Martin D’Arcy and the Art of English Catholicism

It is 1935, and Martin D’Arcy, S.J., the foremost English Catholic personality of the interwar period and the master of Campion Hall, Oxford, is at lunch in London with Sir Edwin Lutyens, the most celebrated English architect of his time. Lutyens is designing the new college building for Campion Hall, the Jesuit college at Oxford University, but as they wait for lunch to arrive, he pulls out a photograph to show to Father D’Arcy: It is of a large Spanish polychrome relief sculpture, depicting St. Ignatius Loyola surrounded by his companions, with two cherubs holding his cape aloft.

Mr. Lutyens suggests that it should perhaps go to the new Catholic cathedral in Liverpool. But Father D’Arcy disagrees: “I immediately told Lutyens that the obvious place for it was Campion Hall,” D’Arcy relates in his essay “Treasure Hunting,” “and he not only agreed but took care that it could be fitted into the wall in a suitable spot.”

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That polychrome sculpture of St. Ignatius is still in its original (Lutyens-designed) niche at Campion Hall. It functions as an alternative portrait of the Jesuit founder: Instead of the august, antique oils of aristocrats and bishops hung in the dining halls of the colleges they had founded, at Campion Hall the visitor meets the spiritual originator of both the Society of Jesus and the hall itself. It sums up the magpie-like eye of Father D’Arcy (1888–1976) and his eagerness in furnishing his “new” college to the same standards as his surroundings.

Father D’Arcy’s cultivation of a kind of English baroque could be seen everywhere in the new college at Oxford.

This was all the more pressing as Campion Hall was viewed as a Catholic interloper, an intruder into a university still deeply connected to the Church of England. Catholic students had only relatively recently (since 1895) been allowed to become full members of the university; Campion Hall was one of four “permanent private halls” founded at the turn of the century in order to provide teaching, accommodation, and perhaps most importantly, a community for young Roman Catholic students.

Catholicism, in a land that had repudiated the pope in Rome for nearly four centuries, was still seen as “a religion of dissidence and alterity,” as Jane Stevenson of Oxford University recently wrote. Father D’Arcy, a playful, well-connected figure, friends with a disparate series of people—from Evelyn Waugh to Kenneth Clark, Edith Sitwell and W. H. Auden—wanted to present a rival vision of Oxford, what it might have looked like had Britain stayed Catholic. Thus his regime of art collecting had a definitive sense of purpose: to assure his college’s social status in an intensely class-conscious university and to posit a Catholic vision that stressed the historical continuity of English Catholicism, with its links to continental Europe.

Father D’Arcy’s cultivation of a kind of English baroque could be seen everywhere in the new college, from the polished wooden floor underfoot, redolent of Spanish missions, to the unapologetic Catholic iconography to be found hanging on the walls. Peter Davidson, curator and archivist at Campion Hall, has written how there is a tradition in England of “perceiving the Catholic arts as the arts of the enemy,” yet D’Arcy was not trying to unduly provoke Oxford, but rather to present a vision of what the university would have been like if Mary, Queen of Scots, had taken the English throne in 1558 instead of Elizabeth I.

The Parsons Room in Micklem Hall features works by Guido Reni and Sébastien Bourdon. (Photo: Campion Hall).
The Parsons Room in Micklem Hall features works by Guido Reni and Sébastien Bourdon. (Photo: Campion Hall).

This is seen most clearly in what is now known as the D’Arcy Room in Campion Hall. Found on the ground floor of Micklem Hall, a 16th-century house assimilated into Campion Hall by Mr. Lutyens, the visitor descends a small series of steps into a wood-panelled room, illuminated by French windows that open out into the garden. Here facing you are four paintings in conversation with the viewer and with one another. They represent an alternative Catholic monarchy for England: a portrait of Mary of Modena, the devout Roman Catholic wife of James II, from the studio of Geoffrey Kneller; a miniature of James Francis Edward, the Jacobite claimant to the throne in the 18th century; a portrait of Mary, Queen of Scots, pretending to be from the 16th century but extensively retouched, poor Mary having a touch of Ginger Rogers about her; and of course, a dignified portrait of James II, another piece of Kneller studio work. None of these are paintings one would expect to find in an Oxford college, either now or in 1936.

