Peter F. Anson Artist and Scholar 1889-1975

Peter F. Anson Artist and Scholar 1889-1975

An anecdote remembered


Canon Jim Foley 

Although I did not have the good fortune to meet Peter Anson, I feel I know him quite well. I first heard of him as a character in an anecdote shared with me by William Clapperton, who was Rector of the Scots College in Rome in my time. 

The Background


When Italy entered the war in 1940 the residents of the Scots College had to leave for home at very short notice. In the circumstances, the Holy See prudently appointed an Italian administrator, Mons. Augusto Fidecicchi, to act as the agent for the Scottish hierarchy during hostilities. He was entrusted with the care of the assets of the college property in the centre of the city and of the villa in the Alban hills, south of Rome. He seems to have done his job well, as both properties survived, reasonably intact, in spite of being occupied by a great variety of people, including Italian, German and, eventually, British troops.

Like the captain of a ship, the last to leave was the Rector, William Clapperton and he did so by the skin of his teeth. George Bennett, bishop of Aberdeen (1918-1946), welcomed him home and invited him to take up an appointment as parish priest in Banff, Morayshire, until such time as the war would end and the staff and students could safely return to the Eternal City. This they were able to do in the autumn of 1946 when the Vice-Rector, Philip Flanagan, led about thirty students, at different stages of their formation, on the return journey. He also led them in the college anthem as they approached their destination. The following is my recollection of the rather pretentious opening verse:

From the land of purple heather,

from the dear and distant north,

Scotland sends us all together,

Bonnie Scotland sends us forth;

to the city by the Tiber,

to the shade of Peter’s dome,

to bring the bright traditions back

of everlasting Rome.

(Lyrics by Father John Gray who was a convert and a mature student in the Scots College for four years from 1898 till his ordination in 1901 in the Lateran Basilica. He is remembered in literary circles as a versatile scholar and reputable poet).

William Clapperton


an exile at home

William Clapperton had little to say about his years as parish priest in Banff (1940-1946). I can only conjecture that, although a native of the North East of Scotland, born in Fochabers and baptised in St. Mary’s, the local parish, he was like a fish out of water. Little wonder. He had been in Rome since 1907 when he started his studies for the priesthood. After his ordination in 1913 he remained in Rome as Vice-Rector for eight years and then succeeded Donald Mackintosh as Rector for a further thirty-eight years from 1922 till 1960. That was followed by nine years as a Canon of the Lateran Basilica, making a grand total of sixty-two years and spanning six pontificates.  

He did, however, break his silence to tell the following story from that twilight period spent in Banff. His anecdote concerned the subject of this essay when both of them were living in Banffshire, W.R. Clapperton as a parish priest and P. F. Anson as an historian and a very talented artist, and much more besides.

During his stay, Peter appears to have taken a bad fall, not from grace, but from a ship’s gangway, and was carried to the nearest house till a doctor could be found. That house happened to be the Presbytery of Our Lady of Mount Carmel where Clapperton was parish priest. He did his best to make his patient as comfortable as possible as Peter made no secret of the fact that he was in considerable pain. When they finally got him on to a bed and he came round, he caught sight of the classic painting of the Sacred Heart by Pompeo Batoni (1708-1787) on the opposite wall. The original is enshrined in the Gesù, a magnificent baroque Church in Rome which attracts many hundreds of pilgrims each year. Copies are still to be found in presbyteries and Catholic homes throughout the world. However, Batoni’s masterpiece was clearly not to Peter’s taste and he demanded that Clapperton ‘remove that dreadful picture immediately’ or he would not stay another minute in the same room. The picture evidently pained him more than did his injury.

Peter Frederick Anson

a marine artist

Anson was born in Portsmouth on August 22, 1889 and his love of the sea and his interest in boats no doubt began there and stayed with him for the rest of his life. In fact, his interest in the sea and in boats can be traced much further back into his parentage. His father was Charles E. Anson C.B., M.V.O, an admiral of the fleet, and his mother Evelyn Ross, who also had strong sea-faring connections.

In 1910, at the age of 21, Peter joined the Anglican Benedictine Community on Caldey Island, a short distance across the water from Tenby in South Wales. He remained there for fourteen years as an Oblate. However, during that time he, and the rest of the community of monks, followed their Abbot from the Anglican into the Roman Catholic Church. In 1924 he left the community at Caldey and returned to secular life while remaining deeply committed to his Catholic faith. This move allowed him more freedom to dedicate his life to his exceptional talent as a marine artist and to his equally exceptional talent as an historian. It also gave him greater freedom to travel much further afield and to record his experiences, both in writing and in paintings and drawings. His first book was published in 1927, the first of more than forty. It documented an extended visit to Italy under the title of The Pilgrim’s Guide to Franciscan Italy.

