Sunday 11 May 2008

Stowe: alternatives to crass materialism

Great confirmation this morning at Stowe School. This public school, founded in 1926, lives in one of the most remarkable eighteenth century mansions and landscape gardens in England, formerly home to the Dukes of Buckingham & Chandos. Sir Richard Branson went to school there, but the school’s alumnus I think speaks most into where we need to be is Leonard Cheshire, VC, pioneer humanitarian. His bust is the first thing you see when you come out of the chapel. After wartime RAF service which included being there as they dropped the first atom bomb, he devoted his life to humanitarian causes including disaster relief and hospice care.

At the back of the chapel, there’s a small new seated quiet area, for ad hoc use by individuals and groups. It’s been marked out by a massive etched glass door that celebrates four kinds of virtue, as reflected in the stories of Old Testament characters. The artist spent time in school with a sketchbook recording aspects of pupils’ lives and work, and has interpreted the bible stories he was given in terms of life at the school.
His figures represent four excellent virtues:

First up (clockwise from the bottom right) is Esther, who is beautiful and knows it,and how to use the fact, drawing her beauty to the glory of God.
Next up, Samson, whose lurches of brute strength and determination may or may not achieve what he hopes.

Next round is Ruth, who speaks of faithfulness and friendship — what the Victorians would have called constancy. Finally Elisha works away quietly in his study, celebrating intellectual achievement, passion to see into the causes of things.

Default life aims for many posh people in our culture are mindless conformity, crass materialism and the cult of celebrity. Any or all of these four would achieve rather more. In this context, the work’s amazing.

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