Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - U for Uncomfortable

I'm running late according to my timetable for writing this blog and that makes me both uncomfortable and uneasy. The pressure to write comes only from within so you might say that I have only myself to blame, but that doesn't help to dispel the uncomfortable feeling.

Perhaps in Quaker terms it is good to feel uncomfortable, not to be complacent and content with things as they are. For myself feeling uncomfortable is often what pushes me into writing and also from time to time into spoken ministry. I know the feeling of sitting in meeting resisting the urge to speak until I feel so uncomfortable that I have to rise to my feet and say something. That is why the accounts of similar experiences of Friends in earlier times ring so true to me and are so helpful in my own spiritual journey. So many journals and spiritual autobiographies tell of struggles to remain comfortable and to ignore the nagging feelings of uncomfortableness, but faithfulness to the guidance of the Inward Teacher, the 'promptings of love and truth' in our hearts, brings ease and comfort - at least until the next time!

When early Friends spoke of having a comfortable time with others they were not talking of sitting in a warm room among people of like mind. They meant that they had been given comfort for their ills. The foundation of Quakerism for me is that if we are open to the Light we will be shown our darkness, those uncomfortable truths about ourselves that we find it hard to acknowledge, but that we will not be left there but brought to new life - challenged but also given comfort.

So eventually I became so uncomfortable that I sat down and wrote this and now I feel better - for a while at least.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - T for Tradition

In a Quaker meeting that I was a member of for many years we used to joke that something only had to be done twice to turn into a tradition. There was a serious side to this as it tended to discourage experiment, a tradition being something that was difficult to change.

This dead hand of tradition can be seen in the way some letters in The Friend speak about Yearly Meeting Gathering as if it had always been our practice, and indeed that we would be going against tradition if we did not meet in tents. As a Religious Society of Friends that believes in continuing revelation I feel that it is dangerous to our future if we allow the assertion that 'we have always done things like this' to hold us back from trying to do things differently and looking for Quaker renewal.

This is not to say that we should throw the baby out with the bathwater by rejecting any study of the past as irrelevant to our Quaker future. On the contrary I feel that an understanding of the great variety of our Quaker history and of how we got to our present position can only be helpful to us now. Listening to voices from the past may give us helpful insights but should not tempt us to try to recreate those former times.

When Ann Wilson pointed Samuel Bownas out as 'a traditional Quaker' she was challenging his unthinking acceptance of the traditions in which he had been brought up. He had the form of a Quaker without any of the power within that would make him a true one. He was changed by his experience in the same way as we can be changed now.

Some traditions may serve us well, especially if we understand how they have arisen, but they are only useful if we follow them with the power as well as the form. Words from the past can help us but not if only repeated unthinkingly. They must be, as Bownas puts it, 'old matter opened in new life'. Let us not be afraid of changing traditions or of making new ones so long as whatever we do and say is led by the spirit of truth.

Monday, October 06, 2014

Quaker Alphabet Blog 2014 - S for Joseph Edward Southall

Joseph Southall self-portrait 1925
Joseph Southall was born in Nottingham on 23 August 1861, the only child of Joseph Sturge Southall and Eliza Maria Baker. His father was a chemist and grocer but he died when Joseph was just one year old and his mother brought Joseph back to her Birmingham family home. Joseph was educated in Quaker schools at Ackworth, Birmingham and Scarborough. He showed artistic talent from a young age and from the age of thirteen was taught watercolour painting by Edwin Moore who is said to have remarked, 'Ah, here is a boy with an eye.'

In 1878 Joseph left school and was articled to a firm of Birmingham architects, Martin and Chamberlain. He continued to take drawing and painting classes and when he came of age in 1882 he abandoned his formal training in order to practice carving and painting to fit himself to be what he regarded as a true architect. He kept himself through inheritances from his father and an uncle and went to live in a house in Edgbaston belonging to another uncle where he remained for the rest of his life.
The artist's mother 1902

In 1883 Joseph spent eight weeks in Italy with his mother and a cousin, a turning point in his artistic life. He became an ardent admirer of the Italian primitive style and resolved to study and practice the art of painting in tempera. In 1884 Joseph's architectural drawings were shown by his uncle, George Baker, to Ruskin, who admired them and commissioned Joseph to design a museum for his Guild of St George. However in 1886 this project fell through and Joseph felt that his chance to become the architect he wanted to be had vanished.

Anna Elizabeth Baker 1897
Joseph continued to draw, paint and struggle with the tempera technique. He studied at Birmingham School of Art and exhibited with the Royal Birmingham Society of Artists (RBSA). In 1893 he was greatly cheered when his work was praised by another artist from Birmingham, Edward Burne-Jones. Joseph's work became gradually better known and he was able to sell enough to support himself. With other like-minded artists he formed the Birmingham Group of Artist-Craftsmen and in 1901 was one of the founders, along with Holman Hunt and Walter Crane, of the national Society of Painters in Tempera.

The Blue Sea with frame by Anna

In 1903 Joseph married Anna Elizabeth Baker who was two years older than he was. The couple had been attached since their youth but, as they were first cousins, had deliberately delayed their marriage, making a conscious decision not to have children. Anna shared Joseph's artisitic interests and made elaborate frames for his pictures. Each year the couple would go to Italy or France and also to Southwold in Suffolk or Fowey in Cornwall, where they visited galleries, sketched and painted. Joseph's reputation grew in Britain and in 1910 he also held a very successful one-man show in Paris.

From Fables and Illustrations 1918

Joseph and Anna both remained Quakers and supported their local meeting in Edgbaston. Joseph was often critical and did not suffer fools gladly. His demeanour has been described as 'frosty but kindly'. During the First World War Joseph was active as a pacifist both in Quaker circles and with the Independent Labour Party. He painted much less and turned instead to illustration and political cartoons pointing out the evils of war. He accepted a commission from the Birmingham Corporation to paint a mural 'Corporation Street March 1914' but he gave it a subtly anti-war message, showing the prosperity which the city had enjoyed before the conflict.

Corporation Street March 1914, now in Birmingham Art Gallery

Joseph and Anna in Southwold 1911
As he grew older Joseph received more public recognition and executed several more murals in buildings in Birmingham, but in 1937 he became very ill and underwent major surgery. He never fully recovered and although he continued to paint until his death he did not go abroad again. He died in November 1944 at the age of eighty-three.

The Botanists 1928
Joseph's work has been characterised as 'static' and his preoccupation
was with materials and technique. However he painted some fine portraits, many of Quakers, and Picasso was much taken by his painting of water. He was true to his vision and to his roots and his work can still be seen in the city he lived in all his life. The critic William Rothenstein wrote, 'I have a great respect for Southall, both as an artist and a sterling character, one of the few considerable artists who has remained in his native city.'

The Food Queue, now in Oldham Galllery