Hans Feibusch was a Jewish refugee who fled Germany for Britain in the 1930s, his work sufficiently despised by the Nazi regime to be included in the now infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) exhibition of 1937, alongside artists such as Chagall, Kandinsky, Klee and Mondrian. He became a member of the London Group, which had been founded by artists including Walter Sickert and Jacob Epstein and went on to include most of the key names in twentieth-century British art, and found his niche fulfilling commissions to paint murals in churches and other public buildings. It was through this work that he came to the attention of Charles Reilly, the renowned professor of architecture, and George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who provided him with the rare opportunity to create a mural of his own design and conception in the crypt at St Elisabeth’s Church in Eastbourne in 1944.
Feibusch chose the allegory of Pilgrim’s Progress as a vehicle for his own story, depicting a refugee fleeing the evil and chaos of Nazi Germany and his eventual acceptance and redemption not in the Celestial City but in 1940s Britain. As well as being an extraordinary feat both in terms of its scale and its mastery of form and colour, Pilgrim’s Progress is also a deeply personal project unlike any other of Feibusch’s work, and an important artefact in twentieth-century social history. Descendants of concentration camp detainees who have seen it say that those depicted in the mural bear the unmistakable facial expressions of Holocaust survivor guilt. The mural is a registered War Memorial (the first, we believe, of WW2) and is unusual in being dedicated to civilians as well as military casualties. As we embark on the twenty-first century, it acquires new resonance in the context of mass displacement of people into Europe by conflicts further afield.
The story so far
Following many years of concern about the structural integrity of the church building, the church was closed in 2002 and the congregation moved next door to a newer building that had previously been used as a parish hall. Various schemes have been contemplated that would develop the building whilst keeping its exterior intact, but none have come to fruition. Meanwhile the church building has continued to deteriorate and its development or restoration have become less and less viable.
On 4 December 2017, the Church Commissioners of the Church of England published a draft Scheme providing for the demolition of the building. If approved, the Scheme would have allowed the Church to go ahead with demolition irrespective of whether the mural was still in situ. Complete documents relating to the draft Scheme can be downloaded here.
Thanks to the swift and heartfelt action of many, many lovers of art, history and heritage, who wrote in impassioned terms to the Church Commissioners, that Scheme currently remains on hold. A decision will be made in due course by the Bishop of Chichester.
In February 2018, while the British Forces Broadcasting Company was filming in the Crypt in connection with this campaign, it became apparent that the mural had been vandalised with graffiti. It was also clear that the prevailing humidity levels in the building were gradually contributing to its deterioration. With time therefore of the essence, we prioritised the search for a new home for the mural and three local possibilities have now been identified. These are being put to the Church Commissioners for their consideration.
On 22 March, it was announced that because of the level of interest in the mural, an open afternoon would be held at St Elisabeth’s to allow it to be on public display for the first time in some years. The open afternoon is set for Tuesday 17 April between 1.30pm and 4pm. We would urge as many people as possible to take this opportunity to visit so that the Church can be in no doubt about the mural’s cultural and touristic value. St Elisabeth’s is on Victoria Drive in Eastbourne, which is equally accessible from Willingdon/A27 or Beachy Head/Old Town/A259 directions (SatNav: BN20 8QX).
If you have any questions or comments about the mural, please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me, Alex Grey, at firstname.lastname@example.org.