausen. It’s part of a series of murals entitled The Building of Britain that were commissioned for St Stephen’s Hall in the Palace of Westminster and painted in 1926-27. I think it was my father who pointed out the original to me, when I first visited St Stephen’s Hall in 1937. I passed it regularly after I was first elected as an MP in 1950. I have two copies of it, one of which hangs in my bedroom.” I once had it in mine.
“On the surface it looks like a peaceful rural scene, but when you look closely you realise it tells the story of a group of people – a lawyer, some women and farm workers, one of whom is looking out in case they are spotted – meeting in secret to listen to a reading of the Bible. In the 14th century it was a criminal offence to read the Bible, which was then a revolutionary document, if you were not a priest.
“The painting reminds me of things that are important today. Moses, Jesus, Mohammed and Buddha all taught us how to lead our lives in peace, but the painting symbolises how a religious group that gets control can use their power to kill and persecute others – Guy Fawkes, for example, whose 400th anniversary was in 2005, was protesting against the persecution of Catholics.
“[...] Any one of the people in the painting, if they were caught, could have been burnt at the stake. In my view it’s rather like the Terrorism Act today – anyone thought of being [sic] a Muslim extremist will he held in prison without a trial. [...]
“I am not a great collector of art, but I do have various things that people have sent me. The Yorkshire miners gave me one of their banners, which hangs in my back corridor. On it are the words ‘Out of the darkness cometh light and heat’. [Source?] It’s a reminder that the coal that keeps us warm and lights us comes from the depths of the earth. I find it very moving and that’s the sort of thing I like.
“I rarely dip into art galleries and don’t claim to be an art critic but I have put up quite a few things in the House of Commons. I put up a plaque in a broom cupboard to mark the place where a suffragette called Emily Wilding Davison [post here] hid on the night of the census in 1911. She wanted to be able to say that she lived in the House of Commons to make her point about women’s right to the vote.
“Something else I like is a statue of Lord Falkland, again in St Stephen’s Hall. One of his spurs got broken off after a suffragette [Marjory Hume in 1909] chained herself to it [...] it is the social, historical and political interest in art that I find useful. [...]”
He might have been interested to know that a suffragette named Maude Smith, alias Mary Spencer, attacked a Clausen painting, a nude called Primavera, as it hung in the Royal Academy in the early summer of 1914. Clausen supervised its repair and then it disappeared from public view and knowledge until last November, when it was auctioned in Connecticut. It will probably turn up soon, close to the centenary of its first hanging, in a more important auction in London.
St Stephen’s Hall is the neo-Gothic public approach to the public Central Lobby which separates the two Houses. It stands on the site of the royal Chapel of St Stephen’s, where the House of Commons sat until the Chapel was destroyed by the fire of 1834.
The only structures of the old Palace of Westminster to survive the fire were Westminster Hall (old post), the cloisters of St Stephen’s, the chapel of St Mary Undercroft and the Jewel Tower. The Queen gave permission for Benn’s body to lie (not “in state”) in St Mary Undercroft on the eve of his funeral.
In 1843 Sir Charles Barry suggested that panels be commissioned for St Stephen’s Hall on events in British history. Daniel Maclise was approached in 1857, but nothing resulted. Both sides of the Hall were lined then with marble statues of statesmen. Are any still there? Where did they go?
In 1909 work started on a scheme directed by the Royal Academy. One painting was completed by Andrew Carrick Gow (Speaker Finch Held in His Chair by Holles and Valentine, 1629) and was hung in 1912. By 1924 only two more had been added, by Seymour Lucas and Frank Salisbury. Of what, and where are they now? Presumably none were real murals.
In 1925 the Speaker, John Henry Whitley, proposed a new series and spoke to Salisbury and to Frank Dicksee, President of the Royal Academy. Sir David Young Cameron was appointed to find eight artists.
It was to be called The Building of Britain. Sir Henry Newbolt, GM Trevelyan (whose first book had been about Wycliffe), AF Pollard and others advised on the history. A working committee included the Speaker, Lord Peel, the First Commissioner of Works, Lord Crawford, the Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission and Newbolt.
The eventual series:
Colin Gill. King Alfred’s long-ships, newly built for defence of the realm, attack vessels of the Danish invaders storm-beaten in Swanage Bay. 877.
Glyn Philpot. King Richard the First, afterwards called Cœur de Lion, leaves England with an expeditionary force, to join the Crusade in Palestine for the recovery of Jerusalem from the Saracens. Dec. 11. 1189.
