Kempe and Espying Heaven

Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe. By Adrian Barlow. Paperback, 336 pages; ePub, Kindle, PDF eBook (Cambridge, Lutterworth, 2018), £25 (paperback), £16.15 (eBook). ISBN: 9780718894634 (paperback)

Espying Heaven: The Stained Glass of Charles Eamer Kempe and his Artists. By Adrian Barlow, photography by Alastair Carew-Cox. Hardback, 144 pages; ePub, Kindle, PDF eBook (Cambridge, Lutterworth, 2019), £20 (hardback), £12.40 (eBook). ISBN: 9780718894641 (hardback)

Following the publication of these two books in 2018 and 2019, Martin Crampin reflects on their importance to late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century stained glass studies in a feature-length review article

Fig. 1. Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe

In a letter to the Rector of St Mary’s, Tenby, the architect John Coleridge advised him to commission a sanctuary window from Christopher Whall, or failing that, one of the artists that he had taught. Writing in May 1908, he remarked “Kempe is dead & Morris firm with Morris dead is quite hopelessly bad”.((Letter to Revd. N.C. Ram, 17 May 1908, Pembrokeshire Archives, HPR/78/130.))

In singling out the firms of Charles Eamer Kempe and William Morris for their former glories, Coleridge expresses a view widely held at the time: that their stained glass was esteemed above all others at the end of the nineteenth century. Moreover, without the creative force of their founders (Morris died in 1896 and Kempe in 1907), it was felt that the powers of the surviving firms had been lost; following Coleridge’s advice, the commission for the small window at Tenby went to one of Whall’s pupils, Karl Parsons. It might seem strange to many today that Kempe’s stained glass should have been valued alongside that of William Morris. While Morris – poet, artist, socialist – retains his currency as a visionary, whose thinking prepared the way for the Arts and Crafts Movement and its effects on twentieth-century stained glass, Kempe and his stained glass is often regarded as conservative and of the establishment, displaying excellence and taste, but of the late Victorian period, rather than our own.

It is fitting that, in his biography, Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, Adrian Barlow devotes considerable space to the discussion of Kempe’s legacy and reputation. He quotes Nikolaus Pevsner’s contrasting characterisation of the stained glass of Kempe (at the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Hucknall) with that by William Morris: the latter is characterised for its “genius, innovations” and “aesthetic purity”, while the work of Kempe only merited description as the ”accepted High Church medium”.((Kempe, p. 250.))

Fig. 2. Espying Heaven: The Stained Glass of Charles Eamer Kempe and his Artists

Although their reputations could not be more different, some similarities between Kempe and Morris are striking. Neither were trained as artists, but both went to study at Oxford colleges, considering, then deciding against, ordination. Both were closely associated with the Gothic Revival architect G.F. Bodley in the 1860s, playing key roles in the decoration of several of his churches, notably the Church of St John the Baptist, Tuebrook, and at the Chapel of Castle Howard in the early 1870s.((Morris. Marshall, Faulkner & Co. provided most of the stained glass for both projects, while Kempe was responsible for the murals, executed by Frederick. Leach and his assistants (a firm also used by Morris). Windows by Kempe, but made at Thomas Baillie’s glassworks, were also made for Tuebrook, using drawings by Leach of the late medieval stained glass at Malvern Priory, see Kempe, Chapter 2.)) Both went on to be proprietors of highly successful stained glass studios,((Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was founded in 1861, but reconstituted under his sole control from 1875 as Morris & Co.. A. Charles Sewter, The Stained Glass of William Morris and his Circle, New Haven, 1974, vol. 1, pp. 17, 45. C.E. Kempe’s ‘Studio’ was operational from 1868, but never constituted as a firm until his death, after which it traded as C.E. Kempe & Co., Kempe, pp. 122–3, 206.)) and, having for the most part assumed a fairly formulaic style by the 1880s, the work of their firms remained in demand into the 1930s. Today, among all of the designers of later Victorian stained glass, they are alone in having societies dedicated to their legacy, and the Kempe Trust supported the production and publication of the two books by Adrian Barlow, published in 2018 and 2019.

