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Kempe: The life, art and legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, by Adrian Barlow

17 January 2019

William Whyte learns about the likeable and canny C. E. Kempe

CEDRIC HAMPTON, the charming, camp, and flirtatious heir to the Earl of Montdore, is perhaps the most memorable character in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. Translated from rural Nova Scotia into the English aristocracy, he turns out to be as happy discussing fashion with society ladies as he is discoursing on ethnography with serious academics. During one dinner, he is heard murmuring “Just a narrow edging of white” to the narrator’s husband, a forbiddingly intellectual professor. It turns out that they were debating burial customs in the Yemen. “The fact is”, she concludes, “that Cedric could bring out edgings of white to suit all tastes.”

This significant new study of Charles Eamer Kempe irresistibly recalls Nancy Mitford’s creation. An entrepreneur, an aesthete, a social climber, Kempe was charming, ambitious, and just a little bit absurd. Born Charles Kemp, he added an additional letter to his surname in the hope of asserting a link, which may or may not have been fictitious, with a medieval Cardinal Archbishop and Lord Chancellor. Ironically enough, his putative ancestor’s name is now generally spelt John Kemp.

Kempe — with or without an e — was a Name at Lloyd’s, but he was better known as a pioneering figure in stained-glass design. To be sure, he himself designed little. He was, however, a great talent-spotter, recruiting some of the most gifted artists and craftsmen of his age to produce instantly recognisable work that can be found in dozens of churches, cathedrals, and stately homes today. He also had an eye, something expressed in his work, but still more in his home, which he carefully curated to convey an atmosphere of taste.

Above all, Kempe made his name because of his brilliant eye for the main chance. He was a networker, a self-publicist, a skilled operator in some respects. When Lady Wolseley, wife of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, visited his house in 1890, she was delighted to be asked to lay the foundation stone for a substantial new building. Kempe had planned this apparently impromptu invitation so well that he had arranged for journalists to witness the ceremony and to write it up. Lady Wolseley was too wise not to realise this, nor to recognise that every part of the event was contrived. Even Kempe’s decision to use a herb in the loving cup produced for the occasion was quite deliberate. “I am sure he knew the blue of the borage would look well,” she observed. And yet, just like Hampton’s edging of white, the effect was somehow charming rather than forced.

Alastair Carew-CoxThe east window (1897) of St John the Evangelist, Oxford (the Cowley Fathers’ Church), depicting the Tree of the Church and the True Vine, drawn by John W. Lisle to Kempe’s design; one of the colour photos by Alastair Carew-Cox that adorn the book

Drawing on sustained research, much of it using material only recently rediscovered, this is a splendid account of Kempe and his world. It is not a biography — and it steers well clear of questioning whether its subject shared Hampton’s rather outré social life. Rather, it offers a series of well-focused essays on aspects of Kempe’s life, works, and legacy, not least the story of what happened to his business after his death. His heir, a distant cousin, Walter Tower, proved still more successful at attracting high society: even working in Buckingham Palace. But Tower struggled to keep the firm afloat, and so, in 1934, Kempe and Co. finally closed.

This book is, we are promised, to be followed by a further, fully illustrated volume on the stained glass itself. That will enable readers to get a better sense of Kempe’s achievements — and his limitations. In the mean time, we can enjoy this work and the insight that it gives us into a mysterious, prolific, and charming man.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

Kempe: The life, art and legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe
Adrian Barlow
Lutterworth Press £25

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