Charles Sims. King John confronted by his Barons assembled in force at Runnymede gives unwilling consent to Magna Carta, the foundation of justice and individual freedom in England. 1215.
George Clausen. The English people, in spite of prosecution for heresy, persist in gathering secretly to read aloud Wycliffe’s English Bible.
Vivian Forbes. Sir Thomas More, as speaker of the Commons, in spite of Cardinal Wolsey’s imperious demand, refuses to grant King Henry the Eighth a subsidy without due debate by the House. 1523.
Alfred Kingsley Lawrence. Queen Elizabeth, the Fairie Queen of her Knights and Merchant Venturers, commissions Sir Walter Raleigh to sail for America and discover new countries.
William Rothenstein. Sir Thomas Roe, envoy from King James the First of England to the Moghul Emperor, succeeds, by his mingled courtesy and firmness at the Court of the Ajmir, in laying the foundation of British Influence in India. 1614.
Walter Thomas Monnington. The English and Scottish Commissioners present to Queen Anne at St James’s Palace the Articles of Agreement for the Parliamentary Union of the two countries. 1707.
The original choice for the last had been William Orpen.
Two of the painters, Philpot and Rothenstein, also did portraits of the Speaker.
Donors were found for each of the works. The donor for the Clausen was the Duke of Portland.
The pictures were large canvases in wooden mounts set into stone bays, not strictly murals, but in part the product of a revived interest between the wars, not only in Britain, in mural painting. It had pre-1914 roots, and in England pre-Raphaelite roots. The fresco colours of medieval wall painting, applied with the pre-oil medium of tempera, were imitated in oil. My grandfather owned magnificent volumes by EW Tristram on English Medieval Wall Painting which were like buildings themselves.
McConkey calls the series an “imperialist fanfare”, but it was that grafted onto a domestic constitutional fanfare. The sense of “the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire” was powerful between 1918 and 1945, and was sharpest when Churchill used those words in 1940.
“Mingled courtesy and firmness.” Thus might the British have described their conduct abroad. Alla marcia quasi andante. Through courtesy and firmness they chanced upon their Empire.
King George V and Queen Mary were given a private view of The Building of Britain on June 26 1927.
Stanley Baldwin unveiled the eight paintings with one pull of a cord on June 28. He declared that Clausen’s canvas represented “… the incident fullest of imagination and possibilities for the future of any of the pictures which we have here today”. The Times, June 29. McConkey speaks of platitudes, but surely Baldwin was thinking of the fragility of freedom and parliamentary democracy in Europe. (Toynbee quotes from a speech by him in the Albert Hall on December 4 1924 on that. See The World after the Peace Conference, Being an Epilogue to the “History of the Peace Conference of Paris” and a Prologue to the “Survey of International Affairs, 1920-1923”, OUP, 1925.)
“At the end of the ceremony Mr. Baldwin announced that the King, in honour of the occasion, had been pleased to confer a knighthood on Mr. George Clausen, R.A., as representing the artists concerned in the work.” In the illustrations on the back page are the Philpot and the Clausen and a recent Clausen self-portrait.
Clausen was knighted at Buckingham Palace on July 7.
Benn would have agreed with Furst’s “Pictures should have a concrete relation to life”.
Furst was buffeted by a crowd which had come to see the paintings. It was a Saturday and the House was not in session. As he was making notes, the policeman in the Hall asked him: “Which is the best picture here?” Furst equivocated, but the constable pointed a finger at the fourth, The English people, in spite of prosecution for heresy, persist in gathering secretly to read aloud Wycliffe’s English Bible, then walked away and came back with the Speaker.
“This was an unexpected honour and good fortune, for the Speaker was, in Sir Henry Newbolt’s words [where?], ‘the initiator and sympathetic director of the whole scheme.’”
“I ventured to comment on the fact that all the subjects seemed remote and hardly in contact with the present at any point. In reply to this criticism Mr. Whitley told me that the committee [...] had [...] decided that the eight subjects should illustrate eight main incidents symbolic of the building of Britain. First comes the beginning of the British Navy [under Alfred, defending us against Vikings]; next expansion of power [Third Crusade]; then the foundation of the British constitution based on individual liberty [Magna Carta]; after this the freedom of religious faith [Wycliffe]; then the control by the people of the purse of the nation [More as Speaker]; then the beginning of colonial enterprise [Raleigh in the Americas], and thereafter the spirit in which England deals with an ancient civilization ‘destined to mingle with ours under a constitution unexampled elsewhere’ [Thomas Roe with the Mughals]; and, finally, the union of ‘our two nations at home’.” (Speaker’s words?)
