Wonersh painting: Every picture tells a story

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The journey of a painting from an altar to a staircase to a cathedral chapter room exposes some turbulent episodes in English Catholic history

By Elena Curti, writing in The Tablet

When Cardinal Herbert Vaughan, Archbishop of Westminster, attended the grand opening of the new
chapel at St John’s Seminary, Wonersh in 1896, he came bearing a special gift. It was a very large oil painting to serve as the chapel’s altarpiece. Measuring 10 feet by six feet, it depicted the Madonna and Child, enthroned on a plinth, and venerated by three saints, with a cherub.

Earlier, the cardinal had been involved in a bitter row with Wonersh’s founders and the gift was something of a peace offering. But it was not appreciated. As soon as was decently possible, after five years the picture was relegated to a spot halfway up the seminary’s main staircase, where it was largely ignored. Vaughan’s altarpiece was replaced with a frame of red plush “which everyone agreed was a vast improvement”, according to Sean Finnegan’s 2011 history of St John’s, In Hope of Harvest. Finnegan writes that the painting is “not really very good”, and he repeats an early rumour that it had been painted by a seminary workman. This damning appraisal endured at Wonersh until it was announced that the seminary was to close in 2021. When the rector, Mgr Gerry Ewing, invited experts to examine the contents, it was realised that Vaughan’s gift was, in fact, rather fine and contained iconography that was redolent of meaning for Catholics at the time.

The painting was unveiled in its new home in Arundel in April 2024. It now hangs in the chapter room at Cathedral House, next door to the cathedral. After restoration and cleaning, the figures have better definition and skin tones, and the colours are much brighter, especially the red and gold hanging behind Our Lady. It is obvious now that earlier opinions of the value of the picture were coloured by antipathy towards the donor. There was a natural rivalry between the dioceses north and south of the Thames: while the Archbishop of Westminster usually got a red hat, Southwark had Augustus Pugin’s splendid cathedral, the centre of Catholic life in London for more than 50 years before Westminster Cathedral opened in 1903. In addition, the fourth Bishop of Southwark, John Butt, was immensely proud of the seminary he had founded at Wonersh in 1891, as was the young priest he appointed as its first rector, Fr Francis Bourne. They were incensed when, shortly after being appointed as Archbishop of Westminster in 1892, Vaughan came up with a plan that threatened its future.

Vaughan’s proposal was that all the dioceses in the south of England should pool their resources to create a central seminary at Oscott, the diocesan seminary of Birmingham. Wonersh would have become a mere junior seminary, or boarding school, with students destined for the priesthood proceeding to Oscott. The row was aired in The Tablet, with Vaughan and Bourne batting back and forth with unsigned articles. Eventually, Oscott became a central seminary for six dioceses, including Westminster; Southwark continued to have its own diocesan seminary at Wonersh. Shortly after Vaughan’s death in 1903, his successor – one Francis Bourne – decided to re-establish a diocesan seminary for Westminster.

It seems that Vaughan was sincere in trying to heal the wounds when he came to Wonersh for the chapel’s opening. A few days before, he consecrated Bourne a bishop so that he could serve as Butt’s coadjutor (Bourne was to succeed Butt a year later). At Wonersh, Vaughan struck a conciliatory note in his after-dinner speech, joking that in any race between them, Bishop Butt would win by a neck and a half, and wishing the seminary every blessing for its future.

Vaughan delivered important messages for the students in his painting. On Mary’s plinth, partially obscured but clearly legible, are the words: ‘England is My Dowry’. Sophie Andreae, vice chair of the Patrimony Committee of the Bishops’ Conference, who advised Wonersh on its treasures, says the concept of England as having a special relationship with the Virgin Mary goes back to at least 1051, during the reign of Edward the Confessor. “It was believed that England belonged in some special way to Mary,” she says. “During the medieval period, there was intense devotion to the Virgin in England and her shrine at Walsingham drew pilgrims from all over Europe.”

There is evidence that Richard II pledged to consecrate England to Mary in return for victory against the insurgents who led the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. The fulfilment of his promise is recorded in the Wilton Diptych at the National Gallery in London. Richard is depicted in the act of presenting England to the Virgin, flanked by St John the Baptist, Edward the Confessor and King Edmund. They offer her the banner of St George, and in the orb at the top of the flagpole is painted a tiny map of England.

