Walter P. Starmer Artist 1877 -1961

This is the first major study of his life and work. Hardback Dust wrapper 128 pages 320 x 225mm
80 colour and 46 monochrome illustrations
Published April 2015            
ISBN-10: 0956951813

VE Day 1945

VE Day 1945 was marked at St Jude's, Hampstead Garden Suburb by a Thanksgiving Mass and special services the folowing Sunday.

St Jude's has no Second World War Memorial.  The church muralist Walter Starmer, still a worshipper and sidesman at the church, made designs for one, but the church council decided to raise funds instead for a memorial hall, as the church hall had been requisitioned during the conflict.  The memorial hall was never built.  Memorial windows Starmer designed for the Lady Chapel were not commissioned.

Starmer designed stained glass windows as Second World War memorials for other churches including All Saints, Leavesden, St Aldhelm's, Edmonton and this one for Wealdstone Methodist Church.

Review of Walter P. Starmer Artist 1871 – 1961 by Alan Walker

Walter P. Starmer Artist 1871 – 1961 by Alan Walker

Reviewed by Stephen James in the [Hampstead Garden] Suburb News Issue 122 Spring 2015

In 1994 when Alan Walker became the Vicar of St Jude’s he realised that, as well as nurturing the spiritual welfare of his parishioners, he was also the guardian of one of the most significant church buildings of the twentieth Century.  Lutyens groupies would ask the question " when are you going to get those dreadful murals whitewashed over?"  The murals were by an unknown, and therefore obviously insignificant, artist and they diverted attention from the purity of Lutyens’s architecture.  There is a widely held view that Lutyens neither wanted nor approved of the mural scheme for St. Jude's. However, Alan has discovered that this was far from the case.  Indeed at the time this book was being edited, he discovered the Free Church too had been planning a similar decorative scheme. After consulting English Heritage, who reported that the work was actually a rather outstanding and nationally important example of twentieth century ecclesiastical decoration, Alan Walker set about finding out as much as he could about the artist, and now the fruits of his research have been made available in a splendidly produced volume Walter P. Starmer Artist 1871 – 1961  Starmer's complete body of work is explored here for the first time ranging from advertising copy for Poppyland (north Norfolk), through cartoons for The Anti-Vivisection Review and golden age Childrens book illustrations.

At this time of marking the centenary of the First World War, Alan Walker has managed to track down and reproduce several of the paintings Starmer made when serving with the Red Cross on the Western Front.   Unlike some 'official' war artists, Starmer was based in France for the duration of hostilities and this degree of freedom provided him with thoughtful and unusual source material. Starmer’s special mission was to record the work of the YMCA in offering rest and recreational facilities for the troops.  In one painting Starmer depicts a large group of Australian soldiers viewing a film show projected onto the wall of a farm building.  Others show the little-known contribution of Chinese workers and Indian troops to the war effort. The YMCA built semi-permanent structures behind the front lines.  A number of these were decorated with Starmer murals. 

It was in France that Starmer met the first Vicar of St Jude’s, the Reverend Basil Bourchier, who was serving as a military chaplain.  Bourchier invited the artist to submit proposals for a war memorial at St Jude's.  Rather surprisingly Starmer came up with a scheme based on images of the women of the Bible and which was later extended to include other  ‘eminent women’.  The latter included historical figures such as Joan of Arc, but also the more recent promoters of the kind of causes that appealed to the early radically-minded female residents of the Suburb such as the campaign against vivisection and of course women’s suffrage: Frances Power Cobbe, Josephine Butler, Angela Burdett-Coutts, Edith Cavell and Emily Davison. A reminder, perhaps, that for its founder, Henrietta Barnett, the Suburb was as much a ‘feminist’ project as a social experiment.

Although a prize-winning student at both Norwich and Birmingham art schools, Starmer never became famous at least in part because he worked in media that by the middle of the twentieth century had become decidedly unfashionable - church murals and stained glass. Ironically one of Starmer's contemporaries at Norwich was Alfred Munnings, the society equestrian painter.  Back in those collegiate days Starmer was considered the more promising student, but it was Munnings who was to have the flashier artistic career, ending as President of the Royal Academy.