Indeed, when Father D’Arcy bought these paintings from Mayfair galleries, they were deeply unfashionable and were sold at low prices. Aided by his friendships with prominent dealers, like John Hunt, paintings were on occasion offered to him before they went on sale. Even more extraordinarily, because of D’Arcy’s friendship with Kenneth Clark, director of the National Gallery, Clark did not bid for baroque religious works at auction that he knew D’Arcy wanted for the hall. Thus for a relatively small outlay, the new Jesuit college was able to assemble a remarkable collection of old masters, including Cigoli, Marcello Venusti and Jacopo Bassano.

A Rich Variety of Artworks

Yet Father D’Arcy was not content with only 17th-century oils of Catholic monarchs and gentle Madonnas. Staying in the D’Arcy Room, if one turns toward the panelled wall opposite the alternative Jacobite royal house, there is a rare watercolor on linen from China, showing St. John receiving the Book of Revelation from an angel. Only here St. John is depicted in the graphic Chinese manner, painted by an 18th century Chinese Catholic convert, probably intended for the Jesuit mission in China—it points toward the international scope of the Society of Jesus and reminds us that we are in a specifically Jesuit house.

Campion Hall makes for one of the most idiosyncratic yet coherent private collections put together in the British Isles in the 1930s and ’40s.

The collage-like effect of the room is completed by several small prints from David Jones. Jones, a modernist poet and engraver, was a Catholic convert and friendly with Father D’Arcy, and gave a number of his prints to the hall. D’Arcy was especially keen on presenting Campion Hall as a “modern” college, so apart from engaging Lutyens to design it, he collected works by Picasso and Derain and two powerful prints by Georges Rouault. This was complemented by an array of British contemporary art by Frank Brangwyn and Eric Gill. Father D’Arcy even had his portrait painted by that quintessential English bohemian, Augustus John. With its deep links to both baroque and global art, the collection is equally rich in modern devotional art, making for one of the most idiosyncratic yet coherent private collections put together in the British Isles in the 1930s and ’40s.

Campion Hall’s artwork includes “Christ at the Column” by Palma Il Vecchio (c. 1528) (photo: Campion Hall).
Campion Hall’s artwork includes “Christ at the Column” by Palma Il Vecchio (c. 1528) (photo: Campion Hall).

The D’Arcy Room, with its baroque candlesticks and salmon-pink upholstered chairs, could perhaps be mistaken for the parlor of a recusant Catholic family. This, of course, is part of the point. Yet it is also very similar to common rooms found in other Oxford colleges—such as the Elizabethan Jesus College—differing in the details rather than in the overall structure. It is at once intensely familiar and remarkably disorientating, shot through with a distinctly “continental” flavor (a term which has long troubled, and continues to trouble, so many Britons).

If the D’Arcy Room displays in the most concentrated form his art-collecting predilections, then the Lady Chapel represents his significant role as a patron of the arts. Passing through Lutyens’s intimate but vaulted chapel, the light shades humorously shaped as cardinals’ hats, there is a small side chapel that holds a marvellous painted room, an exceedingly rare endeavour for England in the 20th century. Every surface has been painted by Charles Mahoney, resituating the life of the Madonna in a walled garden in contemporary, 1930s England.

Mahoney took his cue from the old masters that surrounded him as he worked on the wall paintings in the postwar period. It has been part of the tradition of Western art to rearticulate the Gospels in the visual vernacular of its audience: So just as Florentine artists in the Quattrocento placed Jesus and his disciples in the Tuscan landscape, Mahoney brings the story of the Virgin Mary into an idealized English garden, complete with roses, oaks and carefully tended shrubbery (a gardener in blue overalls is one of the figures kneeling to the “Virgin of Mercy”).

A painted chapel at Campion Hall by Charles Mahoney resituates the life of the Madonna in a walled garden in 1930s England. (Photo: Campion Hall)
A painted chapel at Campion Hall by Charles Mahoney resituates the life of the Madonna in a walled garden in 1930s England. (Photo: Campion Hall)

Father D’Arcy funded the Lady Chapel using donations by Evelyn Waugh from the royalties for his biography of St. Edmund Campion, and D’Arcy had originally approached Stanley Spencer to complete the scheme, no doubt inspired by his work at Burghclere Chapel. However, the two men did not get on, D’Arcy dismissively describing Spencer thus: “So diminutive as to be almost a dwarf in labourer’s clothes with a dirty satchel containing all his belongings, he was no ordinary guest.”

