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SYMONS, Mark Lancelot (1887 1935)

The Crucifixion
SYMONS, Mark Lancelot (1887 1935)
The Crucifixion
Oil on Canvas
27 x 27 inches (69 x 69cm)

Exhibited : Royal Academy 1925, No 563

Mark Symons was born in Hampstead and brought up in Sussex. His father was the artist William Christian Symons and his cousin was Arthur Symons, the editor of the Savoy. The family was staunchly Roman Catholic and William Symons had done decorative work in Westminster Cathedral; Whistler, Sargent and Brabazon were family friends. Mark Symons studied at the Slade 1905-9, winning a 2 year scholarship 1906-7. However, on leaving he decided that his real calling was to the priesthood. Ill health caused him to postpone a decision, but he prayed incessantly, made numerous retreats and worked for the Catholic Evidence Guild (1918-1924). He was in fact known to have preached on numerous occasions in front of a crucifix at Hyde Park Corner. He continued to paint sporadically in these years, exhibiting the occasional picture at the Royal Academy. But his life was to change radically when, in 1924, he met and married his wife Constance Gerber. She it was who, seeing an unfinished painting of his, encouraged him to resume his former calling. He painted hard for the 10 remaining years of his life and showed regularly at the Academy again. These late years saw him develop a slightly bizarre style of painting best described as a type of everyday religious symbolism. Many of these canvases showed, as indeed Stanley Spencer was also showing, religious events taking place in quotidian settings such as a street in his home town of Reading. They were to prove highly controversial for the viewing public of the day and at times even proved too much for the jury at the R.A.. But in this, like Spencer, he can be counted as one of the very last inheritors of the pre-raphaelite / romantic tradition.

The Crucifixion is a highly interesting transitional work for Symons as it was one of the very first works shown by him following his re-birth as an artist after his marriage. Like a pre-raphaelite painting, the main influences on it are predominantly early Renaissance. The landscape backdrop owes something to Duccio and the Siennese tradition, the figures perhaps to Memling, Van der Weyden and the 15th century Flemish painters. The figure of St John the Evangelist though seems clothed in rather more 19th century attributes. His drapery seems painted as a Nazarene or William Holman Hunt might have painted it. If that were not eclectic enough though, there seems also to be a Spanish tone here too. The contorted body of the Christ figure and the sharp contrasting of white drapery against a stark, black background would indicate that Symons was not unaware of the Spanish 17th century religious painters with Zurbaran perhaps the most conscious echo. All this multi-faceted borrowing makes sense if we remember that Symons had spent some 10 years in preparation for the church. Such preparation must have exposed him to a wide variety of catholic imagery and particularly Old Master painting. It is on this exposure that, reborn as an artist in 1925, he now pulls. The Crucifixion shows us the artist at his turning point. Symons the artist now borrows intelligently from the visual experience of Symons the religious student. The result, remarkable in those increasingly secular times, produces a powerful, striking and highly emotive religious image for the 20th century.

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