Martin D’Arcy, Art Collector

The magazine America: The Jesuit Review has a feature article in its current issue about Waugh’s friend Martin D’Arcy, SJ. This is by Altair Brandon-Salmon and focuses on Fr D’Arcy’s art collecting talents as reflected in his several acquisitions displayed at Campion Hall, Oxford. The article explains how Fr D’Arcy used his knowledge of art to acquire pieces that would display England’s Roman Catholic past:

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.

The article considers the art on display in the D’Arcy Room at Campion Hall as a case study of D’Arcy’s artistic tastes and collecting methods. This includes a detailed explanation of several of the art works on display in that room as well as some information relating to how Fr D’Arcy managed to acquire them, using his network of influential friends.

He also commissioned original artwork. This is exemplified in Campion Hall’s Lady Chapel:

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.” [Charles] 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.

Fr D’Arcy probably also had a role in choosing Sir Edwin Lutyens, the leading British architect of the day, who designed the Lady Chapel as well as the Hall itself. It is a pity that Fr D’Arcy was unable to charm Stanley Spencer as he did so many other talented Englishmen of his generation. What could have become a major work of art is simply a quite good one.

Waugh describes a 1946 visit to Campion Hall in an article that appeared in the Tablet and is collected in his Essays, Articles and Reviews (“The Hospitality of Campion Hall”, p. 316). It is not clear to what extent Fr D’Arcy’s art collection had worked its magic on the place at that date, but Waugh was nevertheless well pleased with what he saw:

The building itself had a unique character, quintessentially of Oxford but without a counterpart. It was remarkable that the only house designed for religious [purposes?] in the University should appear less monastic than the secular colleges. […] The carpeted entrance hall, the broad staircase, the profusion of ornate furniture, the bedrooms with their tactful choice of  bedside books, the prodigality and accessibility of hot water, all had the air of a private house rather than of a college […]

Waugh goes on to mention retiring with other visitors to Micklem Hall where they occupy the Senior Common Room and the Stuart Parlour. Waugh is mostly focussed on the conversation of the group of visitors rather than the interior decorations of the room they occupied, except for the mention of a portrait of “Nell Gwynne smiling enigmatically from its walls …” (Idem., p. 318) That seems an unlikely choice of artwork by Fr D’Arcy; although perhaps not, if it was hanging in the Stuart Parlour.



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