In praise of … Gordon McNeil Rushforth (1862-1938)
Roger Rosewell FSA
This is the sixth in our occasional series of articles that profile pioneering scholars of stained glass in the United Kingdom. This installment summarizes the life of Gordon McNeil Rushforth FSA, the author of a major study of the glass at Great Malvern Priory, as well as other glass at sites in Worcestershire, Gloucestershire and Oxford. The series began with a study of the Revd Dr Christopher Woodforde and continued with biographies of Mary Addison Green, Elsie Matley Moore, John Dolbel Le Couteur and Sydney Pitcher, FRPS. [fig.1]
Gordon McNeil Rushforth [GMR] was born on the 5th September 1862 in Paddington, west London. At that time his father, Daniel Rushforth, was described as a button maker, later he was listed as a manufacturing chemist. Like his siblings, Gordon was given his mother’s maiden name of McNeil. At school he excelled in Latin verse and Divinity and in 1881 he won an open scholarship to St John’s College, Oxford, where he gained his BA degree in 1885, proceeding to MA in 1888. After leaving the university he studied law and qualified as a Barrister. Very quickly, however, he returned to Oxford to teach his first love, Roman history. In 1893 he published a major work, Latin Historical Inscriptions illustrating the history of the Early Empire, and in 1897 he was appointed Classics Tutor at Oriel College, Oxford. Apart from teaching he also used his time to write a study of the Italian renaissance painter, Carlo Crivelli (1430?-1495) as part of a series of books called ‘The Great Masters in Painting and Sculpture’. Rushforth’s interest in such painters was not merely academic. In 1894 he bought a ‘Madonna and Child’ attributed to Bartolomeo Vivarini (1432- c.1499) which, via the generosity of a later owner, now hangs in Westminster Abbey’s Lady Chapel. Shortly before his death he gave another masterpiece, a fourteenth-century painting of The Dream of the Virgin [fig.2], by Simone dei Crocefissi (1330?-1399), to the Society of Antiquaries of London (it has been on loan to the National Gallery since 2006).
In 1900 he was invited to become the first Director of the British school in Rome, a research institute dedicated to promoting the study of Roman and Graeco-Roman archaeology. [fig.3]
According to his obituarist in The Times, Rushforth’s, ‘wide ranging learning and sympathies, his distinguished diplomatic manners and his linguistic abilities’ were invaluable in establishing the school. Not only that but he also published a 123-page paper on the frescoes at the recently discovered Santa Maria Antiqua, now sometimes called ‘the Sistine Chapel of the Eighth Century’. But despite such successes, when his health declined in the Roman climate, he resigned his appointment after just three years and returned to England where, aged forty, unmarried and sufficiently well-off to afford a manservant, he settled at ‘Riddlesden’, Hanley Terrace, in Malvern Wells (Worcs) and began a new career as an independent scholar of things which interested him. In addition to Roman and Italian studies – he translated a number of books and worked on an important medieval manuscript about the topography of ancient Rome – these interests included local history, fine art and fortunately for stained glass historians, the iconography of Christian imagery. As a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (elected 1901) Rushforth soon found like-minded friends in the Malvern area, including C.W. Dyson Perrins (1864-1958), who had inherited a fortune from his father’s stake in the Lea and Perrins Worcester Sauce Company, and amassed a magnificent collection of medieval manuscripts with the proceeds. [fig.4]
Around 1909/10 Rushforth met John Dolbel Le Couteur, (1883-1925) who was working at Malvern Priory Church releading the medieval glass in the side chapel of St Anne, under the watchful eye of the ‘ Christian archaeologist’, M. R. James (1862 -1936), the then Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge and Provost of King’s College. It proved the beginning of both a long friendship between the two men and an introduction to a wider circle of enthusiasts, such as the Gloucester-based photographer, Sydney Pitcher (1884–1950).
