10th September 2021

Lecture at the Towner Art Gallery

To the Manor Born: Unpacking the Towner Art Collection

 Dr Helen Rufus-Ward & Helena Birch 

This fascinating introduction to the history of the Towner and its art collection was given in two parts.

First, Helen Rufus-Ward described how the gallery, developed around a legacy of £6,000 and 22 paintings from local Alderman John Chisholm Towner in 1920 and was used to establish a home for the collection at Gildredge Manor House where it opened on 2nd June 1923. Combined with the local history museum, it remained there, serving the people of Eastbourne until closing in 2005 and eventually reopening in its present purpose-built gallery in 2009. Helen described some of the original paintings, representing the art appreciation of the day and which went on to form the core of the present collection.

The second part of the talk by Helena Birch focused on some key local artists whose work has since contributed to the collection. These included Joseph Swanwick, Margaret Benecke, William Gear, Harold Mockford and Eric Ravilious. These works, mainly reflected a more contemporary style and, as Helena explained, were often obtained amongst considerable controversy. As well as being an artist, William Gear was an early curator who encountered much local hostility to both his work and acquisitions from other artists, but which now form the basis of this highly regarded contemporary collection. Beachy Head is of course a key local feature and Helena finished by illustrating several works on this theme.

Together these two well researched talks help to explain the current success of the Towner as a key, award winning, art gallery in Britain.


Derek Irving





Friday 25th June 2021

Review of “St Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai”

Zoom Lecture by Dr Helen Rufus-Ward

A unique Christian monastery, founded by a Byzantine Emperor and surviving for fourteen centuries in a Muslim region was the fascinating subject of Dr Helen Rufus-Ward’s talk to the EAC. St Catherine’s Monastery is located under Mount Sinai, in the Sinai Peninsula, Egypt. Founded by the Emperor Justinian I in the sixth century AD, on the site of the Burning Bush and Mount Sinai where Moses received the ten commandments (Exodus 3, verses 1-22 & Exodus 20, verses 1-21). One of the oldest Christian monasteries in the world, inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks, and including a mosque, recognising its sacred status to the Christian, Judaism, and Islamic faiths. Held in the monastery is a copy of the ‘Achtiname of Muhammad’ in which the Prophet bestowed his protection on the establishment. Also at the monastery are the remains of Saint Catherine of Alexandra, after whom it is named, and who was martyred by the Emperor Maxentius. The monastery has long been the site of pilgrimage, until the 18th century only assessable via a winch arrangement, where pilgrims were hoisted over the wall. Dr Rufus-Ward showed two works by the British artist David Roberts, who undertook a painting excursion to the region in 1839 and another of the Burning Bush by John Frederick Lewis from 1843.


In its long history the monastery has been subject to attack, neglect, and isolation, but has somehow survived. In 1844 the Codex Sinaiticus, an original manuscript of the Bible, was taken from the monastery under dubious circumstances by Konstantin Tischendorf and held in Leipzig, Germany, a further portion being taken in 1859 to Russia and then sold to the British Museum where it remains, having been digitised and made available on-line. The monastery however still houses many treasures, including the Syriac Sinaiticus, a Gospel palimpsest manuscript and over 2,000 icons of various religious figures.


This was a fascinating talk by Dr Rufus-Ward, who finished by explaining that a report of a garrison being established by Justinian at Saint Catherine’s to protect the monastery had been proved as fact by DNA evidence from the current inhabitants of the region.

Derek Irving