The foundation of the Kempe Trust in 1982 testifies that Kempe has always had his admirers. His early successes, overseeing murals for Bodley’s churches in the 1860s, sufficiently established a reputation that enabled him to set up his Studio in London in 1868. Kempe was able to draw upon the patronage of the wealthy friends and clergy that he had met at Rugby School and Oxford, and, as his stature grew, windows for hundreds of churches and many cathedrals were produced.

Barlow singles out the south transept windows of Hereford, Lichfield and Southwark as perhaps his most important works of “Kempe’s great years”, the 1890s, by which time “the prestige of his Studio had made the name ‘Kempe’ synonymous with Anglican decorative art”.((Kempe, p. 97. The window at Southwark was destroyed in 1941.)) Barlow goes so far as to suggest that Kempe’s influence on the design of stained glass exceeded all others since the time of John Thornton of Coventry or Barnard Flower in the late Middle Ages.((Kempe, p. 103.))

Following chapters on Kempe’s early years and education, his work for Bodley and the formulation of his style, Barlow heads successive chapters on Kempe’s Studio using the names of his three most important designers – Wyndham Hope Hughes, John Carter and John Lisle – as subheadings. Kempe is described as a competent draughtsman, but he depended on others to realise his conceptions as designs and cartoons, and his senior designers, along with Alfred Tombleson, who was in charge of Kempe’s glassworks at Millbrook, were responsible for realising Kempe’s work. Wyndham Hughes was his first senior designer, whose painting and design work in the 1870s is distinguished by its aestheticism and delicacy, echoing the contemporary work of Burne-Jones and the same Italianate models (Fig. 3). Hughes’ remarkable murals for the chapel at Castle Howard, painted by him with the assistance of Frederick Leach and Tombleson (1872–3), are sadly only illustrated in monochrome.

Hughes left Kempe’s employment in 1878, after which there was a period of transition as the style of his colleague, John Carter, assumed prominence. Carter had been working with Kempe from the late 1860s, and the transition from Hughes’ style to a more medievalist one can be seen in the series of windows made for Gloucester Cathedral (1878–92) (Fig. 4). Nonetheless, similarities with the work of Morris & Co. can still be appreciated in Kempe’s stained glass in the 1880s, particularly in some of the smaller compact biblical scenes, which are reminiscent of designs by Edward Burne-Jones and Ford Madox Brown made by Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. in the 1860s and 1870s (Figs. 5, 6).

Fig. 5. C.E. Kempe, The Flight to Egypt (detail), 1881, Church of St Bridget, West Kirby, designed by John Carter (window illustrated in fig. 4xvii, Espying Heaven) (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 6. Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co., Peter’s Liberation from Prison, 1870, Church of St Llwchaiarn, Llanllwchaiarn, designed by Ford Madox Brown (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 7. C.E. Kempe & Co., The Son of the Widow of Nain being brought to Christ, 1922, Church of St Giles, Wrexham (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 8. C.E. Kempe & Co., The Crucifixion with Soldier Saints and Virtues, 1920, Church of St Mary, Tenby (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 9. C.E. Kempe, Saints, 1895, Hereford Cathedral, south transept, designed by John Carter (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 3. C.E. Kempe, Musical Angels, 1878, Church of St Bridget, West Kirby, designed by Wyndham Hope Hughes (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 4. C.E. Kempe, St Patrick, St Michael, St George and St Columba, 1881, Gloucester Cathedral (north ambulatory), designed by John Carter (Photo © Martin Crampin)

The most recognisable form of Kempe’s stained glass was developed by John Carter and crystallised under John Lisle, who became Kempe’s senior designer from around 1895. It was under Lisle that the familiar Düreresque turreted cityscapes, known to Kempe from windows at Fairford and more widely in northern Renaissance stained glass, increasingly typified the backgrounds of Kempe’s windows, usually framed by elaborate Gothic canopies (Fig. 7). Lisle described himself as Kempe’s “disciple and artist”,((Kempe, p. 116.)) and the style of the Studio’s windows of around 1900 was little changed into the 1930s, despite Kempe’s death in 1907. Lisle was still chief designer when he died in 1927, while the elderly Tombleson remained in charge of the glassworks until the firm closed in 1934.

