3.1.3 Desmond Chute

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  • Born 1895; died 1962.
  • Founder member of the Guild 1920-1921.
  • Stone carver, engraver; later Priest, writer.

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Desmond Chute was born in Bristol, where his father James Macready Chute (1856–1912) was the third generation of a family of actor-managers that ran theatres in Bristol, a role taken over by his strong-willed mother when she became a widow. He was educated at Downside School, and, briefly, the Slade Art School in London. He was well known in artistic circles and became an intimate and influential friend of Stanley Spencer, whom he met in 1915. Mrs Patrick Campbell described him as looking Christ-like, and it would seem that he gave out an air of unusual spiritual and artistic sensibility. He had introduced himself to Gill when he was at work in Westminster Cathedral in 1918. Gill invited him to visit Ditchling shortly afterwards, and the young man was drawn into his ambit and moved to Ditchling.

Gill immediately started to teach him stone carving and involve him in his life on Ditchling Common. Their friendship became very close, no doubt inspired by a shared artistic language and perception. Chute would soon refer to Gill as “my beloved master” and “a dear and holy man”. When Gill had to leave Ditchling for war service, Chute was left in charge and when Gill and Pepler decided to form the Guild in 1919, Chute was invited to join with them. By now, he had become a skilled engraver and stone carver and was to provide one of the bas-reliefs for the Guild Chapel. He also provided loans to the Guild to facilitate the purchase of the land on which the guild was to be sited, using family money for the purpose. He had set up home in the newly build Woodbarton, next door to Hopkins Crank and his future and the Guild seemed closely interlinked.

Father Desmond Chute with his influential Mother, Abigail Chute, theatre manager.

His involvement however was not to last and in 1921, he decided to leave the Guild and train for the priesthood in Fribourg, being ordained as a Priest in 1927. Chute moved for his health to Rapallo, on the Italian Riviera, where he maintained a villa which was regularly filled with guests from both the Dominican Order and the world of the Arts. He became a close friend of the controversial Ezra Pound and knew Max Beerbohm as well, becoming an active member of the “Tigullian Circle” of writers which gathered around Pound. He also remained friends with the Gills and Peplers throughout their lives. In many aspects his life seems to have been that of an atheistic dilettante, running a salon in the style of an eighteenth Century Paris aristocrat, but he was also closely involved in helping the parish priest at Rapallo, and he made his priestly duties the centre of his life, albeit with a degree of independence that eludes most Catholic clerics. That he was able to do this, may have been partly due to his financial means; he had sold his share of the family theatre business in 1932, his mother having died.

As an aside, it is worth noting that when Desmond Chute left the Guild to become a priest, he retained his membership of the Third Order of St Dominic. As such, he incorporated a pattern of Dominican living into his daily ministry and was sometimes referred to as a Dominican Priest. He was however accountable to the local diocese rather than Dominican hierarchy, and was not bound by vows of poverty. Today, clergy who are subject to this arrangement are referred to as members of the Dominican Priestly Fraternity.

During the war, Chute was interned at Bobbio, where he helped care for the sick and wounded in a hospital until the end of the war before returning to Rapallo. When Pound was arrested and deported by the US army he supported Pound’s partner Olga Rudge and her daughter. Life was more difficult for him after the war (perhaps he could not access his funds due to exchange control restrictions) and he took to teaching English as a foreign language for a time, before his finances improved. He health was always perilous, and this prevented him from completing the several writing projects on which he embarked. One project he did complete was his radio play Poets in Paradise, about W.B. Yeats and Pound in Rapallo, which was broadcast by the BBC in 1955.

Chute, aged 55, in his garden at Rapallo

After his play was broadcast, a Rapallo resident wrote the following tribute: “To be seen lately at Rapallo was the figure of a priest, tall, but of wan complexion, with a beard at one time golden, but gradually streaked with grey, always sporting dark glasses for the greater protection of his sight … His distinguished manners, his elegant style of speech, his refinement of dress and person, the gentlemanly ease with which he moved in eclectic cosmopolitan circles, the style and discernment of his conversation, in unfailing interest in all things musical, his wide knowledge of things intellectual … These, his art, and especially his music, fully occupied those parts of his days not dedicated to his priestly duties or to his charitable undertakings. He was an aesthete in the purest sense of the word, whose every gesture revealed a rare fastidiousness, not always concealed behind an unexpected shyness.”

He died in 1962, aged 67, a figure who seems very much to belong to a different age. His last wish was to be buried in the habit of a Dominican tertiary and the vestments of a priest. His grave is inscribed ATTAMEN SACERDOS – “Dust, yet a priest”.

Monument to Chute at Rapallo Parish Church, he is buried in the local cemetery
Monument to Chute’s mother, Canford Cemetery, Bristol, carved by Eric Gill, commissioned by Chute when his mother died in 1931. The central monument is about 6 feet tall. Chute is, I think, represented by the figure on the right bearing a priestly chalice.
The monument to the left commemorates Chute himself, although he is buried in Rapallo. Gill carved the upper inscription, but left the date of death unfinished, awaiting the actual event. Gill’s inscription remains incomplete, but Chute’s death in 1962 is noted lower down the stone.