Creation of Adam and the Promise of Redemption, with symbolic designs (over the entrance arch to the Chapel of the Ascension). Click on images to enlarge them.
PASSENGERS up and down the Bayswater Road must often notice a red brick chapel standing aside from the road, with a little space of lawn before it. There is something strangely reminiscent of Italy in the architecture. A door to the left of the chapel entrance stands open, and offers a glimpse at the end of a stone vestibule of what would appear to be wide garden precincts, quite, at first glance, after the manner of an Italian monastery or cloister. This hint of green grass and airy spaces in the midst of a wilderness of bricks and mortar, as one sees it through the open door, has the effect of stimulating the imagination in a quite singular degree. Truly “imagination hath the disposition of all things.” One day I discovered that there was no stately close nor flowery garden behind the little chapel, but only a disused and melancholy graveyard. Do not penetrate there as I did, reader, even to discover the headstone of Lawrence Sterne, whose body lies among the forgotten dead; for a double distilled melancholy, a blighted desolation lingers in this Campo Santo, as in all city graveyards.
Interior of the Chapel of the Ascension. Decorated by Frederic Shields.
Instead, enter the little chapel, of which just such another does not exist in the whole world, and you will indeed be rewarded.
How beautiful to be able to turn aside from the noise and tumult of the streets to this quiet and holy place, where pictures speak from the walls of the heavenly life, and the very stones cry out the story of the Great Lover of the world. Art is the only Evangel of Christianity here, but Art which is so sublimed to its task, so concentrated on its high mission, that the lack of the customary services and sermons which one associates with church-going, appears as entirely fitting and proper as it is novel.
The chapel does not offer a mute invitation only. On one side of the main oak door these words are inscribed:
“Passengers through the busy streets of London,
Enter this sanctuary for rest and silence and prayer.
Let the pictured walls within speak of the past,
Yet ever continuing ways of God with man.”
And on the opposite wall the legend is continued in these wistful phrases:—
“Is it nothing to you all ye that pass by?
Come and rest awhile.
Commune with your own hearts and be still.
Jesus Christ, the same yesterday, to-day, and for ever.”
The Raising of Lazarus
Unhappily at the present time the chapel is closed to the public except for two hours in the afternoon; and it does not seem to be known when the founder's wish — that its catholic and hospitable doors shall be set open during all the hours of daylight — will be carried into effect. [337/338]
This lady, Mrs. Russell Gurney, possessed a mind of cultured intelligence, com bined with a nature of rare spiritual beauty and intensity. It was the dream of her life to give to some great English city (London preferably) a chapel for silent worship, which should be so adorned with paintings as to lead men's thoughts upwards and fill their minds with the beauty of the life and teaching of Christ.
The primary difficulty of finding a site was so overwhelming, the rebuffs and discouragements she met with so frequent, that anyone of a less tenacious purpose and strong faith would inevitably have relinquished the idea. But “more things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of,” and at last her desire was realised. The old mortuary chapel in the Bayswater Road was obtained from St. George's, Hanover Square, to which it belonged, and in 1890 the Bishop of London's chancellor sanctioned the erection of the present building, with which the old mortuary chapel is incorporated.
The architect Mrs. Russell Gurney selected was Mr. Herbert Horne. The chapel he has raised is simple and dignified, and in the best style of Italian Gothic.
It would have been impossible to find any artist more sympathetic with Mrs. Russell Gurney's aims than was Frederic Shields, to whom she committed the painting of the interior. Never has more com plete harmony of mind and purpose existed between artist and patron. Mr. Shields worked with untiring ardour and earnestness to forward her wishes, and it would almost seem that they had but one soul between them, so completely did one realize the purposes of the other. The painter writes touchingly of her death in 1896, “it may be conceived what drear vacancy this lady's loss leaves in the heart of her servant.”
On entering the great panelled door one passes into an ante-chapel, somewhat cavernous and gloomy, with an opening on the left into the [339/340] old mortuary chapel. In front, a curtained arch separates us from the Chapel of the Ascension itself. One lifts the curtain and passes at once into an atmosphere of light and glory. The walls, lit from above by a row of clear glazed windows, gleam softly with beautiful colours and forms; the air is permeated with a sense of joyous and holy peace.
After the first bewildered happy glance the visitor is arrested by a sense of awe at the colossal nature of Mr. Shields' enterprise. We have before us a long, some what narrow and lofty chapel, every inch of whose walls is partitioned into spaces which the artist intends to fill with paintings. Much has already been done, but tmuch remains to finish, and Mr. Shields' admirers earnestly desire the termination of the wretched Chancery suit which is retarding the chapel's completion, and by wearing anxiety breaking the heart, wasting the days, and crushing the spirit of the painter. Until this has reached a satisfactory consummation, even the many beautiful works ready and waiting in Mr. Shields' studio (which work I have been privileged to see) cannot be affixed in those empty spaces on the walls, whose nakedness cries out pitifully enough to be covered.