Kempe never married and, since he was childless, chose as his heir Walter Tower, a cousin three times removed (Kempe’s father was in his late seventies at the time of his birth). Barlow sheds new light on the transition of the Studio to the company formed after Kempe’s death and on Tower himself, in an attempt to redress the bias against him found in Margaret Stavridi’s earlier biography of Kempe, Master of Glass.((Margaret Stavridi, Master of Glass: Charles Eamer Kempe 1837–1907, Liverpool, 1988.)) According to his will, Kempe’s Studio was formally constituted as C.E. Kempe & Co. with Tower the chairman and majority shareholder. Stavridi, the daughter of John Lisle, had little praise for Tower and charged him with obscuring the reputation of her father as creator of the late Kempe style. But Barlow argues that Tower was a promising young architect, who forsook his early accomplishments to take on the challenge of continuing the success of the Kempe ‘brand’ in the new century, playing an active and creative part in the business.((Kempe, chapter 8.)) He also explains how Pevsner misleadingly “invented” the firm of Kempe & Tower – a familiar refrain in the volumes of the Buildings of England – to refer to work by C.E. Kempe & Co. after 1907.((Kempe, pp. 220–2, 249.))

While John Coleridge may have lost faith in the work of C.E. Kempe & Co. by 1908, their work was good enough for the widowed Queen Alexandra, who commissioned them to redecorate the chancel of the church at Sandringham in memory of her husband, Edward VII, in 1910. Alongside hundreds of other commissions, Walter Tower’s oversight of the restorations of medieval stained glass at Malvern Priory and Tewkesbury provided him with the status of an authority on medieval stained glass, and he was invited to become a founding member of the British Society of Master Glass Painters. At Tenby, Karl Parsons was again commissioned to make a fine private war memorial window in 1917, and in the same year, C.E. Kempe & Co. provided a rather mundane three-light window of the Virgin and Child, one of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of similar figures found in churches across Britain and overseas. Nonetheless, in 1920, the firm also provided a second, larger war memorial, in memory of all the members of the parish who gave their lives in the war, which depicts an impressive array of soldier saints with Christ crucified on a Tree of Life (Fig. 8).((For the windows at Tenby see Martin Crampin, Stained Glass from the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Tenby (Sulien, 2014).))

Although Barlow stops short of speculating on his character or private life, the chapter in Kempe on his house at Old Place, Lindfield, in Sussex, brings us closest to the man, lovingly curating its contents and designing its garden, and welcoming family, friends and patrons to his “Earthly Paradise”.((Kempe, pp. 185–6.)) His “benevolent paternalism” inspired loyalty among his staff, although that loyalty was clearly expected. This is implied in his prickly reluctance to recommend the designer Herbert Bryans to a client after he had left the Studio in 1897,((Kempe, p. 112.)) and, while churchwarden of his local church, he proved to be “a man who expected to get his own way and did not care to be crossed”.((Kempe, pp. 195–7.))

When I first had sight of Kempe, I was disappointed to see that the illustrations were confined to mainly monochrome images inset in the text, with a centre section of twelve colour plates that are rather flat and do not show Kempe’s work to his credit. I was assured that this would be followed by a further book with many more pictures in colour, and the companion volume, Espying Heaven, goes much further in this respect, featuring photographs by Alastair Carew-Cox. The book includes some, but not all, of the windows singled out for discussion in the first book, and a few are duplicated in colour. So “Lisle’s masterpiece” of 1895 at Lichfield Cathedral is illustrated as a full-page image, but not Carter’s “masterwork”, his huge south transept window at Hereford Cathedral (Fig. 9), that Barlow takes pains to defend against Pevsner’s dismissal of it as “parochial”.((Kempe, pp. 252–3.))

Capable of standing alone as a useful guide to Kempe’s stained glass, Espying Heaven echoes the pattern of the biography by briefly describing and offering a small selection of illustrations of windows designed by Wyndham Hope Hughes, John Carter, John Lisle and the work of the firm under Walter Tower. A series of short sections follow, including examples of depictions of the Virgin and Child, angels, a small number of biblical scenes and a few seemingly randomly selected themes, providing several instructive comparisons of the work of the Studio, and the later company, from different dates.

