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Anna Lea Merritt

& The Church Murals

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St Martin’s Church Murals painted by Anna Lea Merritt 1894-95


Anna Lea Merritt, the Anglo-American artist decorated the mission church of St Martin, Blackheath near Guildford with painted murals between 1894 and 1895. They were commissioned to decorate the small Romanesque-style church designed and built in 1893 by the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Harrison Townsend and consecrated by the Bishop of Winchester on the 26th of July 1895. 


The murals are distinguished for being the work of a woman artist, for their execution using a new improved version of the water-glass technique and their contribution to the revival in British mural painting during the 19th century. Anna Lea Merritt regularly exhibited at the Royal Academy and painted the murals at the age of fifty, by which time she was considered by one critic, as being “in the front rank of our noted women painters.” She became the first woman artist to have her work purchased by the Chantrey Bequest in 1889, later became the Tate Gallery collection, an honour which was well documented at the time.


Anna Lea Merritt decorated the blank walls of the church interior in the manner of medieval and Early Renaissance wall paintings, to offer religious education and moral guidance to the villagers that attended services. St Martin was referred to as a mission church because it was the first to be built in this settlement. Merritt was clearly aware of this purpose whilst painting the murals when she wrote that she intended “to paint something which guides the thoughts of people according to the purpose of the building.”


The murals were painted using the new Keim water glass technique, to resist damp and remain stable. 


The walls were decorated with scenes from the life of Christ, forming a narrative along either side of the nave, extending the full length of the north and south walls of the church interior. The subjects were selected and arranged by the patron Sir William Roberts –Austen and the artist Anna Lea Merritt to form a narrative of the Life of Christ. The murals are light and painted in pastel colours, Merritt’s believed that ecclesiastical wall paintings should have an “ethereal, light character” as a way of conveying religious meaning.


People from Blackheath were employed to help prepare the walls for painting but as models she used three young nieces of Lady Roberts-Austen and villagers from Hurstbourne Tarrant, the Hampshire village outside Andover where the artist had moved from London. Merritt had recently visited Egypt and brought back some ethnic clothes back which she dressed her models in to pose for the murals.


The murals reflect the 19th century’s spiritual climate, in which the taste for early Christian narrative art flourished. Merritt revered sacred themes, earnestness, and simplicity of treatment and in this followed the Pre Raphaelite painters. The church and the wall paintings are a complete integration of art, craftsmanship and architecture.

The Mural Subjects:

John the Baptist is signed Anna Lea Merritt

Adoration of the Shepherds is initialed, dated 1894 and signed Anna Lea Merritt

The Healing of the Widows Son is initialed ALM

Christ on the Mount of Olives is dated 1895 and signed Anna Lea Merritt

 Resurrection is initialed ALM, dated 1894 and signed Anna Lea Merritt

St Martin as Bishop of Tours is signed Anna Lea Merritt and dated 1895

The murals underwent extensive restoration and cleaning in 2011.



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