Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Review: Arts & Crafts as a modern, expressive art form. Stained Glass

As some of you will know from reading this blog, I have spent a fair amount of my time in churches over the years.  Obviously because of my love of Pre-Raphaelites I have a fondness for stained glass and love seeing new and interesting windows.  Here's one of my favourites...

Light of the World at the church in Freshwater
Anyway, imagine my delight when I was sent a review copy of Arts and Crafts Stained Glass by Peter Cormack.  This massive, glossy tome of 354 pages long is richly illustrated in colour and contains enough windows to keep me quiet for many an hour, together with the fascinating history of how the Arts and Crafts Movement transformed the look and production of stained glass, religious and secular, in both Britain and America.

Detail of Dante and Beatrice (1911) Florence Camm and T W Camm studio
This book is the culmination of 30 years worth of research into the subject and aims to show how the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 1880s and 90s was progressive in its reinvention of stained-glass as a modern, progressive art form.

Christopher and Florence Whall (1885)
It's a book about personalities as much as it is a book about art, with the figure of Christopher Whall looming large as charismatic teacher and producer of exciting panels.  Much like Julia Margaret Cameron and her chicken house studio, Whall set up his studio in a stable (or 'cow-house' as he referred to it), working alongside Polly the cow and a host of chickens.

Eve (1891) Christopher Whall and Britten & Gilson
Under his tutelage and inspiration, many female designers and practitioners arose and the women of the Arts and Crafts stained-glass movement were crucial in its success.  Cormack argues that meaningful equality was reached with male colleagues more fully than any other applied art, which is an interesting claim and seems to be comprehensively backed up by figures such as Mary Hamilton Frye, Mary J. Newill, Helen Coombe, Mary Lowndes and Margaret Rope, who created a panel on this familiar subject...

Goblin Market (1905) Margaret Rope
Beginning with William Morris, Edward Burne-Jones and other figures of the mid-Victorian art world, it is easy to see how their influence continued in the works of later pioneers.  I found the different styles that quickly emerged in the glass work fascinating, levels of abstraction played with within the Arts and Crafts framework.  I particularly loved seeing the way that Morris' work was carried on in spirit and style so that it is possible to see his hand in mid-twentieth century memorials as well as very straight-forward tributes to the man himself.

William Morris window (1908) in former students' common room,
Camberwell School of Arts and Craft, London
All the windows are beautifully photographed, some in detail, others in their full glory, and you will see both familiar and lesser-known pieces in the book.  It was wonderful to see the Goblin Market panel and the Morris window which I would not get to see in normal life (especially if they are on the other side of the Atlantic), as well as having the church windows referenced so that you can go and visit them and see them for yourself.

Dorothea Dix (1938) Charles Connick (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
I also enjoyed seeing both secular and religious stained-glass, as it is a practice that we tend to think of as being religious (and therefore possibly not as mainstream and popular as it would have been at its creation).  With pieces that date from before the First World War, it is arguable whether the religious and the mainstream were not one and the same. Certainly artists working on overtly religious subjects one day then something like Babes in the Wood or Goblin Market the next probably did not see such a contrast as modern eyes do.  There is a tension in the religious aspect of the works in this book possibly putting people off but they are of such absolute beauty that whether you believe or not, they are wonderful pieces of art.

Detail of Psalm 148 (1898) Walter Crane and James Silvester Sparrow (Hull, Yorkshire)
The claim that women were able to find a parity in the movement is an interesting one and the argument put forward is very persuasive but as stained glass is quite an anonymous craft, I wonder if that is what helped their cause.  It is only with scholarship such as this book that we can appreciate how many women made their contribution to the movement and appreciate the depth of their involvement. Either way, this is a wonderful book that is perfect to flick through or read at length, depending on how much information you want.  It's not cheap, but it is hard to imagine a more perfect or comprehensive overview of such an overlooked aspect of Victorian art.

Lady of the Lake, Merlin and Margawse with the Infant Mordred (1933)
Veronica Whall and Whall & Whall Ltd (Tintagel, Cornwall)
Arts & Crafts Stained Glass by Peter Cormack is out on 7 July and is available here (Amazon UK) and here (USA) or at a bookshop near you!


  1. I need a copy of that book!

    If you are ever in Reading, there is a branch of Waterstones that is in a converted chapel on the main shopping street. Upstairs is a truly GLORIOUS rendition of 'The Light of the World' in stained glass - I would say better done than the one at Freshwater and truer to the painting. The trees in the dark blue panels over Christ's shoulders are especially nicely done, as are the leaves at his feet. I always used to stare at it while book-shopping. http://www.demotix.com/news/5739435/heritage-open-days-17th-century-chapel-now-houses-bookshop-reading#media-5739451

  2. Spookily I have just put Mr Walker on the train to Reading, bemoaning the fact that I have never been there... I now need to go. The book is delicious, definitely worth the money.

  3. I received a copy of this book yesterday, as you say a lovely book, loved the photos of the artists in their studios, gardens and homes. The stained glass photography is excellent, showing the true colours of the glass used. Well done Peter. - Jacqueline Tomkinson, Tomkinson Antique Stained Glass Ltd


Many thanks for your comment. I shall post it up shortly! Kx