Friday, March 16, 2012

Nina Somerset at St Silas the Martyr, London

The following works of art were brought to my attention by a reader. They are by a lady who was otherwise unknown to me (though NLM has featured her altar card work here before); she died in 1982: Nina Somerset.

The website of the church in which these appear, St Silas the Martyr, says talks about a devout Christian who was a daily communicant (I can't see any direct reference on the site, but I am guessing that this is a high Anglican church and not Catholic. The website for the church is here). It says that she trained as an art student in the Bournemouth in the 1920s. I would describe her style as derived from the pre-Raphaelite and the Victorian neo-gothic movement.

These movements took their inspiration from the late gothic period, prior to the High Renaissance. I am not always enamoured with the art of this inspiration (although I do like the neo-gothic arthitecture very much). Pre-Raphaelite painting in particular is too naturalistic to achieve the gothic look, which is much stylised, and it comes across as too sentimental. Nina Somerset's art works, I feel because she is working so as to try to remove as far as possible the illusion of depth. This two-demensionality offsets the naturalism. My taste is for the yet more austere original gothic style and these are still a little on the sentimental side for my liking. Nevertheless the result is still well worth looking at, I feel, and anyway it's only my opinion. I present them with the thought that some readers will enjoy them without such reservations.

Sentimentality is the scourge of naturalistic sacred art from the 19th century onwards. Since that time, the mainstream has moved more and more towards the ugliness and distorted naturalism or abstraction that best incarnates the materialist secular worldview. The visual vocabulary associated with these styles has great power in communicating this distorted world view, but if we try to communicate something good by the same means it is weak and sappy. As an illustration of this think how poor Christian rock is at communicating Christian values compared with the power with which the original communicates the hedonism of a lifestyle focussed on sex, drugs and rock'n'roll.

It seems that all of us today are affected by this imagery, whether we like it or not. Even if we are trying to communicate something genuinely good we cannot help be affected in some subtle way by the style of mainstream art. To the degree that we are, sentimentality creeps in. Often we cannot see what it is we have done, but we can see the sentimetality that results from it. Therefore the artist today must anticipate that it is probably going to creep in and deliberately try to offset this tendency in his work. One way is to use media that give flatter, more two-dimensional images. Egg tempera, embroidery, gouache, mosaic and fresco, will always look flatter than oil paintings even if the colours are placed in an identical way. This arises from different interaction with light - they reflect and refract it differently. Even if you use oil paint, if you can avoid using thin, translucent glazes will create that effect more. (The other side of this is that oil and water colour are much better for if you want to create the illusion of depth - for example if I was painting a landscape.)

So, here we have the work of Nina Somerset.

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