“[...] The Speaker assured me that Mr. George Trevelyan, the historian, had described the pictures as historically unexceptionable and, if I remember rightly, had pronounced the hall as now the most beautiful in Europe. We then discussed the medium in which the pictures are painted and its durability. And here I record with satisfaction Mr. Whitely’s statement: ‘No, the paintings will not be glazed. We think it is better that they should last a hundred years and be enjoyed during that time by all who come to see them, than that they should be for ever under glass and be enjoyed by no one. A future generation may have some other pictures when these have perished.’” They were worried about their exposure to crowds. There was nothing wrong with the medium, oil.
“‘Many people,’ he continued, ‘are rather startled by the bright positive colours, but they are in keeping with the decoration of medieval churches; and although this particular building is not ancient, it is in the Gothic style, and stands upon the old crypt and exactly follows the outline of the old chapel.’ [...]
“Coming now to the critical part of my duty, I must confess that the first impression of the pictures is: plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” Conservatism, perhaps, but sameness? The Sims is out of place and does not have the “static quality” necessary in a mural. The Gill combines “a certain restlessness in design with a timidity in draughtsmanship” which comes from a lack of confidence in the project, not of skill. In the Philpot, on the other hand, “there is [...] an unexpected stiffness and staginess, and a lack of linear rhythm. But this picture keeps its place, like Mr. Gill’s, and is, moreover, relieved by some quite enchanting detail [...].” “The Forbes is – of the paintings we have so far considered – the best. Mr. Forbes has cleverly utilized the Holbein portraits, and there is dramatic action without staginess.” “Professor W. Rothenstein has also had recourse to contemporary documents, Moghul illuminations to wit [...].” “Mr. A. K. Lawrence had obviously the frescoes of the Italian Quattrocento in his mind [...] and has admirably succeeded in his task.” Monnington, the youngest in the group, is only twenty-four. His painting is still unfinished, but promises to be one of the most successful.
“Sir George Clausen is the doyen of the team, and all things considered one must agree with the aforementioned policeman that his picture is the best of the series. It has its faults: it is not unexceptionable qua illustration, for there is really no secrecy at all about this meeting in the open, which could easily be espied from the tower of the little church in the delightful distance. Nor can one honestly say that the grouping is free from staginess. Against this, however, must be set its overwhelming merits. It is simple in arrangement; each of the four times three figures can be easily seen, and each, particularly the charming maid in the centre, is worth looking at. The landscape setting is of singular beauty; the treatment of the foreground, the care bestowed upon each little flower and plant, deeply moving. The colour-scheme, but for its one brilliant red note in the cloak of the man, is cool and reticent. The linear rhythm is most satisfying. The picture, as a whole, sits comfortably on the wall, though it is by no means a flat pattern. For this picture alone, not counting his long and honourable career as a virile protagonist of English painting, Sir George deserved his knighthood.”
The Times, anon, St Stephen’s Hall – The New Mural Paintings – An Artistic Unity, June 28, praised the picture’s “architectural stability of design, depth of sentiment, and [...] full interpretation of the national character in the lovely landscape.” The reviewer again finds the Sims below the level of the others. (I find it quite interesting, especially in the context of his other late paintings.)
“Justice would demand homage to Sir George Clausen, that Grand Old Man of English painting, who when nearing eighty had so clear an eye and so steady a hand that he could conceive and execute his Wycliffe panel in firmer line and in fresher and younger colour than any of his juniors could attain. For sheer beauty the Clausen must be awarded the palm.”
Clausen had had some experience in mural painting in 1918-19, when he painted four lunettes for a house near Huddersfield. He had experimented with a mural-like scale in his canvases before the war.
His Wycliffe studies are mainly at the RA: you can see the design evolving. Artists were required to submit studies for approval. A monk appears in some of them.
The final caption does not include a date. It had been commissioned as The Wycliffe Bible read in secret meetings, 1390. By the time the full scheme was presented to the Commons in January 1926, 1390 had been revised to 1400-1430, in order to relate the picture to the Heresy Act of 1401.
On the Lollards, see letters patent of 1382 of Richard II, the Heresy Act 1401 (De heretico comburendo) of Henry IV and the Heresy Act 1414 of Henry V. The 1401 Act was repealed under Henry VIII (1533, or 1534 Act of Supremacy?), the others under Edward VI; all three were revived under Mary and repealed again under Elizabeth in the Act of Supremacy 1559.
While completing the painting (with help from his daughter Kitty), Clausen was called in as a caretaker Keeper of the Royal Academy Schools following the sudden departure of Charles Sims. Sims killed himself in the following year.