Leaders of the Reformation attempted to erase belief in England’s special relationship with the Virgin by destroying all its Marian shrines. With his painting, Vaughan conveyed that while the Catholic Church had returned in triumph to England, its members, nevertheless, supported the established order. Andreae says that is why the cherub at the foot of the picture is holding the Royal Coat of Arms: “Subliminally, this is all about the re-conversion of England and loyalty to the Crown.”

These thoughts had been uppermost in Vaughan’s mind. In June 1893, he had con- secrated England to the Mother of God and St Peter in a ceremony at the Brompton Oratory. He did so at the behest of Pope Leo XIII who, in an audience, had reminded him that England has long been known as Our Lady’s Dowry. Pope Leo also referred to St Peter as principal patron of England. In Vaughan’s painting, the saint kneels to Mary’s right, holding up his keys. St Joseph stands at Mary’s right hand. He is surely there because of Vaughan’s personal devotion to the earthly protector of the Virgin and Child. Vaughan made Joseph patron when he founded the Mill Hill Missionaries, also known as St Joseph’s Missionary Society. To the Virgin’s left stands St John the Evangelist, patron of Wonersh, who holds a picture of the seminary building.

Wonersh’s trustees paid for the restoration of the painting and the frame and gifted it to Arundel Cathedral. The conservator, Peter Martindale, worked on it for many months in his studio near Salisbury and, with a colleague, undertook the delicate task of installing it in the chapter room.

He is certain that the picture is the work of one or more professional artists, though he could find no signature, nor any clue as to who they were. Martindale told me: “I’ve grown to like this painting more and more over time. The faces are beautifully painted. Looking at St Peter, the way his hair and his beard are painted – it’s really very nice. And the cherub’s face, the Madonna’s and the Christ Child’s. And in terms of Catholicism in England, it’s a very important statement.”

The former Arundel Cathedral dean, Canon David Parmiter, is pleased the painting is in the place where the chapter canons meet twice a year to advise the dean, and act as a sounding board for the bishop. He says it is also a welcome reminder of the role Wonersh played in forming the priests of the Diocese of Arundel and Brighton since it was formed in 1965, and earlier when it was part of the Archdiocese of Southwark.

There are other connections that make Arundel a suitable home for the painting. The cathedral was built as a parish church by Henry Fitzalan-Howard, fifteenth Duke of Norfolk (1847-1917), who was an early pilgrim to Lourdes. The first rector of the duke’s church was John Butt. The cathedral’s patron St Philip Howard, one of the Forty Martyrs of England and Wales, had a fervent devotion to Our Lady. The first recorded reference to England as Mary’s Dowry was made by an earlier ancestor of the Norfolk family, Thomas Arundel, Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1399 he wrote: “We English being servants of her special inheritance and her own Dowry, as we are commonly called, ought to surpass others in the fervour of our praises and devotion.” The new dean of the cathedral, Fr Stephen Dingley, who taught doctrinal theology at Wonersh from 2004 to 2018, recalls that stu- dents used to regard the painting with sentimental affection, nicknaming it “Our Lady of the Placemat”. If you look closely at the picture of the seminary held by St John, you can see why.

Fr Dingley thinks the chapter canons will welcome it to Arundel like an old friend. He compares the painting’s journey from altar to staircase to chapter room, to the life of a priest who goes wherever he is sent by his bishop. “The picture is here because of his- torical circumstance rather than being specifically designed to be in this place. I think that’s often how human beings flourish. You find yourself in a situation and the question is, ‘do you make the best of it, and do you enjoy being where you find yourself?’ rather than finding the perfect niche that’s just right for you. I think the picture will be appreciated in the place where it has ended up, at least for the next period of history.”

Elena Curti is the editor of ‘Wonersh, These Walls Have Spoken: In Celebration of St John’s Seminary, Wonersh’ (£25, available here)


This article first appeared in The Tablet on 18 May 2024. Used with kind permission of the publisher.



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