Sadly Starmer's artistic legacy and reputation has faded as most of his later work for West End churches was destroyed during the Second World War.  By a strange quirk of fate, one of these was  St. Anne's Soho, the church to which Basil Bourchier moved after his time at St. Jude's.  What the Luftwaffe failed to achieve in town planning was ruthlessly carried through by postwar developers. Both St. Peter's, Piccadilly and St. Agatha's, Shoreditch, had substantial Starmer murals - but where are they now? Extant sketches indicate that his post St. Jude’s mural style was evolving in interesting ways.  Starmer's portfolio of varied and unusual war paintings was sufficiently highly regarded by the Imperial War Museum that they bought no fewer than thirty examples.  Disappointingly not one of them has ever been on public display.  

Despite all these knocks, Starmer was no garret-living, starving artist.  He was a successful professional practitioner of his craft.  He was able to make a comfortable, if moderate, income throughout his life from the work he set out from childhood to do.  He comes across as a modest and shy man, but one driven both by a commitment to his art and his religious convictions.   Walter P. Starmer Artist 1899-1961 reads like a detective story as Alan Walker unpeals the onion skins of the artist's life and work. Eruditely written and lavishly illustrated, this book throws a spotlight on the man and his work too long overshadowed by Lutyens.

 . . .

Walter P. Starmer Artist 1871 – 1961 is available through Amazon and eBay at £19.99 or directly from the church at the special price of £15.  Alan will be speaking about Starmer on Sunday 17 May at 3pm in the Friends’ Meeting House (see notices).  St Jude’s Church is open to visitors every Sunday afternoon throughout the summer.

Review in Suburb News (text below)

Walter Starmer War Artist

Walter Starmer War Artist by Alan Walker
Article for Programme of Proms at St Jude's June 2015 

Walter Starmer considered his murals and stained glass window at St Jude’s Church, Hampstead Garden Suburb to be the major achievements of his artistic career.  Indeed in art directories published in the 1950s he makes no mention of his previous careers as a political cartoonist, book illustrator or war artist.

Starmer came to St Jude’s as a result of meeting the first vicar, the Reverend Basil Bourchier, in Arras in 1918, and he was initially employed to decorate the Lady Chapel as a war memorial.  Bourchier presented him to the parish as an “expert artist”, but gave no examples of any previous commissions.  He said, however, that Starmer’s “success in the adornment of certain public buildings . . . marks him off as a man of remarkable artistic gifts”.  The author of an early history of St Jude’s makes it clear these public buildings were in France, and that they were places “where men and officers congregated”.  Starmer‘s decorations brought  “a little cheer and colour into their lives – a pleasant contrast to their usual drab surroundings.”

A single photograph in the YMCA archives in Birmingham shows that such decoration could take a substantial form.  On the entire end wall of a large hut set up for meetings and entertainments Starmer has placed a series of panels illustrating scenes of post war Reconstruction in agriculture, science, commerce and manufacture.  The project can be dated to 1917 when Lloyd George’s government set up a Ministry of Reconstruction, designed, at least in part, to ensure that the public desire for social change after the war be directed towards rebuilding rather than revolution.

The realistic style of the murals (which appear to be on canvas panels) is one that would reappear in later works such as The Tree of Life at St Peter’s Church, Piccadilly and show Starmer to be a more ‘contemporary’ artist than the St Jude’s scheme might suggest.  The latter are more in the tradition of the children’s’ book illustrations he was producing in the early 1900s.  In this they reflect Henrietta Barnett’s rather simplistic idea that “beautiful as is the church . . . it could be improved . . . if the great facts of Christianity could be dumbly told by those silent preachers, the artists”. Several mural schemes in the more modern style, and showing the development of his work after St Jude’s, were unfortunately all destroyed in the blitz or in later redevelopment.

