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Windows for a new century

by
04 March 2022

The stained-glass artists of the early 1900s innovated and reflected their time, says Trevor Yorke

Trevor Yorke

Memorial windows raised to remember those killed in the First World War. This example, by Burlison & Grylls from St John the Baptist, Coventry, features the patron saints of England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland

Memorial windows raised to remember those killed in the First World War. This example, by Burlison & Grylls from St John the Baptist, Coventry, fe...

IN THE opening decades of the 20th century, stained glass remained a vibrant and innovative art form. Improvements in standards and techniques had been driven by the next generation of stained-glass artists who had been educated in new art schools, which had mostly been established in the 1880s and ’90s.

The first generation of Victorian stained-glass designers had been largely self-taught or had developed their skills from other trades; the second had trained with established companies or architects before going out alone, but this generation had received teaching specifically for the art from its finest exponents.

They had time to experiment and develop their skills, resulting in sparkling, opulent pieces of work in stylish new designs that stand out from traditional medieval-style windows that were still being mass produced by the old Victorian glazing companies.

Some of the finest pieces produced by this generation were in response to the trauma of the First World War, and the need to commemorate the catastrophic loss of life. This turned out to be the last flourish of Victorian stained glass, as economic strife in the late 1920s and changing fashions resulted in many glazing companies and studios’ closing their doors for good.

 

DESIGNERS in this period had access to, or the knowledge to make, a wider range of glass types and colours by which they could create new effects to alter the way windows refracted light and enhance the design. The medieval skill of flashing glass by coating it in a colour to make a more translucent tone was used especially on folded fabric.

Trevor YorkeA sumptuous and glistening window from 1923 by Harry Clarke, at St Mary’s, Nantwich, in Cheshire. The distinctive elongated and placid figures represent St Cecilia, the Virgin Mary, and Richard the Lionheart

A new type of glass had been introduced, which was made by blowing the molten material into a rectangular-shaped mould and then cutting it down the corners, leaving pieces of glass that were thicker in the centre.

This richly textured Norman slab glass with bubbles and swirls made interesting patterns in the light, and was often used by Arts and Crafts designers. Streaky glass with different tones or colours running through it was used within some designs in the early 20th century, as was plated glass with two pieces sandwiched together to create different effects.

Tertiary colours such as saffron, amber, teal, as well as pinks, browns, bright greens, rich purples, and dark reds were especially popular. In the finest windows of this age, these different qualities and colours of glass, combined with various paint effects and a very dark background, resulted in designs that glowed and sparkled with light.

 

OF ALL those designers who embraced the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, Christopher Whall is the shining light. He was a talented artist who not only designed stained glass but also learnt how to make the raw material and piece the windows together. He emphasised the importance of this control of his art through his teaching, and influential book, which would inspire a generation.

Whall was educated at the Royal Academy Schools and spent three years studying art and architecture in Italy, but by the time he was 30 his career was floundering and he was broke. After spending time as a lay member of a religious community, he took up illustration work for various publications, and began designing stained glass windows, including commissions for James Powell & Sons.

Trevor YorkeThis image of Christ by Christopher Whall was installed in 1899 at St Martin’s, Low Marple, in Manchester. The movement in the piece is created by his vibrant drawing style

Whall married the portrait-painter Florence Chaplin, and the couple set up home in Dorking, where he established his own studio in an old shed. Here, he could carry out all aspects of the craft, from the firing of the glass through to the leading of the window, now that commissions finally began to roll in.

He also took on teaching positions at the Central School of Arts and Crafts in London, founded in 1896, and at the Royal College of Art. Whall was always keen to experiment and develop the art, and his style varied over the years.

He used different types of glass to make windows full of texture, lighting effects, and glorious colour, and, unlike many of his contemporaries, he also used clear glass in his designs. His figures often have softly textured skin with roughly drawn hair full of movement, with dark paint and innovative leading highlighting details from expressive hands to stormy seas.

Whall’s talented daughter Veronica worked with him during his later years and continued the studio’s production after he died in 1924, becoming an important designer in her own right. Women had played a minor part in the production of Victorian stained glass, but all that was to change from the 1890s.

 

MARY LOWNDES was one of the first female designers of stained-glass windows, and a pioneer for women in the trade. After training at the Slade School of Art, London, she became an assistant for Henry Holiday, but spent much of her time learning all aspects of stained-glass design so that she could start producing her own work.

