The Treasures of Liverpool Museum’s Stained Glass Collection

Liverpool Museum’s collection of stained glass is one of the largest and most significant in England, yet it is also one of the most obscure. It comprises around five hundred whole lights and panels and thousands of fragments ranging in date from the thirteenth century to the 1950s. The majority of the pieces were assembled by the eminent Liverpool antiquarian and collector Dr Philip Nelson (1872–1953), author of Ancient Painted Glass in England 1170–1500 (published in 1913), the first gazetteer of English medieval glass. The inventory and valuation of Nelson’s glass collection prepared by Sotheby’s auction house in 1953 described it as follows: ‘A large collection of stained glass including glass from the north window of the chapter house of York Minster. From De Mauley window, S. side of nave York Minster, among other pieces from Luton church, Beds, Fittenden church Kent, Stansfield church, Barnwell, Northants and many other English churches. Glass from Rouen Cathedral and fragments and panels of continental glass. 14th 15th and 16th-century English armorials and a large collection of fragments’.

It is extremely unfortunate that the documentation accompanying the glass, which was evidently made available to Sotheby’s, has been lost or destroyed, and its disappearance regrettably reduces the value of the collection by leaving the majority of pieces unprovenanced. When Peter Newton wrote to the museum in 1961, he was told that the only pieces of known origin were a head of the Virgin from Winchester College chapel; four tracery panels reputed to have come from Battle Abbey, Sussex; and four panels from a Jesse window formerly at Browsholme Hall in Yorkshire. Although individual scholars such as Madeline Caviness have identified a few other panels in the intervening period, the collection remains virtually unknown. Stored in a warehouse and inaccessible to the public except by appointment, it has never been fully catalogued. The museum lacks both the funding necessary to conserve it and the space to display more than a tiny fraction of it.

Despite this bleak situation, detailed work is currently being carried out by Dr Penny Hebgin-Barnes of the CVMA (GB) committee to make the Liverpool collection more familiar to the international stained glass community. The collection will be catalogued and illustrated in the forthcoming CVMA (GB) summary catalogue for Cheshire and Lancashire (to be published in 2007), and it is also intended that images of all but the most insignificant fragments will be put onto the CVMA website during 2007. The sheer abundance and variety of the collection make it almost impossible to provide an overview, even of the most interesting panels, in the present article. However, the myriad pieces include the following random items. It is hoped that these will whet the reader’s appetite in anticipation of next year’s publication.

The Torments of Hell.

Fig. 1. The Torments of Hell.

King Amasias, from the collection in the Liverpool Museum

Fig. 2. King Amasias, from the collection in the Liverpool Museum

A most unusual early sixteenth-century series consists of four panels each comprising two grisaille scenes depicting Hell’s torments (Fig. 1). Each scene is described in verse in English. The verses appear to derive from a late fifteenth-century poem or play in which the damned describe the various punishments inflicted on them for committing each of the seven deadly sins. The only exception to the series is the first scene, a prologue to the rest, in which Christ tells the resurrected Lazarus to describe what he saw while dead. The Hell scenes appear to be based on woodcuts illustrating the popular Shepherds Calendar, numerous editions of which were published throughout Europe between the late fifteenth and seventeenth centuries. Some of the hybrid demons are reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch.

The panels depicting three kings, a prophet and some borders, which Nelson obtained from Browsholme Hall, originated in the mid-fourteenth-century east window of Selby Abbey (North Yorks.). Our illustration shows King Amasias, one of the kings of Juda mentioned in the Old Testament (see Fig. 2). The owners of Browsholme doubtless obtained them during the period between 1845 and 1891, when this fine example of a Jesse Window languished in boxes in the abbey before being restored and replaced. Its destruction by fire only fifteen years later makes the Liverpool pieces an important survival. The fact that their existence was unknown until they were identified in 1987 by David O’Connor, CVMA (GB) author and lecturer at Manchester University, begs the question of how many more fragments of extant and recorded glazing schemes currently lurk in the collection awaiting recognition.

Fig. 3. Sixteen quarries with Passion symbols, from the Liverpool Museum collection.

Fig. 3. Sixteen quarries with Passion symbols, from the Liverpool Museum collection.

Fig. 4. The Seventh Plague: early 16th-century Netherlandish panel from the Liverpool Museum collection.

Fig. 4. The Seventh Plague: early 16th-century Netherlandish panel from the Liverpool Museum collection.

The vigour of English popular religion in the sixteenth century is attested by the panel of sixteen quarries (Fig. 3), which Nelson obtained from Lymm Hall (Cheshire). Each quarry depicts an emblem of Christ’s Passion. There are not only the usual icons, such as the cross and crown of thorns, but also a head of Judas, portrayed as the archetypal wicked Jew with a hooked nose and a moneybag hung around his neck, and Peter’s sword, with the unfortunate servant’s ear still stuck to its blade. The collection is also home to some fine unipartite panels of North European origin. One of these deserves individual mention for its unique iconography: a Netherlandish depiction of the Seventh Plague of Egypt from the early sixteenth century, with the heavenly host surveying dead humans and animals sprawled on the ground below them (Fig. 4).

Finally, amongst the numerous small English pieces is a quarry bearing the rebus of an individual who was evidently surnamed Black (fig. 5). This is indicated by the night sky complete with moon and stars, the owl emerging from a tree and the naked black man brandishing a spear.

Fig. 5. Rebus quarry of an individual surnamed Black, from the Liverpool Museum collection.

Fig. 5. Rebus quarry of an individual surnamed Black, from the Liverpool Museum collection.

We hope that these few examples from this extensive and undeservedely neglected collection will provoke the interest and curiosity of scholars and non-specialists alike. Watch out for Summary Catalogue 8 (Cheshire and Lancashire) in 2007!

Penny Hebgin-Barnes

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