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Art Editorial

sisterpic.jpg Art and soul

‘Hand in Hand: The artistic and spiritual life of Dame Werburg Welch’ is a fascinating exhibition coming to Ushaw in Durham which details the life and work of a Benedictine nun who was in thrall to the modernist strand of the Arts and Crafts movement.

Towards the end of her life, Dame Werburg Welch (1894-1990) wrote of her inspirations: “The subject matter of my work has always been religious, the main influences being Eric Gill, William Blake and early Italian paintings of the Giotto period.” 

Like Dame Werburg, Eric Gill (1882-1940) was also deeply religious although this didn’t appear to be a barrier to his sexual deviancy which included several extramarital affairs, incest with his two eldest teenage daughters, incestuous relationships with his sisters and sexual acts on his dog. Much of this only came to light when Fiona MacCarthy’s biography of Gill was published in 1989 and it’s highly unlikely that Dame Werburg wouldn’t have known of his behaviour. It should also be pointed out that Gill was arguably the greatest English artist-craftsman of the twentieth century.

Dame Werburg was actually born Eileen Grace Welch. Her mother was an Irish Catholic from Dublin and through her, the family met Desmond Chute, future artist, priest and follower of Gill. He encouraged the talented Welch in her artistic endeavours and she would go on to study at Bournemouth and Bristol art schools, where she excelled in life drawing.

In 1913 she travelled with her family and Chute to Italy, visiting Venice, Florence, Milan and Rome. The group spent the majority of their time in art galleries where the young Welch was immersed in Italy’s artistic heritage. But although art was her passion, the spiritual life called her and in 1915 she entered the novitiate at Stanbrook Abbey. On making her solemn vows she took the name Weburg after the 7thcentury Anglo-Saxon Saint, and was given the honorary title ‘Dame’ in line with Benedictine tradition. 

When she entered the abbey she was expected to give up art; it was an enclosed Benedictine order with a focus on contemplation and devotion. Daily life was ordered around prayer, work and the reading of scripture. However, Dame Werburg was encouraged to embrace her artistic talent as an expression of her faith. 

Through Chute, she already had connections with the Ditchling Community, a Roman Catholic group of artists and craftsmen founded by Gill. In 1921, she met Gill when he visited Stanbrook with Chute to learn about Gregorian plainchant. Recognising her talent, Gill furnished Dame Werburg with appropriate wood carving tools and both Gill and Chute corresponded with her over a number of years about contemporary engraving techniques. 

But while Gill’s influence is evident she also developed her own distinctive variation of the Art Deco style. Echoes of Byzantine art, her favourite artistic period, are also visible as is the influence of Ernst Barlach, the German Expressionist sculptor. 

In 1922, Abbess Dame Cecilia Heywood wanted the community to take up spinning and weaving in order to make cloth for vestments and their own clothing. At this textile workshop the sisters were introduced to Valentine Kilbride, a weaver and dyer who was a member of Eric Gill’s artistic community. She taught the nuns to weave and Dame Werburg’s designs for the decorated bands and hoods on vestments reflect the great moments of the Christian story with reverence and radical simplicity.

The abbey also ran a successful printing press, producing prayer cards, service booklets, book plates and theological publications, which were mostly decorated with designs by Dame Werburg.

A profoundly talented individual, the work of Dame Werburg was largely unknown among devotees of the Arts and Crafts movement. She never sought fame or recognition for her art and often exhibited work anonymously. She deserves full billing, however, for this stunning retrospective which shines a light onto someone who, in life, was content to work in the shadows.

Hand in Hand: The artistic and spiritual life of Dame Werburg Welch, 6 April-29 June. Ushaw College, County Durham, DH7 9RH. ushaw.org