Gabriel Pippet, Religious Artist, Born in Solihull, Warwickshire Life

PUBLISHED: 23:53 07 February 2010 | UPDATED: 13:54 31 December 2013

Droitwich Church

Droitwich Church

Solihull-born and bred, Gabriel Pippet was one of early 20th century England's greatest religious artists responsible for decorating one of the most stunning churches in the country. Chris Mowbray reports. Photographs by Stuart Purfield

Solihull-born and bred, Gabriel Pippet was one of early 20th century England's greatest religious artists responsible for decorating one of the most stunning churches in the country. Chris Mowbray reports. Photographs by Stuart Purfield

Seventy-five years ago, a new series of Christian art was unveiled which literally caught the breath of scholars, artists, architects, clerics and worshippers throughout Britain.

The spectacle rivalled in colour and impact even Michelangelo's great painting on the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel in the Vatican at the heart of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet these new works were not in a cathedral, but in a recently-built Worcestershire country church and they were all due to the genius of a self-effacing Warwickshire artist.

The pictures which aroused such interest were the mosaics at the Roman Catholic Church of the Sacred Heart at Droitwich. They had been designed by Solihull's Gabriel Pippet, a hugely experienced artist with a large cannon of work influenced by the Pre-Raphaelites, the Arts and Crafts Movement of William Morris and medieval manuscript design.

The mosaics, which cover nearly all the church's interior, are a truly heroic work in the classical sense. They are made of Venetian glass weighing a total of eight-and-a-half tons and that means they contain an estimated two million separate pieces of glass called tesserae. It took two craftsmen 12 years to complete the task and, on average, that required them to cement into place a tessera every 40 seconds of every working eight-hour day. There is a story still circulating in Droitwich that they went blind in the process, although this is almost certainly an urban myth.

But the most staggering fact of the lot was that Gabriel Pippet drew cartoons of the pictures he wanted in full size and then traced them onto the walls and ceilings of the church so that the craftsmen had a guide. Such a mammoth undertaking needed careful planning and this started many years before.

The Sacred Heart was planned as a Catholic church for mid-Worcestershire and was opened in 1921, the first to be built there since the foundation of the Church of England by Henry VIII four centuries earlier. It was meant to symbolise the end of suppression of Roman Catholicism and the beginning of a new golden age, and so the mosaics were a vital part of the plan.

The church and its mosaics were modelled on the basilica churches in the ancient Italian city of Ravenna whose design could be traced right back to Roman times. To ensure it had an authentic feel, everyone with a pivotal part to play travelled to Ravenna to study the real thing. This included not only Gabriel Pippet, but also the donor, Walter Loveridge Hodgkinson of Rashwood Court, near Droitwich, and the designing architect, Frank Peacock of Birmingham.

The study tour of Ravenna was likewise undertaken by the craftsman and artist, Maurice Josey, who was put in charge of the Droitwich mosaics and work started on them within 12 months of the church opening. Josey, who had previously worked on Westminster Cathedral in London, was given a young apprentice, Fred Oates, to work alongside him. By the time the two finished in 1934, the boy had grown into a man.

The mosaics still shine with gold and all the colours of the rainbow in an allegorical reference to that new golden age of Christian suffrage and tolerance, just as the church's creative team intended. The towering depictions of Christ as King, the Holy Trinity, the nine choirs of angels, the Garden of Eden, the saints, the Three Kings, the Virgin Mary and the Cherubim and Seraphim could only have been drawn by someone with Pippet's background.

So who was he and what was he like?

While there are many references to his work which can be found in churches, galleries, libraries and museums all over the world, very little has been written about him as a person. The library in his native Solihull has no books about him and just a single magazine article somewhere deep in its archives. It is only by looking at his work that the man emerges.

He was born at Solihull in 1880 into a family of artists and from a young age became known as an artist, illustrator and wood carver in his own right, usually specialising in Catholic religious themes. He was responsible for murals in several churches including St Augustine's in Solihull, the Oxford Oratory and St Mary's Church at Douai Abbey in Berkshire where he recorded scenes from the life of St Benedict.

He also illustrated scores of religious books, often working late into the night to fit them in alongside his larger work in churches. For example, while starting on the murals at Douai Abbey in 1913, he was also illustrating a book by Mother Mary Salome entitled Saints and Festivals: a cycle of the year for young people. His work was varied enough to include such ventures as illustrating a mystery play about the Nativity and creating a panel depicting the Sermon on the Mount which is now in the National Library of Australia.

But while quiet and unassuming, he was immensely passionate and it was this quality which enabled him to achieve the Droitwich mosaics which would have been beyond someone with less passion. The intense nature of his creativity was also demonstrated by him moving into the home of the cleric, Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson, so they could work together on wood carving and panelling.

Yet this serious artist had a whimsical side which can be traced in his Sacred Heart murals. He included a sleeping cat in the important scene of the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, while a cleric who frequently criticised his work was punished by being depicted as the executioner at the Martyrdom of St Catherine. He also collaborated in several book projects with the eminent Daily Express cartoonist, Osbert Lancaster, and the Punch writer, Guy Boas.

The passion he displayed is his work existed in his private life, too. In 1962, when he was 82, his beloved wife, Alice, died and he followed her two days later. They were buried together next to the Sacred Heart Church containing his greatest work which was also his personal favourite.

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