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Art review: The Glass Heart: Art, Industry and Collaboration at Two Temple Place, London

15 March 2024

This display details an explosion of creativity, Susan Gray reports

© The Stained Glass Museum.

Wilhemena Geddes, Faith (1956), stained-glass panel. More photos below and in the gallery

Wilhemena Geddes, Faith (1956), stained-glass panel. More photos below and in the gallery

VISITORS to the Great Exhibition held in Hyde Park in 1851 would have seen the world’s first gallery devoted to stained glass, together with a 27-feet-high glass fountain, showcasing glass’s ability to be beautiful, functional, and spectacular. Six years earlier, the excise tax on glass had been repealed, making the material affordable to a wider range of people. Affordability, combined with new techniques and competition, led to an explosion in glass designs in the latter half of the 19th century.

Antonia Harrison, curator of “The Glass Heart”, describes the Arts and Crafts movement, whose practitioners elevated both physical window designs and cartoons, as “stained glass’s moment”. Ms Harrison is particularly keen to highlight the work of Christopher Whall, known for his work on Gloucester Cathedral, who learned to make glass as well as design. Whall’s daughter Veronica worked with him on Gloucester Cathedral and also designed windows for King Arthur’s Hall, Tintagel, in the 1930s. Assisting her father from the age of 13, Veronica observed that “light is our medium and light is our colour.”

In The Angel of the Annunciation (1849-96) and The Virgin of the Annunciation (1861-62) designed for windows at All Saints’, Selsey, in Gloucestershire, William Morris abandons colour altogether and renders his subjects through black and grey washes over graphite. Flora, fauna, and the central figures combine to suggest animation, portraying an unfolding scene rather than memorialising a frozen one. The drawing of the leaded lines is integrated into strong compositional elements such as the leafy trellis behind our Lady and the angel.

Leaded lines also delineate the figure and clothing of the angel, marking the collar of its robe, the lily broch fastening across the cloak, and the encircled lower left hand grasping a lily stem. The angel appears to have reversible wings, with plumage on the underside and a Liberty-print-style peacock-feather pattern on the reverse. These drawings reveal the importance of window design in making stained glass. After an initial drawing, a full-scale cartoon was made so that glass could be overlaid, cut, and arranged on top before leading.

Edward Burne-Jones became a significant figure as a designer for Morris & Co.’s growing stained-glass business. An early design, Musician Angel (playing aulos) from 1865, originally located at Christ Church, Bishopwearmouth, shows how successfully he combined colour and form within an architectural framework. Black leading frames the angel’s halo, blond hair, wrists, and wings. The window’s five round lights segment the head, wings, and torso, the lower two lights containing the bottom of the angel’s magenta cloak, and a two-tone blue stylised sea. Vibrant yellow-tipped wing plumage, yellow halo, and green tunic contrast with the translucent paleness of the angel’s face and hair.

Whall’s figures are more robust and bring a 3D quality to stained glass. Initially trained as a painter, Whall, son of the Rector of Thurning, in Northamptonshire, became a Roman Catholic after seeing church art in Italy. Expulsion from Paradise — Adam and Eve Before God (1880), originally in St Ethelreda’s, Ely Place, shows a solid-limbed Adam and Eve kneeling behind some modesty-preserving flowers, as a towering figure framed in a yellow oval extends their hand to hold the ends of Eve’s hair. A vine-entwined tree of fantastical fruit and flowers frames the sinners, against a barely graduated dark-blue sky.

The manufacture of the glass by W. G. Saunders, which the artist considered “lifeless”, led Whall to train as a glassmaker. In Dove (Descent of the Holy Spirit), designed in 1906 for St Mark’s, Birkenhead, the sculptural, angular quality of the artist’s adoption of irregular slab glass shines through. The central lead dividing the upper three lights from the lower four, acts as the dove’s perch, framing its head and torso in the top of the plane, its tail and talons occupying the lower section. Wing tips extend to the upper side lights, while the abstracted blue, grey, and white panels at the bottom echo and exaggerate the patterns established by the wings. Taking up only a quarter of the surface, the central dove figure is never overwhelmed by the surrounding motifs: it is reflected and enhanced by them.

Courtesy of The Stained Glass MuseumBurne Jones/Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., Musician Angel (playing aulos)(1865), stained-glass panel

After the destruction of churches in the Second World War, projects such as the new Coventry Cathedral gave artists the opportunity to reinvent architectural glass. Collaboration between John Piper and the stained-glass artist Patrick Reyntiens led to bold abstract designs that revelled in the texture and light-emitting qualities of the material and its potential to transform buildings with coloured light. The Irish artist Wilhelmina Geddes would bring a bold, expressive, narrative quality to stained glass.

Geddes’s celebrated Faith (1956), originally installed in St Paul’s, Battersea, was the artist’s last design before her death in 1955 and was completed by Charles Blakeman. It was part of a three-light window illustrating Faith, Hope, and Charity. The slightly nautical appearing figure of Faith is crowned by a golden laurel wreath, holds a thin candle casting a huge arc of orange, white, and yellow light, and is robed in grey, blue, and gold. A smaller scale St Paul, robed in red, sits at Faith’s feet holding a banner, “LIVE BY THE FAITH”.

Abstract Panel (1965-66) by Piper and Reyntiens fuses large abstract panels of coloured and painted glass, a style used to great modernist effect in the baptistery window in Coventry Cathedral.

Religious art really does steal the show, and honourable mention must be made of the contemporary artist Monster Chetwynd’s Bede Enters the Monastery (2022) from the four-part Life of St Bede, originally shown in Durham Cathedral. Described by the artist as “narrative in frozen glass”, the diorama, with the monastery as a mother-of-pearl mass of cube shapes, transparent tufts of green-glass grass, and three figures overwhelmed by their surroundings, presents a playful interrogation of what it is to have faith.

“The Glass Heart: Art, Industry and Collaboration” is at Two Temple Place, London WC2, until 21 April (closed on Mondays). twotempleplace.org

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