WILLSON, Graeme: ‘My Art’

St Hilda of Whitby. One of three alterpiece paintings for York Minster. Image: see artist’s website.

The work of the Ilkley-based artist, Graeme Willson, who died in 2018,  spanned a wide range of subjects, including portraits, murals, studio work, and Ecclesiastical commissions, including paintings and stained glass. These latter commissions have included work for the Church of St John Chrysostom, Manchester; St Paul’s Church, Thamesmead, London; St Elizabeth’s Church, Reddish, Greater Manchester; stained glass and paintings for St. Margaret’s Church, Ilkley; and, notably, commissions for York Minster in 1979, 1980 and 1994 respectively. His work at Thamesmead gained him the Royal Academy Award for Mural Painting, 1984.

In his book, ‘Graeme Willson’ (1998) the artist writes about the values underpinning his Ecclesiastical commissions (p.59):

Ecclesiastical work is bound to overlap with the notion of ‘public art’ in that both usually enjoy a wider audience than that of the ‘art world’; and both attempt to address or embody commonly held beliefs and values.  Having said that, I am very much aware that we live in a time (at least in the West) when many old theological and moral absolutes seem to be undermined from all sides.  It is a cliché of cultural commentaries that we live in an ‘age of doubt’. And institutional religion would appear to be in a state of decline, if statistics are anything to go by – so how can one talk about ‘commonly held beliefs and values?’


Obviously, I haven’t the space to digress upon what is an enormously complex and controversial subject. I can oly speak from my own experience as an artist within the Anglican Church; and while one may lament the passing of an ‘age of faith’, in exchange for a fragmented and secular present, nevertheless, I still have a feeling that the church, and its art and architecture, continue to resonate on a spiritual and cultural level for many people …


In a time of extreme individualism such as ours, the aesthetic requirements of the church are viewed by most artists as too restrictive. For myself – the opposite is the case. I have seen the commission as a kind of framework within which I can operate at slightly different ‘levels’.


Firstly, there is a level of dealing with an inherited iconography; admittedly not as extreme as that of the Orthodox tradition, where continuity and replication are the priority. But a tradition, nevertheless, of Christian imagery. This level may be summarised in the well-known phrase ‘to the greater glory of God’ .


Ceiling Painting for St Cuthbert’s Chapel, York Minster. Image: see artist’s website.

Secondly, there is the level in which I attempt to intuit something of the collective theological and spiritual values of the commissioners, and their community of worshippers. And again, as with ‘secular’ public art, each church will have its ‘spirit of place’.


Thirdly, there is the level of my own spirituality – the particular ‘filter’ of interpretation which I bring to bear upon the subject in hand as a result of my own personal history and experience.


What happens in practice, of course, is that all these levels operate simultaneously and in slightly varying degrees, depending on the nature of the commission. The essential thing is to get the balance right.


The Assumption of the Virgin. 1992. St. John’s Church, Moston, Manchester. Image: see source, below, p.69.

Source: Willson, G. (1998) Graeme Willson. Published: Smith Settle, sponsored by William Morrison Supermarkets plc.

Also see the profile of the artist at Graeme Willson

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