Norman Blamey was a member of the Anglo-Catholic movement, a group within the Church of England that stems form the nineteenth century Oxford Movement. As a child he had been an altar server at the Anglo-Catholic church of St Pancras Old Church, London, and from the 1950s to 1970s was Master of Ceremonies there. These interests shaped one of the main themes of his paintings, ecclesiastical ritual. Ordination itself was part of a project to depict the Seven Sacraments of the Latin Church: Baptism, Communion, Ordination, Confession and Absolution, Confirmation, Marriage, and Holy Unction. Of these, Blamey completed only the first four. Apparently Mrs Jessop-Price originally suggested the subject of ordination to Blamey; her husband, Canon Jessop-Price of St Paul's Cathedral, subsequently arranged for him to attend a service. In keeping with the Anglo-Catholic liturgy, Blamey's picture includes on the lower left, next to the Bible, a chalice containing wine and water on which rests a paten covered by a pall. Of these items, only the Bible would have been used in the ordination held at St Paul's.
The ordination service marks the formal commissioning and dedication of deacons and priests. In this case, the stole worn over the left shoulder of the kneeling figure indicates that the candidate is a deacon. Thus the ceremony depicted is the ordination of a priest; once the candidate has been ordained the stole is adjusted to be worn priest-wise, that is to say around the neck and crossed. At the centre of the ceremony is the imposition of hands by the bishop upon the candidate. As the hands are laid on, the bishop recites prayers for the gifts of the Holy Spirit and of grace, while the assisting priests silently hold their right hands above the ordinand's head. It is this part of the ceremony that is shown in the painting. The service is considered an essential sacrament to the Church and one that bestows upon the recipient sacramental grace and authority. For Blamey, the rituals of the Church, repeated through the centuries, were powerful demonstrations of faith.
The meticulous but distorted realism of Ordination is a hallmark of Blamey's mature style, and one that was intended to convey a sense of emotional intensity. In this instance, the elongation of the hands seems particularly significant given the importance of touch in the ordination service. The strong structure of the composition also contributes considerably to the painting's visual intensity. For example, the axes formed by the sight lines of the figures and the arms and hands of the priests and bishop converge upon the head of the ordinand and the bishop's pectoral cross, making them the focal point of the painting. These axes also describe a notional cross pattern similar to that found in the carpet. The rigidity of this highly ordered structure contributes to the 'feeling of stillness and permanence' (quoted in Checketts, p.17) which Blamey said he sought in his paintings, and may reflect his belief in the enduring significance of the Church.
Blamey made numerous preparatory drawings from life before starting the painting. From these the final composition was pieced together and transferred onto canvas. The paint was applied with a palette knife with some areas masked off with tape to create sharp, straight lines. As usual he borrowed vestments from St Pancras Old Church to ensure accuracy, though, in this instance, he did have to improvise a paper mitre for the bishop's head. Blamey's slow working practices meant he often had to call upon his wife Margaret or son Stephen to act as models, since they were easily available. During the painting of Ordination Margaret regularly posed for the figure of the bishop, holding a colander beneath her hands to emulate the laying of hands upon the head of the priest being ordained.
The pronounced vertical axis of the painting and the attenuation of the figures are highly reminiscent of Gothic portal statuary and painting. At the same time, however, the palette and style are closely associated with Stanley Spencer (1891-1959), whose Burghclere murals Blamey cited as an important influence on his work. The painting was first exhibited at the Royal Institute of Oil Painters, London, in 1958.
Lynda Checketts, Norman Blamey, exhibition catalogue, Norwich Gallery, Norwich 1992, reproduced p.25 (colour)