PASSIONTIDE IS OVER NOW, for both the Eastern and Western churches. Even for those of us who take no part in the offices of the Great Week, it can be a strange and gruelling time.
Every year, I make my own Quaker engagement by reading St Matthew’s account of this intensely human drama and listening to JS Bach’s telling of it again. Masterpieces do not fade nor grow stale.
When this is done, I let my thoughts roam as they will, hoping that the Spirit will be around to nudge them as needed and each year, a slightly different aspect of the Passion is gradually shepherded into my heart and mind. This year I have, during the last week or so, been struck by the sense of the local which runs through the narrative. This is a story in which identity and place are defined as an essential part of the incarnation of love and truth. The man is located by his birth and workplace – Jesus from Nazareth – a town held in some contempt by the sophisticated: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
The scenes of Jesus’ foreboding, preparation, anguish, mistreatment by power, his execution and entombment all have addresses. This is a rooted story with a map: the entry into Jerusalem, the house of an unnamed man who provided the room for the Passover meal, the park where Jesus sweated his agony alone, the house of the High Priest, the Praetorium and the streets through which, condemned to death, he stumbled on his way to the Place of the Skull. These would all have been known and identifiable locations to the earliest readers of this extraordinary life and the apparent failure of its ending.
It is in the atmosphere of understanding place as constitutive to the fabric of meaning that I have been brought to consider the life and work of a remarkable artist for whom faith and place were central. John Dashwood was a Norfolk man, by birth and habitation. After Art School, he had a variety of jobs, went to Israel to work on a Kibbutz, spent a while on the Greek island of Ios where he sold sketches to an art gallery and worked as a labourer before returning to the UK where he found it “difficult to make even a modest living as an artist”.
However, it was in Great Yarmouth, a coastal town, maybe regarded by some in the same manner as Nazareth once was, that he found recognition: initially through his murals which are still to be seen around the town, and inspiration in the river Yare and its surrounding landscape. And, like the Nazarene, he was a man who did not always fit in and who tended to confound the respectable.
John Dashwood suffered from poor mental health throughout his life and spent time in psychiatric hospitals. His schizophrenia eventually went unameliorated because he felt that the medication which stabilised him also dulled his creativity. His marriage fell apart and his behaviour was sometimes erratic and anti-social. But the driving force of his art did not fade. “Art and faith held him together”, his sister told me. He was described as “tuned in to Christ’s devotion to the bottom people”.
He depended largely on disability benefits and the kindness of people who loved him for what he was and who admired his talent. He gave away many of his artworks to settle his inevitable debts and during the last year of his life, lived in a caravan until he was given a small flat which he used as a studio. His radical faith and his illness sometimes combined to test and distress those who cared about him. That included the wider Church and those who worshipped in the same building as he did. During a period of crisis, Dashwood daubed the word ‘Golgotha’ in black paint on the door of Yarmouth’s St Nicholas Minster in protest at what he saw as hypocrisy among some who professed the Christian faith. The Minster authorities, following the leadings of loving-kindness, declined to bring a prosecution and instead asked their gifted and troubled congregant to create an artwork for the church as an act of reparation. The haunting ‘Madonna of the Marshes’ was his offering.
In earlier years, Dashwood had painted a mural of the Last Supper and a Stations of the Cross for the Minster. Station XI is an image of casual brutality. A brawny workman, wearing a singlet and hard hat, and holding nails his mouth, is an unforgettable representation of something which could, at first glance, be seen on any building site. Here, it brings brings a shudder in the moment the observer realises that the nails are being driven into human flesh. It is this weaving of the local and the now with the universal and eternal which gives power to all great art.
John Dashwood died in 2015 at the age of 66. I believe him to have been a great artist and a flawed man. But he had a ‘heart right’ and I dare to suggest that the carpenter who meant so much to him, would have recognised, welcomed and embraced him.
Jill Segger (England) is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, The Catholic Herald, Tribune, and The Friend, among other publications. Her acclaimed book Words Out of Silence was published by Ekklesia in 2019. She is an active member of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) and has a particular interest in how spirituality influences our social and political choices. She is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Jill became an honorary associate director in 2010 and works on editorial issues. She is also a musician and has been a composer. Her recent columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow Jill on Twitter: @quakerpen