Acquired directly from the artist by the family of the previous owner
London, Royal Academy of Arts, 1928, no. 559
The highly gifted Mark Symons remains one of the more enigmatic figures in the field of British art. He was born in Hampstead in 1887 and brought up in Sussex. His father was the artist William Christian Symons and a cousin was Arthur Symons, the editor of the Savoy. The family was staunchly Roman Catholic and William Symons had done decorative work in Westminster Cathedral; Whistler, Sargent and Brabazon were family friends. One of his brothers, Thomas Symons became a monk and taught at Downside. Another, Robert Symons, emigrated to Canada working on ranches, but he too became a painter and art teacher towards the end of his life. Mark Symons studied at the Slade 1905-9, winning a two year scholarship 1906-7. However, on leaving he decided that his real calling was to the priesthood. Ill health caused him to postpone a decision, but he prayed incessantly, made numerous retreats and worked for the Catholic Evidence Guild (1918-1924). To this organization with its goal of disseminating Catholic ideas to everyman he was completely devoted. He was often to be seen wheeling a barrow in the streets of London, from which he would disseminate Catholic literature to anyone he met. He was in fact known to have preached on numerous occasions in front of a crucifix at Hyde Park Corner. He continued to paint sporadically in these years, exhibiting the occasional picture at the Royal Academy. But his life was to change radically when, in 1924, he met and married his wife Constance Gerber. It was she who, seeing an unfinished painting of his, encouraged him to resume his former calling. They moved to the Reading area, where he painted hard for the 10 remaining years of his life and showed regularly at the Academy again. These late years saw him develop a highly individual style of painting best described as a type of everyday religious symbolism. Many of these canvases showed, as indeed his Berkshire neighbour Stanley Spencer’s pictures also showed, religious events taking place in modern, contemporary settings such as a street in his home town of Reading. They were to prove highly controversial for the viewing public of the day and at times even proved too much for the jury at the R.A. But in this, like Spencer, he can be counted as one of the very last inheritors of the late pre-Raphaelite or last romantic tradition. Symons died of a brain tumour in his forties.
Lauda Sion was exhibited by Mark Symons at the Royal Academy in 1928. The title refers to the Lauda Sion Salvatorem, a Sequence (chant or hymn sung during the liturgical celebration of the Eucharist before the proclamation of the Gospel) prescribed for the Roman Catholic Mass of The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. It was written by St Thomas Aquinas around 1264 at the request of Pope Urban IV. The Latin text of the first stanza of the hymn is inscribed on scrolls across the lower third of the painting, “Lauda Sion Salvatorem/[Lauda] ducem et pastorem/[In] hymnis et canticis” (“Sion, lift up thy voice and sing/Praise thy Saviour and thy King/Praise with hymns thy shepherd true”). The hymn describes the institution of the Eucharist and conveys the belief of the Roman Catholic Church in Transubstantiation; i.e., that the bread and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ during the celebration of the Eucharist.
In Symons’s painting, children blow trumpets directed towards the heavens in praise and celebration at the base of a traditionally-composed Madonna and Child, portrayed in the picture by Symons’s wife Constance and youngest daughter Molly. The three scrolls containing the Latin text of the Lauda Sion are counter-posed with three illustrated religious texts depicting the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection arranged in a triangle formation. As in so much of his work, Symons has borrowed freely from the iconography of Old Master painting, adopting the vertical drapery and background landscape frequently employed by Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516), for example. And Symons’s Madonna reaches across to turn the page of the nativity text in a gesture that distinctly recalls Sandro Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat (1481; Uffizi Gallery, Florence) or Botticelli’s Madonna of the Book (c.1480; Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan). Symons was simultaneously working on or had just completed another Madonna and Child family portrait that was an homage to the Botticelli Magnificat (Madonna of the Magnificence; Private Collection UK), so we know the Botticelli painting was very much on Symons’s mind at this date.
If we look at Symons’s other work at that time it seems clear that when he showed this present work at the Royal Academy he was also underway with his large-scale work The Earthly Paradise (1928-1932). It is therefore not surprising to note distinct similarities of composition in the two paintings despite their differing aims. The wide circular conception of The Earthly Paradise composed of a heavenly tribe of children flying through the sky clearly relates to the knotted circle of children at the foot of the Madonna in his Lauda Sion. And both of course have a Madonna and Child at their centre.
Contemporary reviewers singled the Lauda Sion out for praise. The writer for the Catholic publication the Tablet, for example, saw the Lauda Sion as the one stand-out painting amongst a sea of ordinary pictures at the Royal Academy of 1928. Calling the painting ‘beautiful in idea and execution,’ the reviewer noticed that the picture ‘attract[ed] attention’ and observed, ‘We see hope and light ahead in the works of this young artist.’
In her biography of Mark Symons written two years after the artist’s death, Stephanie Wines wrote that the Lauda Sion, together with Symons’s picture exhibited at the Academy the previous year, the Sedes Sapientiae, ‘give us a very good idea of what Mark Symons himself was like.’ Wines opined that had critics been more familiar with this style of Symons’s painting, produced just before his many large-scale so-called ‘problem pictures’ that caused such controversy, his contemporary reputation might better have reflected both his prodigious talents and his disinterest in causing a sensation. ‘That the man was a great artist,’ wrote Wines, ‘was continually overlooked.’ Stephanie Wines noticed the debt owed by Symons to Renaissance painting in the composition of the Lauda Sion, but she was particularly struck by the originality of the arrangement of the circle of children at the bottom of the picture. She observed that the children were ‘knotted together to form a living rosary,’ and indeed this notion is reinforced by the pearl-like rosary beads strung throughout the tangle of figures. The bead-like decoration that adorns the frame of the painting—presumably both designed and made by Symons—is also evocative of a rosary.
But religious symbolism apart, Lauda Sion is, as with so many of Symons’s finest works, a breath-taking exercise in composition overall. And if there is some harking back to Old Master forbears there is also an innovation that is all Symons’s own. His profound and continuing belief in the innocence of children was a firm cornerstone of his Catholic beliefs and in Lauda Sion he has blended this with his considerable dexterity as a painter to produce a picture, whose undeniable beauty cannot but arrest the viewer today as it did in the Royal Academy in 1928, now nearly a century ago,