St John's at Christmas has been a very special project for me. Just over a year ago I was talking to the Burgess Hill Town Council about a possible collaboration between them and the local arts group I chair, the Burgess Hill Artists. As we discussed the project I realised that the only image I was interested in submitting was of our parish church, the Church of St John the Evangelist, known locally as St John's - and definitely at Christmas time.
I am not a member of the congregation, but the Church stands at the end of the town's High Street and for the last few years has lit up the tallest of its churchyard pines with Christmas lights. A community Tree Lighting ceremony is held in mid December with everyone and anyone welcome to come along and sing carols, finishing with Oh Christmas Tree from the churchyard as the lights going on, with mince pies for after.
In total the painting took a year from first idea to photography - and even now I've yet to organise the framing. Painting time alone was 377 hours, not including the image research, sketching, and 'standing in front of the glass deciding what to do next' time. The last one would count in the hundreds of hours all on its own.
The Victorian brickwork has been sampled from the original as much as I could without painting it brick by brick. In contrast the balustrade in the foreground has been rendered brick by brick, leading to debates on whether I could have built the wall faster than I painted it. Father Kevin says not, but I have my doubts. It took a long time to paint.
The stained glass windows of the church are one of my favourite features in the work. Due to the size I was painting at I have had to simplify the images to preserve my sanity and ensure a reasonable finishing time, but you'll definitely find both horn playing angel (partly obscured by the tree) and lute playing angel if you look in the west facing window. You'll also find a Jacob's Ladder - all three images coming from the right most panel of the window when looking at it from inside the church.
One of the things I loved most about painting the stained glass was that I didn't need to 'reverse' it. By painting it as though from the inside of the church, it was automatically reversed to show it's external view when illuminated at night. After automatically reversing so much of the work, I really couldn't quite believe this at first but that is indeed how windows work.
Above the largest stained glass I have substituted a more complex window design with an easy to read Sacred Heart motif inspired by a window upstairs in the Church's office. Well, no actually. I didn't know of the Sacred Heart window until long after the painting was finished. I was simply drawing on a childhood of religious iconography, so I was delighted when I discovered the stained glass window after the fact.
Outside of the the church building, the crosses and angels featured in the painting can all be found in the churchyard, along with many other monuments well worth a look. The re-wilding of the churchyard with meadow flowers inspired my use of forget-me-nots and daisies (always favourites in my work), complemented by flowers drawn from Christmas traditions and bouquets in the churchyard during my initial picture research (numbering over 300 photographs in all).
You may spot hippeastrums (also called amaryllis) in with the wild flowers, in particular I have chosen the genus Knight star lily for poetic as well as graphic reasons as it conjures up stories of knights questing for the Holy Grail. There are poinsettias in the church porch, and Passion flowers on one of the stone crosses (they really are carved there), and alliums with candy striped carnations mixed with baby's breath (gypsophila) in a bouquet under the window. On either side the church is framed by yews in berry. If you are a student of floriography (the language of flowers) you will find love in all of its forms represented through the greenery pictured.
For those familiar with Burgess Hill and St John's Church you will no doubt spot a small geographical twist as I have moved the twin windmills of Jack and Jill from south of the church to the north.
And finally, the Tree Lights. There are thousands of them though I have not counted them precisely. I began with the four wide strands, but didn't know what to do next. For weeks I looked at the painting unsure of how to proceed. In that time the lights, which were originally a donation, were all stolen and a crowdfunding campaign launched to replace them. Residents of the town, many not members of the church, and local businesses joined together and so much money was raised that the number of lights on the tree was multiplied by nearly 4. Obviously I needed to add more lights too! Should you ever decide to count them, let me know how many you find ;)
With so much community love going into the church and the church giving so much to the community, I knew from early on that I wanted this painting to give something too. So, for every A2 Fine Art Print sold I will be donating 20% of the price.
10% will go direct to St John's to support their work in the community and
10% will go to the young person's mental health and well-being charity YoungMinds.
I have also gifted St John's a license for them to use the image for fundraising through card sales and for publicising their events and work in the community.
As the margin on greeting card sales is too tight for me to manage donations from card sales I would strongly recommend that those local to Burgess Hill buy their St Johns at Christmas cards direct from the Spire Cafe from the 1st of October. To everyone further afield who would like to buy cards, please note card sales through this website support the artist.
Finally, I would like to give credit to Gemma Mount Photography for her radiant image of me holding St John's at Christmas pictured here.