The Lost and Found Community House Mural

Molly and John Harvey visit the re-found Iona Community Mural

The unveiling, in Govan Old on 14th June, of the “lost” Community House mural, “Christ Feeding the People”, was the culmination of a  decades-long search led by John and Molly Harvey.

John, former Leader of the Iona Community, and Molly, Member of the Iona Community, began the search in 1983 and spoke at the unveiling. Below is an extract of John’s presentation.

“To begin with, we need to say that over the course of these last four decades when we have been trying to track it down, we have been aware of at least four occasions when it has surfaced, and then disappeared.

In 1989, we know, from a report in the Herald, that it appeared in an exhibition in the Demarco Gallery in Edinburgh, in honour of the Scottish poet Sorley Maclean. Unfortunately, Demarcos have no record of either having had it, or of having disposed of it – nor does the Iona Community have any record of it having been lent to the gallery.

It surfaced again three times in 1997. It appeared at an auction in Hopetoun House in April, but was withdrawn unsold. It appeared again in October of the same year in an auction in Sotheby’s in London, and was again withdrawn unsold. Lastly, it surfaced at Bonham’s Gallery in London in November, when it was bought by the Art Dealer Paul Liss.

It was when we were able, with the help of other people, to finally contact Paul Liss, that the trail grew warm again. That was not until 2012. Both the artist’s widow Eleanor and Paul Liss expressed to us their strong hope that the mural would eventually return to Scotland, and, if possible, to the Iona Community.

Our next moves, over a number of years, were to find out who currently owned it, whether they would be interested in selling it, where and how money could be found to purchase it, and which bodies in Scotland might be willing to have it and put it on display.

Through the good offices of Paul Liss we were eventually put in touch with Tim Morel, the most recent owner of the mural, who had bought it in good faith. Tim is an art dealer whose base is in Toronto in Canada. He was extremely helpful, and very hopeful that a way could be found of bringing the mural back home. By this time, we had discovered it was in storage in a warehouse in London, and an art expert from Scotland travelled down to London on our behalf to check that it was in good condition.

We were delighted when the Govan Heritage Trust agreed to take it for display in Govan Old Parish Church, the birthplace of the Iona Community in 1938. A donation from an anonymous benefactor enabled the Trust to purchase it and bring it back home.

The importance of finding the mural

The mural, created by Fyffe Christie, depicts a series of scenes from ordinary tenement life in the Glasgow of the 1940’s. Folk cooking, bathing children, courting, coming home from work, and so on – and in the middle of them all, the figure of the Risen Christ, offering bread. It is entitled Christ Feeding the People.

It was commissioned by George MacLeod, the founder of the Iona Community and former minister of Govan Old Parish Church, to hang in the street level restaurant of Community House on Clyde Street, used by thousands every week: bus drivers, homeless people, shoppers, young people, as well as by local politicians and groups who met in the House like the AA , Christian Aid, Gamblers Anonymous and so on.

It is of course an important work of art in its own right, and also a significant part of the back story of the Iona Community.

But it is also important, we feel, because it speaks volumes about what the Iona Community, and we believe the Christian church across the world, is for.

The mural is about the value, and the dignity, of ordinary, daily, work and living. It is about the lives of ordinary people and families, today and every day, here and everywhere.

It is about the ever-pressing issues of food and drink, work and leisure, poverty and affluence.

And in all of this, it makes a clear and unambiguous claim that God, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, the crucified and risen Christ, is involved in, and central to, and deeply concerned about, all these issues, all these people, all the time.

So I close with the words of a current Scottish politician. A few years ago, this young MSP, a member of the Scottish Green Party and a member of the Church, wrote this in the Herald. Addressing his fellow Church members, he said:

“Our task is not to politely highlight the crushing inequalities of the world. It is to rail against them and overthrow them. At the cost of his life, Jesus stood unconditionally with and for the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed and the excluded.”

“Christians” he went on, “must ask ourselves today if we are following his lead in a way he would recognise.”

This mural, we believe, still asks that question – not just of the members of the church, but of everyone who sees it. How we answer that question is up to us.”

Returning the mural to Govan

Molly Harvey, who led the search with her husband John, is delighted that the mural has not only been found, but returned to Govan.

This Mural has truly arrived back home, even if not to Community House in Clyde Street, then to Scotland, to Glasgow, and to Govan.  

 For many happy family reasons, John and I are particularly happy that the journey has ended in Govan. But the real significance of Govan for the mural is of course the very strong link between Govan Old Parish Church, the Pearce Institute and the Iona Community. 

George MacLeod left Govan to found the Iona Community although the mainland base was for some years in the Pearce Institute. Many Iona Community supporters have happy memories of services of celebration in Govan Old Parish Church and of Daffodil Fairs, parties and ceilidhs in the Pearce Institute. This Mural has truly arrived back home, even if not to Community House in Clyde Street, then to Scotland, to Glasgow and to Govan.”

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