Art, Architecture and Agitation

February 5, 2014

Art, Architecture and Quakers.

The idea to have a colloquium in which ideas of art were explored from 2 viewpoints , the artist’s and the Quaker’s, arose because of the decision of Quakers in Britain to decline a Turrell installation in the Quaker centre in London.  This was incomprehensible to Sculpture Park staff, whose whole work centres on displaying works of art.  Why would anyone not want to do this?

The reasons given at the time focused on Quaker understandings of simplicity and equality: this would be and would appear to be a waste of money when many people were in poverty. It was also not simple. There was some reference to Quaker theology, followed by ongoing confusion about the location of the light, a metaphor frequently used by Quakers.  Is the light located outside, and shines into the person, disclosing what is within?  Or is the light inside everyone, already glowing like a little glowworm in each person’s tummy, and ready to flare up into warmth?  This confusion was added into the reasons against an installation.  There was even less reference to Quakers historic rather negative response to art – perhaps it was felt that the Quaker tradition has changed here and we all embrace art and the arts.

However Roger Homan has made a scholarly exploration of the Quaker disposition to visual culture in his Richardson lecture of 2013[1].  He concludes that the capacity of art to provoke inner experience has been valued more than the surfaces, swirls and virtuosity ornamenting some artistic communications  in places of worship. This transfers to architecture, and   planning permission. Homan tells us a Quaker meeting house, however small or large, is different from a church or cathedral. There is ‘no altar, no pulpit, no choir, no music, no cushions, nothing worldly to distract them from a vis-à-vis connection with God’. But he also quotes the design principles of the Cistercians whose abbeys were exclusive of any ornament that might distract the soul during devotion or incur an expense that could be put to a better use. Quakers are rarely as different as they think.

Sybil Ruth is a contemporary Quaker, a  poet, ( a form of artist?) who has recently joined in a new enterprise buying and selling works of visual art[2].  She discovered unexpected doubts

‘I was surprised that one of my scruples was that I’d be doing something un-Quakerly.  Friends old suspicion of the visual arts is dead and buried. Art is now seen as spiritually nurturing, a ‘good thing’. My local meeting is packed with knitters, beaders and quilters. So why was there this committee of (imagined) weighty Friends in my head, debating whether the scheme was  ‘in right order’. They informed me that art was fine as a recreation, but shouldn’t become too important.’  

Eventually she came to the conclusion that in growing an art business she was maintaining the beauty and variety of the world, which is ok for Quakers. But she won’t expect to  sell any to Quaker Meeting Houses.

Sybil Ruth called her article ‘Ways of Seeing’ – I’ve recently been talking with artist Lisa Murphy about the differences between seeing, looking, watching… That will be the subject of the next and final blog before the event on March 22.

And I’ll take a risk. My late mother- in- law used to say ‘children and fools should not see unfinished work’, because they fail to imagine how it will change and you have to waste a lot of time soothing their agitation.  But now I’ll  show you the unfinished architectural/ artistic effort which has produced and is still producing so much agitation.  Here it is – courtesy of Harry Albright – the  emerging ceiling of the Large Meeting House at Friends House, with the transparent aperture still to be completed.

LMH ceiling 



[1] Homan, R. The Inward and the outward eye: Quaker attitudes to visual culture George Richardson Lecture 2013.  Woodbrooke Quaker Study Centre.

[2] ‘Ways of seeing’ by Sybil Ruth in the Friend 2/01/2014

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: