Charles Mahoney and the Chapel Murals

The Mahoney murals are among Campion’s best loved art. It is strange to reflect that, according to Martin D’Arcy, the task of decorating the chapel might have gone to either of two quite different artists who are much better known than the one who was finally selected. 

Two things I wanted done above all in Campion Hall, to perfect the chapel and give colour to the Lady Chapel. When working on the chapel Lutyens had a famous Spanish painter call to see him. His name was Cerf (?) … he told Lutyens that he would paint the apse of the Chapel for nothing if Lutyens got him the job of being the artist for the new Liverpool Cathedral. Lutyens could not promise him this, so the proposed deal came to nothing. 

Lutyens’ visitor must have been the renowned Catalan muralist, Josep Maria Sert i Badia (1874-1945).  Among Sert’s high-profile commissions were the set for the Ballets Russes ballet, La Légende de Joseph  (1914), the interior of the Catedral de Sant Pere Apostol de Vic in Catalonia (completed in 1931), and a large mural called American Progress (1937) at the Rockefeller Center in New York. 

His style was recognisably in the tradition of the somewhat overwhelming work of the seventeenth-century Jesuit masters of fictive architecture and imaginary space such as Andrea Pozzo. The architect Philip Tilden wrote, ‘what I admired in all Sert’s work was its extreme modernity of expression wedded to baroque tradition’.Sert was a highly international figure based in Paris, who also worked in England after the success of La Légende de Joseph(which was one of the ballets Diaghilev mounted in London). He created two murals for one of Tilden’s chief clients, Philip Sassoon. One, executed in 1914-15 for the relatively small drawing room of his August house at Port Lympne, was of sweeping sepia and brown figures against gold, representing France defended by the allies in the form of children, being attacked by German eagles, with elephants over the fireplace for variety. Sassoon also commissioned a ballroom mural for his Park Lane house in 1920, ‘Caravans of the East’, in blue and silver. This consisted of fantastic scenes of Greek temples, camels, elephants and exotic figures, and mirrors where the ceiling met the wall created an illusion of unlimited space. James Knox wrote, ‘Sert’s coup de théâtre was a masterpiece of modern Baroque’. This has survived, and is in the Museum of Modern Art in Barcelona. It is extraordinary to think of Campion Hall’s modestly sized Lady Chapel decorated in such an overwhelming style, probably in the sepia-on-gold which he frequently used, notably for his work on Vic Cathedral.

The next contender was Stanley Spencer, who had completed the decoration of the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere in 1932, a work generally acknowledged to be a masterpiece. According to D’Arcy,

I turned to Sir John Rothenstein, who was always so willing to advise and help me. He thought Stanley Spencer to be the leading religious painter in the country at the time, and got in touch with him. Spencer seemed keen and accepted. I knew something about him and admired some of his work, but I was a little taken aback by his appearance. So diminutive as to be almost a dwarf in labourer’s clothes with a dirty satchel containing all his belongings, he was no ordinary guest.

Spencer was extremely short of money at the time, and would have been more than glad of the work, but D’Arcy was repelled, for theological as well as personal reasons, by Spencer’s conception of Christ.  It seems probable that his rough thoughts for Campion can be connected up with a series called Christ in the Wilderness which he embarked on in 1939. Breaking with a long tradition of Catholic art, Christ does not gaze out from any of Spencer’s canvases. He prays, gazing upwards, considers English wild flowers (standing in for the lilies in Matthew 6:28), cradles a scorpion in one large hand, sprawls among foxes popping in and out of their holes. His figure is massive and ungainly; his face broad and full-cheeked, with tempestuous black hair. It is possible to see how the figures could be described as ‘hideous looking barrels’, though in their own terms, the paintings are sincere and effective.

Rothenstein’s next suggestion was Cyril (called Charles) Mahoney; as ‘the best colourist he knew’. D’Arcy assumed, on the basis of his name, that Mahoney was an Irish Catholic, which turned out not to be the case. He was born in London, and had worked at the Royal College of Art since 1928. He was an experienced muralist, having created ‘The Pleasures of Life’ for Morley College in Lambeth (completed in 1928 and since destroyed), and designed a series illustrating Aesop’s fables for Brockley County School for Boys, which was painted in conjunction with his student Evelyn Dunbar, completed in 1936, and survives in part.  He began working at Campion Hall in 1942, during World War II. Progress was extremely slow, because he was still teaching full time: he was determined to work only by natural light, which means that work could only proceed during the RCA’s summer vacation. In 1937, he had bought Oak Cottage at Wrotham, in Kent, and in 1941, married Dorothy Bishop. His journeys to and from Oxford must have been slow and tedious, since they would involve several changes of train, and since parenthood followed naturally on from marriage (his daughter Elisabeth was born in 1944), it must often have been difficult for him to make time for the Lady Chapel. However, he worked on it every year until 1952, at which point the funding ran out and the work ceased: he came back to Campion Hall in the year before his death in 1968, but was too ill to do more than a little retouching. One major panel, The Dormition of the Virgin, remains in grisaille, as do the angels on either side of the altar. A study for the Dormition (hung in the chapel) reveals the colours he intended to use for the panel, which is obviously intended to echo the Birth of the Virgin on the same wall.

Mahoney, following the example of renaissance artists such as Giotto, sets the scenes of the Virgin’s life in his own landscape. She is born in an English cottage, with a rag rug on the floor and a tin bath; and the models he used, some of them members of the Hall, are all English. He has a strong interest in plants, which feature extensively in the murals; many of his paintings are of botanical subjects, and Evelyn Dunbar’s Gardener’s Choice (1937), which he illustrated, is also a testimony to this side of his work. The Lady Chapel Nativity is particularly effective, with its cold, bluish winter light; one of the shepherds is wearing a British Army greatcoat, as doubtless, many shepherds of the forties still did. Even unfinished as it is, the chapel is an effective and moving creation. It gains an extra importance from the fact that so little work of this kind survives:  the thirties and forties saw the commissioning of many murals, but most of them have since been destroyed. 

- Jane Stevenson


The interior of the Catedral de Sant Pere Apostol de Vic in Catalonia by J.M. Sert

Detail of Spencer's mural at the Sandham Memorial Chapel at Burghclere