Stained Glass from Welsh Churches

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What’s it all about?

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The book starts in the Middle Ages and tells a story of stained glass in Wales that brings us almost up to date. Up to last year anyway.

The earliest datable figurative glass in Wales is from the fourteenth century, but there is little from the late fourteenth century or the early fifteenth century. Thereafter there are a number of churches, mainly in north-east Wales, that have parts of figures and scenes of the later fifteenth century or earlier sixteenth century. There is some interesting sixteenth-century glass from the continent that was brought to Wales after the Napoleonic wars, including notable collections at Llanwenllwyfo on Anglesey and Llanarth, Monmouthshire, in the opposite corner of Wales. In common with other parts of Britain, the amount of stained glass from the later sixteenth century is small and becomes more fashionable again in the early nineteenth century as the Gothic Revival took hold. The stained glass of the early Gothic Revival artists such as David Evans and Thomas Willement was soon seen as old-fashioned in the 1850s and 60s as the ideas of A.W.N. Pugin took root in the ecclesiological movement. In the 1850s work by William Wailes was popular in some parts of Wales, while the firm of Pugin’s collaborator, John Hardman, also made windows for churches in Wales.

Along with the rise of the ecclesiological movement, the impact of the Great Exhibition of 1851 brought about considerable demand for stained glass as many Victorian stained glass firms, large and small, flourished: too many to summarise usefully here. Many of these windows were initially installed as churches were built, rebuilt and altered in the second half of the nineteenth century, but the practice of commissioning memorial windows for churches has continued to provide the impetus for many commissions ever since. The practice has often furnished churches with a wide variety of styles of stained glass. The bright saturated colours of windows made by Michael and Arthur O’Connor and William Wailes in the 1850s and 60s were superseded by the more subtle tones of Morris & Co. windows and C.E. Kempe, which became the norm by the 1880s and 90s.

The imitation of medieval styles was challenged fundamentally by designers such as Edward Burne-Jones, Henry Holiday and his pupils (it had also been challenged in the 1840s and 50s by stained glass artists such as David Evans and Edward Baillie, but with little success). Their work, aligned with the Aesthetic Movement, influenced a large number of stained glass firms, while the Arts and Crafts Movement, inspired to a large extent by William Morris, brought about a change in working practices pioneered by Henry Holiday, and more importantly, Christopher Whall and Mary Lowndes, designers who also played a large part in making their own stained  glass. Many of the best works by the artists of the Arts and Crafts Movement were war memorial windows, and although I resisted it at first, I pulled these windows out of the chapter on the Arts and Crafts Movement to be part of an additional chapter on war memorials, which includes impressive windows by Karl Parsons at Tenby and Porthcawl. The 1920s and 30s were increasingly complex, as the range and style of stained glass continued to widen. The number of churches with stained glass also grew, including more and more Nonconformist chapels and Roman Catholic churches, although both did have stained glass in some cases in the nineteenth century.

Unlike the First World War, the Second World War did almost bring a halt to new stained glass commissions between 1941 and 1945, but windows remembering the fallen and in thanksgiving for an end to hostilities soon followed and continued to be made into the 1950s. During the 1950s some tentative steps towards Modernism can be seen, and in Wales the beginnings of its own tradition of stained glass are also found. From the 1840s there is little to distinguish Welsh ecclesiastical stained glass from that made for English churches, and exported around the British Empire. The work of the Swansea firm Celtic Studios, and the course established in Swansea by Celtic Studios main designer, Howard Martin, laid the foundations for a Welsh tradition of making stained glass. This ‘Welsh’ tradition became increasingly internationalist in character, and some windows in churches of the late 1970s and 80s were made by Swansea students and ex-students, who sometimes came from other parts of the country and around the world, and have gone on to be distinguished artists in glass.

From the 1970s my chosen title of Stained Glass from Welsh Churches is all the more significant. More stained glass was being made for buildings that were not places of worship, and consequently some of the interesting work by artists based in and around Swansea such as Amber Hiscott, David Pearl, Alexander Beleschenko and Catrin Jones is not found in the book. Work in churches however becomes ever more vibrant, and exhibits a wide variety of personal styles, although often staying closer to traditional methods of making stained glass, rather than the growing vocabulary of techniques encompassed in the term ‘architectural glass’.

The book closes with an attempt to see what has happened in the last fifteen years and tentatively suggest what might lie ahead, as intimated by the gradually decreasing number of commissions and the creation of internal divisions in churches that invite the use of architectural glass techniques such as etching, enamelling and bonding.

It has all been quite a journey.

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