Cicely Mary Barker’s broad canvas that paints a new future

Last Friday, one of Croydon’s hidden treasures, a work of art which had been kept hidden in the Town Hall vaults for too many years, was unveiled for public exhibition at St Andrew’s Church.

The Great TribulationDAVID MATTHEWS, the headmaster of St Andrew’s School, delivered a fascinating talk about the background to “Out of Great Tribulation” by the acclaimed local artist Cicely Mary Barker, and we reproduce an edited version here

“Out of Great Tribulation” was commissioned by Harold Watson, a well-known Croydon businessman, to be hung as the main feature in the memorial chapel in the now demolished Norbury Methodist Church. It was donated in memory of his daughter, Peggy, who died while still in her teens.

Cicely Mary Barker finished it in 1949, four years after the end of the Second World War. With the changes to the siting of Norbury Methodist Church, the painting was acquired by Croydon Council. St Andrew’s is extremely grateful to the Council, and Sam Smith their archivist, for allowing it be to be hung, on loan, in St Andrew’s Church. I hope you will all agree that this is a far better place for it to reside than the vaults beneath the Clocktower.

There are four major religious works by Barker which are linked to Croydon. The earliest of these, dated 1934, is “The Great Supper”, a triptych which can be viewed by arrangement in St George’s Church, Waddon.

Detail from The Great Supper, another CMB work which is on display at St George's Church

Detail from “The Parable of the Great Supper”, another CMB work which is on display at St George’s Church

The font, here at St Andrew’s, was decorated with illustrations of the seven sacraments in 1943. “Out of Great Tribulation” followed in 1949 and then, in 1962, Barker designed a stained glass window for St Edmund’s, Pitlake, in memory of her sister, Dorothy. This church, which was situated on the edge of Wandle Park, no longer exists. Although we know what this window looked like, it appears to have disappeared. So there is a project here for anyone interested in a bit of sleuthing.

The essential meaning of “Out of Great Tribulation”, at first glance, would appear to be clear: after the suffering and trials of the Second World War, there is a general reconciliation with Christ. The Cross and rainbow, two Biblical symbols of salvation, dominate the top half of the painting and the radiantly white figure of Christ is central. On either side of Christ are ordinary men, women and children, who have come through the tribulation. The overall effect is of a tableau, making the sort of simple, conventional statement one might expect from a devout, Christian artist in the mid-20th century.
This major work by Cicely Mary Barker deserves, however, a closer analysis. It is worth analysing the composition of the painting.

The first thing to note is the symmetry and balance. There is a very obvious symmetry in the arrangement of the figures. Christ is central, with both arms spread to echo the arms of the Cross behind him. He is the line of symmetry. It is quite easy to see what Barker has done.

First, there are two young people in the foreground, one kneeling so that his height matches that of the small girl. In the groups flanking Christ, there is one person on each side with hands clasped at waist height: the airman and the elderly lady with a stick.

One man on either side has taken off his hat and is holding it. There are figures in uniform on either side. Two of them are women: the WAAF and the nurse. There are two figures in khaki, both partly obscured, on either side. A man on the left has an arm in a sling; one on the right has his head bandaged.

There are splashes of red on each side found in the mother’s head-scarf and the man’s tie on one side and the soldier’s shoulder badge and medical orderly’s red-cross arm-band on the other. Mostly, however, the colours are muted shades of grey, khaki and fawn. This symmetry inevitably creates a sense of balance and, therefore, stasis. Barker is clearly not interested in movement.

Cicely Mary Barker: was a noted artist and illustrator who attended St Andrew's Church most of her life

Cicely Mary Barker: was a noted artist and illustrator who attended St Andrew’s Church most of her life

As if to emphasise this point, the two men who appear to have taken a step forward – the fireman on the left and the soldier on the right – have stopped, with heads bowed and hands clasped. One is holding the strap of his helmet and the other is in prayer. The two boys, on either side of Christ, are also immobile; one is on his knees and the other is lame.

These people have emerged from the greatest tribulation to have affected the world since recorded history. The saving figure of Christ is in their midst but yet none is impelled to move towards him. There is no rushing forward to unload a burden, nor seek mercy, nor even throw themselves forward in deep-felt gratitude.

Perhaps what we see is merely a very English restraint. There is a quiet deference here but nothing which might be construed as sentimental or over-emotional. The response to Christ is perhaps indistinguishable from the sober respect which would have been accorded to King George VI or another member of the Royal Family who might, by chance pass through Croydon. Some of the men have removed their hat or helmet but not all.
There is, of course, one notable exception to this calm, static quality. The small girl in the forefront of the picture is alone in showing movement.

