Artists inspired by worship

Linda Murgatroyd of the Quaker Arts Network writes about a selection of images of Quaker worship that she researched for the 2014 Quaker Arts Network calendar, Inspired by worship

My recent researches in the Library for visual representations of Quaker worship have caused me to reflect in new ways about what I know of our Quaker history, and what everyday Quakerism was really like at different times in the past. Looking at pictures of Quaker worship has offered a different lens.

I saw several paintings of Quaker worship in the Library during my visits, few of them well known or widely available. Diversity of style and period was an important criterion in the selection made by the calendar’s curating group (Penny Robbins, Anne McNeil and myself), as well as the quality of the pictures. About half of the pictures we chose were from the Library’s picture collection.  Not all the paintings mentioned in this blog were used in the calendar.

Heemskerk Quaker Meeting

Quaker Meeting, oil painting by Egbert van Heemskerk (Library ref. Pic F051)

Some of the earliest depictions of Quaker meetings for worship were by Egbert van Heemskerk (1634/5-1704), a Dutchman who painted scenes of ordinary life in the Rembrandt tradition. Heemskerk was not a Quaker, but something drew him to make several oil paintings of meetings for worship, mainly in the last two decades of the 17th century. Several of these are in the Library. These early meetings appear fairly chaotic: they are often in homes or taverns, and people from all social classes are standing or sitting wherever they can. All of them feature a woman standing and speaking – which of course was heretical in the view of most Christians of the day, but signalled Friends’ belief that all people could be in direct communion with God.

Quakers Meeting Heemskerk/Lauron

Quakers meeting after Egbert van Heemskerk, engraved by Marcel Lauron, 1690s (Library ref. Pic 88 AXL 70)

Several printmakers made satirical prints based on Heemskerk’s Quaker meeting paintings. They altered details and caricatured faces, adding lewd gestures or satirical verses. The Quaker Arts Network calendar includes an engraving based on Heemskerk by Marcel Lauron (famous for his “Cryes of London” prints). The verse below the image condemns women’s speaking in meeting, referring to “the cackling of the hen” and saying “In publick who can beare a Females tattle, Let me in bed heare my kinde mistress prattle.”

Gracechurch Street Meeting

Gracechurch Street Meeting (Library ref. Pic F072)

The painting of Gracechurch Street Meeting from the 1770s by an unknown artist forms a stark contrast with the earlier Heemskerk. This was a purpose-built meeting house, and by this time meetings were much more formal –  women seated on separate benches from the men, with elders and ministers facing the other Friends. About as many women were elders or ministers as men. All are wearing headgear except the male Friend who has taken his hat off to minister. In the upper galleries are some visitors or attenders, whose dress is rather fancier and in brighter colours than the Quakers – though the Friends wear browns and pinks as well as the grey for which they came to be known. Light from above plays an important part in this picture; perhaps the new skylight planned for the Large Meeting House at Friends House is not such an innovation after all!

Lucas Earith Monthly Meeting

Earith Monthly Meeting, oil painting by Samuel Lucas (Library ref. Pic F066)

Some sixty years passed before the next painting in our calendar was made, this time of a meeting at Earith.  It depicts a pastoral visit to Friends in East Anglia.  The Friend standing to minister is one of the Yearly Meeting committee visitors. Many of the Friends portrayed are identifiable, including the local farmers on the front bench.

Lucas Yearly Meeting 1840

Yearly Meeting 1840, oil painting by Samuel Lucas (Library ref. Pic F035)

Lucas’s painting of London Yearly Meeting (1840) makes an interesting contrast with the depiction of the rural meeting at Earith. In Earith, everyone wears hats (except the person standing to speak), walking sticks and umbrellas abound, and women and men are seated on the same benches – though gathered  at different ends . There are rather more men than women – presumably it would have been harder for women and children to travel the distance to monthly meeting (by horseback or on foot), though a few children are present.  In the Yearly Meeting painting, only men are portrayed, as there were separate women’s and men’s yearly meetings until near the end of the nineteenth century. Dress is more formal than at Earith and about half the men are hatless.