In 1915 GMR edited a talk given in 1914 by a former High Sheriff of Gloucestershire, T. D. Grimke-Drayton, and prepared it for publication. ‘Notes on the heraldry of the Great East window of Gloucester Cathedral’ by TDGD appeared in the Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society (TBGAS) and repeated earlier suggestions that a set of armorial shields in the lower part of the window depicted the key figures who had fought at the battle of Crécy in 1346 and supported Edward III’s claim to the French throne: more recently, however it has been noted that the heraldry is also representative of those who were involved in the king’s expeditions against Scotland in the early years of the fourteenth century, and that it serves equally well as a general roll of the leading nobles of the period (see: J. Kerr, ‘The East Window at Gloucester Cathedral’, in T. A. Heslop and V. A. Sekules (eds), Medieval Art and Architecture at Gloucester and Tewkesbury (1985), pp. 116–29).
The next year saw Rushforth’s friendship with Pitcher bear fruit. Fearful of damage from German air raids the Great Malvern Priory glass was removed for safekeeping in 1916. After Pitcher had set up a studio in the church and carefully photographed each panel, Rushforth contributed the first of his brief descriptive notes to the photographer’s six volume record of the glass.
At the end of the war Rushworth advised on the reinstatement of the Priory glass, devoting himself to trying to understand the original glazing schemes and the figures and subjects shown. Assisted by M. R James’ earlier notes, his own detailed research would form the basis of his major book about the glass (with photographs by Pitcher) which would appear twenty years later. [fig.5]
GMR’s first independent venture into written stained glass studies was an article for the Antiquaries Journal in 1918 about some interesting late medieval imagery from a private house in Leicester which depicted scenes of the Seven Sacraments of the church (Baptism; Confirmation; Mass/Eucharist; Penance/Confession; Extreme Unction/Last Rites; Ordination and Matrimony). Thought to have been made c. 1500 for Roger Wygston, a former Lord Mayor of the city, the panels had been removed from the house in the nineteenth-century; they are currently displayed in Leicester’s Jewry Museum. Rushforth’s interest in this subject was aroused by remnants of a similar scheme he had seen at Malvern Priory, and in later years (1929) he contributed an important survey of other windows and fonts which featured this subject. One of the suggestions he made in the latter was that there was a clear geographical division between the two ways that the sacraments were depicted in stained glass; those in the south showing them connected to a standing figure of Christ baring his passion wounds, those in the north-west showing them surrounding the crucified Christ (see: Gordon McNeil Rushforth, ‘Seven Sacraments Compositions in English Medieval Art’, Antiquaries Journal, ix (2), 1929, pp. 83–100). Marks has since cautioned that missing figures of the central Christ image elsewhere in the country makes the evidence inconclusive (R. Marks Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, 1993, p. 79). [fig. 6]
Returning to GMR’s life chronologically; in 1920 Rushforth joined the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society [BGAS] and in 1921 he contributed an article on the glass in the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral to the Society’s journal. This was, and remains, a difficult window to decipher due to losses and inserts of medieval glass from other parts of the cathedral, making it hard to identify individual figures and the arrangement of the original design. A modern guide to the church calls it a ‘kaleidoscope of coloured glass… consisting of fragments from various windows around the church’. Nonetheless GMR produced coherence from chaos and suggested that the window had originally included images of the Virgin Mary accompanied by Virgin saints. Among the ‘alien’ inserts he identified were figures from a Tree of Jesse scheme possibly from a north transept window and depictions of four soldier saints, Sebastian, Julian, Eustace, Achatius, from one of the chapel side windows. The last named figure holds his emblem of a tall cross encircled with a crown of thorns. All four saints were often invoked as protectors against plague and other misfortunes. [figs.7 & 8]
