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Painting the town

Lucy Winkett

Lucy WinkettMost Saturday evenings, if I am sitting at my desk trying to write a sermon, at some point in the evening a scream of a group of tourists outside my front door tells me that they are listening to one of the guides on a ghost tour. The guides terrify the tourists late at night by pointing out that the little row of houses in the heart of the City where the St Paul's canons live is haunted by the young Jack Shepherd - who runs across the roofs, escaping from a Victorian baby farmer - and by the black dog of Newgate Prison.

I have never seen any evidence of these presences, but recently I have had more reason to reflect on the history of my house. One of its previous occupants was Canon Henry Scott Holland, the author of the popular reading at funerals 'Death is nothing at all'. I try not to imagine him 'just in the next room', as that would be spooky, but the re-hanging of the paintings of his great friend GF Watt's in the nave of St Paul's has highlighted their collaboration and renewed their stories in my mind.

Both Scott Holland and Watts were passionate about the state of society and what could be done to improve it. There are now two paintings by Watts hanging in the cathedral: Time, Death and Judgement and Peace and Goodwill. I really didn't like the latter until I realised that the deathly appearance of both figures was Watts' attempt to comment on Victorian England, which didn't seem to him to have much of either. His figures are allegorical, not intended to be pleasing for their own sake, but they spring from his visions and thoughts, stimulating debate about the values around which a civilised society is organised.

It was also this Victorian artist, known as the Michelangelo of England, who brought into being one of the most moving and striking memorials in London. Our capital city is full of statues of the great and the good; marble men on horses that mark the imperial ambitions of an island nation. But Watts wrote to The Times in 1887 suggesting that a memorial to ordinary heroes be created. After no response, he did it himself, and in Postman's Park you will find beautifully decorated plaques to ordinary Londoners who displayed heroism at the cost of their own lives.

David Selves, aged 12 of Woolwich 'supported his drowning playfellow and sank with him clasped in his arms' or Alice Ayres, 'daughter of a bricklayer's labourer, who, by intrepid conduct saved three children from a burning house at the cost of her own young life. April 24 1885'.

For Watts, big ideas like peace, goodwill and hope were only meaningful if given shape in particular lives. He believed that his generation created an unjust society, but that in the midst of this, heroism was possible and should be celebrated. Shame on me for looking at the pictures and thinking they were dull sentimental Victoriana. The person behind the pictures made his art where his heart was. These two whiskered Victorian gentlemen are ripe for cariacature, but in fact, in their own day, offered a sharp critique of society that bears our reflection and respect.