Numerous good quality details of figures, scenes and heraldry are illustrated, although there are a surprisingly small number of complete windows. Some of these, such as the first window designed by Kempe and made by Clayton & Bell for Gloucester Cathedral in 1865 (Fig. 10), are unfortunately subject to an inelegant vertical compression which does nothing to recommend them. There is rich potential for the reading of Victorian ecclesiastical stained-glass windows as complex theological statements, and Kempe’s windows are among the most sophisticated of any firm of the period, intertwining biblical texts and scenes from the Old and New Testaments, sometimes with additional saints. A short section headed ‘Reading a Kempe Window’ gives us just one example, the east window for the Church of St John the Evangelist, Oxford, built as the community church for the Society of St John the Evangelist (the Cowley Fathers).((The subject and meaning of a small selection of other windows are explored in illuminating detail in chapter 6 of Kempe.)) Like so many of Kempe’s large windows, including the transept windows at Hereford and Lichfield, visually it consists of a series of figures, presented in this instance as a Tree of Life.

With a dizzying number of windows to choose from, as listed in Philip Collins’ published Corpus of Kempe’s stained glass,((Philip N.H. Collins (ed.), The Corpus of Kempe Stained Glass in the United Kingdom and Ireland, Liverpool, 2000.)) the choice of windows for illustration in Espying Heaven must have been daunting. Occasionally, the Studio made windows that were more inventive in their depiction of narrative scenes and bolder in their overall design, although relatively few are included here. Perhaps the best example is the Four Rivers window at Monmouth (1883), with the four rivers of paradise being poured out by youths over vertical scenes from the Old and New Testaments, and another is Peter and John Healing of the Lame Man at the Beautiful Gate, from Lichfield Cathedral (1895), with its dynamic compositional use of diagonals. The inclusion of further less characteristic windows, such as the scene, spread across three lights, of Bishop Hacket directing the restoration of Lichfield Cathedral (1901), or the east window at Govan, with its large upper round light depicting Christ with the seven lamps surrounded by circles of seraphim, cherubim, angels and saints (1899) (Fig. 11), might have encouraged greater reassessment of Kempe’s stained glass, and perhaps Victorian and later Gothic Revival stained glass in general.

Furthermore, it is unfortunate that a biography such as this, even in two parts, does not provide the space to illustrate the wider context of ecclesiastical furnishing of the period, casting Kempe’s work adrift from his contemporaries. Although works by Burne-Jones are cited in the discussion of Wyndham Hughes’ influences, none are reproduced here, and neither are any by Burlison & Grylls, whose firm was brought to life in the same cradle as Kempe’s Studio, under the influence of Bodley and initially in the shadow of Morris’s firm. Kempe himself has been excluded from other recent studies of Victorian stained glass, and the omission of Kempe’s early work from William Waters’ recent books on ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ stained glass looks particularly mis-judged in the light of the work illustrated here by Hughes.((William Waters, Angels & Icons: Pre-Raphaelite Stained Glass 1850–1870, Abbots Morton, 2012; William Waters, Damozels & Deities: Pre-Raphaelite Stained Glass 1870–1898, Abbots Morton, 2017.)) Similarly, the inclusion of work by large and small firms competing for business, which were influenced by (or even blatantly copied) Kempe’s style from the 1880s onwards, including former employees C.E. Tute, Herbert Bryans, J.C.N. Bewsey, and John Winbolt, would have helped demonstrate how Kempe’s vision was taken up by others (Fig. 12).((These designers, important in their own right, are barely mentioned in Kempe, but are just a few of the individuals who worked for Kempe under Carter and Lisle who deserve further attention.))

Although the decline in the fortunes of C.E. Kempe & Co. after the First World War is presented as inevitable, other Victorian stained glass firms, such as Burlison & Grylls, Clayton & Bell, Powells of Whitefriars and John Hardman & Co., persevered, and in some cases flourished, well into the second half of the twentieth century, modifying the style of their windows in recognition of changing tastes. Although Barlow acknowledges that Kempe’s home at Old Place was no longer fashionable or suitable for Walter Tower’s young family in the 1920s – cluttered with medievalism and darkened by panelled rooms – the same criticism is not levelled at the Kempe stained glass being produced at Gloucester Road. Fettered by the success of the Kempe style, the challenge of adapting it and taking the firm forward proved too great, while a new generation of stained glass designers who owed a debt to Kempe, such as Ninian Comper, Geoffrey Webb and Christopher Charles Powell, continued to find favour with ecclesiastical, and especially Anglo-Catholic, patrons (Figs. 13, 14). Perhaps Reginald Bell had studios such as C.C. Powell in mind when he referred to ‘second-rate imitators’ of Kempe’s stained glass, in a letter to Tower of 1935 encouraging him to continue in practice.((Kempe, pp. 224–5.))