In 1922 GMR wrote another important article about stained glass in Gloucester cathedral, discussing the arrangement and identification of the saints, bishops, abbots and kings represented in the east window, and followed that up with a study of the glass in Tewksbury Abbey. The trigger for the latter was an invitation from the Abbey Restoration Committee to supervise the releading of its famous fourteenth-century glass in the Quire (Choir) of the church. This involved a significant rearrangement of the glass as a previous releading in 1818-20 had been extremely haphazard. The main scheme in the Choir depicts first, the Last Judgement with Christ sitting on a rainbow attended by prophets, patriarchs and kings from the Old Testament and second, representations of eight secular Lords of Tewkesbury and benefactors of the abbey. During his rearranging work, Rushforth also discovered remnants of a mainly lost Tree of Jesse scheme which can now be found in the so-called ‘museum window’ in the sacristy. His work is assessed in: S. Brown, ‘The Medieval Stained Glass’, in R. K. Morris and R. Showsmith (eds), Tewkesbury Abbey: History, Art & Architecture, Logaston, 2003, pp. 183–96. [Fig.9]
More followed. In 1926 after the untimely death of John Le Couteur, GMR helped to bring his friend’s ideas and notes to print. The resultant English Medieval Painted Glass remains a classic. He also contributed a warm biographical appreciation of JLC and remained in touch with his mother for the rest of her life. During the same year he displayed his breadth of knowledge about early Christian iconography and sources by writing about the unique window at Birtsmorton church in Worcestershire depicting the Christ child baptizing St Christopher. In 1927 he was the first to catalogue the important collection of continental glass in St Mark’s church, Bristol, commonly known as the Lord Mayor’s chapel , and in the same year discussed the sixteenth-century glass in the chapel of the Vyne in Hampshire, a Tudor house now owned by National Trust. When Rushforth was writing these, and other articles about stained glass in the 1920s and 30s, he was still very much a pioneer and it was/is inevitable that some of his judgements have been overtaken by later scholarship see, for example: B. Rackham, ‘Notes on the Stained Glass in the Lord Mayor’s Chapel, Bristol’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, LVII, 1935, pp. 266–268, and H. G. Wayment, ‘The Stained Glass of the Chapel of the Vyne and the Chapel of the Holy Ghost, Basingstoke’, Archaeologia, Vol. 107, 1982, pp 141-152. [fig. 10]
Nor were these articles his only achievements. He also wrote studies about a range of other church artifacts, updated his work on Roman inscriptions, and served as President of the BGAS in 1927-28.
By 1930 he was 68 and still going strong. The flow of articles and research papers continued. His 1929 article on Seven Sacraments prompted a study of a window at Crudwell in Wiltshire which had such a subject. Medieval glass at his old Oxford college, Oriel , was revisited for an article in the Journal of Stained Glass; the best panel depicts St Margaret of Antioch. Next to catch his eye was the heraldic and figural glass at Nettlecombe in Somerset which included a image of St Urith or St Sidwell, papers on the iconography of which he contributed to Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries 17, (1933), pp 290-1 for St Urith and Ibid ‘The Iconography of St. Sidwell’, pp 249-53 (Some of his views on the dating of this glass were disputed by Woodforde, see C, Woodforde, Stained Glass in Somerset 1250-1830, pp 76-77). [fig. 11]
In 1936 his long waited study of the Malvern priory glass finally appeared. Medieval Christian Imagery, as illustrated by the Painted Windows of Great Malvern Priory Church, Worcestershire has proved to be one of the most scholarly and useful studies of glass in the twentieth century, not only describing the windows in depth but also explaining the roots of their iconography and stories. It also proved invaluable for the PhD thesis (and forthcoming CVMA Volume) on the Great Malvern glass by Dr Heather Gilderdale Scott. Files in Malvern Public Library reveal Rushforth to have been a more competent artist/copyist. Reviewing a copy of the book for the Burlington magazine in 1938 M. R James called it a ‘really admirable book’. [fig. 12 ]
As mentioned earlier Rushforth was unmarried and childless. Of his two brothers Francis became a solicitor and Collingwood a clergyman. After the latter retired as vicar of Great Staughton (Hunts) in 1916, he moved to Exmouth in Devon where he lived with their sister Janet. Rushforth seems to have made regular visits to see them both and used the occasions to investigate local churches. After his brother’s early death in 1933, Rushforth often returned to Exmouth for Christmas and the winter months. Maybe one such visit prompted his forty-page study of the windows of St Neot church in Cornwall. [figs. 13 & 14].
