Book review: Arts & Crafts Stained Glass

Michael Hall applauds a new book on the much-neglected art of stained glass, which underwent a flowering under the influence of the Arts-and-Crafts movement.

Arts & Crafts Stained Glass by Peter Cormack (Yale, £50 *£45)

In 1933, Frederick Glasscock, who had made a fortune from custard, opened the headquarters of his Fellowship of the Knights of the Round Table at Tintagel in Cornwall. A meeting place for this briefly popular fellowship, modelled on the Freemasons, it incorporates a mighty granite-and-marble Hall of Chivalry. This is the setting for 73 windows of great beauty by Veronica Whall that are, writes Peter Cormack, ‘probably the last large-scale depiction of the Arthurian legend by a British artist’. Her achievement brings to a stirring denouement the enthralling story of how the Arts-and-Crafts movement revitalised the art of stained glass.

The Hall of Chivalry’s windows sum up many of the special qualities achieved by Arts-and-Crafts practitioners. As well as an insistence on the highest quality of materials most notably, glass with a rich depth and range of colour enhanced by sophisticated painting techniques they used intricate leading to reinforce the graphic force of their windows’ design.

These were lessons that Veronica Whall had learned from her father, Christopher Whall (1849–1924), the principal creator of the Arts-and-Crafts stained-glass tradition and, as Mr Cormack demonstrates, a figure of international significance in the history of the art.

Like so many architects and craftsmen whose careers were launched on the tide of the Gothic Revival, Whall was the son of a clergyman. Trained at the Royal Academy, he decided to devote himself to church art, encouraged by his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

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His first commission, the design of windows for St Etheldreda at Ely Place in London, brought home to him the reason why stained glass had, with only a few exceptions, declined from a high point of creativity in the mid 19th century into formulaic staleness. To meet the great demand for the medium, the large firms had developed a method of working that meant an almost complete separation of design from manufacture.

Whall’s characteristically Arts-and-Crafts solution was for designers to make their own windows. However, whereas bookbinders or silversmiths might feasibly expect to make everything they designed, it was clearly impossible for Whall to do so, especially when faced with the huge challenge of the windows for the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral, made in 1898–1913, the masterpieces that established his reputation.

His answer was to use workshops staffed by people he had trained. This worked largely because Whall was a charismatic teacher. Virtually all the great names in the craft who came after him, most notably Louis Davis in England, Douglas Strachan in Scotland and Wilhelmina Geddes in Ireland, were indebted to his example, and many had worked alongside the man they called ‘Daddy Whall’.

Women played a major role in the craft, reinforcing the way that the story of Arts-and-Crafts stained glass is, to an exceptional degree, one of an intimate network of families, friends and colleagues, whose relationships are elucidated by Mr Cormack with perceptive sensitivity.

Stained glass of the 19th and 20th centuries is not well served by books. The only academic survey of Victorian glass (Martin Harrison) is 35 years old, and the only comprehensive monograph on any of the leading firms (by A. C. Sewter on Morris & Co) is even older. Partly because it is hard to collect or exhibit, glass is ignored by most art historians working on the period.

In addition, although many makers of stained glass, were, like Whall, people with religious convictions, contemporary enthusiasts for Arts-and-Crafts design tend to be secular in outlook, and fail to acknowledge the movement’s deep roots in the Gothic Revival.

All this makes Mr Cormack’s achievement in producing a definitive work, founded on deep scholarship and attentive looking in churches and chapels both in Britain and North America, even more impressive. As the ravishing photographs in this luminously beautiful book almost all taken by the author—make clear, Arts-and-Crafts stained glass is not just decorative art of high quality: it is some of the best art of its age in any medium.

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