The combination of his love of the sea and of ships and his religious faith inspired him to address himself to the fate of sea-farers, many of whom were exploited by their employers. Today, the Apostleship of the Sea, of which he was a founder member in 1921, remains a formidable monument to his many gifts and to his humanity. He was clearly decades ahead of his times. The Catholic Church, which he had embraced with so much enthusiasm, was happy to recognise this when, in 1966, Paul VI made him a Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great.

Not only did Peter sail boats but he also drew them and published many illustrated books depicting fisher-folk and fishing boats. His line drawings of boats are accurate to the last detail and reveal just how knowledgeable he was in all matters maritime. His line drawings of churches show the same attention to minute detail and reflect his early training in architecture.

Clapperton and Anson

two auld acquaintances

As I picked up the threads of this story, I discovered that Clapperton already knew Anson from his years in Rome. He had commissioned him as early as 1929 to do some drawings of the Scots College which he then published as Christmas cards or as cards to be sent to those invited to functions in the College such as the annual Patronal feast, performances of the Savoy operas or plays that were such a feature of the Roman colleges over a period of many years. It is no secret that many of Scotland’s most distinguished churchmen began their careers on the stage of the Scots College in Rome. Mind you, many of them also ended there. These cards are very modest affairs compared to some of Anson’s more ambitions illustrated books. Nonetheless, they are immediately recognisable as his work and I am very pleased to possess some of them.

A short digression

Philip Ignatius Flanagan


It may be of passing interest to note the invitation on one particular card in my possession. It was sent to invited guests on the occasion of the Silver Jubilee of the ordination of the Rector, Monsignor Philip Ignatius Flanagan, who had recently succeeded William Clapperton in that role. He was ordained in Rome on 21 December 1935 by Cardinal Marchetti-Selvaggiani.

The Latin text inside the card loosely translates as follows:

‘On the happy occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the day on which Monsignor Philip Flanagan began his priestly life, the Pontifical Scots College returns thanks to the providence of God lest this memorable day be forgotten. Dated 21 December 1961’.

There follows, in Italian, the menu for the celebratory lunch to mark his Silver Jubilee:


Fritto Misto Romano

Abbacchio al forno

Cavoli di Bruxelles

Patate alla Parigina

Torta di mele con gelato


Frutta scelta



Vini della Vigna del Collegio

A man of many parts

Anson was a man of many parts and I have neither the intention nor the talent to attempt do him justice. Most of his publications are still available and several have been reissued from time to time, because of their timelessness and, of course, of the perfect marrying of the written text with his line drawings. Ships and churches throughout Europe and the people in them were his main interest. His publications are as much works of art, as are the subjects he depicts so graphically. Many of his nautical drawings are signed with an attractive logo in the form of a ship’s anchor.

Peter’s later years were marked by a kind of restlessness, both physical and spiritual, as he moved from one part of the country to another. He eventually settled in Sancta Maria Abbey in East Lothian. He died there in 1975 aged 85; once again part of a Cistercian community. His life had run full cycle. He is buried some distance from the sea he loved so much, but in the beautiful setting of a monastery where he was equally at home.

Batoni’s painting of the Sacred Heart may have offended Peter’s own straight-laced art, but there was never any doubt about his loyalty to the Catholic Church which he had embraced as a young man and to the traditions of monastic life and buildings in Scotland and the rest of Europe of which he has left a powerful legacy in word and image.

His few sketches of the Scots College in Rome may not be to everybody’s taste, but I value them immensely. They opened a window on the beauty of our own Scots heritage of simple but cherished monuments to the faith of a nation often under siege. Churches and chapels throughout the Enzie and much further afield, many now standing isolated in highland clearances, seem to come to life again in his hands and the faith of our fathers, far from being a nostalgic memory, ‘is living still’. The unassuming fishing villages in the North East of Scotland become the heralds of the worldwide Apostleship of the Sea.

Three men in a boat

Peter Anson and Pompeo Batoni are worlds apart. The art of one is as flamboyant as the other is modest and restrained. An accident had brought these two men painfully together in the same room, with William R. Clapperton as referee, but then, their Catholic faith had already brought all three of them happily together in the same boat!

William Clapperton’s harmless and light-hearted anecdote from the silent years of his wartime exile is beginning to grow legs of its own.

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