A blagger’s guide to stained glass

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

Warlingham, Surrey
This is in Warlingham, just south of Croydon. Make sure you look at this FIRST because it’s all broken and clearly old
Deerhurst (Gloucestershire)… isn’t she lovely…

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

Chichester Cathedral
West window of Chichester Cathedral, 1848. Looks like someone just hit the jackpot on an ecclesiastical fruit machine

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

St John the Baptist, Clay Hill, Enfield
1850s glass at St John the Baptist, Clay Hill, Enfield, attributed to early Heaton, Butler and Bayne
William Morris as St. Matthew, Christ Church Southgate, 1862
William Morris as St. Matthew, Christ Church Southgate, 1862

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

St Paul, Brentford
East window of 1882 in St Paul, Brentford, Hounslow
St Saviour, Walthamstow
The Transfiguration, St Saviour, Walthamstow, 1887

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

Basically everyone in Kempe looks like they've just eaten a lemon
Basically everyone in Kempe looks like they’ve just eaten a lemon
Erith, St John
No someone hasn’t sneezed, it’s a Kempe window of 1905

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.

(For the sake of balance here are the Kempe Society and the Kempe Trust who I wish all the best in their endeavours)

Bit soppy but the colours are nice: 20th CENTURY ARTS AND CRAFTS

St John the Divine, Richmond
Christopher Whall, detail of S chapel window, 1908, at St John the Divine, Richmond
Our Lady and St. Thomas of Canterbury R.C., Harrow on the Hill
Joseph E. Nuttgens, c.1920 window in porch Our Lady and St. Thomas of Canterbury R.C., Harrow on the Hill

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

Comper, Orders of Angels, 1933. All Saints, Carshalton

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

St Mark, Prince Albert Road, St Mark window detail
Red flashing taken to new heights with the bloody body of St Mark in St Mark, Regent Park, 1966
St Michael Paternoster Royal
St Michael Paternoster Royal, The City of London, 1968

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

East window, St Dunstan, Stepney
East window, 1949, St Dunstan, Stepney
Crayford, St Paulinus
East window, 1953, at St Paulinus, Crayford

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.



  1. Lovely blog on the stained glass windows. Very interesting to see the various styles and artists here. I love the Pre-Raphaelites a lot and was wondering where they could be seen in English churches. Thanks for sharing them out here.

    • It’s hard to find true Pre-Raph glass: the only one of the Brotherhood to do it was Rossetti but he gave up pretty quickly. Burne-Jones (almost a true Pre-Raph) designed some amazing windows, but I’ve tried to play down Morris and Co. in this – when they are good, they are outstanding, but their output after Morris’ death is some of the worst stained glass from a major firm. You know those plastic stickers you get in cathedral gift shops? That’s Morris and Co. c.1910-40.
      My definition of Pre-Raphaelite stained glass comes from William Waters who I’ve plugged before. This is a beautiful book: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Angels-Icons-Pre-Raphaelite-Stained-1850-1870/dp/0953280136

  2. Your blog gives me so much information and pleasure. There is nothing medieval here, it goes without saying, and a few weeks in Europe every year hardly scratches the surface of all it offers. The places you site I, hopefully, will find on my itinerary in the future.

    Sent from my iPad


  3. As fascinating as ever. :-) That very first item, the “all broken” one ? – was there no possibility of its being restructured so as to afford at least a semblance of an image ? I’d like to know more about that one: who put it back together and when, basically …
    I’m in total agreement about the last bloke – aargh ! Someone who shouldn’t holds the pursestrings at the Abbey, it seems, alas !!
    Warning: a criticism … Were this part of your thesis (which I know it isn’t), you’d be told to re-write: you’re not true to your original statement of telling us about the bad stuff … [grin]

    • Warlingham actually was a canopy to an otherwise Victorian window until it was vandalised, so it may have been more complete. But very often you can tell a rector just bought a box of shards of bits of canopies from a dealer in the nineteenth century to put in his church, and I think that’s quite a representative image of what you often see as “medieval glass” in some parish churches. Often just the canopies survived because only the images below were taken out.
      There are of course a few churches that have full window left, but there are only two churches to have their full glazing pretty much intact: Fairford (Gloucestershire) and St. Neot (Cornwall). York Minster I sometimes think has more medieval glass left than all our parish churches put together.

  4. Great read! As a kid I often wondered why the windows in certain churches I used to pray in looked so different one from the other (Milan’s Duomo is one that springs to mind). Now I know!

    By the way, on a recent trip to Hungary I stumbled upon the fine work of Jozséf Perlaki, a Veszprém-based stained glass artisan who did many church windows in his native Hungary and many other Mitteleuropean countries (Matyas Templom on Budapest’s citadel, for example). Ever heard of the man? I watched him “in action” in his workshop, I’ll do a blog entry on him sooner or later.

  5. Spot on on Kempe, who does like his stuff?

    For the early 20th century in my opinion it is difficult to beat Karl Parsons’ work

  6. Just read your blog cover to cover (if that is possible with a blog) and thoroughly enjoyed it!

    Personally I rather like Hugh Easton – although he is somewhat formulaic his details are often very good, for example the footlights in the E window in St Dunstan, Stepney.

    I would also list Henry Holiday and Christopher Webb as ones to look out for.

  7. Entertaining enough and as you say partisan so no arguments there although the article would be much better better and complete if you could research and correct the flaws in your technical knowledge, particularly in the “Boiled Sweets” section. Fully on board with the Kempe and Comper, its all bloody dreadful, and Comper easily the worse of the two!

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