12 APRIL 1975, Page 25


Doubting Thomas

Martin Sullivan

"Thomas was not with them when Jesus came." This laconic sentence sets the scene for an interesting and human story, recorded only in the Fourth Gospel and serving as one of the pointers to Christ's resurrection. The disciples were assembled in the Upper Room, behind closed doors, when suddenly they became aware that the Lord was with them. They heard Him speak, and declared they saw His wounded hands and side. But one of their company, Thomas, the Twin, was absent. Filled with enthusiasm his friends descended upon him to tell him what he had missed, and if he had a guilty conscience because of his absence, perhaps to sharpen it.

We have all known this experience. Our friends appear sometimes to take an almost sadistic delight in telling us gleefully about some eventful occasion we have missed. If we are sensitive we feel this hurt deeply; if we are more thick-skinned, we may react angrily and exaggeratedly. Thomas seems to fit into this latter group. From the limited references to him in the New Testament we may judge him to be a rather dour and unimaginative man. When we first hear of him he appears as a courageous pessimist. Jesus had been speaking of returning to Judaea, at a time when it was obvious that He would be putting His head into a noose. His enemies were in waiting for Him. As the disciples counselled Him not to return, it was Thomas who blurted out, 'Let us also go that we may the with Him'.

This then was the man descended upon by his enthusiastic companions. Why had he been absent from the Upper Room? We are not told. He simply had not gone to church that night and possibly felt uneasy about it. Everyone was afraid of what would happen and the secret meetings were important. And now this exciting babble going on around him could have aroused him and added to his guilt a feeling of exasperated fury. "Shut up, all of you," he could easily have said, "I don't care what you saw. 1 shall remain unconvinced unless I not only see Christ face to face, but actually poke my fingers into the nail prints and my fists into the hole in His side."

Eight days later they were all together again in the familiar meeting place and this time Thomas was with them. Again Jesus appeared. His visit seemed to be planned for one man alone. To him he issued a personal invitation, "Touch me, probe the wounds." The dumbfounded sceptic did not accept the offer. In words of tremendous significance he turned the wheel of his doubt full circle. "My Lord and My God," he cried: Christ's reply was His last beatitude. "Thomas, because you have seen Me, ye have believed. Blessed are they that have not seen and yet have believed." We cannot be sure how much of this story is factual. The writer of the Fourth Gospel was a master of interpretative symbolism, and his deeply spiritual mind, reflecting upon the experience of the Resurrection, has produced this parable to help us all. Martin Sullivan is Dean of St Paul's

Augustus John is an artist who has probably been more written about than looked at in recent years. Sadly, this is a process which had started even in his own lifetime. As Quentin Bell put it, in a Spectator review of the John biography by Michael Holroyd, by what measure or philosophy can anyone who in his youth was compared to Rubens and to Michelangelo accept an old age in which his achievement is considered against that of Orpen and McEvoy? John might have been even crosser, if he had lived to see his `Suggia', undoubtedly the most important of his portraits in a national collection, on extended loan to the British Embassy in Athens, where the recent regime would not have been to his taste in any case.

If present day taste is less enthusiastic about John than that of his own generation was, at least a good many people are interested in reading about his life, which is more than can be said for Orpen or McEvoy. Can the current National Portrait Gallery exhibition (at 15 Carlton House Terrace till August 31) redress the balance, or will the public flock to the companion exhibition (at the main Gallery itself from May 30 to October 26) of the John legend and ignore his actual work?

The last major John exhibition in London was in the spring of 1954 at the Royal Academy Diploma gallery. John at that time was still a newsworthy lion and, so 'establishment' had he become that, only a decade previously, he had missed the Presidency of the Royal Academy against Sir Alfred Munnings by only a few votes, The NPG show, though smaller in scope than its Burlington House predecessor, is a brave attempt to interest a new generation in John the artist before we become too engulfed by John the figure of his time in the centenary celebrations of 1978.

The best thing at Carlton House Terrace is undoubtedly the drawings, the majority of them coming from comparatively early in his career, and before the advent of his real popularity and fame after the first world war. John drew exceedingly well and with an elegance and economy which was often missing in his bigger pictures. Colour usually went to his head and although the effects could be ravishing, as in the early Welsh landscapes and some of his paintings of Provence, he clutched at it with an enthusiasm only comparable to that of an alcoholic for liquor. In his later work there was often little else left other than his zest for colour itself.

The position is different with the drawings and in some of his graphic work. The need to startle, to impress the onlooker, is absent. Instead, particularly in his female studies and sketches of children, there is a tenderness and an economy of line which is reminiscent of Watteau or some of the French eighteenth-century masters, rather than the bravura effects of Rubens or Hals that he tried to emulate in many of his oil paintings. Drawings like 'The Blue Shawl' (1908), which is partly shaded with watercolour, or the marvellously sensitive studies of Joyce (1930) and the blind Delius (1929) show a complete, unaffected mastery of the medium. In nearly all his pencil sketches there is an element of repose which is missing in the paintings.

With his bigger pictures, a considerable effort has been made to show John at his best and a selection has been chosen ranging from early paintings like 'Dorelia standing before a fence' (1903-4) and 'The Red Feather' (1911) to the more striking of his portraits like the Suggia (1923). Lady Ottoline Morrell (1919) and Lady Adeane (1929), from the period when he was already established as a popular society painter. One is bound to admit that the total effect is not altogether a success. Perhaps John painted too many well-known faces, perhaps like Leighton his portraits deteriorated into a series of fashionable clichés. It ia true that many of these pictures, like those of Shaw, Hardy, Montague Norman, Tom Mix and some of the self-portraits, stand out with a good deal of dash and theatrical effect, but they tell us little or nothingthat is new about the subject. Compare these, for instance, with the painful process of probing and evaluation that went into the great Rembrandt series of self-portraits or the late Hals Regent pictures.

Is it totally absurd to speak of John in the same breath as masters like Hals or Rembrandt? Certainly many of his own generation would not necessarily have thought so. He had become, so to speak, almost an old master with his own era. Yet, if the truth be told, he was probably not a great painter .(a great draughtsman, perhaps, but that is different). Future generations may well take him to their hearts, 'but it will probably be with the Tanks of Lely and Leighton rather than those of the great English 'painters, where he would like to have belonged.

Guest art critic Ernie Money was Shadow Minister for the Arts in the last Parliament, when Conservative MP for Ipswich.