Nor is any mention is made by Bourchier of the extensive series of watercolour sketches made by Starmer during his five-year service as a Red Cross and YMCA volunteer.  Eleven of these were published in 1919 in monochrome reproduction in an account of the war work of the YMCA, and, with one exception, these were all donated to the Imperial War Museum, together with a further unpublished eleven, in the same year.  The Museum was sufficiently impressed with Starmer’s work to purchase eight more directly from him in 1931.  It was, however, unable to persuade him to part with the Director’s personal favourite that shows the art gallery in Douai after it had been looted by the Germans.  This appears on the cover of my book.  A further donation in 1958 brought the total in the War Museum to thirty.  None is on display.

At first sight many of Starmer’s images of recreational facilities close to, but removed from, the Front seem to be sylvan scenes of stillness and calm, but on reflection they can be seen to be characterized as much by melancholy and absence.  Foregrounds are usually empty or occupied only by vacant chairs and benches. Only a few fighting men are portrayed, outnumbered as often as not by non-combatants, including, for example, representatives of the many Chinese workers employed by the British army as labourers.  Other, less precisely executed, images represent the devastation and destruction of areas closer to the Front, or rather the in-between spaces en route there.  These have an altogether different quality, and often seem to contain references to Christian religious imagery of death and resurrection.  

Although his pictures were used to illustrate the work of the YMCA they do so by emphasising the movement’s presence rather than its activities.  The YMCA’s red triangle emblem becomes a kind of sacramental counterpoint to the twisted crosses that punctuate the broken landscape.  If the red cross offered bodily relief and repair, the red triangle promised a more personal and spiritual source of healing.

Starmer was a shy man, and as an artist he sometimes seems removed from his subject matter.  He described himself as ‘ice-bergy’, and was clearly not at ease even in relatively small social gatherings.  Yet he was described by an old boy of his school (Norwich High), then serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Flying Corps, who happened to find himself next to Starmer in a YMCA hut in France in the summer of 1917, as “a thoroughly good and conscientious worker” and one who was wearing the well-deserved honour of the 1914 ribbon given only to those who had volunteered in the first few months of the war.

Walter P. Starmer Artist 1877 – 1961 by Alan Walker in on sale throughout the Proms at the special price of £15.

The Road to Ypres

'The Road to Ypres' recently acquired by the Anne S. K. Brown Military Collection at Brown University.

The Murals at St Judes

The St Jude’s Murals by Alan Walker
Article for Programme of Proms at St Jude's June 2013

The paintings that cover the walls and ceilings of St Jude’s are the work of a single artist, Walter Percival Starmer, who was in residence here from 1919 to 1929.  Maybe if he had spent that decade on several smaller projects he might have become better known, but it was as the St Jude’s muralist that he chose to define himself and to be listed in the art directories of his time.

Wall paintings are unusual in English churches; for the most part they were destroyed or covered over at the Reformation.  The medieval images had often depicted theological themes or episodes from the lives of the saints - subjects inimical to Protestantism that had grave doubts about the value and propriety of visual images.  Starmer’s work does not belong to that tradition.  As a Protestant Non-Conformist himself, his scheme is (almost) completely Biblical. The paintings on the ceiling and in the domes represent the life of Christ and those on the walls illustrate his parables.  Their theological purpose is to reinforce a sense of the historical truth of the scriptural accounts of Jesus and the simple, un-dogmatic nature of his teaching.  As such the scheme seems somewhat at odds with a church apparently designed for catholic worship and liturgy.

So how did they come to be here?  Shortly after the completion of the church a competition was held for a mural scheme to decorate the Lady Chapel.  The entries were disappointing and none was commissioned, but the idea of decorating the church was not abandoned.  Indeed, according to Starmer, the church had been “specially designed with great blank walls and ceilings in order that it might conform to the highest ideals of art by having the vast spaces covered by pictures illuminating the Bible, so that art and architecture so form one vast complete design and one perfect whole”. 

The First World War interfered with the plans for St Jude’s, but it also brought Starmer to the attention of the parish.  He had been commissioned to record the contribution of the YMCA in providing recreational amenities in the war zone, and had also decorated some of the Association’s huts with murals intended to comfort and encourage the troops.  Someone from the church brought these to the attention of the first Vicar of St Jude’s, the Reverend Basil Bourchier, who was serving as a chaplain to the Forces, and when the war was over Starmer was invited to present his ideas for a mural scheme for the church to the architect (Edwin Lutyens) and the Church Council.

