The Mural

Hans Feibuch and the Holy Trinity Mural

Hans Feibusch was a Jewish born German artist. During his lifetime he was able to claim the distinction of having had a painting shown in the Nazi's exhibition of Decadent Art in 1937 by which time, however, he was already living in England, where he would establish a new reputation as a muralist in Anglican churches.

Holy Trinity interior

The son of a dentist, he was born in Frankfurt on August 15 1898. After fighting on the Russian front in the First World War, he studied art in Munich, Berlin, Rome and Paris. In Frankfurt in the late 1920s, Feibusch came under the influence of the German expressionists, and in particular of Max Beckmann. "I painted natural objects, or perhaps fantastic ones," he remembered, "but reduced to simple forms and bright colours holding a balance between what seemed to me the spiritually significant and the fussy detail." One of his paintings, The Fishmonger, won the German Grand State Prize for Painters, awarded by the Prussian Academy of Arts in Berlin. Following Hitler's accession to power in January 1933 Feibusch realised that to continue painting or indeed survive he needed to leave Germany. As he was engaged to an English woman (Sidonie Gestetner, daughter of David Gestetner, inventor of the duplicator) England was the logical destination and consequently he became one of the 200 German artists who fled to Britain during the 1930s. The Nazi exhibition of Degenerate Art took place in 1937. "From now on," Hitler explained at the opening, "we are going to wage a merciless war of destruction against the last remaining elements of cultural disintegration. From now on - you can be certain - all those mutually supporting cliques of chatterers dilettantes and art forgers will be picked up and liquidated."

The exhibition was divided into various sections, including "Vilification of German Heroes of the World War", "Mockery of German Womanhood" and "Complete Madness". Feibuschs’ work qualified under "Revelation of the Jewish Racial Soul", with a canvas entitled Two Floating Figures. Chagall and Kokoschka also featured in the exhibition.

After the exhibition some of the paintings were sent to auction in Switzerland whilst the rest, including Feibusch's work, were burned in the yard of the Berlin Fire Brigade. Other pieces of his work were removed from the Stadelsches Kunstinstitut in Frankfurt and never seen again.

On arrival in Britain Feibusch designed book-jackets and posters for Shell and the London Underground. He also undertook work for the Modernist architects Maxwell Fry and Charles Reilly. Frankland Dark, another architect, commissioned a mural for a chapel at Colliers Wood.

The painting was admired by Kenneth Clark and by Bishop George Bell of Chichester, who wrote to Feibusch in 1939 asking him to undertake another mural at St Wilfrid's, Brighton. On receipt of this commission Feibusch inquired if Bell realised he was Jewish. Bell did but under his influence Feibusch adopted Anglicanism having already become a British subject.

Feibusch had never attempted a mural before coming to Britain in 1933, but he had been fascinated during his travels in Italy in the 1920s by the work of Mantegna and Piero della Francesca. He therefore brought renewed flair and boldness to what had become a rather timid and tired English tradition. Indeed, the uncompromising nature of his work sometimes aroused criticism. In 1956 there were complaints that Feibusch's figure of Christ, designed for the parish church of Goring, West Sussex, was un-Christian and "almost brutal". Feibusch loftily returned: "There is nothing specifically Christian in The Last Judgement of Michelangelo. It has always been my aim to follow the advice of Leonardo da Vinci, and bring out the essential Christ-like qualities in the figure itself."

He took intense delight in his murals "To stand before an empty wall as in a trance," he rhapsodised, "to let shapes cloudily emerge, to draw scenes and figures, to let light, and dark rush out of the surface, to make them move outward or recede into the depths, this was bliss."

He created many works other than the murals. For example, in 1946 he was commissioned to produce a lithograph for the School Prints Project. This was an attempt to democratise modern British art and it produced affordable reproductions of the best of contemporary art for use in schools in the austere post-war period.

Mural detail

Feibusch completed some 40 murals including the one in Holy Trinity Rotherhithe before his eyesight failed in the 1970s. Some of the others are: Pilgrim's Progress at St Elizabeth, Eastbourne, Crucifixion at St John's, Waterloo Road, London; Baptism of Christ at Chichester Cathedral; Christ Surrounded by Angels at St Mark's, Coventry; and Trinity in Glory and Stations of the Cross at St Alban, Holborn. Feibusch's sight failed in 1973, and after an attempt at partial restoration he did no more murals but took up sculpture; one of his statues, of Christ, is in Ely Cathedral. In old age, after seeing a film about the Holocaust he executed a series of paintings which sought to recapture that nightmare - "the hunting, the runaway, the fall into terror," as he described them - in burning Expressionist colours and in 1992 he reconverted to Judaism. Feibusch died in 1998,shortly before his hundredth birthday. He lived long enough to witness the start of critical reappraisal of his work, in particular by the Twentieth Century Society in 1993 and the Royal College of Art in 1998. He was buried with Jewish liturgy at Golders Green Jewish Cemetery.