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Father Andrew the artist: Plaistow friar, who never lost his boyhood enthusiasm for all things artistic – Steven Saxby

It is well known that Father Andrew – one of the three founders of the Society of the Divine Compassion (SDC), the first Anglican society of male Franciscans – was a popular religious writer.  From 1920 onwards, he authored nearly 40 works of plays, poetry and devotional writings.  It is less well known that Andrew was a painter and creator of some inspiring works of art.  Father Andrew’s published works are now all gathered together and accessible at Lambeth Palace Library, but his paintings, some gracing the walls of Society of St Francis houses and possibly elsewhere, are at risk of being lost to posterity.

As a novice in the 1890's

As a novice in the 1890’s

Andrew (born Henry Ernest Hardy, in 1869) enjoyed art as a child and even went to art college in Bristol before going up to Keble College Oxford. After university, Andrew spent a year at Oxford House in Bethnal Green. That year changed his life.  It was then he met James Adderley and made plans with him and Henry Chappel to form a religious community.  The religious brothers set up a community in Plaistow in 1894 and Andrew lived there for most of the rest of his life, until his death in 1946.  Through all this time he retained his love of art.  While in Bethnal Green he started making trips to Epping Forest where he would sketch. Interestingly, Kathleen Burne’s collection of The Life and Letters of Father Andrew contains three images of Andrew as an artist at various stages of his life: a painting by Henry Stacey of the newly habited Andrew seated at an easel; a photograph of Andrew sketching at Maldon, Essex in the late 1920s; and another photograph of Andrew sketching in Epping Forest in about 1935.

Clearly, he loved to sketch and paint.  He writes, between the wars, of taking breaks in France and Italy just for this purpose.  He used his artistic skills from his early days in the SDC to beautify St Philip’s Church.  He provided illustrations for at least one book and often provided drawings for the St Philip’s Plaistow magazine and the annual parish Christmas card.  In addition, he helped create artistic tableauxb – scenes involving parishioners dressing-up – to present Bible stories.  These were very popular and were staged not only in Plaistow but many other places too.  Later he developed a number of friendships with people in the theatre, not least with Lillian Baylis, the head of the Old Vic. She had attended an SDC retreat and Andrew became her spiritual director.  It was Russell Thorndike, a famous actor of the time, who persuaded Andrew to try his hand at playwriting, asking for a nativity play.  So it was that in 1920 he wrote Hope of the World which ran for two seasons at the Old Vic and was performed to packed audiences in Canning Town Public Hall thereafter for many years.  He wrote at least six plays between 1920 and 1933.  His Easter play The Garden was performed in Plaistow every Lent from 1924 to 1941 with overflowing audiences. The Bethlehem Tableaux, which had lapsed for a while, were revived in 1931 and put on every year until 1940.

The Manger, 1936

The Manger, 1936

Several of Andrew’s books contain frontispiece illustrations ‘by the Author’ such as “The Manger” in his 1936 book of poems entitled Value and his powerful “Love’s Proof” in The Patch of Blue.  These works, as well as the paintings on the walls of some of the SSF houses, indicate that Andrew drew and painted in a simple, yet highly engaging style.  There is a typically Franciscan appreciation of both nature and human beings in his creations.  His beautiful landscapes often depict an elegant human figure in the distance.  The frontispiece for his poetry collection The Divine Compassion shows Mary kneeling in front of a brick arched window.  Her graceful figure is highlighted by the uneven cracks in the brick arch, including a crack with weeds growing out of it.  On the base of the window, on a stone slab, almost altar-like, lies a tiny baby with a simple halo of light above.  One can sense the loving sorrow but trusting acceptance of the young mother Mary, contemplating the sacrifice of her son for the broken world with which he came to share the divine compassion.

As mentioned earlier, part of Andrew’s artistic achievement can now be viewed in the books at Lambeth Palace Library, but what of the rest of his drawings and paintings?  Having made some enquiries, it seems that various SSF brothers remember paintings that no longer seem to be around.  There still are at least two paintings at Canterbury, also two at Glasshampton and three at Alnmouth, but it appears that there are no longer any at Plaistow.

Probably painted while in Rhodesia for a year, 1932 (Now in the Canterbury Friary)

Probably painted while in Rhodesia for a year, 1932 (Now in the Canterbury Friary)

Are there more at other houses or else-where?  If so, what might be done to try and save this important part of Andrew’s legacy for future generations?  One thing is for sure, Andrew’s love of art is a good reminder to all busy people of the need to take time out and pursue those things which nourish the soul.  We can be confident that his fondness for taking time out to create art, made a very significant contribution to the spiritual health of a busy friar who nevertheless did much to inspire others in their faith. f

Steven Saxby is an Anglican Priest serving in Walthamstow.  He was born in Plaistow and has lived at the SDC/SSF house there, 42 Balaam Street.  For a copy of Father Andrew – a summary of his life, please contact the author via stevensaxby@btinternet.com.