16 February 2021

Edward Woods of Lichfield,
the sculptor Jacob Epstein,
the Pope and a milk float

Sir Jacob Epstein’s sculpture in bronze of Edward Sydney Woods, Bishop of Lichfield, in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Lichfield is now known as the City of Sculpture, thanks to the sculptor Peter Walker. The City of Sculpture is a physical and new media trail of artworks that has engaged community projects run by The Sculpture and Art Foundation CIC.

The guide produced by Lichfield City Council provides a walking trail that is divided into six sections:

1, Lichfield Cathedral

2, Beacon Park and the Museum Gardens

3, Bird Street, including the War Memorial and the Samuel Johnson Mosaic by John Myatt (1976)

4, Saint John Street and the Friary, including Simon Manby’s ‘Noah and the Dove’ in the courtyard of Saint John’s Hospital, and ‘The Reading Girl’ by Giovanni Mario Benzoni, now in Saint Mary’s.

5, The Market Square (Johnson and Boswell)

6, Tamworth Street

The works in Lichfield Cathedral listed on this guide include the statues on the West Front; the Lichfield Angel; the ‘Sleeping Children’ by Sir Francis Chantry; Bishop Edward Sydney Woods, a sculpture in bronze by Jacob Epstein in 1958; artefacts from the Staffordshire Hoard; the High Altar by Sir George Gilbert Scott; and the Herkenrode Glass.

Sir Jacob Epstein was a pioneer of modern sculpture, and his bronze statues of Saint Michael and the Devil is on the wall of Coventry Cathedral leaves a lasting impression. When Basil Spence commissioned Jacob Epstein, some members of the rebuilding committee objected. They said some of his earlier works were controversial. Although Coventry was at the centre of post-war reconciliation, some even objected, saying Epstein was a Jew. To this, Spence retorted: ‘So was Jesus Christ.’

Other cathedrals with works by Jacob Epstein include Llandaff Cathedral with his ‘Christ in Majesty.’

For a long time, Lichfield Cathedral has displayed Sir Jacob Epstein’s sculpture of Edward Sydney Woods, Bishop of Lichfield (1937-1953), which was completed in 1958, five years after the bishop’s death.

Edward Sydney Woods (1877-1953) was the 94th Bishop of Lichfield. He was born on 1 November 1877, the son of the Revd Frank Woods, and his mother, Alice Fry, was a granddaughter of the Quaker prison reformer Elizabeth Fry.

Edward Woods was a tall man, over 6 ft high, with an engaging and easy-going manner. He was educated at Marlborough College and Trinity College, Cambridge, and was ordained priest in 1902.

High Leigh, once the home of the family of Clemence Barclay, who married Edward Wood, future Bishop of Lichfield, in 1903 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

A year after his ordination, he married Clemence Barclay in 1903. Her father, Robert Barclay, lived at High Leigh, Hoddesdon, now a well-known conference centre in Hertfordshire and regularly the venue for the annual conference of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel). She was a descendant of the abolitionist and social reformer Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton.

Robert Barclay was descended from a well-known Quaker banking family. He bought High Leigh in 1871, and to this day the walls of High Leigh are lined with Victorian photographs of the Barclay family and their staff; a stained-glass window in the original parts of the house shows the impaled Barclay and Buxton coats-of-arms with a bishop’s mitre as one of the two crests.

Clemence Woods’s brother, Joseph Gurney Barclay, was a missionary in Japan with the Church Mission Society (CMS) when his wife Gillian died in Kobe in 1909. Their son, Sir Roderick Barclay (1909-1996), was born in Kobe and was later the British Ambassador to Denmark (1956-1960) and Belgium (1963-1969).

Edward Woods was the chaplain, a lecturer and then Vice Principal of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, until World War I, which he spent at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. After World War I, he as the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church, Cambridge. At Cambridge, he formed a life-long friendship with Harold Abrahams, the Olympic athlete who features in the movie Chariots of Fire.

Woods moved from Cambridge to Croydon, where he was vicar, rural dean, archdeacon and then the second suffragan Bishop of Croydon.

He was appointed the Bishop of Lichfield in 1937, and it is said that while he was Bishop of Lichfield every member of the royal family at the time visited the Cathedral Close as his guest.

The story is told that Bishop Woods had the distinction of being one of two survivors of a German air raid by hiding under a dining table with Ann Charteris, the future wife of Ian Fleming.

But another, more important story, from an ecumenical perspective, is told by Jono Oates in his A—Z of Lichfield, Places, People, History (Amberley, 2019). Bishop Woods was visiting British troops in war-time Italy in 1944. While he was in Rome, he visited the Vatican and had an audience with Pope Pius XII. This was long before meetings between Popes and the Archbishops of Canterbury became a regular fixture, and it is believed to be the first private meeting between a Pope and an Anglican bishop.

The impaled Barclay and Buxton coats-of-arms with an episcopal mitre at High Leigh (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Woods was a prolific author and a fine orator, and during the 1940s he was a regular contributor to the BBC’s religious programmes. After World War II, as Bishop of Lichfield, he was also the Lord High Almoner from 1946 to 1953.

In his book, Jono Oates also tells the amusing story of how Bishop Woods arrived on a milk float to open an art exhibition in Stafford. The intention was that a driver would drop him and return afterwards to take him back to Lichfield. However, Woods told the driver to drop him at the Art School before realising he had got the wrong location. To avoid being late, the bishop thumbed a lift from the first vehicle that stopped and arrived on a milk float in his mitre and cope, carrying his crozier.

Bishop Woods died on 11 January 1953. His children included Frank Woods (1907-1992), Archbishop of Melbourne, who was born in Davos, Switzerland; Samuel Woods (1910-2001), Archdeacon of Rangiora in New Zealand; Robin Woods (1914-1997), Dean of Windsor and Bishop of Worcester, who was born in Lausanne, Switzerland; the photographer Janet Stone (1912-1998); and Josephine Priscilla, who married the Revd John d’Ewes Evelyn Firth in Lichfield Cathedral in 1939.

His sculpture by Jacob Epstein was unveiled by the Queen Mother in Lichfield Cathedral in 1989.

Sir Jacob Epstein’s ‘Christ in Majesty’ in Llandaff Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

This evening: Thomas Wood, Dean and and Bishop of Lichfield, who was ‘mean and avaricious’

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