By Elizabeth Wright
Beautiful painted figures once covered all the walls of this shadowy crypt, telling a story held still in time. The flowing artwork embedded in the brickwork of the Chapel of Remembrance was a pictorial narrative of John Bunyan’s ‘’Pilgrim’s Progress,’ depicting the individual journeys and trials of Christian and his wife Christiana from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. The colourful murals were in total contrast to the Parish church above, St Elisabeth’s, Victoria Drive, Eastbourne, an ugly rectangular red brick building of simplified Gothic design that dominated the surrounding landscape. Grade ll Listed, it was paid for by a £90,000 legacy from one Eliza Watson of Carlisle Road, Eastbourne; the foundation stone was laid in 1935.
But in 1944, the church building was damaged when a doodle-bug crashed and exploded in nearby Baldwin Avenue. During construction, ungalvanised iron ties had been used, which had become corroded by damp penetration after the bombing,.and over a period of years the whole structure gradually became unstable and by 2003, it was made redundant, with a view to demolition. But there was a lack of interest, even when, in 2005, it was on offer to anyone prepared to do the repairs, estimated at £3 million. With no takers, and no emerging viable scheme, the building was boarded up and left. The congregation moved to the adjacent church hall.
The future of the rare and unique paintings became uncertain, even though they were of special historic interest. Originally they were stored all around the four walls of the crypt of St. Elisabeth’s, 130 feet in total length, And there they stayed for more than a decade..
There is a fascinating story about the artist responsible for St. Elisabeth’s murals. Hans Feibuschj was a German Jew born in Frankfurt-am-Main, on the 15th August 1898, the elder son of Dr.Carl lFeiibusch, a dental surgeon and Marianne Ickelheimer, an amateur painter. At the age of eighteen he spent a short time as a medical student, but decided to study art instead.
. Settling in Paris, he joined the Othon Friesz and Andre L’Hote studios and exhibiting his work at the Salon d’Automme and the Paris Independents. By 1930 he had become a successful artist and was awarded the German Grand Prize for Painters by the Prussian Academy of Arts (Berlin) for his painting ‘The Fishmonger.’
But as a German Jew, growing Nazi persecution meant that staying in his homeland was increasingly difficult. He recalled in a 1997 interview with Martin Gayford of the Telegraph newspaper, that when he joined the Frankfurt Artists’ Association, “We took on new members on recommendation of one of the other members. But one recruit turned out to be a Nazi, and revealing his uniform, he jumped on the table, pointed at the Jewish members with his riding whip, saying, ‘You and you can just go home and forget about art. You will never show anything again.’”
In 1933 he came to Britain, bringing his fiancée, Sidonie Charlotte Cramer, and earned his keep by designing book jackets and posters for Shell and the London Underground but still found time for his painting. An architect, Frankland Dark, initiated a new career for Feibusch in 1937, by commissioning a mural, ‘The Foot Washing’ for the New Methodist church in Colliers Wood, London, which depicted Christ washing his Disciples’ feet. This work was widely acclaimed in the press for ‘figures that appear to float across the two dimensional area of the wall, appealing greatly to modernist architects.’
Feibusch had never attempted to paint murals before coming to Britain, but he said he ‘took delight in standing before an empty wall as in a trance, to let shapes cloudily emerge, to draw scenes and figures, to let light and dark rush out of the surface, to make them move outwards or recede into the depths, this was bliss.’
In May 1940 Feibusch was granted British Citizenship and during WW2 was actively involved in first-aid work and fire-fighting, but still kept on painting He was befriended by George Bell, then Bishop of Chichester, who had seen a photograph of the ‘Foot Washing’ and asked to meet him because, “I am seeking an artist to assist in the adornment and beautifying of places of worship.” From that meeting came a lasting friendship which resulted in many commissions for church murals on religious themes, especially in the Diocese of Chichester.
As a thanksgiving for the kindness with which this country had received him, a Jewish refugee from Hitler, Feibusch was given the opportunity, in 1944, to decorate the four walls of the Lower Chapel of Eastbourne’s St. Elisabeth’s church.. His chosen subject was ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ and helping him in this mammoth task, by painting the background colours, were Kenneth Adams from Eastbourne College of Art and three young people from the church congregation. The murals revived an interest in the ancient art of mural painting of the original Early English custom of telling the people a story. By the symbolic use of colour, in the early part where Christian and wife Christiana, are closely bound to earthly ties, the colouring is ‘earthy,’ with browns, greens and yellows. Their progress is marked by a change of colour, becoming vibrant at their journey’s end..
A reporter for an Eastbourne newspaper, having seen the first few paintings, stated, “The expressions of the faces and the poses of the figures are moving and vital, and his brush indeed flows freely along these walls…the figure of Christian’s wife and two of her children as they stand lonely in the doorway after Christian’s departure are moving in their poignancy and grace and remembering them, one wonders with something like awe what the completed crypt will be.”
Sadly, this beautiful artwork failed to reach a deservedly wider audience. Shortly after its completion the bomb crashed and exploded in nearby Baldwin Avenue, damaging the church. Over the years damp penetration caused rusting and deterioration. A structural report commissioned in 2012 on the cost of repairs to just the shell of this Grade II Listed Building came at around £3.5 million pounds, excluding fees and VAT. But there was no apparent interest in saving the building and planning permission was refused to demolish the church and build flats on the site..
Now the murals are still very much in need of a permanent site.. Alex Grey has fought for the saving of the murals for so long and has them in storage at present. Any updates on a new location will go on the website.