In 1935 he was asked to write a study of the fifteenth-century glass in All Souls College, Oxford. Notes and photographs (again by Sydney Pitcher) were prepared but the book was unfinished at the time of his death in Exmouth on 26 March 1938; six months after he had declined an invitation to attend the opening of a new library at the University College of the South-west (a forerunner of the present-day Exeter University) on the grounds he had been, ‘found to be suffering from heart weakness’.
Fortunately the essence of the study appeared in 1948 after the College turned to a former chaplain and fellow, Canon F[rancis] E[dward] Hutchinson to revise and complete Rushforth’s draft manuscript. To general sorrow he too died before the book was printed and it was only with the help of Christopher Woodforde (1907-1962) and Professor E.[rnest ]F.[raser] Jacob (1894- 1971), that it finally was published.[fig.14]
Although a very useful introduction to the glass, the finished work was not quite up to the standard of Rushforth’s other works. The proof reading was poor – his own name was among the misprints and errors. Even some of Pitcher’s photographs were disappointing. The text needed Rushforth’s rigour and attention to detail. He was missed.
And not just in print. For as the chairman of the BGAS said in reporting his death to its members;
‘Combined with his fine scholarship and learning Mr Rushforth had a charm of manner which made it a privilege to possess his friendship and there was no one whose presence was more welcome at our meetings’. A later obituarist wrote:
‘We shall not easily forget the spare, frail figure that stood beneath many a Gloucestershire chancel arch to address the Society, the thin high pitched voice, the quick sharp gestures of head and hand lending emphasis to his words – those small personal touches that mark off one individual from another and eventually acquire a value in themselves as expressing the personality of those for whom we care. There was something in his manner and presence, a zest, an acumen, together with a practiced eye and well-trained intellect that brought an air of distinction to any gathering of which he was a member. No mind that came into contact with his could fail to feel enriched’.
An appreciation of Rushforth’s life as a classical scholar can be found in T. P. Wiseman, ‘The first Director of the British School’, Papers of the British School at Rome, Vol. 49 (1981), pp. 144-163 . [fig.1]
Stained Glass Bibliography
1912. ‘Stained Glass from Malvern’, Notes and Queries (11th series), 6 (7 September 1912), p. 188.
1915 Introduction to T. D. Grimke-Drayton, ‘The East Window of Gloucester Cathedral’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1915, Vol. 38, pp. 69-97.
1916. The Stained Glass of Great Malvern Priory Church, photographed by Sydney Pitcher, with descriptive notes by G. Mc.N. Rushforth FSA: vol. I, The Windows of the North Clerestory Quire, Gloucester, Sydney A, Pitcher, 1916: 1p.of text.
1917 The Stained Glass of Great Malvern Priory Church (see 1916), vol. 2, the East Window. Gloucester, Sydney A, Pitcher, 1917: 3pp. of text.
1918 ‘An Account of Some Painted Glass from a House in Leicester’, Archaeological Journal 75 (1918), pp. 47–68.
1919 The Stained Glass of Great Malvern Priory Church (see 1916), vol. 5, the Windows of the North Transept, Gloucester, Sydney A, Pitcher, 1919: 3 pp. of text.
1920 The Stained Glass of Great Malvern Priory Church (see 1916), vol. 4, The Windows of the South Clerestory of the Quire and the West Window, Gloucester, Sydney A, Pitcher, 1920: 2pp. of text.
1921 ‘The Glass of the East Window of the Lady Chapel in Gloucester Cathedral’, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society (TBGAS), 43 (1921), pp. 191-218.
