Two volumes by Adrian Barlow appeared in 2018 and 2019 on the work of Charles Eamer Kempe. The first of these, Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, is an excellent biography and the second, Espying Heaven, is more of a picture book focussing on his stained glass, featuring photography by Alastair Carew-Cox. My thoughts on these books have been published on Vidimus, the online journal devoted to (mainly medieval) stained glass.
I had a nagging feeling that I didn’t do Kempe justice in my Stained Glass from Welsh Churches, but it was hard to do any of the similarly important Victorian firms sufficient justice in a book covering seven centuries, even if only two of those chapters covered the period before 1800.
The earlier work of Wyndham Hope Hughes is in evidence in the west window depicting musical angels at Llangattock-Vibon-Avel, and Barlow contrasts it with the four standing figures in the same church by John Carter, who was Kempe’s senior designer from 1878 until about 1895. The rather Pre-Raphaelite style of Hughes contrasts with the Gothic character most closely associated with Kempe, and for those less disposed to Kempe’s usual style, is perhaps surprisingly attractive.
From the mid 1890s, John Lisle is identified as Kempe’s main designer, and he remained as such until he died in 1927, continuing a style of design after Kempe’s death in 1907 under Water Tower. Tower was his cousin three times removed, and inherited Kempe’s business as well as his house at Old Place in Lindfield, Sussex.
As well as being responsible for all but one of the windows at the Church of St Mary Monmouth, and all of those at the Church of St John, Barmouth, Kempe’s Studio was responsible for large east windows in Wales at Haverfordwest, Pembroke, Builth Wells and Rossett, as well as a series of large windows in Wrexham, now at the Church of St Giles.
Kempe’s work is presented in the books without any illustrations of contemporary firms, and in works of biography there is a danger of seeing the subject in isolation. While Adrian Barlow is sensitive to detractors of Kempe’s style, and deftly balances criticism of his work, he goes as far as to suggest that only John Thornton of Coventry and Barnard Flower in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries were as influential on the stained glass of their time. Admirers of A.W.N. Pugin, J.R. Clayton, William Morris, Henry Holiday or Christopher Whall might want to disagree with that.
In fact Kempe’s windows, designed by his Studio and made at his glassworks under his own name or as C.E. Kempe & Co. after 1907, are not quite as unique and recognisable as they might seem. It is true that many of the firms and artists whose work might be mistaken by the untrained eye for Kempe’s were imitators, and some were former employees. Nonetheless, Kempe’s windows are often easily identified by their wheatsheaf mark (superimposed by Tower’s tower after 1907), while Clayton & Bell and Burlison & Grylls rarely signed their windows, and others who made work in a similar style to Kempe, such as Percy Bacon Brothers or Charles Powell, only occasionally signed their work. I even once found a window by John Jennings misidentified as a window by Kempe in a church guide, because it had three wheatsheafs included in its heraldry.
In his biography, Adrian Barlow explains the reason why Kempe’s name is more prevalent in Nikolaus Pevsner’s ‘Buildings of England’ series than many other firms. This was because of the lists of Kempe windows that were provided to Pevsner and his assistants, and had similar lists of other makers work been in circulation, they might have received better coverage. Barlow tries to suggest that Pevsner, hardly an enthusiast for the later Gothic Revival, was at least not anti-Kempe, and contributed to a revival of interest in his work. However, the evidence is a little thin. Citing an example where Pevsner rates a window of 1906 at St James, Sutton-on-Hull, as better than windows by Ward & Hughes from the 1870s and 80s at the same church, is not exactly high praise.
Kempe’s work is increasingly repetitive after 1900: there is little sign of innovation, and a sense that the firm was going through the motions. To some, such consistency of style is dull compared to the contemporary variation found in the work of James Powell & Sons and, to a lesser extent, Burlison & Grylls, while to others it might be seen for its strength and consistency of vision.
With such a high output, repetition is understandable and expected, as can be seen in details from the near contemporary east windows at Builth Wells and Rossett of similar dates. The scene of Christ carrying the cross shares common details in both depictions (over two lights at Builth, three at Rossett), but is reversed and is not exactly the same. In my recent little book of images of St David, I struggled to find any figures of the saint that reused designs or cartoons of others, which it was easy to do in the cases of Morris & Co., Shrigley & Hunt and Robert Newbery.
In Espying Heaven, small sets of illustrations show us examples of Kempe windows depicting particular subjects of different dates, and hint at the possibilities of making such comparisons. Of the largest stained glass firms, only Morris & Co. have been subject to the forensic indexing of designs and cartoons (published by A.C. Sewter in 1974), but with Philip Collins’ published Corpus of Kempe windows of 2000, much of the groundwork for such a task has been done. An online version of this, subject-indexed and with images, could really help us appreciate Kempe’s variety and ingenuity, as well as the necessity and extent to which designs were adapted and repeated.
In the meantime, the online Stained Glass in Wales catalogue remains the only place where it is possible to search for particular subjects by Kempe in order to compare them (or indeed those by other artists and firms). I was also grateful to the Kempe Trust for their financial assistance that enabled me to add more Kempe windows to the catalogue in 2018. Unfortunately it’s still not complete in its coverage of Kempe’s windows and presently restricted to Wales, as funding applications to expand the catalogue to cover other areas have not met with success.
These two books have much to offer to improve our understanding of Kempe’s work and those that he worked with. To order the books visit Lutterworth Press.