'St Thomas More'- Unveiled in Church, June 2009, by Stephen B Whatley
© Stephen B Whatley
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On this date, July 5, four hundred & seventy four years ago, the scholar, lawyer and Lord Chancellor of England , Sir Thomas More (1478-1535), spent his last day on Earth in a cell at the Tower of London. Condemned to death by King Henry VIII, he spent his final hours praying. His crime? His refusal to accept the Act of Supremacy, making Henry VIII Head of the Church of England.
A committed Catholic, he defied the King and chose God over man - his committment to his faith; which never once wavered - as can be witnessed through the beauty of the prayers he wrote as prisoner at the Tower.
Four hundred years after his death - his murder- in 1935, this great man was finally canonized.
In late 1999, Stephen B Whatley was commissioned to create 30 paintings for the Tower of London; a mammoth and exhilerating undertaking that he fulfilled in 2000.
Amongst the depictions of the Tower's history that he created through his vibrant Expressionism, was a new interpretation of a portrait of the late statesman Sir Thomas More. The famous portrait for which More sat in 1512 by Hans Holbein the Younger is now in the Frick Collection in New York, USA; while the almost identical portrait, painted the same year, by an 'unknown artist' belongs to Britain's National Portrait Gallery.
Stephen B Whatley travelled to Montecute House, Somerset, where this portrait and much of the Tudor Collection belonging to the National Portrait Gallery hangs- and was moved to be able to make charcoal drawings and graphite studies ( some of which can be seen on this site) , inches away from the surface of this painting, made in More's lifetime. The artist felt such a privilege to be able to capture the essence, to feel close to the subject.
The drawings then became the inspiration for a portrait in oils which along with the rest of the series hangs in The Tower of London. The public can see all the paintings reproduced permanently throughout the public Walkway that leads to the Tower.
The paintings have aroused interest in limited edition prints; and in April 2009, the Roman Catholic Church of St Thomas More, in Eastcote, Middlesex, UK acquired a special print of Stephen B Whatley's portrait of Thomas More - which they asked him to come to unveil and talk at their special concert and celebration of the Feast Day of Thomas More; staged last Sunday, June 27, 2009 (at which this shot was captured by Parish Secretary Helen Howley)
"...this was one of the most humbling honours for me - quite overwhelming - as on arrival I found that the concert was to be staged before the altar in the contemporary church. My print, framed by the church and veiled was set just in front of the Crucifix. I had decided to speak from my heart, no notes - and to the beautiful strains of Bach, Mozart and Schuman - my eyes were fixed on the Cross, in prayer - for strength.
The Parish Priest, Fr John Deehan paid a very warm tribute to me and my work in a touchingly detailed introduction; before I was invited to come forward and step up to perform the unveiling. Standing there the congregation seemed more vast - and there was an audible intake of breath as the green shroud was removed; and the dedicated print revealed- strikingly mounted and framed. It truly seemed to glow.
Then from the lecturn, I spoke a little about the art world, my survival in it; and that my journey has been one with God - not some huge marketing machine. That my successes have come through deep prayer; alongside a lot of hard work.
Touching on that I had, like most, have suffered in my life, I mentioned that I had often remarked that "Art has saved my life" there , 'in the shadow' of this great Crucifix, I realised that more importantly that it is my deep faith in Christ that has saved my life. Amongst the sea of faces I could see moist eyes glinting and with a quite rapturous applause, my head was hung very low - in humility."