As a result of briefly scanning an exhibition catalogue while on holiday in Cornwall, I've discovered the following fascinating story of the artist Annie Walke and husband, the Anglo-Catholic clergyman, Bernard Walke.
Annie Walke was born in London and studied at Chelsea School of Art and at the London School of Art. She first came to Cornwall with her husband when he was curate in Polruan. Bernard, known to his friends as ‘Ber’, became Vicar of St Hilary near Marazion in 1912. He had previously worked in the East End of London and been curate of another parish in western Cornwall, an area where the Church of England had never really replaced the old Roman Catholic Church in the affections of Cornish-speaking people to whom English had come at the Reformation as an unfamiliar new language to supplant the church Latin they were used to. Thus those who had not later converted to Wesleyan Methodism tended to be Anglo-Catholic, and sympathetic to Bernard Walke’s strong feeling for ritual, drama and art.
Walke was happiest in the company of artists and ordinary working people. He persuaded such Newlyn artists as Harold Knight, Norman and Alethea Garstin, Gladys Hynes, Ernest and Dod Procter and others to decorate the church. Annie painted a picture of St Joan of Arc which formed the reredos to an Altar to St Joan. Pictures on the chancel stalls were painted by Knight, Hynes, the Procters and Annie Walke and depict scenes from the lives of Cornish Saints. The pictures on the priest's stalls represent, on the south St Hilery, and on the north the dedication of the church by the Abbot and monks of St Michael's Mount. The pictures on the pulpit are the work of Ernest Procter and represent legends connected with St Neot, St Kevin and St Mawes. The reredos in the Lady Chapel represents the house of the Visitation and the picture of the event was painted by Ernest Proctor. A large crucifix on the north wall is the work of Phyllis Yglesias, a memorial to Canon F. Rogers of Truro Cathedral who died in the parish in 1928. West of the crucifix is a reredos painted by Roger Fry. In the south west corner of the church is a reredos, painted by Ernest Procter, of an Altar of the Dead, built in memory of Gerard Collier who during world was one sought to find a way of peace for the world.
Walke studied the speech of the working people of the parish - farmers, tin-miners, fishermen, the postman - and wrote religious plays in local dialect for local people to perform in the church. St Hilary gained nation-wide fame when he wrote and directed a Christmas Play Bethlehem. Through his friendship with media man, Filson Young, broadcasts were made of this and others, in the tradition of medieval Mystery Plays, all written and devised by Walke and performed by the people of St Hilary. Bethlehem went on the air for the first time on 22 December 1926.
It was a milestone in regional broadcasting. Reith took the unusual step of telephoning the vicarage at St Hilary afterwards to say that he had been listening with Ramsay MacDonald (leader of the Labour party) and that both had been deeply moved. This was in the early days of broadcasting and Walke was able to put over a lot of Catholic teaching as listeners all over the country were charmed by these Cornish voices proclaiming Christ’s life. These became a feature of broadcasting in the 1920s and 30s, but unfortunately there had to be a tragic end.
The fame of St Hilary drew a nasty reaction. Various people with a grudge were determined to destroy this beautiful little shrine to Catholic devotion in Cornwall, where his wife and their artistic friends had painted murals and altarpieces and pictures. Complaints were made, court action taken, and finally the Protestant element broke into the church with axes, crowbars and hammers, smashing and defiling everything they could lay their hands on. Walke was only just able to retrieve the Blessed Sacrament and take it to his home to prevent the ultimate sacrilege. This was in 1932 and he was absolutely shattered.
Walke described these events in his memoir, Twenty Years at St Hilary, published originally in 1935. It is a tribute to its value that it now has a third re-issue, putting it in the category of a classic. Michael Farrer, President of the Anglo-Catholic History Society, writes that "it is the autobiographical memoir of a remarkable and fascinating priest, who began as a curate at Polruan near Fowey and moved to St Hilary, Marazion, near Penzance in 1912. He wrote this memoir while in a sanatorium, being treated for tuberculosis. He shows no real bitterness in his book, and through all his struggles, he comes over as a happy man. One is left with the sense of a character it would have been a delight to have known."
The Royal Cornwall Museum's collection includes work by Cornish artists and artists living in Cornwall, particularly from the Newlyn and St Ives Schools. These include large works by Annie Walke.
Jack Clemo - The Broadening Spring.