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Canon Richard Davey

5 August 15 words: Mark Patterson
"I couldn't not be a priest... But if I wasn't able to write on art, I would equally feel bereft and that there was something missing"
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image: Dave Parry

An art collection of many dozens of paintings fills the Rev Dr Richard Davey’s home, a dark Victorian vicarage in central Nottingham. Actually, it is rather half a vicarage since 50% of the building – the half where he and his family don’t live – has long been converted into flats and is now occupied by asylum seekers. This truncated accommodation is a fitting physical metaphor for Davey’s interests since, despite the impressive collection of paintings that line the walls of the living room, hallway, bedrooms and even the toilet and shower room, he is not just an art collector.

Nor is he an art critic, even though outside Nottingham he is best known for his writing about contemporary art which has recently included long essays for this year’s Royal Academy summer exhibition catalogue and last year’s huge Anselm Kiefer show at the same institution. Inside Nottingham, though, he is known as a priest to his parishioners in the Arboretum area and head of the chaplaincy service at Nottingham Trent University, where he is seeing a rising level of mental health problems among students.

Art connoisseur, writer and Anglican priest: Richard Davey is two-in-one, or even three-in-one, and it is not possible to peel away one role from another since religious faith and a conviction in the spiritually illuminating power of visual art go hand-in-hand. “I couldn’t not be a priest,” he says. “There is something about the pastoral work which is definitely me and what I want. But if I wasn’t able to write on art, I would equally feel bereft and that there was something missing.”

Yet even as he conducts a tour of his paintings, starting and ending in a living room – ‘the abstract room’ – he stresses that what he is not is an art collector
per se. The reason, perhaps, is that he has acquired his paintings over the years out of love for them, and in some cases because they were gifts from the artists, rather than because he regarded them as investments. He estimates that only half of the paintings explicitly reflect a Christian message.

However, when asked to define what he means by ‘spiritual painting’, there is a long pause followed by a much longer attempt at an explanation that touches on art and science, the mystery of matter at the atomic level and what this suggests about the cosmic interconnectedness between humans, and between the human and the divine.

“These texts and these works of art will slowly dissolve, just as we are dissolving as we shed skin and so on. What I’m interested in are artists who have a sensation or an attunement to that sense. And I find it interesting and sad. I suppose that‘s why people ask me to write about it. The artists don’t have to be ‘religious’ artists but that doesn’t mean that their faith isn’t important.”

Davey felt a calling to the priesthood when he was eighteen. Trained in Lincoln, he first worked as a parish priest in Poole, Dorset, and travelled up to Nottinghamshire in 1999 to become pastor canon at Southwell Minster and then co-ordinating chaplain at Nottingham Trent University. It was five years ago that he moved into the TC Hine-designed vicarage of All Saints’ where he serves as associate priest to a large city centre parish.

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A copy of Church Times

The passion for art matured in parallel via an interest in history, which was fostered by four years as a teenager living at Windsor Castle, where his father had a position, and then by a degree in Medieval Studies at Manchester University in the eighties. A PhD, which took eleven years to complete, and changed direction while he was curating an exhibition called Faith at Nottingham Castle a decade ago, was titled Searching for a Faithful Art. His painting collection, he says, is effectively his research material in this quest. Meanwhile, he became known as an art writer.

His early writing was for the Church Times, but more recently he has produced monographs about artists such as Nottingham installation sculptor John Newling, and abstract painter Tess Jaray who redesigned the paved flooring in St Mary’s parish church and was the subject of a show at the Djanogly Gallery – Davey’s favourite gallery in Nottingham. However, his biggest subject to date has been Anselm Kiefer, the German painter and sculptor whose massive retrospective in London drew rapturous praise.

A large photograph by Kiefer was the artist’s gift to Davey for his 10,000 word essay in the glossy RA catalogue. Davey points out that he is not an art critic since he does not take a critical stance towards his subjects. His aim in the catalogues, rather, is to communicate their meaning and significance. “For many years I wrote for the Church Times and now it’s for the Royal Academy, so I’m now better known as a writer on art than I am, in a sense, as a priest,” he says. “I have to juggle this because my job as priest is full-time.”

That’s full-time and full-on as Davey’s chaplaincy job at NTU brings him face-to-face with a rising level of mental health problems among students. And for some, he says, the solution is suicide. This year alone there have been five or six deaths among students. What are the reasons behind these problems? “You read the papers and you read about anxiety and social media pressure and so on. But I’m not picking that up.

"What I’m picking up is young people who are less resilient about coping with the lot that life can throw at them. Break-ups, bereavement and so on. I’m not saying that faith is the cure. What I am saying is that if you’re coming to university and suddenly you’re exposed to ‘Who am I?’ and you have to find that out for yourself, but you’re not being given pointers where the rocks might be… while there were many who in the past might have just carried on, they are now saying ‘Hang on a second, I don’t think I can cope.’ I’ve seen lots of teenagers with OCD. People expressing suicidal thoughts.”  

Davey’s own area of his parish is also affected by mental illness and feelings of emptiness. “I see an area which is very quiet. I see students who keep themselves to themselves. I see Alfreton Road, which is vibrant and busy but which is actually not a community. And what I see near here are probably some of the biggest mental health hostels in the city. I like the people there and that is part of my passion as a priest, but there is no community here because the church lost its school [All Saints’ School], which means there are no mums with prams there and there is no clergy who can go into the school and say ‘Come to your church’.

"You don’t see people out and about and the people you do see are those with mental health issues. For me, that’s fine because I experience them as part of the job, but if you’re not a vicar then you see people walking around talking to themselves and so on.” He adds, “If you go over the hill [across Alfreton Road] you see people who know each other but I can walk around here and not know anybody. There’s one or two people walking their dogs but it’s not a community. It’s a very strange space.” But creative ground for a priest, surely.

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