On one level, the members of the Devonshire Masonic Art Group create works of art, put on exhibitions and raise money for good causes. But as Peter Watts discovers, they are also spreading the word about Freemasonry to the wider community
Although Devonshire’s Masonic Art Group was formed in 2013, the seed was planted three decades earlier.
‘It goes back 30 years,’ says the group’s founder, Cyril Reed from Lodge of Perseverance, No. 164, who is 81 years old and has been a mason for more than 50 years. ‘I was working in London where there was an exhibition of postmen’s art at the Barbican. Then about five years ago, an art teacher came to our village in Devon and started holding classes. I attended, remembered that exhibition and thought there must be a lot of masons – and relatives of masons – who were interested in art.’
Cyril asked the secretaries of local lodges to put the word out and by October 2013 had rustled up enough interested – and talented – bodies to hold an exhibition at the masonic hall in Newton Abbot, which was opened by Provincial Grand Master Ian Kingsbury. Money raised from sales was split between the Devon Air Ambulance Trust and the masonic charities, with the initial show followed by similar events at lodges in Crediton, Sidmouth, Totnes, Dartmouth, Exeter and Exmouth.
A picture of success
To date, the art group has sold paintings and raised money for local causes such as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution and a children’s hospital, while also allowing members of the public to visit lodges and speak to masons about the Craft. ‘We’re all in it for the same aims,’ says Keith Eddiford, a member of the group and of Teign Lodge, No. 7018. ‘To further knowledge of Freemasonry among the general public, to make a little bit of money for charities and to show off our work.’
The group has worked in various styles and disciplines that extend beyond traditional painting. Keith, for example, has made pens and snowmen in numerous types of wood. Mervyn James from Lodge of Perseverance, No. 164, who sadly passed away shortly after the group held an exhibition of their work at Exmouth Masonic Hall in April, built fairground organs.
‘We’re all in it to further knowledge of Freemasonry, make money for charity and show off our work.’ Keith Eddiford
‘We try to have a certain standard – without upsetting anyone – and they must be affiliated with Freemasonry in some way,’ says Keith. Cyril, who trained as a draughtsman but had done little painting until he took it up in his 70s, focuses on animals and birds. Barbara Bird, who was instrumental in setting up the Masonic Art Group, specialises in cats, both large and small. Meanwhile, the current chairman, Phill Mitchell, calls upon his experiences in the Merchant Navy to depict seascapes and boats, having begun painting when home on leave.
There’s even a professional artist in the ranks. Emma Childs, whose 2015 exhibitions include events in London and Monaco, also displays her mysterious, colourful forest scenes with the Masonic Art Group. Her partner, Rob Potter, is a photographer and member of Devon Lodge, No. 1138. The pair supply much of the material required for staging an exhibition – the boards and large wooden A-frames that are used to display the artworks.
‘They are really good exhibitions,’ says Emma. ‘There’s a great deal of talent there. And the group are very proficient with the practicalities; they don’t need me to show them how to put on an exhibition, we all help equally.’ There are three or four Masonic Art Group meetings a year, and while it’s the chairman’s responsibility to identify and contact potential venues, Phill says that with several exhibitions under their belt, the group now moves as a ‘well-oiled machine’.
For many of the members, one of the benefits of the group is that the exhibitions give the public a chance to visit lodges and learn about Freemasonry. ‘People who are walking past can come in,’ says Phill, who is a member of Unity Lodge, No. 1332. ‘They may have never been inside a lodge, they may not even know what one is, so we can tell them what we do and show them around the temple. People are very interested in the history of masons and the buildings.’
Emma believes that the fact that each lodge is different attracts people. ‘The public gets to see a free exhibition and to look inside a lodge. Then the Freemasons are on hand to discuss what masonry is about and which charities we are raising money for, and people can also look at the art.’
For Cyril, showing the friendly face of Freemasonry was his principle motivation in forming the group. ‘It wasn’t just the money we’d raise, it was to show we are normal people, we like painting and we like showing it to everyone.’ Phill believes that the group broadens the masonic experience for members. ‘We get to meet other masons and see different sides of each other,’ he says. Keith agrees: ‘It’s wonderful seeing these old lodges. Parts of Gandy Street in Exeter go back to the 14th century.’
‘We’re still a small group. We want to raise the profile, encouraging other people to do the same.’ Phill Mitchell
Into the groove
Many of the members are retired and find time for painting between their other activities, including volunteering and masonic responsibilities. The art group fits neatly into this groove, bringing together charity work and the promotion of Freemasonry. For Keith, the group allows him to combine masonry with his artistic skills. ‘I was in the ambulance service for 32 years but before that I trained as a carpenter,’ he says. ‘I bought myself a wood-turning lathe and one of my first projects was turning pens, using all types of wood. I gave a lot away but I also sold some to masons after putting masonic clips on them – the square and compasses, things like that.’
Phill is also interested in the symbolism of masonry and plans to paint some of these elements. ‘I like the fact everything has an allegorical meaning,’ he says. ‘The way we attach meaning to working tools – trowels, squares, compasses. Each degree is represented by different symbols and I’ve painted a first degree tracing board. That’s something that interests me.’
Looking forward, the hope is that other areas of Devon will get their own groups together. ‘We can’t travel all over the county, but we think it’s a nice concept and it would be great to see others take it up,’ says Keith. Phill agrees, keen to expand into Cornwall, Dorset and Somerset: ‘We’re still a small, Provincial group and we want to raise the profile, hopefully encouraging other people to do the same. If they are interested we are more than happy to offer advice.’ And what about exhibiting in London? ‘We haven’t thought about that at all,’ laughs Phill.
‘We would need to get a lot more A-frames first!’