It is clear from Barker’s composition that Christ and the girl are meant to be linked. He and she are the only figures with hands open; both are bare-foot; both have long, loose hair; and both are dressed in simple, pale robes which bind them to the rolling, golden hills in the background, the Cross and the bright, pastel colours of the rainbow. These are the components of a heavenly realm. They are off-set by the darker colours of earth: the grass in the foreground and the dress of the other figures.

It is impossible, once one has been acquainted with Barker’s most significant and appealing work (the beautiful Flower Fairies, in all their variety), not to link the little girl, running with out-stretched arms towards Christ, to the children whom Barker translated into fairies. The Flower Fairies are children made ethereal with wings. The girl in “Out of Great Tribulation” is translated into a spiritual dimension through the way Barker identifies her with Christ.

There can be no doubt that, in this major Christian work, Barker is affirming her core belief in the saving quality of children. It is children who embody a spiritual affinity with God. One might even be tempted to go further and say that it is little girls who, in this picture at least, seem to carry this quality more significantly, given that the two boys, though gazing into the face of Christ, are motionless. It is only with the little girl that Christ is making eye-contact.

The unveiling last Friday of Out of Great Tribulation, by Cecily Mary Barker, in the church she attended regularly

The unveiling last Friday of Out of Great Tribulation, by Cecily Mary Barker, in the church she attended regularly

It is worth looking at the way that Barker portrays Christ. She shows him as a post-Resurrection figure. This is not as she portrays him in the triptych in St George’s, Waddon, “The Parable of the Great Supper”. In “Out of Great Tribulation”, Christ bears the marks of his own suffering. The holes in his hands, from the nails which crucified him, are visible, and the crown of thorns still sits on his head.

Barker has, however, cleaned up her Christ. There is no blood. The wounds are not fresh. Christ is robed. He is as we imagine he may have appeared to the apostles in the 40 days between resurrection and ascension. Christ, therefore, identifies with the people clustered around him as he too has come out of great tribulation.

It is the Christian understanding that suffering can be borne because it is shared by Christ. It is not the lot of humanity to escape suffering but it is through Christ that we come through it. This point is made with additional subtlety in the way that Barker echoes Christ’s crown of thorns with the coil of barbed wire tucked into the bottom left-hand corner of the picture. Both are symbols of the suffering which mankind can inflict upon itself.

One final point to make about the composition is the way Barker indicates the presence of others by having figures only just apparent on the fringes of the tableau or who are blocked (some even to the point of not being recognisable) by others in the foreground.

Her intention, surely, is to suggest inclusivity. This is emphasised still further by the representative nature of the figures. There are men and women of all ages, boys, a girl and a baby. There are those who served in one capacity or another in the war and there are civilians. True, there is no one in the picture (including Christ) who appears to be anything other than White British, but this indicates little more than a standard perspective on British society at the time. Immigrants from the former Empire had yet to add significantly to the diversity of British society. Barker is a woman of her time.

“Out of Great Tribulation” is also a picture of contrasts. The bright, spiritual realm symbolised by the Cross is echoed in the figures of Christ and the little girl who unite to form the upright of the Cross. This dimension is contrasted with the darker colours and realism of the figures grouped on either side, and the darker ground on which they stand.

Cecily Mary Barker's work as an illustrator, especially with her tree fairies work, was hugely popular in the inter-war years

Cicely Mary Barker’s work as an illustrator, especially with her tree fairies books, was hugely popular in the inter-war years

Their conventional dress and solid footwear contrasts with the simple shifts worn by Christ and the girl, and their bare feet. The open hands of the two central, spiritual figures are in contrast to the hands which we can see elsewhere in the picture, clasped or hanging loosely to the side. Where does this contrast take us? Is Barker stating quite starkly that there is an uncrossable chasm dividing the heavenly from the earthly? I do not think so because there is a little girl who seems able to make the transition.

“Out of Great Tribulation” deserves our attention because it combines a sense of hope (symbolised by the child, impelled towards Christ as a source of comfort) with a sense of resignation. The figures to Christ’s left and right have not been transformed or translated by what they have endured in the Second World War. The boy in calipers and the elderly woman at his side with a walking stick remind us that physical disability and degeneration are facts of life too.

Not one figure (unless it be the little girl whose face we cannot see) is smiling, though none appears miserable or pained. Barker has clearly not wanted to paint a Judgement where the saved and the damned are divided. Is anyone chastened? It is impossible to tell but perhaps the praying soldier is and the young, fresh-faced sailor seems transfixed. If these people have come out of great tribulation, there is very little to suggest that they know how to escape such a trial coming again. They stand on either side of their Saviour but they do so passively.

Are there messages to take from this painting, which very much reflects its own era 60 years ago, to British 21st century society?