Without regard to the work yet to come, however, there is enough here to engage our deepest attention, and to indicate sufficiently clearly the general scheme, through each part of which one main spiritual idea runs like a golden thread, giving unity and harmony to the whole.
The consideration of the designs—the scope of which is so tremendous—has brought me to think of the chapel work as one thinks of a symphony. One hears a good many such titles as “a symphony in blue” (or green or purple or magenta as the case may be) applied to pictures of a very limited intellectual scope, and often containing a sad want of ideas. I am using the analogy here in no such loose or cheap connection.
The severest examination into Mr. Shields’ complex and thoughtful scheme of design — with its great dominating motives, its lesser parts so finely and evenly balanced, its alterations of mood, the interdependence of each portion with the whole, and the whole governed so as to produce great richness with unity of effect — proves the work to be profoundly symphonic in character.
Fourteen large compartments are ranged along the centre of the right and left hand walls of the chapel. Of these, eleven on one wall are already filled with compositions, and four on the other.
These noble and significant pictures represent scenes from the Life of Christ, on the wall to the left of the entrance, and on the opposite wall are four scenes from the Life of St. Paul.
I shall have occasion to speak of the former in detail later on.
Distributed between these pictures are panels with representations of prophets and apostles, many of them expansions of designs made by Mr. Shields for the windows of Eaton Hall Chapel, Cheshire, belonging to the Duke of Westminster.
They are altogether a most unique series, and Christian art has nothing to show which at all resembles them. Specially do we feel that Mr. Shields has entered into deep communion with the old Hebrew prophets.
Left: Moses with the Law. Middle: St. Paul. Right: Jonah and the Whale. [Click on images to enlarge them.]
If any may be selected where all are of so high an order of merit, I should choose to mention a grand conception of Moses, standing lonely and awful on Mount Sinai; David, the King and poet, filled with the divine fire; Jonah springing triumphant from the whale's mouth, a very incarnation of Life out of Death; and St. Paul, from whose eyes the Spirit looks forth with compelling power, and whose poor body, aged, worn with stripes, imprisonments, labours, watchings, hunger and thirst, testify to his sufferings for Christ's sake. The downfall of Paganism is indicated in this last design by the shattered image of Pan to the right of the saint.
Distributed below each two panels of apostles and prophets is a smaller picture of some scene closely connected with the mission or teaching of the prophets or apostles above.
Thus, beneath St. Stephen and St. Paul, the missionary saints, is a design representing the vision of the man of Macedonia in chains and darkness, crying across the sea, “Come over and help us.” Below Joel and Jonah is an exquisite rendering of the Widow of Sarepta, with her child newly given back to her from the grave.
And this connection of idea prevails throughout the twelve pictures that form the terminals to the series of prophets and apostles.
Of all the work in the chapel, none exceed in beauty and delicacy these small designs. They are wrought in colour of bronze storm clouds, and with the prophets and apostles surmounting them — whose prevailing note of dusky gold deepening to brown contributes to a harmonious sobriety — serve the subsidiary purpose of pulling all the work together as it were, and giving oneness to the general artistic effect of the chapel.
But the summit of spiritual significance and beauty is achieved by crowning the height of the wall with a flight of angels.
By means of the beautiful symbolism which is incarnated in them, Mr. Shields has set a special emphasis — a climax, one might say — over each of the designs of prophets and apostles with their relative terminals, decorating the wall immediately below the angels. Over St. Paul, and the Man from Macedonia, flies a veritable “Bird of God,” bearing in his hand a mission ship with a dove as figure-head, and a sail blazoned with a cross.
Then we note another, who in throbbing rose colour deepening to crimson and golden hovers over St. Simon Zelotes and St. Jude and the design below, and appro priately reminds us of that day when the tares shall be cut down with a reaping hook and cast into the fire.
In the same way the spirit of each of the numerous groups of designs seems to be drawn up like some vital essence and made visible in these skyey messengers of God.
None of them is more beautiful than the one who, clad in tremulous rain-washed greys with faint pink and primrose about him, bears the triumphant banner of victory over the grave, and symbolises the truth which St. Thomas so hardly learned, that there is resurrection after death, that indeed death is but the doorway into a fuller life.
Each of the fourteen angels that surrounds the chapel's height, in colour, position, and form, has a definite correspondence with the spiritual world. They are pregnant with meaning and resplendent in beauty.
Between the angels and set over the large cartoons are long and narrow intermediate panels filled with designs, which a little recall the work of William Blake.
