Pilgrim’s Progress is unique among Hans Feibusch murals, in that it was a non-commissioned autobiographical project. As such, it is not only a rare example of British Holocaust art, but also a disturbing visual record that has enormous resonance in the context of modern anxieties about the displacement of refugees from conflict zones and the position of the British people in the history of diaspora. It is also a work of great spiritual significance and a registered war memorial. Properly preserved, interpreted and displayed, it has the potential to be a powerful educational tool in the service of peace.
Pilgrim’s Progress is currently hidden away from public view in the Crypt of St Elisabeth’s Church, Eastbourne, which is scheduled for demolition.
Read on to find out what you can do to help us save the mural.
Hans Feibusch was a Jewish refugee who fled Germany for Britain in the 1930s, his work sufficiently despised by the Nazi regime to be included in the now infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937, alongside artists such as Chagall, Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian. He became a member of the London Group, which had been founded by artists including Walter Sickert and Jacob Epstein and went on to include most of the key names in twentieth-century British art, and found his niche fulfilling commissions to paint murals in churches and other public buildings. It was through this work that he came to the attention of Charles Reilly, the renowned professor of architecture, and George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who provided him with the rare opportunity to create a mural of his own design and conception in the crypt at St Elisabeth’s Church in Eastbourne in 1944.
Feibusch chose the allegory of Pilgrim’s Progress as a vehicle for his own story, depicting a refugee fleeing the evil and chaos of Nazi Germany and his eventual acceptance and redemption not in the Celestial City but in 1940s Britain. As well as being an extraordinary feat both in terms of its scale and its mastery of form and colour, Pilgrim’s Progress is also a deeply personal project unlike any other of Feibusch’s work, and an important artefact in twentieth-century social history. Descendants of concentration camp detainees who have seen it say that those depicted in the mural bear the unmistakable facial expressions of Holocaust survivor guilt. The mural is a registered War Memorial (the first, we believe, of WW2) and is unusual in being dedicated to civilians as well as military casualties. As we embark on the twenty-first century, it acquires new resonance in the context of mass displacement of people into Europe by conflicts further afield.
Following many years of concern about the structural integrity of the church building, the church was closed in 2002 and the congregation moved next door to a newer building that had previously been used as a parish hall. Various schemes have been contemplated that would develop the building whilst keeping its exterior intact, but none have come to fruition. Meanwhile the church building has continued to deteriorate and its development or restoration have become less and less viable.
On 4 December 2017, the Church Commissioners of the Church of England published a draft Scheme providing for the demolition of the building. If approved, the Scheme would have allowed the Church to go ahead with demolition irrespective of whether the mural was still in situ.
Thanks to the swift and heartfelt action of many, many lovers of art, history and heritage, who wrote in impassioned terms to the Church Commissioners, that Scheme currently remains on hold.
Thank you to everyone who participated in the letterwriting campaign and helped prevent the demolition plans being rubber-stamped.
In February 2018, while the British Forces Broadcasting Company was filming in the Crypt in connection with this campaign, it became apparent that the mural had been vandalised with graffiti. It was also clear that the building’s humidity and lack of ventilation were accelerating its deterioration. With time therefore of the essence, we prioritised the search for a new home for the mural and sources of funding for removing it safely.
On 17 April 2018, in recognition of the depth of feeling about Pilgrim’s Progress, an open afternoon was held at St Elisabeth’s to allow the mural to be on general public display for the first time in some years. Huge numbers of visitors came, some having travelled hundreds of miles to be there. The event was covered by the local press and radio, and in an extended report on BBC News South East that day.
Thank you to everyone who came and enjoyed the mural, which showed the Church Commissioners how valued and valuable it is.
In April we also submitted a report to the Church Commissioners summarising our research into possible locations to which the mural could be moved. We identified three local possibilities, and outlined a plan for financing its removal. Since then, a fourth possible location for the mural has also been identified.
During September, our art conservation expert will be checking on the current condition of the mural.
After a long delay, we are on the brink of receiving a decision about the Church of England’s plans for St Elisabeth’s, and by extension Pilgrim’s Progress. The Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee will consider all the representations made by the public, both for and against demolition, and the views of the Bishop of Chichester will also be sought. At the next meeting of the Committee, a selection of those who made representations may be allowed to speak briefly, after which a decision will be announced before the meeting is closed. There are four possible outcomes of this process:
If we are unhappy with the decision the Church Buildings (Uses and Disposals) Committee makes, our only remaining recourse would be to appeal to the Privy Council for a judicial review of the decision-making process.
At this time, we are not asking for direct action by the public. However, you can still help in a number of ways.
Any questions, comments, media requests or offers of help can be sent to me, Alex Grey, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The campaign to save Pilgrim’s Progress is being run by Martyrs’ Gallery in Lewes, a not-for-profit contemporary art gallery and project space. More information about the gallery can be found at www.martyrs.gallery.