McConkey: “The scene opens out to an idealized English summer derived from Clausen’s deep immersion in the fields around Tilty and Clavering [in Essex].”
In several early paintings, the “one brilliant red note” had been the neckerchief of a peasant.
Furst is right about the absence of any feeling of secrecy. Clausen could paint the drama of nature, and the drama of field workers struggling with heat, wind or rain. Political and psychological drama were outside his range.
There are older pictures by William Frederick Yeames, painter of “And when did you last see your father?”, perhaps at the Suter Art Gallery in New Zealand, of Wycliffe giving copies of his Bible to his followers; and by Ford Madox Brown of The Trial of Wycliffe, A.D. 1377, a mural in Manchester Town Hall in which Wycliffe is defended by John of Gaunt, while Chaucer, another protégé of Gaunt, acts as recorder.
Benn grew up on Millbank, next to the Tate Gallery, but the family never went inside.
As I read the magazine piece, I thought: “I bet he doesn’t know that the artist who painted this favourite painting of his also painted his grandfather.”
If he had heard of a portrait somewhere in the collections of the defunct LCC and GLC, I was sure he had not connected it with the painter of the panel in St Stephen’s Hall. There was nothing about it on the internet then, certainly no image.
It is, I now know, in the Guildhall Art Gallery. It’s not bad, but official portraits did not bring out the best in Clausen. He painted fine ones of peasants early in his career and of family members and higher craftsmen of one sort or another later.
Bored at work, I rang the House of Commons. The switchboard answered instantly, with no menu. A man, without apparent searching and without asking questions, gave me a number which was Benn’s home.
Benn had, after all, retired in 2001 (“to devote more time to politics”). The Data Protection Act had been passed in 1998. Was this ease of access because the House of Commons still had proper rules for a democracy or because Benn had given special instructions?
He answered immediately. “Astonishing! I had no idea! I must look it up.”
As to the Wycliffe painting, “I thought it was eighteenth century!”
Was I disabusing him of that idea then and there or had the magazine already done so? They had probably edited the dates into his remarks after interviewing him.
I asked whether he remembered my uncle Paul Derrick. He said he remembered him well. Paul, a Christian Socialist and an unremitting lobbyist for the Cooperative movement, shared with Benn a strong consciousness of his own archive, but Benn’s, I think, was more organised. I thought Paul had sent his papers – tomato-trays full of typescripts, cuttings and pamphlets – to New Lanark itself, but some of them, I see, are at the Bishopsgate Institute in London.
This isn’t the only Clausen in a legislature. In 1918, Lord Beaverbook’s Canadian War Memorials Fund (established November 1916) commissioned eight artists to paint scenes in France and Flanders. The paintings are now in the Senate chamber in Ottawa. Were they originally intended for it or for a war museum?
Edgar Bundy. Landing of the First Canadian Division at Saint-Nazaire, 1915.
Algernon Talmage. A mobile veterinary unit in France.
Leonard Richmond. Railway construction in France.
James Kerr-Lawson. Arras, the dead city.
Clare Atwood. On leave.
James Kerr-Lawson. The Cloth Hall, Ypres.
William Rothenstein. The watch on the Rhine.
George Clausen. Returning to the reconquered land.
Clausen was expected to paint agriculture behind the lines. Having recovered from influenza, he set out on January 28 1919 to visit the snow-covered battlefields of Arras, Bapaume, Cambrai and Lens, and returned on February 7. The visit affected him. The large picture which he eventually painted showed a line of refugees returning through the snow to their homes after the Armistice.
McConkey: “A young mother, wrapped in a shawl and carrying an infant calls to a girl in a red scarf [another “brilliant red note”] at the front of the cart, gesturing towards an elderly woman who has slumped down in the snow. Melodrama was not his forte. In other hands, this incident might be played to effect, but here it merely passes with the flow of humanity. When shown in Canada [at an exhibition of war paintings] in 1920, the picture was associated with Frederick Varley’s Some day the people will return, a complementary picture of a [French] war-torn graveyard [which] carried the caption: ‘Some day the people will return to their village which is not; they will look for their little church which is not; and they will go to the cemetery and look for their own dead, and even they are not – in a land pounded and churned and poisoned, that once was fertile and rich with golden grain and good things for the welfare of the race.’”
Clausen’s canvas was despatched to Canada on March 26.
