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CLARENCE BICKNELL AND THE CHURCH
Excerpt from “A High Way to Heaven” by Christopher Chippindale. Chapter on pages 21 and 22 “An English Chaplain and His Museum”
Like many a younger son of a moneyed 19th-century family, Clarence Bicknell went into the Church. This was a matter of genuine and felt devotion. At Cambridge University he was much influenced by an enthusiastic group of young churchmen. Soon after he had graduated in 1863, his 23rd year, he took orders in the Church of England, forsaking mathematics and the Unitarianism of his father and grandfather. For some years1 he was curate at Walworth, a tough parish in the slums of south London which supported the Order of St Augustine. This was a passionate, ritualistic community within the Anglican Church, mysteriously linked with Rome. Here he lived a simple life, devoting himself and much of his income to the poorest people. This pattern of simplicity, generosity and service was to be with him for life. He left Walworth and joined some of his Cambridge friends in the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit in the village of Stoke-by-Terne in Shropshire2. There he lived in a “high church” community devoted to the mission of preaching.
After ten years he began to have serious religious doubts, and decided to avail himself of his inherited private means to see the world. Among the many places which he was able to visit in the late 1870s were Ceylon, New Zealand, Morocco and Majorca. Coincidentally or not, the Brotherhood of the Holy Spirit closed in 1879.
The year 1878 saw Bicknell arriving in Bordighera, as chaplain to the Anglican Church, at the invitation of the Fanshawe family. His diaries record his church duties, and the colleagues who assisted him when preaching a sermon. But his religious doubts were growing. He found the church too ritualistic, too dogmatic, too chauvinistic. Within a year he had resigned. He gave up active participation in church matters. He asked not to be referred to as “The Rev.” He ceased to wear a dog collar. He was later to say in a letter to a friend, “I fear I have become rather narrow about all church things, having become convinced that the churches do more harm than good & hinder human progress, & look upon the pope, the clergy & the doctrines as a fraud, though not an intentional one.” Practical works, like building a home for the aged of the commune, were more relevant. Ideals were better expressed in other kinds of communities, like the fraternity of Esperanto-speakers.
Bicknell’s idealism found practical expression in other ways. Though disenchanted with the church, Clarence had become enchanted by Bordighera, soon buying the Villa Rosa from Mrs. Fanshawe Walker and making it his home for the rest of his life. Bordighera had history (though much less than the neighbouring town of Ventimiglia), but it had no collected centre for its history or for a broader cultural life. So Bicknell built one, the “Museo Bicknell”.
It was opened in 1888. Its architect is not known. Brick-built with a round-arched loggia, it has rather the feel of a Romanesque-revival church. Its main room is a big central chamber, with a stage at one end, and grand fireplaces on each long wall. These are decorated with patterns using plant motifs, in the distinctive style Bicknell was to use to perfection in the Casa Fontanalba. Re-fitted, the museum still plays that role. Its central room was the memorable venue for an anniversary conference in 1988, with music as well as talks and lectures.
Clarence continued his pastoral work in Bordighera and the environs, mostly in helping the poor, but little is written of the tangible aspects of this work. He was a pacifist and found the idea of a world war on his doorstep (the Italian army entrenched themselves firmly in the Alps above his house at Casterino and visited him there from time to time) difficult to countenance or to write about. In the years before the 1914-1918 war he threw what time he had left after his semi professional pursuits into Esperanto, which he considered a force for good and for world peace. In 1914, when World War I broke out, Clarence was at the Esperantist Congress in Paris looking after a party of blind Esperantists whom he safely escorted back to their homes in Italy
He may not have been paying homage to an established religion but his heart was in the right place.