Frank Wesley: Rediscovering the Global Artist from Azamgarh

– Stefan Eicher

I remember the painting clearly, having passed by it so many times on my way through the Landour Community Hospital foyer, nursing one illness or the other as a school boy studying in Mussoorie. The painting was large, a village scene, with a crowd of characters surrounding what looked like an Indian Christ healing a small child—time and layers of lacquer having turned everything into mysterious browns and sepia tones.

Returning to Mussoorie as an adult, I did not notice that the painting had disappeared.  It was only in 2010 that I read about the ‘discovery’ of a Frank Wesley painting in the hospital attic, and a restoration program involving INTACH and Woodstock School which brought Jesus Healing the Sick back to its original vibrancy.

For me, as I suspect for many in my generation, Frank Wesley himself is a discovery.  Growing up in the energetic but often ionized waters of the Evangelical stream of Christianity, I do not recall ever once hearing about an Indian artist of Christian faith.  I assumed they simply didn’t exist.  Then one day I was stopped in my tracks by the image of a father’s grieving embrace of a prodigal son, painted in an obviously Indian setting, exuding a power of pathos and forgiveness that left me stunned.  For years however the artist’s identity eluded me until I stumbled across a framed postcard of Mary Magdalene Washing the Feet of Jesus on the wall of a colleague’s home.

On recently reading an essay by Naomi Wray in Anand Amaladass and Gudrun Loewner’s gorgeously voluminous Christian Themes in Indian Art1 I finally had the fuller story on one of the most significant Indian Christian artists of recent times, a story both inspiring and instructive.

To introduce Frank Wesley to others, like myself, I will thus draw primarily on Naomi Wray’s generous essay, written by someone who spent many years working closely with Frank Wesley.

Childhood

Frank Wesley was born in 1923 in a village in Azamgarh, U.P., a quiet, creative, and thoughtful child. The fifth generation of an Indian Methodist family, his mother was a doctor in a small mission hospital and his father the supervisor of the mission’s boys hostel.  As a result of his childhood spilling out beyond the mission’s living quarters, Wesley became intimately familiar with the rhythms and customs of village life, as well as the religious practices of other faiths—both  which were to later leave an indelible mark on his artwork and the visual interpretation of his own faith.

A somewhat sickly child, he lost a significant part of his hearing through typhoid fever while still in his youth.  Naomi Wray writes: “Although earlier childhood experiences may have helped shape his initial choice of a creative expression as a way of life, it is certain that deafness, coming as it did at the time he was moving into youthful maturity, was a strong factor in closing his world into itself.”

This quiet interiority resulted in both a journey of faith “which found its own way without relying much on outside stimulation,” and an integrity and confidence that reflected in his personhood and his art. Naomi Wray writes: “He was a peaceful man but strong and sure, and did not feel it necessary to explain himself, because he lived what he believed in, and was always true to what he knew himself to be.”2

Formal Training & Style

Wesley was a naturally talented artist but received significant opportunities to develop his skills and be mentored.  At the age of nineteen, in 1943, Wesley began formal studies at the Government School of Arts and Crafts in Lucknow.  He won a government scholarship in his first year, which financed the rest of his studies, and would win state and national awards every year he attended art college.  He incidentally even won a competition to design the funerary urn that held Mahatma Gandhi’s ashes after his assassination in 1947.

It was in Lucknow, however, that he met Bireshwar Sen who had come from Santiniketan to help run the art college, a fact that would significantly influence the course of Wesley’s life and art.  Their relationship was both of a ‘guru and shishya’ and a life-long friendship. Naomi Wray writes: “It is impossible to over-emphasis the strength and importance to Frank of this relationship…He did not voluntarily sign any of his work until after his master’s death, considering all he did to be attributable to Sen.”3

Coming as he did from Santiniketan, Sen, a gifted student of Abanindranath Tagore, brought with him the influence of the Bengal Renaissance School of art, which looked to the nation’s cultural history for inspiration.  Much of Wesley’s work thus features the flowing lines, poise, almond eyes, and graceful eyelids found originally in the paintings of the Ajanta Caves, as well as the signature styles of Mughal and Rajasthani miniatures. This, combined with his mastering of the unique Lucknow method of watercolours, gave Wesley’s art its distinctive look.

With Sen’s encouragement Wesley pursued two further years of post-graduate studies in Lucknow, as well as four years of art studies in Japan. Japan had an influence on his style but is perhaps most significant for being the place where he painted his masterpiece, the large oil-painting Forgiving Father. He received scholarships to study in the US as well, and it is noteworthy that in all, Wesley spent 18 years of his life studying art.