Britain had no propaganda department at the war’s outbreak. A War Propaganda Bureau was established at Wellington House under Charles Masterman in 1914, but for most of the war responsibility for propaganda was divided between various agencies. The Bureau turned into the Department of Information in 1917 and a Ministry of Information in 1918, the last under Beaverbrook.
In 1917 the Department of Information commissioned nine artists to produce six lithographs each on aspects of the war “Effort”, and a further twelve to produce a single image (or “up to twelve”, McConkey) representing the “Ideals” for which the war was fought. Clausen’s son-in-law, Thomas Derrick, an instructor at the Royal College of Art, was in charge of the series, having been assigned to assist Masterman at Wellington House. It belonged to the initiatives which, it was hoped, would bring the US into the war.
Clausen’s Efforts were six monochrome lithographs called Making Guns. His Ideal lithograph was The Reconstruction of Belgium, which contained no more drama than the Canadian painting.
A War Memorial Committee was formed by the Ministry of Information on the Canadian model to give out more substantial commissions. Derrick set strict briefs which discouraged artistic fantasy. Derrick’s own mural-like American troops at Southampton embarking for the Western front, 1918 (Imperial War Museum, oil) certainly had the “static quality” which Furst misses in Sims, and perhaps the “lack of linear rhythm” which he finds in Philpot.
The Committee commissioned the large and sonorous In the Gun Factory at Woolwich Arsenal from Clausen in 1918 (Imperial War Museum, oil). It was intended for a large Hall of Remembrance which was never built. Clausen based it on one of his Efforts lithographs.
A later Derrick from this time was Canadian troops crossing the Rhine. Its history is obscure, at least to me. Could it have been rejected for the Senate? It was shown in Canada in an unfinished state (why?) at the same exhibition of war paintings that showed Returning to the Reconquered Land. What happened to it after that? I have only ever seen one photograph of it and don’t have it to hand. The 1st Battalion, 1st Canadian Division, crossed by the Suspension Bridge at Cologne on December 3 1918. The twin spires of the cathedral made a pattern with the Canadian bayonets.
Westminster behind Closed Doors, 50-minute BBC documentary by Benn on the 700th anniversary of Parliament, defined not as the Parliament of Simon de Montfort, unrecognised by Henry III, but as the Model Parliament of Edward I:
1995 seems a long time ago here. Can one imagine anything as eccentric, as expert, as light-hearted and as deep done about the German Bundestag? This is in a fine tradition of English documentary-making and institution-exploring.
Benn mentions (without naming the artists) the Clausen and the Philpot.
He calls the Third Crusade the First Gulf War because it was a war between Christianity and Islam. Leaving aside the things wrong with that statement, he makes a comment which was wise in 1995, if not quite accurate in what it foresaw: “Unless we are very careful the religious war between Christianity and Islam will curse the next generation as the Cold War did the last.”
It was provoked by the assertion in that year by Willy Claes, Secretary-General of NATO, that the new threat to the West, with the passing of Communism, was Islam.
A dreary BBC radio series some years ago explored the art of Parliament as something dusty and oppressive. But I can see no reason why the walls of St Stephen’s Hall should not be covered in 2025 with a new series. Would Speaker Whitley not have given that idea his blessing? The old paintings could be rolled up whether they have perished or not and kept in an archive or preserved digitally. Digitisation and holograms can be our liberation from monuments. If a series were commissioned now, it would be about immigration.
McConkey does not mention the Benn accounts I refer to, but another, in this footnote:
“For its insistence on ‘the right to read what you wanted to read’ the [Wycliffe] picture has been a seminal influence on the thinking of the Labour politician Tony Benn. He stated in 2006, ‘I … have a copy of it at home and draw comfort from the courage of those who have risked their lives by defying the law as the only way to enjoy the freedom in which they believed passionately’ (The Guardian Magazine, 2 September 2006, p.78.).”
I can’t find a good colour image of the Wycliffe painting. I once gave up doing a Clausen blog because I wasn’t happy with the way scans were coming out or how I could adjust them.
In the Hall, front right; Flickr, source lost:
Royal Academy Collections, silver gelatin print with pencil doodling, given by Hugh Clausen, the artist’s son, 1970:
“McConkey” here refers to Kenneth McConkey, George Clausen and the Picture of English Rural Life, Atelier Books, 2012; or his catalogue for the Clausen exhibition organised in 1980 by Bradford Art Galleries and Museums and Tyne and Wear County Council Museums and held at Cartwright Hall, Bradford; Royal Academy, London; Bristol City Art Gallery; Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle-upon-Tyne.
On Thomas Derrick’s war work, see also Meirion and Susie Harries, The War Artists, Michael Joseph, 1983.