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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, below centre), 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 (below right).
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.
It was good to revisit some churches in north Wales, and see some new places in Cheshire, while acting as a guide for the Stained Glass Museum Study Weekend, alongside Jasmine Allen and Penny Hebgin-Barnes.
The opportunity to see new things in familiar places, with the help of a knowledgeable and observant group of people, ensured that all of us went away with something new. In familiar churches there were some things that I had not seen before. In the case of the two churches in Buckley for instance, there were windows that were not there the last time that I visited: at St Matthew’s a new little window painted by Deborah Lowe has been added, and a window by A.L. Moore from a closed church in Manchester has found a new home in Emmanuel Church, Bistre.
As the tour included churches and private chapels that I had not visited before, there were a few things in particular that I learnt from the trip, and here are three of them.
1. The work of the big studios such as Heaton, Butler and Bayne could be tremendously diverse.
Well, that’s not a great start because I already knew that, but it was underlined by the work of this firm that kept cropping up at a number of the places that we visited. This seemed especially noticeable as we were fortunate to start at Eaton Hall Chapel, where the entire scheme of windows was made by the firm, but to the design of Frederic Shields, who evidently excercised considerable control over its production. These windows bore none of the recognisable features of stained glass by the firm, and at successive churches – Rossett, Gresford, Malpas, Llanfarchell as well as at Chester Cathedral – we found their work in a wide variety of styles from the 1870s to the 1920s.
Incidentally, on my return I found some similarities between a few of the poses found in the Eaton Hall Chapel glass and a window I know better, the east window at Llanbadarn Fawr, which Frederic Shields designed with J. P. Seddon and was made by Belham & Co in 1884.
2. There are very close parallels between some of the Flemish panels at Cholmondeley Castle and those at Llanwenllwyfo
I have written about the collection of Flemish glass from the Neave collection, now at Llanwenllwyfo, Anglesey, on these pages and elsewhere. While researching the Llanwenllwyfo glass I have come across references to, and a couple of small illustrations of, the stained glass now at the private chapel of Cholmondeley Castle, so once again, although the above statement was not really new to me, the chance to see the stained glass at Cholmondeley enabled me to see this for myself and make some further observations (too many to detail fully here).
The design of six scenes now in the east window of Cholmondeley Castle Chapel is very close to some of those at Llanwenllwyfo such as Christ with Veronica, the Raising of Lazarus, Abraham Visited by Angels and David with Abigail. These were probably made in Leuven and may have come from the Charterhouse there. As well as the overall design of the panels, some of the figures are painted in a closely related style, and probably by the same workshop, and there are two examples of lettering used on the edges of garments to state the names of certain figures, found in several panels at Llanwenllwyfo.
The detail illustrated here shows this and also the problems of identifying artists. It would seem that the head of the unfortunate prophet here does not match any of those at Llanwenllwyfo closely, but it also differs from that above it and the group to the right, raising the possibility of three hands at work in this single panel.
The heads of Samuel from Cholmondeley and of Simon the Pharisee at Llanwenllwyfo offer an example of a pair of heads that seem to match very closely, but not quite exactly. Since we really know very little about these panels, they could be by the same artist but separated by a number of years, by different painters in the same workshop, or the product of different workshops but closely following the work of the same designer. Whether they were originally made for the same location we will probably never know.
Three of the scenes at Cholmondeley retain their lower inscriptions, which may assist with further work on their origin and the workshops responsible for them, although none have any borders at their sides.
Finally, as an additional parallel to the stained glass at Llanwenllwyfo, a roundel at Cholmondeley also depicts Christ wearing a hat and holding a spade as he encounters Mary Magdalene after the Resurrection, a scene that is particularly distinctive at Llanwenllwyfo and was featured on the cover of the book about that church and its glass.
3. The firm of Ballantine of Edinburgh underwent a huge transformation in the first quarter of the twentieth century, or perhaps they didn’t
Visiting the Church of St Oswald, Malpas, brought me back to a window that had struck me on my first visit, a four-light window of the Adoration of the Magi. After I first saw the window I was surprised that the Pevsner (Clare Hartwell, Matthew Hyde and Nikolaus Pevsner, The Buildings of England: Cheshire, 2011) tentatively attributed the window to Ballantine of Edinburgh. Shortly before this discovery I had also been surprised that Peter Cormack, in his review of my little book on the stained glass at Tenby, had also suggested the firm as the maker of a window that I had been unable to attribute there.
Comparison of some of the faces in both windows suggests that they could perhaps have been by the same artist, although there was a little more painted shading in the little Tenby window. But were either of the windows products of the studio of Ballantine?
James Ballantine & Son (also Ballantine & Allen, and later Ballantine & Gardiner and then A. Ballantine & Son) was a long-lived firm that was established in Edinburgh by the 1830s and made stained glass for the House of Lords. Windows by the studio of the 1850s and 60s are found in north Wales, demonstrating a strong pictorial style with very fine painting and bright colours, but, by 1881, their window at Emmanuel, Bistre shows a duller colour palette in keeping with the times. A further window of 1890 at the Church of St Mary, Lenten Pool, Denbigh, also on our tour, demonstrates a very much more conventional Gothic Revival style typical of the period.
So after that recognisable change of approach, might they have embraced a style more in keeping with some of the best artists associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement so convincingly that they were able to produce the beautiful window at Malpas? Many on the tour thought not, but no other attributions were forthcoming.