Monday, October 23, 2006

The agony and the eccentricity

I’ve just returned from a typically blustery October weekend on the south coast with my fellow ex-pat Aussie cousins. Living in Hackney as I have for most of the last twenty-four years, I tend to forget that I live in a country as well as a city. Sometimes I need reminding that I even live in a city. Hackney seems much more a state of mind than an actual place sometimes. It helps to get away on a regular basis.

Lancing is a small West Sussex town most notable for the grand boys’ college of the same name whose alumni include Tim Rice, Christopher Hampton, David Hare, Jamie Theakston, Tom Driberg, Jan Morris and, most notably, Evelyn Waugh. It’s a part of the country that, if you live in a deprived urban area and believe what politicians tell you about how ‘Britain is changing’, ceased to exist in about 1973. Suffice to say that not all thatchers are redundant.

This weekend I really wanted to see the reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling at the English Martyrs Church in nearby Goring-by-Sea. Billed as ‘the only known reproduction of the Sistine Chapel Ceiling in the world’, this faithful rendering of the original was executed by local artist Gary Bevans. The only known reproduction of the Sistine Chapel ceiling in the world? Surely this could not be. Why, I wondered had the famous ceiling not been available at least as a table cloth/tote bag/screen saver, and certainly why has it not been replicated as Sunday morning eye candy in every parish in Christendom for the last half millennium.

The answer is as English as the adornment in the little pebble dash English Martyrs Church in the little pebble dash English village of Goring-by-Sea. Gary Bevans is a signwriter with no formal art training who went on pilgrimage to Rome in 1987 and when he returned home, ‘he was so inspired by what he saw that he returned home with a burning desire to recreate that ceiling in his own Parish Church’, according to the Arundel and Brighton Virtual Diocese. Read the whole story here. It beats sending a post card, even one with Vatican stamps on it.

Bevans had already donated a rendering of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper to the church. It’s still there, hanging over the entrance. The presence of a Maltese Terrier at table is somewhat unexpected but not entirely unwelcome from a visitor’s perspective. Parish Priest Fr Enda Naughton, who led the pilgrimage which sparked Bevans’s vocation, at least had that example of the artist’s work as a point of reference when the request came to reproduce a three quarter scale version of easily the planet’s most celebrated piece of Christian iconography in the modest little seaside church.

The decision to allow Bevans a free hand with his visionary quest was made by presiding Bishop Cormac who must have exercised remarkable faith and considerably more restraint than Pope Julius II who dogged Michelangelo all through his grinding commission. For Bevans, it was a labour of love and he was left largely alone to work lying flat on his scaffolding, in between whipping up shingles for the butcher, baker and candlestick maker. It took him five years to complete.

The results are not displeasing. Meticulously faithful to the original in style and content, it lacks only the emotion of Michelangelo. The figures look more like paintings of pictures of people rather than paintings of people. In that respect they recall Bellini rather than Michelangelo. But I’m nit picking. You don’t have to wait in a long queue with Texans the size of Cuba and be jostled through a dimly lit cave where your only sense that you are in the presence of great art is relayed to you via your audio guide as there is a canopy of Stetsons obscuring your view.

I got to thinking, is there anywhere else but England where such an eccentric audacity would receive a positive response? On Friday night we tuned in to Late Review. My cousin, who had never seen the programme before, eyeballed Turner Prize winner Grayson Perry, resplendent in his usual cupie doll attire. My cousin said, ‘I’m not even going to ask.’ I can’t imagine any other cultural context in which a very large man in a very large bow could sit in a circle of plainly outfitted fellow pundits and discuss the latest in arts and letters without someone’s face cracking.

Normally I hate drag which, to me, is the gender equivalent of black face. I know it’s firmly steeped in British theatrical tradition and is cloaked in respectability by its association with Shakespeare, but this is where my ‘foreigneness’ outs big style I’m afraid. Grayson Perry I love because he doesn’t lampoon or trivialise women’s couture and attitudes and play us for laughs. He just looks like he never outgrew the dressing up box. He has no airs, graces, gratuitous feather boas or aqua eye shadow. I love his sassy pots too, my favourite of which is called ‘I’m killing myself and taking the kids with me you bitch.’

Although the call of my new tropical island home gets louder as the days draw in, there are some things I will always miss about England. I will miss the chutzpah of the Gary Bevanses and Grayson Perrys and Tracey Eminses and Damien Hirsts and all the other mad artists who serve us up our own bad dreams with chips on the side to our ultimate enjoyment. Bless them all and pass the salt please.

Picture: Temptation and Fall of Adam and Eve by Gary Bevans, English Martyrs Church, West Sussex

No comments: