Feature: Sydney Pitcher FRPS

Sydney Pitcher FRPS

Roger Rosewell FSA

This is the fifth in our occasional series of articles that profile pioneering scholars of stained glass in the United Kingdom. The series began with an assessment of the Revd Dr Christopher Woodforde, and continued with biographies of Mary Addison Green, Elsie Matley Moore and John Dolbel Le Couteur. This instalment summarizes the life of Sydney Alfred Pitcher (1884–1950), the most important photographer of stained glass in the first half of the twentieth century. It is drawn from the author’s article ‘The Life of Sydney Pitcher FRPS’, English Heritage Historical Review, 7/1, 2012, pp, 111–24, available here.

Fig. 1: Sydney Pitcher (on the left), with the composer, Herbert Howells, Cheltenham Chronicle & Gloucester Graphic, 12 September 1931.

Fig. 1: Sydney Pitcher (on the left), with the composer, Herbert Howells, Cheltenham Chronicle & Gloucester Graphic, 12 September 1931.

Sydney Pitcher was born in Gloucester on 9 March 1884, the only surviving son of Arthur Hearsum Pitcher (1852–1912) and his wife, Sarah Alice (née Marrett, 1853–1933). According to someone who met him towards the end of his life, he was a slightly built man with a rather cadaverous face, perhaps indicative of the cancer that would soon kill him. He also seems to have worn tweed suits, similar to some of the Arts and Crafts people he knew and worked alongside. A recently discovered photograph (kindly supplied to the author by Jonathan MacKechnie-Jarvis, a former assistant secretary of the Diocese of Gloucester) is, to date, the only known image of him [fig. 1].

It is almost certain that Sydney learned his photographic skills from his father, a much-admired professional photographer in the city, and president of the Gloucester Photographic Society in 1911 and 1912. Even as an adolescent, Sydney showed plenty of promise, entering examples of his work at a series of Royal Photographic Society (RPS) exhibitions from his sixteenth birthday onwards (in 1900, 1901, and 1904), before joining the Society in the latter year, and exhibiting again in 1906, 1908 and 1909. Such exhibitions introduced him to a wider world of photography, and may have played an influential role in his life; one can only imagine how he must have felt as a sixteen-year-old boy, when his photograph of the Crypt of Gloucester Cathedral (no. 102 in the catalogue) was selected for the annual exhibition of the RPS in 1900, and hung in the same company as the now-famous image of the Wells Cathedral chapter house steps (no. 37 in the catalogue) by Frederick Henry Evans (1853–1943), arguably the greatest photographer of English cathedrals. Yet while the similarity between this image and Sydney’s own masterpiece, a view of Gloucester Cathedral known as ‘The Lighthouse of the Vale’, suggests that the work of the older man may have influenced the younger, in practice the two men embraced quite different ideals. Evans belonged to the ‘pictorial’ tradition of photography, which, in simple terms, tried to inject artistic values into their pictures; Pitcher, on the other hand, soon sided with an emerging generation of photographers who stressed the ‘recording’ ethos of photography, a quality he embraced and commended for the remainder of his life [fig. 2].

With such a pedigree it is little wonder that Sydney worked with his father until Arthur’s death in 1912, whereupon he inherited the family home and business at 5 and 7 College Court, a historic street in the Westgate quarter of Gloucester, barely two minutes’ walk from the cathedral. Often visited by tourists, the street was an ideal spot for selling postcards and fine-art photographic prints (especially of Gloucester Cathedral) as supplements to traditional commercial activities, such as wedding and portrait photography and picture framing [fig. 3].

Fig. 2. ‘The Lighthouse of the Vale’ by Sydney Pitcher.

Fig. 2. ‘The Lighthouse of the Vale’ by Sydney Pitcher.

From the beginnings of his career, Sydney had a special interest in medieval art and architecture. His first entry in an RPS exhibition was the photograph of the crypt of Gloucester Cathedral mentioned above; his second was a photograph of a verger. By 1910, he was corresponding with the then keeper of the Tate Gallery, Dugald Sutherland MacColl (1859–1948), about providing images of medieval misericords for an article. Some of his interest may have been aroused by his father, who took numerous photographs of the cathedral, and who also contributed photographs of the sixteenth-century glass at the parish church of St Mary, Fairford, to P. H. Ditchfield’s Memorials of Old Gloucestershire, published in 1911. According to a letter Sydney wrote in 1942, he had visited churches from Cornwall to York. ‘My object has generally been ancient glass … [but] I have photographed other subjects as I came across’. A year later, the architectural historian, Sir John Summerson (1904–1992) would describe him as a ‘dyed-in-the-wool medievalist’.

It may have been on these visits that Pitcher met two men who would particularly affect his life: John Le Couteur (1883–1925), and Gordon McNeil Rushforth (1862–1938). Le Couteur had started his working life in a bank, but after retiring because of ill health in 1904, he devoted himself to the study of stained glass, and ‘moved about from place to place’ until settling down in Winchester after the Great War. Rushforth had a different background, primarily as an eminent classicist (he was the first director of the British School at Rome), but also as a scholar of medieval art and architecture, including stained glass. When and how Pitcher befriended these men is unclear, but by 1915 they were working together. Gloucestershire Record Office has a bound manuscript ‘Notes on the Stained Glass of Gloucester Cathedral Lady Chapel’, written by Le Couteur and subsequently owned by Pitcher, who pasted some of his photographs into the text; the volume is inscribed ‘Ex libris, Sydney A. Pitcher, MCMXV’. Around the same time, in 1916, Rushforth asked Pitcher to photograph the stained glass of the former Benedictine Priory (now the parish church) of Great Malvern, Worcestershire, one of the most important sites for medieval painted glass in England. One immediate result was that Pitcher began to publish the first of six folio volumes with mounted monochrome photographs of the glass, a project he seems to have funded from his own pocket. The Malvern volumes were one of several excursions into self-funded publishing that he undertook around this time. In 1915, he had produced The Great East Window, Gloucester Cathedral: Details of Canopies and Figures – 70 postcard images and 2 printed foolscap sheets with a brief description of the window and an index of the cards, supplied in a 6 x 4-inch box with a printed label. A year later, he published a short 8 x 5-inch booklet, The Sculptured Musicians of Gloucester Cathedral, illustrating each of the fifteen musical angels in the choir vaulting of Gloucester Cathedral. Letter-headings of this period promoted ‘publications’ as one of the aspects of his business.

Fig. 3. The Pitcher shop in College Court, Gloucester.

Fig. 3. The Pitcher shop in College Court, Gloucester.

The Malvern volumes were simultaneously Pitcher’s greatest and last venture into self-publishing. They seem to have been produced as and when his time and finances allowed, with the final volume appearing in 1935, nearly twenty years after the first. It is not clear how many sets were produced. Only three complete editions are known, and they are unnumbered. Many of the Malvern photographs eventually appeared in Rushforth’s seminal study of the glass published by Clarendon Press, Oxford, in 1936: Medieval Christian Imagery as Illustrated by the Painted Windows of Great Malvern Priory Church Worcestershire.

Although the publishing side of Pitcher’s business appears to have been less financially rewarding than he may have hoped for, the fact that he produced the Malvern volumes and used his own resources to fund a definitive record of the glass is sufficient to set him apart from other photographers of his generation, who concentrated solely on commercial photography and portraiture. The books reveal a man who was not just a recorder of stained glass, but also a participant, a photographer who used his skills to both promote and protect the art that he loved. Apart from the Malvern project, Pitcher also collaborated with Rushforth on other projects during and after the First World War, providing photographs for the latter’s articles about the medieval glass of Gloucester Cathedral in the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1921 and 1922, and cementing his growing reputation as the pre-eminent photographer of medieval glass in the country.

In 1925, Pitcher achieved another first, emerging as the author of a pioneering survey of the Ancient Stained Glass of Gloucestershire Churches in the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, which listed both extant glass and records of lost glass, ‘swept away … in the third quarter of the nineteenth-century’. Apart from illustrating the survey with his own photographs, Pitcher also wrote the accompanying text, for which he acknowledged the help of Rushforth and the distinguished medievalist, M. R. James (1862–1936). The depth of Pitcher’s research is revealed by the inclusion of references to lost glass, compiled after trawling through several antiquarian descriptions of Gloucestershire churches in the eighteenth century. A review of the article by the stained-glass historian John Alder Knowles (1881–1961) called it ‘a model to all future cataloguers and writers how these things should be done’. Another presciently mused: ‘If a similar work were carried out for all the English counties we should be in possession of an archaeological “corpus” of permanent value and wide interest’, anticipating the publication of the first volume by the British Corpus Vitrearum Medii Aevi by over forty years. Based on personal visits Pitcher made to every church in the county between 1915 and 1925, the survey listed 115 sites with surviving medieval glass, plus a further 23 that were recorded as having glass before 1875, but which had subsequently disappeared.

