St Martin’s Altarpiece, Canterbury Cathedral, 1926–50
Framed (ref: 185)
Signed and dated
Oil on canvas, 63 × 29 in. and 26 3/4 in. (161.5 × 74.5 cm. and 68 × 16.3 cm.)
‘In everything to do with this picture I have been conscious of grasping with something bigger than myself ’ (Glyn Jones, 8 April 1950, letter to
In 1927, at the start of his three-year scholarship at the British School at
Rome, Glyn Jones received a prestigious commission to paint three scenes representing the life of St Martin, to form a reredos in the Milner Memorial Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral.The panel of expert advisers who awarded the commission were Sir Herbert Baker, the architect of the Memorial Chapel, and Professor Tonks, under whom Jones had studied at the Slade, with Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland from the Ministry of Labour acting as General Secretary. Baker suggested that, before starting the painting, Jones should ‘go to Assisi to see the St Martin’s series of paintings there’ (letter of 24 March 1927), and later wrote to say that Tonks and he were certain that Jones would ‘produce a beautiful picture rich in imagery, design and colour’ (17 November 1927).
The commission meant a great deal to Jones.The painting became his opus magnum; he worked on little else during his entire sojourn in Italy, and even relinquished his third year of the scholarship in order to be able to concentrate on it without distraction.
On 30 July 1928 Jones received the devastating news that his painting was to be rejected:‘I am sorry to say that it was the opinion of the Committee, and also that of the Cathedral authorities, that the picture is … quite different from what they had expected and hoped from the sketch which you showed to us at an early stage. In the circumstances … it would be unwise, and indeed useless, to ask you to complete the picture … the best thing would be to try and make a fair arrangement with you about it, in view of the work which you had already expended.’A fee of £125 was suggested, half the original value of the commission, and indeed half the value of the third year of the Rome scholarship that Jones had given up to finish the painting. Meanwhile the commission was handed over to Winifred Knights, whose painting of St Martin now hangs in the chapel (see cat. 74).
Jones never recovered from the disappointment of losing this commission; as late as 1950 he was still trying to persuade Canterbury Cathedral to accept his painting, and indeed appears to have still been trying to resolve the panel on the left-hand side, into which St Agnes was eventually placed. Professor Luciano Chelese has pointed out that it is quite possibly based on Andrea del Castagno’s portrait of Queen Tomyris c.1450 (Uffizi Gallery, Florence).
Jones perhaps had good reason to feel aggrieved. From the start of the
commission the committee disagreed about various elements of the
composition and sent Jones numerous letters suggesting contradictory
amendments to his initial ideas. A letter dated 21 June 1927 from
Herbert Baker reads:
‘Dear Glyn Jones,
Since writing I have received this letter from Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland.You will see that your two expert advisers differ, but as the Committee throws its opinion on the side of the original sketch you will naturally follow the original design unless you are strongly in favour of the second which I prefer.Will you give due consideration to Sir Arthur Steel-Maitland’s other criticism.’We are grateful to Tessa Bradley, the artist’s daughter, for making available copies of the artist’s correspondence and for her assistance.