Wesley’s ‘Christian’ Art

It was in 1947, however, that his art career took its most significant turn. Wesley was commissioned by the National Christian Council of India to make a series of paintings specifically ‘Christian’ in content and ‘Indian’ in style for the new Christian Home Magazine that was being launched.  This was the first time Wesley was to consciously connect his faith to his art, a development which would shape his legacy.  Full-page colour reproductions, such as Every Pot Shall be Holy Unto the Lord, were produced in almost every issue of the magazine, and became cherished by Indian Christians who removed and framed them as equivalents to the calendar art that hung in the homes of their Hindu neighbours.

It is important to recognize that his work was ‘Christian’ not because it illustrated biblical narrative, as sometimes is assumed to be the purpose and extent of ‘Christian Art,’ but because it was a search for meaning through the framework his faith provided him. Naomi Wray speaks of how he saw “the Sacred in all of life” and how he didn’t think of himself as an artist “in the Western sense as a creative person, but in an Eastern sense of an artist through whom God as WORD was speaking.”3 And in the context of his Indian identity, Wesley often spoke of his need to reject a “fair-haired, blue-eyed Jesus.” 4

Marriage and Australia

In 1965 Wesley married Athalie Brown, an Australian nurse who had worked in the same village hospital where he had grown up.  In order to earn a regular income he took up several jobs, completing a series of 62 paintings each on the lives of Sadhu Sundar Singh, Pandita Ramabai, and Narayan Vaman Tilak for an audiovisual organization. But after years of painting on his own time, he found the 8-hour working schedule difficult.   He eventually moved to Mussoorie to take up a teaching job at Woodstock School. In 1972 he became seriously ill, and worrying about the future of his family decided to emigrate to Australia where his wife could support the family as a nurse.

Art vs. Agenda

Mussoorie was a very creative but also challenging time for Wesley.  He held several solo exhibitions and found an  enthusiastic clientele for the landscapes he loved painting through-out his life, but he struggled to apply the guru–shishya teaching style to the model of Western education there.  It is instructive that Naomi Wray mentions he became disturbed during this time by attempts of many “evangelistic partisans” at the school to “harness his art to serve their own vision”5. Jyoti Sahi, who was a close friend of Wesley’s and lived in nearby Dehradun during those years, even suggests that his eventual departure for Australia had to do with this pressure6.

Legacy

It is interesting to note the extent to which Wesley’s work touched a global audience, without engaging the larger art world. Except for the state and national exhibitions as a student, his works were shown primarily only in Christian circles, and sold to his friends and admirers. This may be attributed partially to the religious content of much of his art, but also to the enabling networks of Western mission organizations and support of individuals like Naomi Wray herself.  His impact was global, his art winning numerous prizes and being widely reproduced as prints and in publications, some with circulations literally in the millions. Perhaps his most famous work became the Blue Madonna chosen as the first UNICEF Christmas Card.  Mary Magdalene Washing the Feet of Jesus won the Pius Silver Medal in the Vatican and appeared in the American Life Magazine, and the image of the Forgiving Father has been widely used, even recently requested by the music band U2 for an HIV/AIDS campaign. But his legacy lies in giving his generation a genuinely Indian expression of their faith, in the process leaving the rest of us with a window to see God and ourselves afresh.  In 2002 Wesley passed away in Australia, surrounded by his extended family, “a man of intense integrity as a person, whose life and art and faith and human relationships were all in harmony.”7


Stefan Prakash Eicher is an Indian citizen with German roots whose family came to India as missionaries in 1904.  With his wife Neeru and three young children he lives in New Delhi where he runs the Art for Change Foundation with a vision to see art shape society with beauty and truth.  With a background in international development he has a particular interest in the interface of art, faith, and social issues.

  1. Manohar Publishers, New Delhi, 2012
  2. Anand Amaladass SJ & Gudrun Loewner, Christian Themes in Indian Art (New Delhi: Manohar Publishers, 2012), p.236.
  3. Amaladass & Loewner, p.246
  4. From a description at the Kerrmuller Collection Art Gallery, referred to in http://indigenousjesus.blogspot.in/2011/08/indian-artist-frank-wesley.html
  5. Amaladass & Loewner, p.242
  6. From a conversation with the author via email, Oct 21, 2014.
  7. Amaladass & Loewner, p.246
  8. Amaldass & Loewner, p.239

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