1922 ‘The Great East Window of Gloucester Cathedral’, TBGAS, 44 (1922), pp. 293-304.
1924 ‘The Glass in the Quire Clerestory of Tewkesbury Abbey,’ TBGAS, 46 (1924), pp. 289-324.
1926 Memoir Note, J. D. Le Couteur, English Medieval Painted Glass, S.P.C.K., London 1926, 4pp of text.
1926 ‘The Baptism of St Christopher,’ The Antiquaries Journal, 6, (1926), pp. 152-58.
1926 ‘The Painted Glass of Birtsmorton Church,’ Transactions of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, NS, IV. 1926, pp. 91-99. N.B., This is not a reprint of the above.
1927 ‘The Painted Glass in the Lord Mayor’s Chapel, Bristol’, TBGAS, 1927, Vol. 49, pp. 301-331.
1927 ‘The Painted windows in the Chapel of the Vyne in Hampshire’, Walpole Society, 15, (1926-27), pp 1-20.
1927 ‘The Painted Windows in the Chapel of the Vyne in Hampshire’, The Archaeological Journal, vol. 84 (1927,) p. 105-113. N.B., this is a shorter version of the above.
1927 The Stained Glass of Great Malvern Priory Church (see 1916), vol. 6, the Windows of the North Aisle of the Nave, Gloucester, Sydney A, Pitcher, 1927.
1929 ‘Seven Sacraments Compositions in English Medieval Art, Antiquaries Journal, vol. IX (1929), pp. 83-100.
1930 ‘The Sacraments Window in Crudwell Church’, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, 152, June 1930, pp. 68-72.
1930 ‘Medieval glass in Oriel College, Oxford’, the Journal of Stained Glass, Vol. III, No. 3, 1930, pp 108-111.
1933 Review of Ancient Stained and Painted Glass, by F. Sydney Eden, in The Antiquaries Journal, Volume 13, Issue 3, July 1933, pp 321-33.
1934 ‘Ancient glass in Nettlecombe church’, Proceedings of the Somerset Archaeology and Natural History Society, vol. 80 (1934), pp. 63-66.
1936 The Stained Glass of Great Malvern Priory Church (see 1916), vol. 3, the Windows of the South Quire Aisle, Sydney A, Pitcher, 1936.
1936 Medieval Christian Imagery, as illustrated by the Painted Windows of Great Malvern Priory Church, Worcestershire, together with a Description and Explanation of the Ancient Glass in the Church, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1936: pp.xx+456.
1937 ‘The origin of the windows in the Chapel of the Vyne in Hampshire’, Walpole Society, xxv, (1936-7), 168-9.
1937 ‘The Windows of the Church of St. Neot, Cornwall’, Transactions of the Exeter Diocesan architectural and Archaeological Society, 15 (3rd series, vol.4, Part 3, 1937), pp. 150-90.
1938 ‘The Bacton Glass at Atcham in Shropshire’, Transactions of the Woolhope Naturalists’ Field Club, Hereford, volume for 1933-35 (1938), pp. 157-62.
n.d. A Short Guide to the Painted Windows in the Church of St Neot, London, S.P.C.K: pp. 16.
1949 Hutchinson, Francis Ernest and Gordon McNeil Rushforth. Medieval Glass at All Souls College: A history & description based on the notes of G. M. Rushforth. UK: Faber & Faber, 1949.
Collections of his papers relating to stained glass are held by:
The University of Exeter
Great Malvern Public Library: a catalogue by Jane Renton, 1994.
Overbury Parish records WRO BA9660/2; 20 handwritten notes dated 9th December, 1925, regarding the medieval stained glass at Alstone church. See also William Kyle and Bruce Watson, ‘The Medieval Stained Glass in Alstone Church’, Glevensis, Gloucester and District Archaeological Research Group Review, No 40, 2007, pp 40-44.