Murals and metaphors
External appearances can be misleading. Uninspiring when viewed from the outside, some apparently ordinary buildings conceal hidden gems within. A prime example is the tiny church of St Martin in the Surrey village of Blackheath – who would expect to find, behind its thoroughly unchurch-like exterior, a rich and vibrant display of murals depicting scenes from the life of Christ?
St Martin’s Church dates from the 1890s, and was designed by architect Charles Townsend (1851-1928) in the Arts and Crafts style. Inspired by Byzantine and Romanesque buildings he had seen on his travels in Europe, Townsend created a low-roofed structure modelled on an Italian wayside chapel.
Instead of the traditional cruciform footprint, he opted for an oblong hall topped off with a low, barrel-vaulted ceiling. Alabaster lines the chancel walls and sanctuary arch, which are separated from the main body of the hall by a gleaming, gilded screen. In line with the principles of the Arts and Crafts movement, the church was built wherever possible from locally sourced materials.
The murals are, for me, the stand-out feature of the church. Of course, back in medieval times nearly all internal church walls were awash with paintings, but these were mostly destroyed or painted over during the Reformation. Since then, adorning church walls with murals has happened in a few places, but it remains unusual to find any English church painted in this fashion. For me, this is what makes St Martin’s so appealing.
The St Martin’s murals were painted in 1893-95 by artist Anna Lea Merritt (1844-1930). Born in Philadelphia, Merritt moved with her family to Europe in 1865. By 1870 she was living in London, where she met the noted art critic Henry Merritt (1822–1877). They married in April 1877, but sadly Henry died just three months later.
Anna outlived her husband by over 50 years, and – remarkably for a woman of that period – spent her days, and earned a living, as a successful artist. She believed that true religious feelings are accompanied by light, hope, and cheerfulness, and her murals at St Martin’s convey the message wonderfully. St Martin’s is unlike any church I’ve ever visited, and one that I shall never forget.
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Surrey is several hours drive from where we live, so it’s unlikely we’ll be making a return visit to St Martin’s any time soon. However, there is a church much closer to home that also boasts some fascinating murals. St Mary’s Church in the Derbyshire village of Cromford was built in the last decade of the 18th century. It is historically significant as the final resting place of Sir Richard Arkwright, builder in 1771 of the world’s first water-powered cotton-mill.
Arkwright, regarded as one of the founding fathers of the Industrial Revolution, commissioned the construction of St Mary’s to serve the workers at his Cromford cotton-mill. However, the striking wall paintings were not added until 1898, as part of the church’s centenary celebrations. The artist responsible for them was Alfred Octavius Hemming (1843-1907).
From the outside St Mary’s looks more typically like a church than St Martin’s. But here too there is no hint of the splendid and highly unusual murals that lie within. And perhaps we should see this as a metaphor, or maybe a life-lesson? External appearances, these two churches remind us, are often misleading. We should endeavour to look beyond them to seek out that which initially lies hidden from view. Only by doing so do we stand a chance of discovering deeper meaning and true beauty.