The broadcaster Andrew Marr has written A Short Book About Painting to try to address the question: what does it mean to do something (painting) well and why does it matter? Marr has been an amateur painter since his teenage years, but after a frightening stroke in January 2013 his hobby gained much greater urgency.
Suddenly he feels he’s running out of time “to make images that are alive and self-confident enough to hold their place on a wall”. So he will no longer be content sitting in a field turning out competent but derivative impressions of hills and cottages. He will strive to produce something more meaningful, and the book contains plenty of vibrant examples of his latest, more abstract, work.
He reminds me of the famous line from the poem in which Robert Browning imagines the Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto reflecting on aesthetic value and what constitutes perfection in art: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, / Or what’s a heaven for?”
At the same time, Marr is worried that mainstream art schools no longer teach the “skills, dodges and wheezes” used by artists down the centuries. “Nobody is taught today as he was back in the 1950s,” he wrote in the Sunday Times in October. “Sooner or later, our visual culture will pay a hefty price.”
I can see why Marr thinks this matters, and why, in an age of flat screens and short attention spans, he gains such satisfaction from the craft of painting – the hog’s-hair brushes, canvas, oils and pigments. It takes time. It is hard to do well. And it offers a route to transcendence.
The philosophy was well expressed by the Arts and Crafts designer CR Ashbee: “Something beautifully done, be it a jewel, a lithograph, a basket, a cathedral, may reveal the Truth.”
Someone else who thought like this was Cyril, also known as Charles, Mahoney (1903-68). He was a painter and teacher, and he designed the mural in Lutyens’s Lady Chapel at Campion Hall, the Jesuits’ academic centre in Oxford.
Mahoney and his chums, including Edward Bawden, devoted themselves to reviving, and making new, ancient forms such as murals. They were consciously plugging in to a craft tradition that goes back at least to the anonymous cathedral sculptors, painters and stained-glass makers of the Middle Ages. No one knew who those people were, and yet they created works of stupendous beauty.
Originally, murals were designed to give pleasure through beauty and to teach the Bible and lives of the saints to an illiterate audience. Mahoney was not merely copying earlier models, though. His murals at Campion Hall, which were commissioned by Fr Martin d’Arcy, contain echoes of Renaissance Christian imagery, but the setting is recognisably 20th century – the back garden and countryside around his Kent cottage, the red-brick walls, plants, fruits and flowers.
Mahoney was an expert botanist, and his richly intricate studies of vines, roses, primroses and other plant life show tremendous vitality and warmth of feeling.
Meanwhile, the human figures who feature in the scenes from the Virgin’s life – a priest, a soldier, a gardener and so on – are in modern dress.
Canon Richard Davey, an Anglican vicar in Nottingham who studies the expression of faith through art, has written in an essay on Mahoney that “in the smallest and most ordinary thing he clearly found a sense of awe and amazement which he then conveyed in his work”.
Mahoney was not conventionally religious (nor I think is Andrew Marr), but he did see his art as a calling, and like the cathedral craftsmen he had no thought of personal ambition. Indeed he was extremely modest and self-effacing. His perfectionist tendencies meant that he rarely thought his own work was good enough.
But for those medieval craftsmen, as for the Christian today, there was an added dimension: to be sure, making good art is an enduring reminder of excellence and beauty, but it is also done in God’s name (as St Paul says to the Romans: “If we live, we live for the Lord, and if we die, we die for the Lord”).
In this way of thinking, every human act, done well, can be dedicated to God. That’s the point of the chapter in St Benedict’s rule which instructs the cellar-man of the monastery to regard “all the vessels” as if they were “sacred vessels of the altar”.
What is more, in the Christian view, the genius of the artist is a spark of God’s creative skill passed on to humans, a gift of the Holy Spirit. It was in acknowledgment of that reality that the humble composer Joseph Haydn began the manuscript of each composition with the words “In the name of the Lord” (In nomine Domini) and ended “Praise God” (Laus Deo).
Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of the Daily Telegraph