What is a church without stained glass windows? They’re such a ubiquitous feature that a lot of people can take them for granted and coo “ooh, isn’t it all beautiful”. But not all stained glass is created equal. Some of it is stunningly beautiful, and some is… not.
Here’s my entirely partisan rundown of what to and what not to get excited about in the windows of churches.
ooh let me get my field binoculars out because you have a bit of…: ACTUAL MEDIEVAL GLASS
Most important thing to know: basically, there’s no such thing as bad medieval glass, because with so little left of the stuff it’s your solemn duty to pretend to be excited even it’s a tiny broken bit of canopy or a badly painted face. As snobby as it seems, it’s kind of true. The craft behind medieval glass always assured it had a jewel-like quality that is very difficult indeed to replicate.
When light shines through medieval glass, it does not project the picture on to the floor like a magic lantern. It refracts through the uneven surface, and it is this effect that makes medieval glass so valuable. My favourite example of this is the relatively small early-fourteenth-century figure of St. Catherine in Deerhurst (Gloucestershire). She is rather out-of-place, marooned in a great sea of later medieval fragments, but cannot fail to capture the passing gaze of any visitor.
Better get your sunglasses on for: WILLIAM “BOILED SWEETS” WAILES
When people started building pointy Gothic churches again in the early nineteenth century, there was a new demand for glass that looked medieval. Problem is, for the past hundred years or so the only coloured glass in English churches was enamelled, where you paint colour straight on to the glass – cheating! Real stained glass has the colour fired directly into the material, the only way to paint two colours on it is when you fire silver nitrate to “stain” part of the glass yellow (hence the term stained glass), or the more complicated technique of “flashing”. The first major firm to try to recreate proper jigsaw-puzzle-like glass was that of William Wailes. The problem is that his glass is mass-produced sheet glass (I said sheet), which has none of those all-important imperfections. Consequently, it leads to a horribly even quality that makes them look as lurid as a row of jars in a candy shop. Similarly it’s initially enticing but rather quickly makes you feel quite ill.
That’s actually rather special, you know…: EARLY “PRE-RAPHAELITE” STYLE GLASS
In the 1850s there was a striving to try to recreate glass with medieval quality. Possibly too much emphasis is placed on William Morris, who worked with the fine artists Ford Madox Brown, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones, when actually a lot of the early trail-blazing was done by John Clayton, Alfred Bell, Clement Heaton, James Butler, Robert Bayne, Nathaniel Lavers, Francis Barraud and Nathaniel Westlake, names that are now only familiar to churchcrawlers from the firms they subsequently went on to found. These men wanted their glass to be worthy for the medieval churches they restored rather than inadequate pastiche. It still often has quite a lurid hue, but the designs are unlike Wailes’s stiff figures and full of life, and the uneven thickness, bubbles and imperfections go toward that Holy Grail of getting medieval on your glass.
Good high Victorian: HEATON, BUTLER AND BAYNE
So into the 1870s, 80s and 90s, when probably more glass was made in England than any time since the Middle Ages. There are a lot of firms to choose from who have their own distinct styles, but my favourite are Heaton, Butler and Bayne. They weren’t shy of mixing styles of Renaissance and Gothic, and bold colourful designs, while keeping away from the violent colours of the 1830s and 40s. They often sign their work, so keep an eye out for what I think is their consistently high level of work glazing England’s churches. My favourite glazing by them is the west lancets of 1877 in St. Saviour’s Walthamstow, so much in fact I’ve been using as my WordPress header for the past year and half I’ve had the blog. It’s so gloriously proto-art nouveau: hopeful and jewel-like: positively a stained-glass attitude on life. It’s amazing to think how much money was spent by Victorian parishioners and rectors just on bringing that little bit of colour into people’s Sundays. Now churches struggle to fix the roof or get a new toilet.
Nice tracery, shame about the: KEMPE
As any medievalist will no doubt enthusiastically tell you, a lot of nineteenth-century glass is difficult to get excited about. C. E. Kempe is exemplary of this. High Anglican Victorian clergymen loved Kempe’s work, but I’ve never met anyone else who does. His windows are conservative, but most of all they’re EVERYWHERE. I think if you just left a church alone in the nineteenth century that Kempe glass would just grow between the window mullions like rising damp or bat droppings. I will admit there is some good quality stuff, but he has such a low quality threshold some of it frankly is just hideous. Even the better ones seem are united by awkwardly pinched faces, and most of all, a distinct griminess that makes them look as if they’ve gone mouldy. That’s not a good aesthetic.
So while Kempe went on into the 1930s pumping out the same old nonsense, at the turn of the century the Arts and Crafts movement legacy inspired many to go back to basics, firing glass with distinctly rough surfaces and experimenting with new techniques. Some names to look out for are Christopher Whall (whose glazing in Holy Trinity Sloane Square I feel beats out the famous Morris and co. east window), M. E. Aldrich Rope and J.E. Nuttgens. It often still has an awkward lingering Victorian sentiment in the face of continental modernity, but it actually looks like glass and is shiny and nice which I hope you are learning is the most important thing about church windows.
Well no one would claim it as his best work: COMPER
A rival aesthetic to this was that of Ninian Comper. Comper was a hugely popular church architect and designer who is best known for his work in the early twentieth century, particularly his magnificent rood screens. But I’m not talking about that here. I’m having a go at his glass. Generally I don’t think Comper liked stained glass all that much. All his stuff is very non-committal, usually just blue and white, and lingering yellow stain. And the stuff itself is lifeless, flat and thin. I think even the biggest Comperholic would say you do not visit one of his churches for the windows. I think he just wanted to let more light in so you could see his massive shiny reredoses.
Modern stuff can be good: JOHN HAYWARD
After the War, it became the thing to eschew colour for a brighter church interior, and stained glass lost out, becoming less confident, clearer, and well, less like stained glass. One artist who went against this in the 1960s was John Hayward. His magnum opus is no doubt St Michael Paternoster Royal in the City. In the centre is the church’s patron saint beating down the devil, of which the rich hues and thick textures in the glass work with the subject towards an explosive Armageddon of colour and light. These spectacular windows are one of central London’s modern hidden treasures. If you live or work in the City, and haven’t seen them (which I bet is true), go see them, please.
augh no my eyes make it stop: HUGH BLOODY EASTON
Okay, finally, the nadir, Hugh Easton. His glass best represents the post-war problem of putting floating figures into a sea of clear glass, and also lazily ignoring the shape of the window and tracery in the design. But more alarmingly Mr Easton also brings a rather bizarre eroticism into Anglicanism which would have given any Edwardian parson a brain haemorrhage. See his east window at Stepney, where a bare-chested young Christ flexes his abs permanently at the congregation. Put them away, Jesus. And then the east window at Crayford of the four archangels, my Lord. I wish no damage upon this window, but I wonder if it would be happier if you put some flashing lights behind it and installed it in the basement of a Soho nightclub. How this guy got so much work in Westminster Abbey of all places I’ll never know.