Friday, 8 December 2006

W C Symons - a Glimpse of Heaven

Last evening there arrived in my office a wonderful cache of works by the artist W C Symons, comprising drawings and paintings for mosaics in the Cathedral. Symons was an old friend of J F Bentley, the Cathedral architect, and like him a and fellow convert. In 1899 Bentley asked Cardinal Vaughan that Symons should decorate one of the chapels. The result was the Holy Souls Chapel - yesterday's load includes preliminary sketches (left, below) for the finished altarpiece (right), where a Lamb and Cross are eventually replaced by the scarlet-clad figure of Christ in judgement.

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Although Bentley loudly approved of the finished design of the chapel it is hard to see how Symons achieved the architect's desire for 'a severe and very Greek style'. Installation of the Holy Souls mosaics took eighteen months, from June 1902 to November 1903.

In 1903, Symons submitted a proposal for the Blessed Sacrament chapel (above), with a striking depiction of the Trinity at its centre. It was rejected, and the chapel had to wait another sixty years for its decoration. In 1910, he received a commission for a mosaic of St Joan of Arc, funded by the Catholic Women's League. Yesterday's bundle contains a superb oil sketch (below) for this mosaic - considerably better, in fact, than the completed work (below, right) which stands in the north transept, near the Ambrosden Avenue entrance to the Cathedral.

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Symons also designed an image of the Holy Face, for the Sacred Heart chapel. The donor disliked it, but Symons refused to change it. However, Symons died in 1911, and in 1916 his mosaics were removed a new (and rather insipid) image of the Holy Face was installed. You can judge for yourself, with the drawing (below, left) and the actual mosaic (below, right)

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Finally, and appropriately for the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, the bundle of drawing contains several oil sketches for the Madonna and child, showing Symons experimenting with a Byzantine idiom, although clearly constrained by his Victorian outlook. None of these images was ever realised.

Althogether, both in terms of showing the evolution of Symons' completed designs, and in furnishing a glimpse ofwhat might have been, this is a fascinating addition to the Cathedral archive.

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