Michael Hall has posited a new teleology that judges Victorian architecture for its contribution to Arts and Crafts philosophy and practice,((Michael Hall, George Frederick Bodley and the Later Gothic Revival in Britain and America, New Haven, 2015, p. 5.)) and it has long been the case that the writing of William Morris and his practical encouragement of the Arts and Crafts Movement in the 1890s has reflected well on his stained glass. The portrayal of Kempe and his achievements in these new books suggests a man who was the very antithesis of the Arts and Crafts Movement: a man who made most of the money, took most of the credit, and did little of the practical work, while busy filling his house with beautiful things. Reporting his death in The Architect and Contractor Reporter, Kempe was simply “a country gentleman who had a hobby of producing windows for churches”.((Kempe, p. 231.)) Some might conclude that Kempe, educated at Oxford, was hardly an artist at all, merely a dabbler with the wherewithal to set up his own business, draw on his social networks, and employ skilled artists to produce his decorative arts. The same could perhaps be said of William Morris, and Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. was primarily established with the financial assistance of his mother. Kempe’s stained glass was made away from his Studio at Millbrook and later at Gloucester Road under Tombleson, just as the stained glass designed by Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, Philip Webb, Morris and others was made by employees at Red Lion Square and Queen Square in London, and then at the firm’s Merton Abbey Works. Nonetheless, Morris (along with Henry Holiday and Christopher Whall) has been credited with the appreciation of the faults of such a division of labour, even if, in the case of stained glass, he did little to remedy them.((See Peter Cormack, Arts & Crafts Stained Glass, New Haven, 2015, chapter 1.)) Despite the similarities between Morris and Kempe and their shared fascination with the Middle Ages, Morris’ embrace of socialism and a keen interest in the making of decorative arts does distinguish him from Barlow’s depiction of Kempe, and this has been explored in extensive biographical work on Morris.((Fiona MacCarthy, William Morris: A Life for our Time, London, 1994.))

A fairer assessment might be to see Kempe not as a man of our own times, but of his own, responsible for some of the finest achievements of late Victorian stained glass, and creating a transformative and cultured vision for ecclesiastical furnishing in collaboration with his inner circle of colleagues. His work guiding and overseeing a style and a consistency of quality was not dissimilar to the architectural practices of George Gilbert Scott, George Edmund Street and George Frederick Bodley, with their teams of draughtsmen and assistants: their buildings entrusted to others to construct. We might even see Kempe as a creative figure akin to very different contemporary artists, such as Jeff Koons or Damian Hirst, who employ others to make the work that they conceive. Barlow’s balanced appraisal deals deftly with these issues and provides his readers with the evidence on which to decide, and a deeper understanding of a central figure of British stained glass.

Fig. 10. Clayton & Bell, Bishop Hooper with St John the Evangelist and St Lawrence, 1865, Gloucester Cathedral (nave), designed by C.E. Kempe (window illustrated on p. 86, Kempe, and in fig. 1iii, Espying Heaven) (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 11. C.E. Kempe, Christ with Angels and Saints, 1899, Govan Old Parish Church (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 12. Herbert Bryans, St Anne Teaching the Virgin Mary to Read with St Francis and St Winwaloe, c. 1914, Church of St Wonnow, Wonastow (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 13. C.E. Kempe & Co., St David, 1917, Church of St Mary, Haverfordwest (Photo © Martin Crampin)

Fig. 14. Christopher Charles Powell, St David, 1939, Church of the Holy Trinity, Llandudno (Photo © Martin Crampin)


Due to the expanded, article format of this review, photographs have been supplied by the author to augment the illustrations found in the books.

This article was amended on 8/8/20 to correct the first name of Alastair Carew-Cox and erroneous references to Lincoln, instead of Lichfield, Cathedral, and to make the expanded format of this review article clear.

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