The corresponding spaces below are all blank, and Mr. Shields has not yet determined how he will treat them. The arch over the organ loft is entirely finished, [340/341] and in the two spandrils are representations of the creation of Adam, a very characteristic and original conception, and the promise of redemption. It is impossible not to remember that Michael Angelo has treated the former subject on the roof of the Sistine. Who that has seen it can fail to recall the swift descending, life-exhaling figure of God Almighty, who stoops to touch the langourous hand of Adam with His forefinger. The body of the first man lies, but yet only half detached from the earth of the hillside from which he has been moulded. Life has only reached him at the point of union with the Divine hand. How the Master makes us feel the magnetic thrill, the bound of the nerves, as the life stream pulses into Adam from God!
Portrait of Mr. Frederic Shields, A.R.W.S.
Mr. Shields neither paraphrases this work nor borrows from it. He conceives the subject in a far other light. To him the representation of the First Person of the Trinity implies a profanation and the breaking of Divine law. Therefore he makes the Second Person of the Trinity the Creator. And it is through the agency of no magical touch that his Adam springs into being; but Christ leans towards the prostrate figure, and the attitude suggests that His breath, entering into Adam's nostrils, enables him to draw his first palpitating inspiration.
High up, in the spandrils of the chancel wall, is a melodious rendering of the ‘Parable of the Wise and the Foolish Virgins,’ but the great wall itself is a blank. How one longs to see the beautiful Ascension which Mr. Shields hopes to paint for it.
Mrs. Russell Gurney, in one of her letters to the artist, writes:— “I have a vision for the chancel of out spread hands, with the words “Lo! I am with you all the days and adoring angels on either side.”
Not long ago I paid a memorable visit to Mr. Shields' rambling garden studio at Wimbledon, and was shown among other works, to my great satisfaction, the four symbolical figures — Faith, Hope, Charity and Patience — which, two on either side, will one day flank the great title-picture of the chapel.
That these panels are profoundly beautiful and full of significance to those who comprehend, goes without saying, but it is not my place to speak of them here.
The rough sketch I have given of the general scheme of the chapel will serve to indicate the unique nature and great scope of Mr. Shields’ plan of design. But he has, himself, drawn up a guide containing two keys to the pictures — a short key for those who wish to study them at length, and find out for themselves all the in finite beauty and thoughtful symbolism they contain, and a long key for others whose limited time, or ability to grasp for themselves all the intellectual and spiritual complexity of the designs, renders it desirable to fall back on an authoritative source of in formation about them.
And now I shall digress, to call detailed attention to some of the large paintings which, to my mind, are spe cially characteristic of the artist and his methods of thought.
I am struck by the calm, unquestioning faith displayed by the painter in his design of Christ walking on the sea. Body and soul, sinking beneath the load of doubt, Peter flings himself on the Saviour's bosom. There is no supernatural luminous apparition here, gliding flame-like over the surface of the sea.
Quite firmly Christ's foot is planted on the descending slope of the wave. Wave and foot are made to look as like wave and foot as may be. To Mr. Shields the miracle seems quite actual, quite simple, and in his con viction lies his strength. [341/342] How beautiful is the composition. The sweeping, slanting lines of the draperies follow the curves of the wave, and lest all should be a too mono tonous melody of line, the upward swirling cloak flutters like a banner above the head of Christ.
Space does not permit me to dwell on the beauties of all the large paintings — Christ cursing the barren fig-tree; Christ healing the blind man: Christ washing the disciple's feet; the raising of Lazarus, with its mellow colours, and the magnificent contrast it displays between life and death, warmth of sunlight and cold of grave; the Transfiguration, the attempted stoning of Christ in the Temple, the woman of Samaria, and the four compositions representing scenes in the life of St. Paul — but I must be allowed to linger a moment before the remaining three.
Looking up at the painting of ‘Christ in the House of His parents,’ we find it contains a touching image of the Virgin, who on her knees beside the Holy Boy, presses her lips to His cheek in a mute wistful kiss, for in her heart she dimly realises that only suffering can await such perfection. Even her deep self-less mother love will be powerless to avert the stress and storm that must fall upon that beloved Head.
Presently, she is aware, He will gently disengage Himself from her embrace, and sighing, will go on alone bearing His cross, to face His High Destiny.
Just the same mute passionate mother-kiss is the key note to Millais' ‘Carpenter's Shop,” yet both pictures are as far apart in their different standpoints as the two poles.
And now let us turn to the Annunciation. It may be urged with regard to it, that Art has said the last word there is to say on the subject. Recollections of the tra ditional Annunciations of the Old Italians (varied according to the poetic insight and special character of the different painters) flit through one's brain. Sweet, strange, haunting creations, which once seen, must colour, one would think, all one’s conceptions of the Annunciation for ever after.
No faintest echo of any of them is here, however!