It was Whall who encouraged her to establish her own workshop, and, with assistance from Alfred John Drury, they established Lowndes & Drury, which provided Arts and Crafts designers with the facilities to make their own windows. Their site in Lettice Street, Fulham, named the Glass House, still stands today.

Her work has a vibrant, sometimes sketchy drawing style, with the figures standing out by the use of prominent leading and clear glass. Lowndes was also prominent in the suffragette movement, designing many of the iconic posters associated with the cause.

Trevor YorkeA close-up of the Archangel Michael, part of a memorial window by Christopher and Veronica Whall, dating from 1923, at Worcester Cathedral. The rough vibrancy in the shining armour contrasts with the delicate stippled face and hands

Margaret Agnes Rope excelled at the Birmingham School of Art, and, from 1911, worked at the Glass House, producing a number of colourful, passionately religious windows, until she became a Carmelite nun in 1923. Her cousin Margaret Edith Rope worked with her at the Glass House on a number of windows, and was more prolific in her output.

Mabel Esplin was another promising stained-glass designer based at the Glass House. Her first major commission was for a series of windows at All Saints’ Cathedral, now the Republican Palace Museum, in Khartoum; however, her assistant Joan Fulleylove had to complete the work as Esplin’s health deteriorated, and she suffered a breakdown that ended her career.

Wilhelmina Geddes began designing windows in Ireland before moving to London in 1925 to work at the Glass House. This leading Irish artist was a meticulous perfectionist, with her striking and colourful windows featuring figures drawn with a vigorous anatomical eye, and with heavy shading revealing every muscle and vein.

Her later work marks the transition from the historically inspired Victorian designs to the modernism that would dominate post-Second World War windows. Much of Geddes’s early work was produced in Dublin at An Túr Gloine, the Tower of Glass.

Edward Martyn, a playwright and later the first president of Sinn Féin, was a fervent supporter of the Irish arts. After having to order stained glass from Whall in England for his family church, as domestic products were of indifferent quality, he set about establishing a facility in his home country to rectify the situation.

He and Sarah Purser, a portrait painter who had made her fortune from investing in Guinness, established their new stained-glass workshop in 1903. Purser insisted that they should follow Arts and Crafts doctrine, stating: “Each window is the work of one artist who makes the sketch and cartoon and selects and paints every morsel of glass him or herself.”

Whall’s assistant, Alfred Child, was the manager of An Túr Gloine, and naturally his mentor’s philosophy was imparted on those who worked there, including Michael Healy, Wilhelmina Geddes, and her pupil Evie Hone.

 

AT THE same time as this key co-operative workshop was influencing the art, so another talented stained-glass designer from Ireland was making his mark. Harry Clarke had taken evening classes with Alfred Child at the Dublin School of Art, while he spent his days helping in his father’s church-decorating business, which he and his brother would continue to run after the latter’s death in 1921.

Trevor YorkeCathedral cloisters were often glazed after the First World War to create additional windows for memorials. This example from Worcester, showing Bishop John Hooper, who was burnt at the stake in 1555 on the orders of Queen Mary, contains innovative painting effects and hand-made glass

His incredible gift for illustration can be seen in both his stained glass, of which he produced more than 150 commissions, and his breathtakingly detailed and imaginative book illustrations.

His windows feature characteristic wide-eyed, ethereal figures dressed in beautifully decorated robes and armour, set against richly coloured backgrounds filled with stylised flora and fauna.

As with other leading stained-glass artists of the time, the technical ability to control the lighting effect on each single piece of glass gives his beautiful artwork a sparkling extra dimension that needs to be seen in the flesh.

These great windows designed by Whall, Strachan, Clarke, and other leading designers in the early 20th century mark the culmination of the development of Victorian stained glass.

The combination of art, science, and industry brought together to make such colourful and expressive creations in glass reflects the great changes in the field of decorative art and design during this period.

Perhaps most exciting of all is that these bejewelled pieces of Victorian art are freely available to view in cathedrals and churches in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, although binoculars or a camera with a long zoom are useful to appreciate them fully.

This is an edited extract from Victorian Stained Glass by Trevor Yorke, publish-ed by Shire Publications at £8.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.09); 978-1-78442 4831.

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