Sunday, January 13, 2013

Quaker Alphabet Week 2 - A for Arts

The Presence in the Midst by J Doyle Penrose 1916
Quaker attitudes to the arts have changed considerably over the years. I have only space here for a short survey but will return to various aspects of the subject over the course of the rest of the Quaker Alphabet.
George Fox had a very definite 'puritan' view of the arts. To him these 'jests and toys' were nothing but a distraction from God and Truth and as such were to be entirely avoided by Friends. The only purpose of sports, games, poetry, plays and music as far as he and other early Quakers were concerned was to while away time that should be dedicated to a higher and more serious end. Another objection to the arts was that they were not true. Plays were particular offenders here as not only was the story being told not real but actors dressed up and pretended to be someone else!

Although poetry was allowed to sometimes have a serious purpose, composing it for any but a private audience was frowned upon. The works of Mary Southworth Mollineux (1651-1696) for example were only published after her death, although Fruits of Retirement: or Miscellaneous Poems, moral and divine did go into six editions in the course of the 18th century. Religious poetry was popular among Friends but was not often published, usually being privately circulated and copied into personal commonplace books and journals - which is how much of it survives.

Elizabeth Fry
Both listening to and making music, even privately, were also not approved. This was one of the arts, together with dancing, which Elizabeth Gurney Fry (1780-1845) found most difficult to let go of when she turned from the less strict Quakerism of her upbringing to the 'true' Quakerism of her adult life. In Feb 1799 she wrote "How much my natural heart does love to sing: but if I give way to the ecstasy singing sometimes produces in my mind, it carries me far beyond the centre; it increases all the wild passions, and works on enthusiasm. Many say and think it leads to religion, but true religion appears to me to be in a deeper recess of the heart, where no earthly passion can produce it." Her scruples did not entirely disappear however and in 1833 she writes, "My observation of human nature and the different things that affect it frequently leads me to regret that we as a Society so wholly give up delighting the ear by sound. Surely He who formed the ear and the heart would not have given these tastes and powers without some purpose for them."

John Pemberton 1727-95
Paintings were seen as superfluous decoration and portraits were particularly frowned on as leading to personal vanity. This is the reason why there are so few contemporary representations of Quakers in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Those that exist are often done by outsiders who were seldom sympathetic to their subjects. In the later 18th and 19th centuries however the practice of cutting silhouettes became popular and these met with more approval from Friends. Occasional sketches done without the subjects' knowledge have also survived to give us an idea of what particular Quakers looked like.

As time went on however a different attitude to the arts began gradually to spread among Friends. As with other changes in Quaker practice much evidence of this change comes from the attempts by official bodies to stop it! In 1846 for example London Yearly Meeting minuted "We believe [music] to be both in its acquisition and its practice, unfavorable to the health of the soul. . . . Serious is the waste of time of those who give themselves up to it." At about the same time the influential journal The Friend (Philadelphia) expounded "Sorrowful it is, that even some in conspicuous and influential stations, have actually "sat" for their portraits; and this, not for the hasty moment of the daguerreotypist (questionable as even this prevalent indulgence is), but patiently awaiting the slow business of the limner. Shallow indeed must be the religion of him who knows not that in himself, as a man, dwelleth no good thing."

On the other side some spoke up for the seriousness and spiritual value of the arts. In 1895 William Charles Braithwaite wrote "It needs to be recognized that our Society has not escaped the tendency to narrow down spiritual action to certain prescribed ways as a substitute for the reality of the spiritual life. For example, while Friends have been among the pioneers of modern science they have, until recent years, repressed all taste for the fine arts. These, at their greatest, always contain some revelation of the Spirit of God, which is in the fullest harmony with our spiritual faith. In the fields of music, art, and literature, as in others, Friends may witness to the glory of God and advance that glory by their service."

Penn's Treaty with the Indians by Benjamin West
By the beginning of the 20th century this view was beginning to be more accepted. An example of this is the popularity of the 1916 painting by James Doyle Penrose The Presence in the Midst which makes explicit the presence of Christ in a meeting for worship (see top). It joined representations of William Penn's treaty with the Indians and engravings of a portrait of Elizabeth Fry on the walls of many Meeting Houses in the UK and America.

In the 1970s and 1980s British Quakers set up a Quaker Fellowship of the Arts and The Leaveners continue to encourage Friends to engage in both music making and theatrical performance. There are now many Quaker artists, both amateur and professional, expressing their faith through what they make and what they do. 

Quaker Silence by John Perkin

1 comment:

Missus Wookie said...

Interesting that both Q A-Z blog posts had my favourite MfW painting - remember seeing it in the US and loving it as a small child.

Both of my kids enjoyed learning about Benjamin West's life in a historical novel we read when doing US history. They liked reading about Quakers :)