A deep evening stillness lies upon the landscape. The folded hills sleep behind the sleeping village. The air deepens and melts into a violet dusk exhaled by night herself. The flat-roofed houses are all dark save for one point of orange light from a window (is it that of St. Anna, one wonders?) making the in tense loneliness of the scene seem more apparent. It is a transfigured world in this enchanted twilight, full of a strange intentness — listening and waiting it would seem. For what? The deeply blue sky is set with one star, whose piercing glitter, augmenting this effect, suggests an heavenly eye watching her, Panels in the Chapel of the Ascension. “upon whom the ends of the world are come.” The crescent moon presides virginal over the scene.
In the foreground the Virgin kneels beside her unfinished day's work. There is no joy apparent in her acceptance of the Divine will, only she is awed through out her being, and ready to receive without question whatever may be in store for her of love and pain. Something in the bowed figure touches one with the emotional intensity of music. I am tempted to quote Heine's description of Scheffer's Margaret in trying to elucidate this Virgin. “She has more feeling than face,” he says — “she is a painted soul.” The Angel Gabriel, tender and aerial as those swathes. of mist which linger in the hollows of the hills at evening-time, floats before her, uttering the message. A branch of flowering almond adds a note of beautiful symbolism, for the almond is not only considered since the Middle Ages as the type of the Trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are one, even as shell, fibre and kernel are one nut), but it is also a type of the Immaculate Conception. An old German writer thus: poetically states it: “Aaron laid a rod in the earth, which bore the almond nut, noble beyond all measure, that didst thou bear, mother, without man's aid, Sancta Maria.”
The colour harmonies of this beautiful composition augment the earnest and suggestive treatment."O
In a general retrospect of Mr. Shields' work in the Chapel of the Ascension it will at once be conceded that although most of the subjects have been treated before, and treated consummately by the old masters, yet there is nothing here at all which suggests repetition or comparison. This leads us to the consideration of the question—what is the nature of the differences which separate Mr. Shields from the old masters of the Italian Renaissance? To Mr. Shields, Art is Prophecy, but then so it was to Michael Angelo and Fra Angelico and the Giotteschi. One reason why Mr. Shields' outlook is so unique (though the subjects he treats are old as the hills) is that four centuries and more of evolution of the Christian religion from the fantastic bonds and childish superstition of the Roman Church, to its present pure and lofty position in England, lie between him and the Art of those old great ones. In the same spirit as they, but with an intellect attuned to the great Zeit Geist of to-day, Frederic Shields regards the art, of which he has so great a mastery, as being only valuable for the expression of great religious ideas. He transmutes these ideas into images of engaging beauty and satisfies alike the eye and the soul.
Ruskin says somewhere of that great prophet, Holman Hunt, “the story of the New Testament when once his mind entirely fastened on it, became what it was to an old puritan or old catholic of true blood, not merely a reality, not merely the greatest of realities, but the only reality.” And with equal truth the passage might be applied to Mr. Shields. His art is a passion flower sprung from the blood of Christ—yet not, perhaps, so much a passion-flower as a rose. For there is no thing of the delicate morbid, the passionate pale, nor the green sickness of mystery in his work. It is entirely sane, healthy and self possessed.
Left: The Angel of the Resurrection. Right: The Angel playing a marriage peal of eight bells.
Sweetness and grace is its predominant note, conviction and faith shine through it, and a great peace has set its seal upon it. His art is no flowering out of time (like the passionate and romantic religious work of Burne-Jones and D. G. Rossetti), but the fruit of all that is best, most thoughtful and most devotional in his own age. There is no quaintness of mediaeval grace about his style, no strained note of romanticism or self-conscious inystery. He does not seek to catch the eye or please the curious taste by any eccentricities of colour, light ing, drawing or design. But he speaks of mysteries as one at home with them. This forthright style of his appeals to minds open to its grave charm with the simplicity and directness of the beatitudes. So little of Art to-day is concerned with Christ—yet here is a painter concerned with nothing else.
The age cannot be wholly destitute of religion, as so many pessimists would have us believe, for Frederic Shields is the product of his age.
No greater present has been offered to the Christianity no less than the Art of to-day, than the silent chapel in which the voice of the preacher and the song of the choir will never be heard. It is for London to realise and acknowledge the magnitude of the gift.
Erected by the money and prayers of a saint, and designed — by a painter whose beautiful use of symbolism, intimate acquaintance with the Bible, noble imagination, and adequate art, render him peculiarly fitted for the task, the Chapel of the Ascension may prove itself to be, in this coming era, a new instrument for the consolation of souls.
Langridge, I. “The Chapel of the Ascension and Mr. Frederic Shields.” Art Journal. (1902): 337-43. Online version the Hathi Trust Digital Library created from a copy in the University of Illinois Library, Web. 6 November 2019.
Last modified 6 November 2019