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Discovering Marc Chagall in the English Countryside

© By Ann Wallace
  All Saints Church Blink and you might miss it! Even if you do find yourself on the rutted laneway that leads to All Saints Church, Tudeley, in England's pleasant southeast county of Kent, it is unlikely you will be overly impressed with the unremarkable, disproportionate church that comes into view. Yet this little church is unique and beloved by many.
     Enter the porch, turn the latch, push the heavy oak door and pass through the dark entrance into the interior. It is only then that you will understand why this is such a special place. Pools of light - predominantly blue and gold, flecked with crimson and green - shimmer on the ancient flagstones. Look up, and then around, and around some more. It is the stained glass windows on every side of this church that make it so unique and they are, quite literally, breathtaking. For All Saints Church, Tudeley, is the only church in the world whose windows have all - twelve in total - been created by Marc Chagall. It's an inspiring story of love, loss and art.
     But to explain the presence of the windows, it is necessary to look briefly at Tudeley's history. Until 1849, there had been no large landowner resident in this tiny village. But in that year, Somerhill, a Jacobean mansion and the most important house in the neighborhood, was purchased by Sir Isaac Lyon Goldsmid. The years passed and the wealthy Goldsmid family acquired land, expanded their estate and started to take a philanthropic interest in the affairs of Tudeley. This interest, however, did not particularly include the little Anglican Church since the Goldsmid family was Jewish. However, all that was to change in the last century when the incumbent squire of Somerhill - Sir Henry Goldsmid - married an Anglican. Sir Henry kept his Jewish faith, but Lady Rosemary d'Avigdor-Goldsmid and their two daughters - Sarah and Chloé - worshipped at the village church. Theirs was no doubt a charmed, art-filled life. In 1961, Sarah and her mother visited an exhibition at the Louvre in Paris where glass windows designed by Chagall for the synagogue of the Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem were on display. Both women were enraptured.
     But tragedy was waiting in the wings. Two years later, at the tender age of 21, Sarah and two friends were drowned in a sailing accident off the south coast of England. Grief stricken, but with a lasting memorial to their daughter on his mind, Sir Henry remembered Sarah's admiration of Chagall and approached the artist with a request. Would he accept a commission to design a memorial window for All Saints Church? Chagall hesitated. In spite of the fact that he was in his eighties, he was a busy man; he had never worked in England and - as a Jew himself - he had no experience of what might be expected and acceptable in an Anglican church. Nonetheless, Chagall had always been interested in Christian motifs and stories and eventually he agreed to the commission. Tiny Tudeley was set on the road to artistic fame.

Chagall Window  Chagall Window  Chagall Window  Chagall Window 

     In the winter of 1965 Lady d'Avigdor-Goldsmid met Chagall in Paris to discuss the commission. His design was approved and Charles Marq of Atelier Jacques Simon in Reims translated the piece into glass, as he had done with the synagogue windows. Eventually two workmen were sent to England in the fall of 1967 to install the glass in a newly-designed window space above the altar. The window was unveiled in a dedication ceremony in December of that year, but this unveiling was only the beginning. Chagall had noticed that the church possessed eleven more windows, seven of which were of plain glass and four of coloured glass. If suitable arrangements could be made for the removal and re-installation elsewhere of the existing coloured glass (descendents of their Chagall Memorial Window creator still lived in the parish!) then Chagall was prepared to create designs for all the windows. Thus it was that, after much local debate and controversy and many delays, All Saints Church Tudeley became the home of twelve exquisite stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall, the only church in the world to be so honoured.
     Yes they are indeed all beautiful windows, but it is the memorial window above the altar that is the most compelling. Predominantly blue, a colour representing love that Chagall loved to use, it depicts the tragedy that inspired it. In the lower section, Sarah is rocked in the dark indigo waves, while a figure representing all who knew her mourns. Her mother is here too, beside a ghostlike Sarah and her surviving sister who is more substantially rendered. Observers' eyes are drawn upwards as the blue lightens to become the sky. Sarah can be seen again, offered up by the sea and then on a horse - a symbol of happiness for Chagall - being carried towards a ladder. Sarah ascends the ladder as the blue is broken by the glories of gold; while angels and a crucified yet triumphant Christ await her at the window's apex. The suffering, grief and fragility of life shown in the lower panels become the absolutes of love and resurrection in the upper sections. If you visit on a sunny morning, as well as enjoying the glory of the window, you will notice the light pouring through the glass casts swirls of dreamlike colour onto the marbled ceiling.
     Of course each of the other eleven windows is a work of art in its own right. They tell the Biblical stories of creation and re-creation and reveal the artist's delight in the natural world and all living creatures. Here are angels and Adam and Eve, the moon and sun, branches and leaves, doves and ducks, fish and butterflies, Chagall's favourite animal - the ass - and even a 'portrait' of the artist himself.
     In all Chagall's works there is a deep personal involvement with his themes. He did not attend a synagogue, nor a church, yet he regarded the Bible as a great source of poetry and angels were, indeed, real to him. He created figures, both human and animal, that, flying free of earth, appear to defy gravity. It is understandable, therefore, that the Christian story of resurrection could easily be embraced by Chagall in his work.
     A painter all his life, Chagall did not embrace the medium of glass until he was in his seventies. Perhaps he was fascinated by the idea, but the knowledge that he could not create glass works alone held him back. Perhaps, as a lover of colour and well aware of what his palette could create, it seemed strange that his chosen hues would be selected from a rack of glass. But Chagall had found a skilled craftsman in Charles Marq and it was Marq who interpreted all Chagall's final designs - or maquettes - into glass, preserving in every piece the artist's individual vision.
     Back in the mists of history, Tudeley was once declared to be "not worth a visit." No more! It is reported that, upon seeing his first Tudeley window in the 1967 dedication ceremony, Chagall declared "C'est magnifique." No doubt every visitor to All Saints Tudeley since that day has agreed.

Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine ( www.thetravelsociety.com).

Photo Credits
Ann Wallace

If you go
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tudeley

The church is open to visitors Monday to Saturday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer and from 9 a.m. to dusk in winter. On Sunday, doors open at noon when visitors are welcome to join the church service. To help meet the costs of maintaining this unique building, a donation of £2 is requested of all visitors. Postcards and an interesting selection of books and pamphlets are available in the church. www.tudeley.org/tudeley.html
Tudeley (toodle-ee), Kent, is situated 65 km south of London, just off the A21 road near Tonbridge. There are detailed road directions on the website. If you are not driving, you can reach Tonbridge by train from London's Charing Cross Station. There are trains approximately every 20 minutes and the journey takes 45 minutes. There are usually taxis waiting at Tonbridge station for the 2½ mile drive to Tudeley Village. If not, call Castle Cars from the station at 01732 363 637 and one will soon arrive.
But why not consider basing yourself in this beautiful region for a longer stay? Known as the Heart of Kent, the area offers over 270 hotels, inns, B&Bs and self-catering properties, many in country houses or converted barns or even traditional Kentish oast houses. You can choose to stay in the countryside or in one of the region's major towns: Ashford, Maidstone, Royal Tunbridge Wells, Cranbrook, Sevenoaks or Tonbridge. All are historic and full of charm and activities. The region is also renowned for its picturesque villages, castles, stately homes and famous gardens. For lots of information log onto www.visitheartofkent.com.

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