Reflections: The Last Chapter

Reflections: The Last Chapter

We look at the history behind one of our school’s treasured artworks.

Anyone who has walked up the stairs in Marist House will have noticed the large painting of St Bede that hangs in the stairwell. The painting depicts Bede finishing his translation of the Gospel of John on his deathbed. Since I started working at St Bede’s many people have asked me about the story behind the painting. In reality, it wasn’t until Fr Mark Walls SM recently contacted the Community Office with some questions about the painting that I was able to finally track down more information about it and learn more about the history of the painting that I walk past every week.

Thankfully, Fr Mark was able to provide enough clues to get me started on my search, as he knew the painting was by a Sister of Mercy and was even able to provide us with a name, Julia Lynch. I started by searching our records for the name Julia Lynch, but when this turned up no results, I had to change my approach and use broader search terms such as ‘painting’. It didn’t take long until I found this exert from Faith of Our Fathers:

“A dramatic painting of St Bede by Sister Mary Lawrence of Wellington, a noted artist among the Sisters of Mercy, was presented to the school by Archbishop Redwood.”

It was clear that this was the painting in question, but the name given in Faith of Our Fathers obviously didn’t match the one given to us by Fr Mark. As is often the case when researching women, the name they are known by in one stage of their lives is not necessarily the name they are known by in another. This can often cause headaches for historians and other researchers, and a quick online search was able to confirm that Sr Mary Lawrence was the professed name of Julia Lynch and that they were in fact the same person.

Sr Mary Lawrence — Image by: Kathryn Eagle

I then turned my attention to finding out more about Julia. My research uncovered that Julia Lynch was a prominent New Zealand portrait artist, born in 1896 in Tokomaru. She studied art in Palmerston North before moving to London, where she studied at the Slade School of Fine Art from 1921 to 1923. While in London, she was awarded a gold medal in portraiture, becoming the first New Zealander to receive such an award. In 1924, she returned to New Zealand and joined the Sisters of Mercy in Wellington, taking the name Sr Mary Lawrence. Her life as a Sister of Mercy was spent teaching art at St Mary’s College in Wellington. She was a prolific painter throughout her life, painting portraits of some notable New Zealanders, including Jean Batten, Norman Kirk, and Sir Arthur Porritt. Her works were exhibited at the Paris Salon, in Britain, Rome, and the United States. In 1975, her portrait Polish Dancer was awarded the Kelliher Art Prize.

Now that I had uncovered the story of the woman behind the painting, I turned my attention to the painting itself. Faith of Our Fathers had given me a date range to work with, so I was able to search through the Bedeans to see if I could find why the painting had been commissioned in the first place. The 1929 Bedean had this to say about the painting:

“A beautiful painting of St. Bede, named ‘The Last Chapter,’ adorns the wall at the back of the chapel. This fine painting was done by a Sister of Mercy of one of the convents at Wellington. It was presented to the College by His Grace Archbishop Redwood.”

Image by: Kathryn Eagle

This confirmed that the painting was commissioned and presented by Archbishop Redwood in 1929 for the newly constructed Chapel. The painting itself is a replica based on the 1902 original “The Last Chapter” by James Doyle Penrose, an Irish artist. It is believed that Archbishop Redwood sent Sr Mary Lawrence over to Ireland to copy the painting.

Having uncovered the story behind the painting, each time I walk past the beautiful work I can’t help but think about the Sister of Mercy who painted it. Next time you are visiting St Bede’s be sure to stop and admire the painting and the fascinating story behind it. 

Archbishop Redwood in 1932

Image by: Kathryn Eagle

The Last Chapter (1902) – James Doyle Penrose (1862-1932), Oil on canvas, 119 x 147 cms | 46 3/4 x 57 3/4 ins, Normally on display at Cambridge University Library, England. — Image by: Kathryn Eagle