Walter Percival Starmer was born in Teignmouth in 1877, but grew up in Norwich where his father, a Congregationalist minister, was the local secretary of the British and Foreign Bible Society.  He attended Norwich School of Art where he was a friend and contemporary of Alfred Munnings who would go on to outshine him as President of the Royal Academy of Arts, although as students it was Starmer who was the prize winner.  He went on to Birmingham School of Art and received his first public commission there with a mural for the Town Hall. 

In the years before the War Starmer appears to have made his living as an illustrator of children’s books, but there is evidence that he also found employment in advertising and as a political cartoonist.  He had an interest in natural history, and produced illustrations for an anti-vivisectionist journal.  Animals and birds figure in several of his St Jude’s paintings. One of his sisters was also an artist, and the other trained as a doctor and served as a medical missionary in war-torn Manchuria.  In 1908 Starmer accompanied her by train through Russia as she returned from furlough, and then continued through China, Korea and Japan before crossing the Pacific to the United States and Canada on his return journey. 

The War put an end to this artistic way of life, and his experiences, first as an ambulance man with the Red Cross, and then with the YMCA seem to have deeply affected Starmer.  His watercolours of devastated landscapes and ruined towns (thirty of these are in the Imperial War Museum) display the horrors of the conflict, but also include subtle, almost disguised, Christian imagery suggesting Starmer’s perception of the war as an eschatological event as well as a personal spiritual reorientation.

Starmer’s initial commission at St Jude’s was to decorate the Lady Chapel (to the left of the high altar) as a memorial to the fallen.  The formal unveiling by the Princess Royal took place on December 21st 1921. The church records note that “Everyone who has been privileged to see it, including the architect of the church, Sir Edwin Lutyens, is agreed that ‘great’ is the right adjective to describe it.”  Surprisingly the dead are remembered through images of women because “through the cruel years of war it was upon the women of the Empire that the heaviest burden fell”. It is also only here in the whole church that non-Biblical figures appear.  Starmer’s original proposal that the west dome be filled with pictures of angels was replaced by a number of portraits of historical and near contemporary women “who have laboured and suffered . . . for the extension of righteousness among men”.  The scheme was paid for by the women of the congregation and no doubt reflects the advanced views of the early residents of the Suburb.

Starmer returned to St Jude’s in 1936 to design the great west window, and then in 1942 to paint the memorial to Michael Rennie that is over the St George’s altar on the north wall of the church.  Michael was the son of the third vicar of the church, and was himself preparing to train for the priesthood when he went as an escort with a party of children being evacuated to Canada in 1940.  Their ship, the SS City of Benares, was torpedoed and sunk, and Michael died of exhaustion after repeatedly diving into the sea to rescue drowning children.

Starmer lived latterly in the artists’ colony in Bushey and worked extensively as a stained-glass artist until his death in 1961.  The Reverend Alan Walker is currently researching his life and work for a publication to mark the centenary of the start of the First World War.  Some of this has already appeared in the Centenary Book of St Jude-on-the-Hill (2011) obtainable form the church.

Starmer and the First World War

A new leaflet about Starmer and the Great War published by St Jude's

St Jude's Centenary Book

St Jude-on-the-Hill is one of the most distinctive of modern English churches. The ecclesiastical masterpiece of Sir Edwin Lutyens, of cathedral-like proportions, and decorated with an extensive mural scheme by Walter Percival Starmer, it expresses the unconventional Christianity of the founders of the model community of Hampstead Garden Suburb and the radical outlook of its early inhabitants. Making use of the church’s own considerable archive as well as the recently discovered Starmer papers the Centenary Book celebrates the consecration of the church in 1911 with a close examination of its foundation and early years. It suggests this ordinary parish church was as much a temple to fin de si├Ęcle spirituality as to Anglican orthodoxy.

ISBN-13: 978-0956951809 Published August 2011