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.

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