“God’s painter” ~ Hans Feibusch
They have been locked away in a dark crypt for more than a decade; beautiful murals that were painted in 1944 on the walls of St. Elisabeth’s church, Victoria Drive, Eastbourne, East Sussex, by artist and sculptor Hans Feibusch.
This Parish church, a Grade II Listed building, was declared unsafe in 2002/3, having become increasingly unstable as the result of damp penetration brought about by damage when a doodle-bug crashed and exploded in nearby Baldwin Avenue in 1944. The cost of repairs was estimated at three million pounds in 2005, but there was no apparent interest in saving the building; an alternative plan of demolishing the church and building flats on the site also produced no results. So the church was boarded up and the thriving congregation moved to the adjacent church hall.
The future of these rare and unique murals which decorate all four walls of the Chapel of Remembrance hangs in the balance. The story behind these artistic treasures is fascinating. Hans Feibusch was a German Jew, born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany on the 15th August 1898, the elder son of Dr. Carl Feibusch, a dental surgeon and Marianne Ickelheimer, an amateur painter. At the age of 18 he spent a short time as a medical student, but decided to study art instead.
In Munich this was under Stanislas Stuckgold, and in Berlin with Karl Hofer. Having then spent some years travelling around Italy, he eventually settled in Paris, joining the Othon Friesz and Andre L’Hote studios and exhibiting his work at the Salon d’Automne and the Paris Independents.
He started to become successful as an artist and in 1930 was awarded the German Grand Prize for Painters by the Prussian Academy of Arts (Berlin) for his painting ‘The Fishmonger.’ (1930).
But as a German Jew, growing Nazi persecution meant that staying in his homeland was becoming increasingly difficult. He recalled, in a 1997 interview with Martin Gayford, of the ‘Telegraph’ newspaper, that when he joined the Frankfurt Artists’ Association, “We took on new members on recommendation of one of the other members. But one recruit turned out to be a Nazi, and revealing his uniform, he jumped on the table and pointed at the Jewish members with his riding whip, saying, ‘You and you and you can just go home and forget about art. You will never show anything again.’ ”
Feibusch stayed just long enough in Germany to finish a commission of a portrait of an opera singer. Having been brought up a liberal Jew, there was the attraction of going to Palestine, but being engaged to Sidonie Charlotte Cramer, nee Gestetner (1888-1963), the divorced wife of Max Cramer, he chose to emigrate to Britain in 1933.
His abandoned paintings were mocked and rejected from many German art galleries; One work showing angels, entitled ‘Two Floating Figures,’ was prominently displayed in an area labelled ‘Revelation of the Jewish Racial Soul’ at the notorious 1937 Degenerate Art Exhibition in Munich, staged by the Nazis to highlight the modernist trends in art they opposed. Hitler said at the opening, “From now on, we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegration…..you can be certain – all those mutually supporting cliques of chatterers, dilettantes and art forgers will be picked up and liquidated.” Afterwards, some of the exhibits were sent to auction in Switzerland, but Feibusch’s Two Angels were ceremonially burned in the yard of the Berlin Fire Brigade.
In Britain, Feibusch married Sidonie in 1935, and earned his keep by designing book jackets and posters for Shell and the London Underground. An architect, Frankland Dark, initiated his new career by commissioning a mural, ‘The Foot Washing’ (1937) for the New Methodist Church in Colliers Wood, London, which depicted Christ washing his Disciples feet. This work was widely acclaimed in the press for figures that ‘appear to float across the two dimensional area of the wall, appealing greatly to modernist architects.’ Feibusch commented that when he was travelling around Italy, he became fascinated by the works of Mantegna and Piero della Francesca, and on coming to Britain he felt he was able to bring a new flair and boldness to what had become a rather timid and tired English tradition.
In recognition of his much acclaimed regular one-person exhibitions at the Reid and Leferve Gallery in London he was elected a member of the London Group.
In May 1940 Feibusch was granted British Citizenship and during WW2 was actively involved in first-aid work and fire –fighting, but still kept on painting. He was befriended by George Bell, then Bishop of Chichester, who had seen a photograph of Feibusch’s mural, ‘The Foot Washing,’ and asked to meet him because, “I am seeking an artist to assist in the adornment and beautifying of places of worship.” “Does he know that I am a Jew?” Feibusch enquired. Bell did. From this first meeting came a lasting friendship which resulted in many commissions for church murals on religious themes, and a change of religion for Feibusch as he adopted Anglicanism.
Although Feibusch had never attempted to paint murals before coming to Britain, he took delight in “standing before an empty wall as in a trance, to let shapes cloudily emerge, to draw scenes and figures, to let light and dark rush out of the surface, to make them move outwards or recede into the depths, this was bliss.” One of his early works was in the private Bishop’s chapel in the Palace at Chichester, where windows in a medieval wall had been blocked, but Feibusch skilfully utilised them by depicting people looking out of painted windows. Another mural was of a nativity cycle at the Anglican church of St. Wilfred’s, Brighton.
As a thanksgiving for the kindness with which this country had received him, a Jewish refugee from Hitler, Hans was able to decorate the four walls of the Lower Chapel of Eastbourne’s St. Elisabeth’s church in 1944. His subject was an extensive pictorial narrative of the journey and trials of Christian and his wife Christiana from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City as depicted in the story of ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’ The mural is 130 feet long, and, revived the ancient art of mural painting of the original Early English custom of telling the people a story.
‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ is offered as a dream, where a man named Christian is suffering great spiritual anguish. Evangelist, a spiritual guide, tells him his salvation can only be found in the Celestial City. Leaving his family behind, Christian faces many challenges on his long journey. He falls into a bog, the Slough of Despond, but is saved. After meeting Worldly Wiseman, he comes to Christ’s tomb and cross. Three celestial creatures, the Shining Ones, hand him a certificate, his entry to the Celestial City. But Christian falls asleep, and on waking up he continues his journey, then realises he has lot his vital ticket to the Celestial City. Retracing his steps he finds his precious document. More challenges follow, from the Four Mistresses of the Palace Beautiful, to meeting the monster Apollyon, who attempts to kill him. Christian is armed and strikes the monster with his sword. Meeting two other pilgrims, Faithful and Talkative, they make their way to the town of Vanity where a fair is being held.
Imprisoned by the townspeople for mocking their religion, Faithful is killed, but Christian escapes and takes shelter for the night in the grounds of Doubting Castle. Escaping from the clutches of its owner, the Giant Despair, he nears the Celestial City; three shepherds warn him of treacherous mountains ahead where many pilgrims have died. Having crossed the sleep-inducing Enchanted Ground, the Celestial City lies ahead. But he must cross a river without a bridge; here Christian nearly drowns, but manages to reach the opposite shore.
His wife, Christiana, in the meantime, decides to make her own journey to the Celestial City, accompanied by her children, and a servant, Mercy. They too, reach the boggy Slough of Despond, but get through. One of her sons, Matthew, steals fruit from the devil’s garden and falls ill. He is cured by Dr. Skill and they continue on their journey, passing through the Valley of Humiliation and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. Having crossed the river, they kill the Giant Despair and are then welcomed by the three kind shepherds. Finally they arrive at the Celestial City.
By a symbolic use of colour, in the early part of the story, when Christian and Christiana are closely bound to earthly ties, the colouring is ‘earthy,’ with browns, green and yellows. Their progress is marked by a change of colour, becoming vibrant at their journey’s end. Helping Feibusch to produce this extensive work by painting the background colours, were Kenneth Adams from Eastbourne College of Art and three enthusiastic young people from the congregation.
A reporter for an Eastbourne newspaper in 1944 stated that, ‘The expressions of the faces and of the poses of the figures are moving and vital, and his brush indeed “flows freely” along the walls….the figure of Christian’s wife and two of her children as they stand lonely in the doorway after Christian’s departure are moving in their poignancy and grace, and remembering them, one wonders with something like awe what the completed crypt will be.”
By 1973, Feibusch’s eyesight was failing, and he could do no more murals, so took up sculpture instead. His sight was partially restored by the ophthalmic surgeon, Patrick Trevor-Roper, and after seeing a film about the Holocaust, Feibusch produced a series of paintings in burning Expressionist colours to recapture that nightmare of, “the hunting, the running away, the fall in terror.”
Admirers have claimed that Hans Feibusch’s work was always representational but, ‘he developed early on a use of colour and intensity of vision that distinguished his work throughout his long career. He used colour to accentuate intent and meaning. He especially liked orange against pinks and acid yellow against blues. The compositions, often of closely grouped figures, are almost neo-classical in their arrangement and mannered poses. His figures often have an ethereal quality, as though defying gravity.’ A book, ‘The Heat of Vision’ published by Lund Humphries in 1995, showing some of Feibusch’s work in his long career, earned him the description ‘The artist of the glowing palette.’ Sadly, this striking artwork at St. Elisabeth’s, when finished, failed to reached a deservedly wider audience; time and adverse conditions have damaged many sections of the paintings, but under recently re-installed lighting their beauty and vibrancy can still clearly be seen. There are no other items left in this Chapel of Remembrance, the pews and altar are long gone, but one can only stand and admire this work by a great artist. The future is uncertain……
In a 1997 interview with Martin Gayford, of the Telegraph newspaper, Hans mused, “I’ve seen a great deal of life, good things, bad things, a terrible lot.” At 99 years of age, and with failing eyesight, he was still working from his lofty London studio which had once been owned by Landseer. He continued, “I painted natural objects, or perhaps fascinating ones, but reduced to simple forms and in bright colours, holding a balance between what seemed to me the spiritually significant part and fussy detail.” He did not feel that things had changed for the better…. “The increasing speed of life has made people more inhuman. Culturally, it has come down very much.”
Hans Feibusch died on the 18th July 1998, four weeks short of his 100th birthday. He had recently attended a celebration of his work and life held at the Royal College of Art., acknowledging that he had produced over forty murals in churches, cathedrals, synagogues and public buildings. In The Guardian obituary of the 20th July 1998, Terence Mullaly stated ‘Hans Feibusch …was responsible for more murals in churches in England than any other 20th Century artist. God’s Painter.’ In the last years of his life Feibusch reverted to the faith of his youth and is buried at Golders Green Jewish Cemetery.
In a letter to the Eastbourne Herald, in 2009, Tony Crooks states, ‘…..there is a scheme to turn it [St Elisabeth’s] into apartments. The crypt may well become a community room, and I’ve heard that, when work starts on the church’s conversion, protective boards will be placed over the murals. Whether they will be seen again is uncertain although they surely deserve a better fate than this.’