Glorious Glass: Stained Glass in the Abbey Museum Collection. By Michael K. Strong, foreword by Sarah Brown. Photographs by Michael Strong and Lincoln Morse. Hardback and paperback, 296 pp. 423 ill. (Board of the Abbey Museum of Art and Archaeology, Queensland, Australia, 2020), Paperback $49.90 AUD, Hardback, $120.00 AUD. ISBN 978-0-6487709-0-9
Reviewed by Dr Penny Hebgin-Barnes
The collection of glass now in the Abbey Museum, Caboolture, Queensland was amassed by John Ward (1885-1949), founder of a religious community based at the Abbey Folk Park in New Barnet, England which opened in 1934 and soon became a popular tourist attraction. Its extensive collection of artworks and antiquities included stained glass acquired in several consignments, which was displayed in the windows of a tithe barn turned church and a small oratory. When the Folk Park closed in 1945, Ward’s confraternity emigrated to Cyprus but were driven out by nationalist guerillas. Their subsequent wanderings took them to Egypt, Sri Lanka and around Australia until they settled permanently at Caboolture in 1965, eventually prospering sufficiently to found a college, establish an annual medieval festival and open the Abbey Museum in 1986.
Unwilling or unable to sell their glass in post-war Britain, the confraternity crated it up and transported it around the world with them. Predictably, many panels were destroyed or badly damaged in transit (Fig. 2). The vicissitudes continued on arrival at Caboolture, where a firm of suburban glaziers botched repairs and cannibalised some panels to patch others. The publication of the catalogue follows a conservation programme undertaken from 2006-2020 (Fig. 3), partly financed by individual members of the confraternity and the museum’s supporters.
The author Michael Strong, former director of the Abbey Museum, has undertaken a formidable task, albeit one made easier by an unpublished draft catalogue produced in 2011 by Geoff Down of the University of Melbourne which clearly provided much useful groundwork. Having recounted its history, Strong has opted to divide the collection into chapters describing groups of pieces related by provenance or type, arranged in approximately chronological order. The first group consists of 14th-century armorial panels from Nether Ettington, Warwickshire (Fig. 4), followed by a substantial amount of glazing from Winchester Cathedral dating from around 1500 (Fig. 3), early 17th-century shields from Lincoln’s Inn in London, a variety of North European panels ranging in date from the 16th to the 18th centuries and finally British glass from the 19th and 20th centuries (Fig. 5).
In addition to the glass remaining in the collection, a chapter entitled “The Nearly Lost Panels from The Abbey Folk Park” details a group of Netherlandish unipartite panels obtained from an unnamed English manor house where they had been hacked into octagons. Most were sold to raise funds for the voyage to Cyprus, demonstrating the collectability of such pieces even when incomplete. Their current location is unknown, but the black and white photographs taken in the 1930s which accompany the entries raise the possibility that some might now be rediscovered. The reproduction of the prints upon which many of these panels are modelled is a bonus.
Each catalogue entry describes a panel or individual piece including its provenance and conservation details, drawing on the conservators’ records and the photographic archive of Abbey Folk Park which shows the previous locations and arrangement of many panels. Unfortunately John Ward’s attitude towards both the subject matter and origins of the glass he acquired ranged from frustratingly vague to deliberately misleading, making Strong’s task difficult, but he has succeeded in filling many gaps and debunking the more implausible claims. Perhaps it was Ward’s unreliability in this respect that caused Strong to dedicate the volume not to him but to Sir William Dugdale, the contrastingly conscientious English antiquary whose work is cited in relation to heraldic glass from both Lincoln’s Inn and Nether Ettington.