Mahoney, a Royal Academician, was a safer pair of hands and experienced in mural painting (although much of his work was destroyed in the Blitz). Age and illness, though, prevented him from entirely finishing the Lady Chapel. One panel remains as a monochrome sketch, still waiting for the vitalizing application of color.

Still, it is a remarkable, beautiful environment, summing up D’Arcy’s aspirations for a specifically English Catholicism, employing the recognizable visual symbols of Britain, its fashions and its mores to retell the life of the Virgin using Catholic iconography. There is not much else like it in the history of English art in the 20th century.

Forever an Outsider

Since the Reformation, English Catholics have been persecuted and discriminated against at every level of society. Indeed, the memory of this persecution in families who have maintained their faith over the centuries remains strong. Father D’Arcy belonged to a generation whose parents and grandparents lived through a regime of legalized prejudice—civil rights had only been restored to Catholics in Britain in 1829. To situate a Jesuit college at Oxford as an intellectual and social equal of its Protestant brethren was a radical, subversive act.

Despite his closeness to a literary and artistic elite in Britain between the wars, D’Arcy would forever be an outsider to the establishment, his religion an enduring mark of difference.

Nevertheless, in assembling an art collection that ran the gamut from Picasso to Pacchiarotti, Derain to Murillo, D’Arcy announced, as Jane Stevenson put it, “that Jesuits were, within an Oxonian sense of the term, civilized.” Campion Hall represented a legitimate alternative to the conservative Anglican traditions espoused by the university as a whole.

Much of the artwork collected by D’Arcy remains at Campion Hall, supplemented by acquisitions in the same aesthetic spirit, testifying to the internationalism of the Society of Jesus and the importance of beauty in attempting to grasp the divine. Paintings like Cigoli’s brooding, baroque “Lamentation” become a visual prompt through which ecumenical dialogue with the Church of England can take place. The art is passed by undergraduate and graduate students on their way to tutorials, or to a lecture, or even for lunch, communing, consciously or not, with the chipped but ardent sculpture of St. Ignatius, his face ineffably peaceful, hand forever raised in benediction.

The art has become embedded into the daily life of Campion Hall, exposing an international group of students to a baroque visual culture, reminding them of an old knowledge, that England was not always thus, that its Protestantism was a political choice and that the suppression of Catholicism was equally a conscious, planned-out program, with centuries-long repercussions.

In Campion Hall, Father Martin D’Arcy created a powerful vision of Catholic values and British identity in continuity with both the nation’s and the church’s history. As Britain faces a reckoning with its own identity in the 21st century, it would do well to remember its Catholic, continental and transnational past represented by Campion Hall.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joan Sheridan
10 months ago

Was Fr. D'Arcy by any chance Irish? D'Arcy is Irish and they are one of the 12 tribes of Galway. My father was a D'Arcy from Galway and he spelled his name the same way as Fr. D'Arcy.

Andrea Campana
10 months ago

Regarding the English Catholic and other martyrs and saint-making, more than 30 years ago, an English hierarchical office that promoted the cause of the English martyrs was closed. That office had cooperated with the Jesuit postulators (beatification and canonization process) in Rome.
Regarding Ms. Sheridan's comment, D'Arcy was also an old English name, most likely of French origin. The grandmother of the Jesuit saint, Robert Southwell (1561-1595), was Mary Darcy (D'Arcy). You are in good company!

Alice Cunningham
9 months 3 weeks ago

Cool article! I have been looking for this information for a long time. I am very fond of history and I know well many facts from this story. In your article, I also learned a lot of new things. I need to write a paper to the university in history. I am now looking for useful information on the Internet and found your story. Thanks for your work.

Zara Brown
9 months 3 weeks ago

It is wonderful to read about the Martin D’Arcy, S.J and Campion Hall. Campion Hall was always viewed as a Catholic interloper, an intruder into a university still deeply connected to the Church of England. So it was obvious choice for him. He has a very wonderful collection of art and he had collected a lot rare drawn picture of catholic sentiment. Not only has that he actually had a very good taste on arts. This is article helps me to know a lot of unknown things about him. Thanks to the authors for such a amazing writing.

Todd Witherell
9 months 3 weeks ago

Chesterton, Tolkien, Hopkins, Newman, Eliot, etc... when the English go Catholic, the results can be quite profound.

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