North East Connected

Nun’s hidden talent to be exhibited after 100 years

A REMARKABLE collection of artworks by a Benedictine nun, whose talent was hidden behind the walls of a secluded convent a century ago, is to go on display for the first time.

After coming to light, the paintings, sketches, woodcuts, carvings and textiles by Dame Werburg Welch will be exhibited at Ushaw, near Durham, from next month.

Eileen Grace Welch was born in 1894, growing up in an artistic family in Kidderminster, and following her passion by studying at art schools in Bournemouth and Bristol.

However, a spiritual life called and, when she was 20, she joined an enclosed order of Benedictine nuns at Stanbrook Abbey in Worcester. She had expected to give up art but was actually encouraged to continue it as an expression of her faith, and her talent flourished across a range of forms, including designing priests’ vestments.

The abbey also ran a printing press, producing prayer cards, service booklets, book plates and theological publications, largely decorated by Dame Werburg, and helping to fund the convent.

As an enclosed order access to the outside world was limited , concentrating instead on a life of prayer and contemplation. However, in 1921, the convent was visited by Eric Gill, a great British exponent of art deco, and he spotted the depth of Dame Werburg’s talent. They started to correspond and Dame Werburg was encouraged to develop a style of her own, though influenced by Gill.

Her art was displayed in Catholic journals between the 1920s and 1940s. However, it was only ever attributed to “A Benedictine at Stanbrook” because Dame Weburg was not seeking notoriety.

Dame Werburg continued to be a prolific artist into old age. She was clearly an extraordinary woman, also managing the abbey’s orchard, and still climbing ladders into her eighties. She died, aged 95, in 1990.

When the nuns relocated from Worcestershire to a newly-built convent at Wass, North Yorkshire, in 2009, the collection moved with them. The Abbey sought advice about storage from experts at Ushaw, a former Catholic seminary, which is now a visitor attraction and exhibitions venue, and through this connection the idea of putting on an exhibition was formed.

Those discussions, which began two years ago, have now led to around 60 pieces of Dame Werburg’s work being exhibited at Ushaw from next month.

Claire Marsland, curator at Ushaw, said: “Dame Werburg was a significant artist and it is a privilege to exhibit her work and give her the recognition she richly deserves.”

Heritage and Curatorial Manager, Lucy Jenkins, added: “It really is exciting to display pieces that are so little known and yet of such high quality.”

Hand In Hand: The Artistic and Spiritual Life of Dame Werburg Welch opens at Ushaw on April 6 and runs until June 29.

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