The book has many strengths. It is attractively presented and well-illustrated with post-conservation colour images of all panels, black and white photographs from the Abbey Folk Park archive, and plentiful, wide-ranging supporting material. Sensibly it is available in both hardback and paperback versions, the latter reasonably priced at approximately £28 in British currency: the consideration that the vast majority of copies would be sent to other continents doubtless played a part. The introductory sections for each group of panels and many individual pieces contain much detailed research and background information. Strong has sought the advice of experts in various fields, whose input has greatly improved the volume. To name only the most prolific contributors, Adam Tuck (Rouge Dragon Pursuivant of the College of Arms in London) has identified armorial bearings while Anya Heilpern has advised on the glass from Winchester Cathedral, Peter Cormack on 19th and 20th-century panels and Adrian Barlow on the crucial role of Kempe & Co. in the foundation of Ward’s collection. Many others have provided valuable assistance.
Apart from the conservation and provenance sections, entries do not adhere to a strict format. Unexpected details enliven the text: this must surely be the only catalogue of stained glass to include a 14th-century armorial lancet smashed by a kookaburra, a photograph of the zeppelin commander who bombed Lincoln’s Inn in 1915, or a glossary containing the acronym for a Greek Cypriot guerilla movement. Digressions that would be out of place in a conventional catalogue seem less incongruous here: one example is the anecdote-laden three-page history of the Mohun family from the Conquest to their extinction in 1712 which accompanies a 17th-century Mohun shield, about which there is in all fairness little else to say.
The lack of an index is a serious defect, particularly when the author cites the museum numbers of panels catalogued elsewhere in the book which readers must locate by guesswork. A list of illustrations would also be welcome, although less essential. Another drawback is Michael Strong’s unfamiliarity with comparable pre-19th-century glazing (perhaps inevitable, given his location), which results in certain subjects being overlooked or misidentified. Strong is evidently aware of this problem; confronted with a badly corroded fragment depicting boys in a tub who once accompanied a figure of St Nicholas, he asks “What do they represent? Noah in the Ark….? …disciples fishing on the Sea of Galilee?”. Elsewhere, a nimbed holy dove is tentatively identified as a yellowhammer, and a red bunch of grapes from a Jesse Tree as a strawberry, and what may actually be a grotesque with hooves is identified as possibly the red dragon emblem of Henry VII. More unusual in medieval glazing are the small wooden objects, described by Strong as possibly part of a harp or tool, that represent the hand-crutches held by cripples seen in the work of artists such as Bosch. The pitfalls of unfamiliarity occasionally extend beyond subject matter: a shield of Castile with its charges leaded into white and flashed ruby fields is not, as Strong claims, an example of the medieval technique of abrasion (Fig. 4).
There is some unevenness between sections that often stems from the level of input of the collaborator. Thus the book’s strongest sections are those devoted to the 19th and 20th-century glass, undertaken with the assistance of Peter Cormack and Adrian Barlow, and to the glass from Winchester Cathedral, to which Anya Heilpern has made a substantial contribution and for which there is also a fair amount of published material available. Elsewhere the results are mixed, for example in the entries cataloguing the lancets from Nether Ettington. With the aid of the herald Adam Tuck, Strong has made commendably thorough efforts to identify the bearers of the shields. However, this concentration on heraldry comes at the expense of examining the entire panels, which are all to some degree restorers’ composites. Hence too little attention is paid to the substantial post-medieval alterations which they have undergone, including the composition of some of the shields themselves.
The book’s strengths and weaknesses are well-demonstrated by the entry for a roundel depicting the arms of the kingdom of Aragon and Sicily with a female supporter and the inscription ‘Cecylia’ (Fig. 6). Although unaware that this roundel is identical in design to an early-16th-century plaque made for the Duchess of Bavaria, Strong establishes a link to Bavaria and plausibly proposes on stylistic grounds that the designer could be Hans Sebald Beham. However, he does not recognise that Cecylia refers to Sicily rather than to a woman and suggests that the roundel is one half of a pair of nuptial panels whose lost companion represented a male.
Despite such shortfalls, Strong has succeeded in producing an engaging and accessible work that will alert a hitherto oblivious international audience to the Abbey Museum’s important collection of stained glass. The volume merits a place on readers’ shelves alongside other catalogues of significant collections, and its author and his many collaborators should be congratulated on a considerable achievement.