Wednesday, 19 September 2018

London sculptures serve
as reminders of mission
priorities at USPG meeting

The sculpture by David Evans above the entrance to Methodist Church House depicts the call of the disciples, the draught of fish and the great mission commission (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

I have spent most of today [19 September 2018] at a meeting in London of the trustees of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel).

USPG is in the middle of moving offices from Great Suffolk Street to Trinity Street, with temporary offices in the Mothers’ Union Building at Mary Sumner House on Tufton Street, Westminster. So, today’s meeting took place in Methodist Church House on the corner of Marylebone Road and Nottingham Place, almost opposite Madam Tussauds and beside the Marylebone campus of the University of Westminster.

I caught the Stansted Express to Liverpool Street and the tube to the nearest underground station at Baker Street. Of course, I missed my routine from previous board meetings of walking from Liverpool Street to Saint Paul’s Cathedral, across the Millennium Bridge to the Tate on South Bank, and continuing on the USPG offices in Southwark.

Those early morning walks and the return walks in the late afternoons, provided opportunities for visiting one or two unexplored Wren churches along the way, or visiting other architectural or archaeological locations.

However, today’s walks between Baker Street to Marylebone Street offered new delights and fresh insights.

When the three main branches of British Methodism came together in 1932, their mission societies also came together to form the Methodist Missionary Society, and ‘Mission House’ was begun as their headquarters in 1939, a symbol of this unity in action.

It seemed so appropriate today that the oldest Anglican mission agency should meet in what was once the principal office of Methodist mission work.

The great commission … a detail on the sculpture by David Evans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

The former Methodist Missionary Society building was built in 1939 and was designed by the architects Paul V Mauger (1896-1982), a Quaker who designed many Quaker meeting houses, Arthur J May and Leo Sylvester Sullivan (1878-1964).

The BBC leased this building until 1946, and for over 20 years the building has been known as ‘Methodist Church House,’ since it became the offices for the major part of the British Connexional Team in 1996.

This is a plain, almost brutalist building, of the functional design that I associate with war-time buildings. The most interesting part of the building is the collection of relief sculptures adorning the building, the work of the sculptor David Evans (1893-1959) in 1941.

Evans was born in Chorlton-Cum-Hardy, Manchester, in 1893 and began his art studies in Manchester in 1912. He won a scholarship in 1914 to the Royal College of Art, where he studied in 1914-1915 and again in 1918-1921 after World War I.

Evans was awarded the Rome Scholarship in Sculpture in 1923, and spent the next two years studying in Italy (1924-1926). After returning to Britain in 1927, he obtained a solo exhibition at the Goupil Gallery of works he had completed in Rome. These included portraits of the staff at the British School, some ideal subjects and statuettes.

Evans executed two important commissions for Liverpool Cathedral, a memorial to Bishop Francis Chavasse (1846-1928) and the Nurses’ Memorial. He also made portraits of John Galsworthy, Sir Hugh Walpole and Sir Arthur Evans, the archaeologist at Knossos in Crete.

Evans spent some time working in the US, beginning with two years teaching at Cranbrook Academy of Art (1929-1930). There he completed works for the Rockefeller Center, Radio City, Brooklyn Post Office, a bank on Wall Street, Saint Thomas’s Church on Fifth Avenue and a memorial to Hicks, an early member of the American Society for the Protection of Animals.

Evans also created ‘Christ in Prayer’ for the doorway to Christchurch, Cranbrook, Michigan, which he considered one of the most important commissions of his career.

The draught of fish … a detail on the sculpture by David Evans (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Evans was back in Britain from 1933 and continued to work on memorials, reliefs and portraits. These include a memorial at the Revd W David Kelly College in Tavistock, two small sculptures of ‘Science’ and ‘Letters’ flanking a doorway to the central reading room in Cambridge University Library (commissioned by the architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, 1933-1934), and panels surrounding the main entrance to County Hall, Carmarthen, a building designed by Sir Percy Thomas in 1935.

Evans contributed to the large-scale decorative scheme erected on the exterior of Selfridge’s in Oxford Street to mark the coronation of George VI. He made a life-size bust of Captain Thomas Coram for the Foundling Hospital, and a relief and six panels for a bronze door at the Methodist Missionary Society.

He also restored a wooden frieze for Saint James’s Church, Piccadilly, made the RAF Memorial at Saint Clement Danes Church on the Strand, a wood carving for University College London, and a figure of ‘Father Thames’ for the Watling Street fa├žade of New Change Buildings.

However, the work for which Evans is best known was recreating the huge wooden figures of ‘Gog’ and ‘Magog’ in 1953 for the Guildhall, London, based on the originals that had been damaged in a bombing raid in 1940.

Evans also worked in the film industry, where his work included a statue in plaster of Henry VIII for the Boulting Brothers’ film The Guinea Pig (1948). He died in Welwyn Garden City, Hertfordshire, in 1959.

The low relief over the front door or main entrance of Methodist Church House shows Christ calling the Disciples, telling them he will make them ‘fishers of men’, and the Great Commission.

To emphasise their enthusiasm in the task of mission and their success, a large number of fishes’ heads peer out from the stern of the boat. It is also a reminder of the miraculous draft of fish, the first post-Resurrection miracle (John 21: 1-14).

A nurse among the portraits above the first floor (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

High up, above first floor windows on the Marylebone Road side of the building, are three portraits by Evans illustrating Methodist missionary priorities: a nurse cradling a baby, and an African and an Indian Christian.

The cornerstone is inscribed:

The Methodist Church

The foundation stone of this
Mission House was laid by
the President of Conference
the Rev W L Wardle MA DD
28th June 1939

‘I look upon the whole world as my parish’
John Wesley


Today’s meeting ended with time to remember people linked with USPG who have died in recent weeks, including Bishop Edward Malecdan of the Philippines, Margaret Messer, a former SPG missionary in India, Brother Giles SSF, Sheila Budge, the Revd Robert Browne, the Revd Alan Talbot, and Doulgas Yates, a former chair of trustees.

Of course, John Wesley was once an SPG missionary too, which added an interesting context to our location today and our closing prayers this afternoon.

The foundation stone at Methodist Church House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

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