Samuel Lucas (1805-1870), was a member of Hitchin Meeting. A brewer by trade, he was a keen amateur painter in watercolours and oils, exhibiting at the Royal Academy from time to time, and specialising in landscapes later in life. Samuel’s wife and children also painted, as did other members of his family.

Chelsea Meeting, by Nelson Dawson

The Chelsea Meeting, watercolour by Nelson Dawson (Library ref. Pic F128)

Nelson Dawson’s lovely little watercolour of “The Chelsea Meeting” was painted in 1891. It feels to me very like some meetings today. Everyone is seated, men and women together. This painting was of the meeting held at 48 Cheyne Walk, home of Caroline Stephen, whose influential book Quaker Strongholds opened the way for a Quakerism that goes beyond Christianity.

Nelson Ethelred Dawson (1859-1941) started life in Lincolnshire and trained as an architect but moved to London to study painting in 1885. He married Edith Robinson, a birthright Friend, and later joined the Society himself. He and Edith went on to become key figures in the Arts and Crafts Movement, specialising in jewellery and metalwork, and Nelson founded the Artificers Guild in 1901. He returned to painting a few years later, exhibiting widely, and was particularly noted for his maritime scenes. His work is represented in a number of museums and galleries around the country.

Perkin Centring down

Centring down, acrylic by John Perkin (Library ref. Pic F234)

Finally, John Perkin’s painting “Centring Down”, currently hanging above the Library’s enquiry desk, was one of the inspirations for the whole calendar.  John was a keen painter, mainly of landscapes and community scenes. In his last years he made about a dozen paintings of Quakers at worship. John had hoped to exhibit them together at Friends House, but died in 2012 before this was possible.  The calendar includes three of these paintings, illustrating different aspects of Quaker meeting for worship.

Research for this calendar has taught me much and also raised new questions. It suggests that despite Quaker reservations about the arts, some Friends have been serious artists throughout our history. It’s interesting to reflect that despite disapproval in some quarters, it seems to have been acceptable for people to paint pictures of Quaker meetings for worship. It’s hard to know how closely the portrayals  resembled actual meetings, especially as the early paintings are clearly composed and painted in the studio and designed to give particular messages about Quakers.

Making these images was often the artists’ particular ministry and their form of witness. Looked at in a different way, each of these pictures can draw us into stronger connection with Quakers past and present, and can help bring the spirit of worship into our everyday lives.

The Inspired by Worship calendar is on sale from the Quaker Arts Network as well as from the Quaker Bookshop at Friends House.

Postscript: You can read about the recent conservation of two of the paintings discussed by Linda Murgatroyd in past issues of the Library newsletter: one of the Library’s four Heemskerk paintings  in the Autumn/Winter 2011 issue and the Gracechurch Street Meeting painting in the Spring/Summer 2010 issue of the former Library newsletter.

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5 Responses to Artists inspired by worship

  1. Bill Rushby says:

    This essay is fascinating! I would like to see a book on the subject, including depictions and commentaries on American and Third World Quaker worship.

  2. Pingback: Some new fruits of research in the Library’s collections | Quaker Strongrooms

  3. Kate Seekings says:

    Dear Linda, is there some way I can contact you, I am interested in some details of this article. Katie

    • Library of the Society of Friends says:

      Hi Katie, We’ve forwarded your enquiry direct to Linda. Hope that’s OK.

  4. Mr James Buchanan says:

    How interesting to see Dawson’s painting of 48 Cheyne Walk. I used to live in Cheyne Row my bedroom over looked the garden. The Dawsons had a studio in Manresa Road, there used to be a plaque on the wall nearby. My great Uncle Edward Spencer trained under Nelson Dawson in Hammersmith, he later took on running the Artificers Guild, having been chief designer; managing it until he died in1938. Samuel Lucas is also a relation, my grandmother having lived in Hitchin.

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