Apart from well-known places such as Gloucester Cathedral, Tewkesbury Abbey, and Fairford Church, the survey introduced readers to lesser-known treasures at the Gloucestershire parish churches of Arlingham, Bagendon, Bledington, Buckland, Cirencester, Deerhurst, Eastington, Edgeworth, Hailes, North Cerney, Stanton, and Temple Guiting. Ninety years later, it still remains the most comprehensive survey of medieval glass in the county, and although some of his conclusions are at odds with modern scholarship, the scale of the achievement cannot be overstated. The article can be read online here.

Around the time that this article was published in 1925, Pitcher gave a complete record of his Gloucestershire churches photographs to the Victoria and Albert Museum. He also made an album of photographs of the medieval glass in the choir clerestory of Tewkesbury Abbey, which was presented to a long-serving sacristan on his retirement. The windows had been restored between 1923 and 1925. The album is now in the care of Gloucestershire County Records.

In 1926 Pitcher was singled out by the art historian and literary critic Herbert Read (1893–1968, knighted 1953), who wrote that the illustration of his own book on English Stained Glass, written while he was an assistant curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, would have been impossible ‘without the co-operation of Mr Sydney Pitcher of Gloucester’ to whom ‘ all students of stained glass and of medieval art in general, are under a great debt for the enthusiastic zeal with which he is recording the remains of church art in England’. The same year saw Pitcher join the Gloucester Diocesan Advisory Committee, a remarkable appointment for its time, an unprecedented honour for a commercial photographer and a powerful testimony to the respect his skills and commitment commanded among the normally socially exclusive hierarchy of the cathedral. In many ways, it was a fitting appointment for someone whose interest and family made him an intimate figure in the culture of the cathedral precinct. His archives, combined with those of his father, were probably a better visual record of the cathedral than possessed by anyone else. The proximity of his studio to the cathedral and his acquaintance with scholars such as Rushforth and James meant that he was both comfortable with, and accepted by, academics and historians to an extent unequalled by other photographer at that time.

Around this time, Pitcher also provided the photographs for a book on medieval wall-paintings in Gloucestershire churches, which included a photograph dated 1873 from his father’s collection. Two years later, his reputation was further consolidated, when the RPS organized a ground-breaking exhibition of seventy-two of his photographs of stained glass. Examples included windows from St Neot (Cornwall), Eaton Bishop (Herefordshire), and Oddingley (Worcestershire). Shown at the RPS’s rooms in December 1927, it was praised in the Journal of the British Society of Master Glass-Painters as ‘the first of its kind’. A review in Country Life magazine said that it was a ‘triumph of photographic art’. The reproduction of some of Pitcher’s notes for the exhibition published in the RPS magazine, The Photographic Journal, sheds light on Pitcher’s role as recorder/participant in stained glass studies: ‘The usual method of recording glass is to make a rubbing with rolls of paper and heelball, then trace the lines on to drawing paper, colour in the patches, and draw or paint in all details. I am challenging that on the point of accuracy, and for that reason my photographs are as big as I could get them, full size if possible. Extreme accuracy is imperative in the matter of inscriptions, where the joining or spacing of minute serifs in black letter may alter the meaning of a word. And the meaning of one word may sometimes give the clue to the whole work. Sometimes glass has been put back in a window the wrong side out, and a reversed photograph has enabled scraps of inscription to be read.’ One consequence of the exhibition was that Pitcher was upgraded from Associate of the RPS to Fellow for his ‘architectural record photography’.

In the 1930s, Pitcher’s photographs were used for two major studies of stained glass and medieval art. The first, Medieval Sculptures of Winchester College with Herbert Chitty (1863–1949), the archivist of Winchester College, was the outcome of a long collaboration between the two men that had begun in 1918, when Pitcher had been asked to photograph the college. The second, Medieval Christian Imagery as Illustrated by the Painted Windows of Great Malvern Priory, saw him reunited with McNeil Rushforth. Pitcher’s contribution to this still sought-after volume was generously acknowledged by the author: ‘the illustrations, which are, perhaps, the most valuable part of this book, are almost entirely due to the skill and ungrudging service of Mr Sidney Pitcher’.

In 1937, Pitcher also photographed the medieval glass in the ante-chapel of All Souls’ College, Oxford, for a study on the windows planned by Rushforth, but not completed, because of his death in 1938. The book finally appeared in 1948 with a text based on Rushforth’s notes and entirely illustrated by Pitcher: F. E. Hutchinson, Medieval Glass at All Souls College: A History and Description (London, 1949). In addition, Pitcher also supplied photographs for guide books to Gloucester and Worcester cathedrals, and editions of guides to Famous Churches and Abbeys, published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. Most books on medieval art and architecture published in the 1930s and 1940s included images supplied by him.

When war was declared in 1939, Pitcher was too old to fight, but not too old to serve. As bombing raids over Britain intensified, the government formed a new organization, in 1941, to collect drawings and photographs of Britain’s historic architecture in case the buildings were damaged by enemy action. Pitcher supplied a stream of images to the National Buildings Record (NBR), as the organization was known (subsequently the National Monuments Record and now the English Heritage Archive), including copies of photographs that he had amassed over the previous quarter of a century. Apart from supplying these images, five of Sydney’s pictures of medieval capitals at the parish church of St John at Slimbridge (Gloucestershire), were used at an exhibition devoted to the work of the NBR at the National Gallery in 1944. Four prints of the misericords in St Michaels’s Cathedral, Coventry, were also included to symbolize the losses caused by enemy action.

Fig. 4. The Gloucester Doom board, as drawn by George Scharf, F.S.A. (1820–1895), keeper and secretary of the National Portrait Gallery.

Fig. 4. The Gloucester Doom board, as drawn by George Scharf, F.S.A. (1820–1895), keeper and secretary of the National Portrait Gallery.

During one of their regular exchanges, Pitcher also told the director of the NBR how he worked: ‘My technical standard for record work has always been to obtain a good clear print 15 inches long. I generally work from a 6½ inch negative’, and he gave them two-pronged advice about how best to record ancient glass: ‘photograph every panel of a window in monochrome… the aim to be [able] to see in the prints every separate brush stroke and to be able to read every scrap of lettering’, and then record ‘selected panels in colour photography, preferably by a three plate process, with some screen process slides’. Apart from photographing buildings, Pitcher also recorded paintings and other works of art at risk from enemy action. These included the collections of the Cheltenham Art Gallery and the armour at the Tower of London. It was a wise precaution. In 1910, he had photographed a rare large pre-Reformation painting of the Last Judgement that had been discovered hidden behind panelling in the nave of Gloucester Cathedral in 1718 and thereafter displayed in the south choir triforium. Sadly, the painting was destroyed in 1944, after it had been sent to London for conservation and the studio where it was being stored was bombed [fig. 4].

After the end of the war, Pitcher continued to supply photographs to the NBR from sites such as Fairford, Windsor Castle and Winchester, until his death in the Royal Hospital in Gloucester on 4 March 1950, a few days short of his sixty-sixth birthday. Despite some fraught moments, in 1952 the NBR acquired just under 5,000 of Sydney’s negatives for the national collection. The following year, the College Street premises were sold on behalf of his widow. The properties were bought by Mrs Margaret Coppen-Garner, who converted them into a single home (no. 7), changed the fenestration, and inserted a stained-glass panel dated 1953 commemorating her purchase in the fanlight above the new front door.

In an age of instant photography with digital devices it can be hard to appreciate the contribution and skill of people like Sydney Pitcher and the difficulties that faced scholars of stained glass before the invention of modern reliable colour photography. Those who love medieval stained glass today owe him everlasting gratitude.


The Great East Window, Gloucester Cathedral: Details of Canopies and Figures, Gloucester, 1915

The Sculptured Musicians of Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester, 1916

The Stained Glass of Great Malvern Priory Church, 1916–1935

I: The Windows of the North Clerestory of the Quire, 1916, 26 pictures
II: The East Window, 1917, 62 pictures
III: The Windows of the South Quire Aisle, 1935, 36 pictures
IV: The Windows of the South Clerestory of the Quire and the West Window, 1920, 56 pictures
V: The Windows of the North Clerestory of the Quire, 1919, 46+9 pictures
VI: The Windows of the North Aisle of the Nave, 1927, 42 pictures

Sydney A. Pitcher, ‘Ancient Stained Glass in Gloucestershire Churches’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, XLVII, 1925, pp. 287–345

Herbert Chitty [photography by Sydney Pitcher], Medieval Sculptures at Winchester College, Oxford, 1932

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