Barker would be adamant that it is in the simple innocence of children and their pure instincts that salvation is to be found. She would be appalled by the evidence, which we currently have to confront, that in Britain childhood has been eroded by an exposure to influences and behaviours which contaminate innocence before it has developed its own resilience. Perhaps it has always been thus but the forces wreaking that destruction have been changed. Whatever the truth of the matter, Barker quite clearly wants to affirm, unhesitatingly, the central importance of Christ in anything that attempts social or spiritual regeneration.

It is therefore fitting that “Out of Great Tribulation” should again be hung in a church, and Cicely Mary Barker’s old church at that, which is newly aligning itself with that central Christian imperative to serve the community.

The community is inextricably tied into this picture because Barker invariably used local people as her models. We do not know a great deal about the real people behind this picture. Mary Barker, Barker’s mother is here (she also features in “The Great Supper”).

The airman is Albert Warren, whose parents owned a greengrocer’s in Southbridge Place. The soldier is Jack Davies, a friend of Albert Warren’s. We believe the Wren (WRNS) is a Miss Sainsbury and the fireman is a Mr South.

The ARP warden is probably either a Mr Funnel or a Mr Stephen, and the elderly gentleman, behind the airman, is probably a dentist called Mr Allen. Apparently, each model received £5 for sitting for Barker and also received one of the preliminary pastel sketches. We know that Albert Warren was very proud of his framed sketch.

Barker is, therefore, quite deliberately connecting the ordinary people of Croydon to her God. They feature in the same canvas.

St Andrew’s school and church and their partner organisation, The Hive, are in this same line. We may not have quite the same explicitly religious message as Barker delivers but we have the same aspiration. We want to help the children, young people and other residents of Croydon see beyond and through their own circumstances to a new order which is brighter, stimulating, dynamic and mutually supportive. We want to build community, putting everyone who resides in our town into the same canvas.

The model which we are developing in St Andrew’s has, I think, huge potential. We invite students from the school, the rising generation, to provide the manpower and muscle for outreach projects, ensuring that they are as involved as fully as possible in the planning and delivery of these different projects. They learn crucial life-skills along the way. They “make a difference”, leaving their community the richer for their participation. And as they grow their community, they learn to be dynamic citizens, equipping them for when they step fully into an adult role.

hive_logoThe Hive runs a programme called ROUTES which helps our young people track their acquisition of these employability skills so that prospective employers can see what they have done and can do. Obviously what this model needs is support from anyone, or any organisation which has the slightest interest in growing a brighter future.

We shall be launching the Friends of St Andrew’s at the end of November. This will combine what used to be the school’s PTA with a parish outreach programme. Principally it will be a fund-raising body so that we can subsidise specific projects. But central to everything that we do will be a mandate to equip the rising generation with the skills they need so they are ready to take the reins.

I want to advertise another major Cicely Mary Barker project which we plan to hold at St Andrew’s next summer. This will be a professional production of an original play, a world premier no less; in fact we believe it is the first ever drama featuring this artist. Once again, this venture will enable students from the school to play a part in the front-of-house and administrative side. The production itself will provide a cultural experience which we hope will entertain members of the community.

Some may call what we are doing as “Big Society”. Perhaps it is. Others may call it “Community Action” or “service to the community”; it is certainly both those things. I am not particularly interested in the label nor any political overtones carried by these different labels. Our work, the investment of our time and energy, is about the cycle of sowing and harvesting, sowing and harvesting; the rewards will surely follow the labour.

With this metaphor in mind, it is fitting that I the last word should go to Cicely Mary Barker herself, who wrote the following, on completion of that other significant local work, “The Great Supper”.

“I loved the fields that were sacrificed to make the Waddon estate but, since they had to be sacrificed, I wanted to have a hand in the making of something beautiful in their place. So I look upon it as a privilege to have been allowed to paint the picture and to have a share in St George’s Church… It is the fields, all the time, that I have thought of, that used to grow wheat and oats and barley, and are now producing a great new human harvest.”

It is the great new human harvest, to be found in the rising generation, which we must work to gather in.

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3 Responses to Cicely Mary Barker’s broad canvas that paints a new future

  1. whitgiftavenue says:

    What an excellent piece. Thank you.
    I understand that St Andrews also posses a sculpture by Eric Gill, although I may have got this wrong.

  2. Dean Beedell says:

    The ARP warden is actually Mr. South. I know this because I own the two original studies that Cicely Mary Barker created in pastel for this wonderful picture. I have the colour draft image of the ARP Warden and the soldier in battledress both drawn as studies but high quality nonetheless. I can supply a photograph of both if required. They are on my wall at this very moment. The ARP warden has “Mr. South” written on the study so I can supply that snippet of knowledge to correct your fine article. I treasure these two detailed sketches but if you ever want to view them you are quite welcome to do so.

  3. Pingback: Who was Cicely Mary Barker? - Inspire Virtue

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