Bronwyn Hughes, Lights Everlasting: Australia’s Commemorative Stained Glass from the Boer War to Vietnam. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2023. Softback, 255 pp., 197 colour illustrations. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2023, A$79.95, ISBN: 9781922669827.

Reviewed by Beverley Sherry, University of Sydney

The defining character of Lights Everlasting is that it is far more than an art book. Certainly, it documents hundreds of stained glass windows, assesses their artistic merits, examines their architectural contexts, and provides full details of the artists who designed the windows and the firms that manufactured them. Primarily, though, it is a major repository of social and cultural history.  Fifteen years in the making and the product of massive archival research, it records meticulously the events and the people commemorated in Australian war memorial windows made between 1901 and 2015. The chronological range of the book is matched by its geographical reach: Bronwyn Hughes has travelled the length and breadth of Australia, searching out windows in every state, tracking them down in country towns and tiny rural villages as well as in the churches and cathedrals of cities. 

What is unusual, for such a scholarly work, is that it breathes compassion. This is because of the voice of the author. Drawing consistently on archival materials, letters, diaries, and local knowledge, she recounts vividly details of battle, of the men in the thick of it, those who perished and are commemorated in the windows, their fellow soldiers, their families, their communities, and the unveiling of the windows. There is a human story on every page. One that struck me, growing up in Queensland, was ‘the shocking sinking of the 2/3 AHS Centaur just before dawn on 14 May 1943, as it sailed northward along the Queensland coast’ (p. 160). This was an Australian Hospital Ship, fully lit, with Red Cross symbols emblazoned on the funnels and hull. Hit by a Japanese torpedo, it sank within minutes (fig. 1). The book struck a deep chord in David Wright, the stained glass artist who launched the book and spoke at length of his own family’s experience of war.

Fig. 1. Martin Vandertoorn, Centaur Memorial, 1990. Concord Repatriation Hospital, Concord (NSW)

Fig. 1. Martin Vandertoorn, Centaur Memorial, 1990. Concord Repatriation Hospital, Concord (NSW)

Beginning with the Boer War, the book moves towards the Korean War and Vietnam in the later chapters, but it is organized not so much chronologically as thematically, each chapter opening with an epigraph that heralds what is to follow. Chapter 1, ‘For God, Queen and Empire’, is for the Boer War (the Queen being Victoria) and the epigraph is a few lines from ‘When it Comes’, a poem by the Australian poet Dorothea Mackellar:

How should I like to die, to die?

Without a cry

In a hard fought fight, where blows were dealt,

And the death-strokes less than a girl’s kiss felt –

So would I die.

The chapter then launches into an account of the Boer War, highlighting Dorothea’s brother Lieutenant Keith Mackellar, killed just before his twentieth birthday. He is commemorated in one of two grandiose windows in St James Church King Street, Sydney – St Michael and St George – made in 1903 by Percy Bacon Bros of London. The St George is for Mackellar, the facial features from a photograph, ‘among the first of many [portraits in glass] that would appear in commemorative windows’ (p. 5). In the same year, Clayton & Bell’s more restrained, ‘eloquent and forceful’ St Michael was installed in Trinity College, University of Melbourne for Captain George Grice (p. 8). As well as recording officers like Mackellar and Grice, this chapter documents the contribution of young men from rural Australia, expert in riding and marksmanship, who enthusiastically joined the ‘Imperial Bushmen’ for South Africa. The sense of loss experienced by rural communities is typified in the ‘devastation widely felt throughout the Strathbogie district’ of Victoria for John Charlton, a young farmer from Castle Creek who died in 1901 (p. 13). Money was raised for a memorial window installed in St Paul’s Church Euroa in 1903, a three-light window by Brooks Robinson & Co. of Melbourne depicting Paul’s ‘whole armour of God’ (Ephesians 6: 11): helmet, shield, and sword. The window narrowly escaped the tip but was conserved and reinstalled in Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance in 2016 and stands for all the men who lost their lives in the Boer War (pp. 15, 197). It is not an artistic masterpiece, but because of the story behind it, is given prominence.

 

Fig. 2. William Aikman St George 1922. St Andrews Church Pittsworth, Qld. Photographer Gerry Cummins Jill Stehn Pty Ltd.

Fig. 2. William Aiken, St. George, St Andrew’s Anglican Church, Pittsworth (Qld). Photographer: Gerry Cummmins & Jill Stehn Pty Ltd.

The distinguishing epigraphs and their accompanying chapters make Lights Everlasting an unfolding adventure rather than a solid trek through history. Chapter 2, ‘Faith and Fortune’, looks at the role of the churches, including military chaplains, as well as the choice of subjects in stained glass chosen by the various denominations. Chapter 3, ‘War on the Home Front’, records the effect of war on stained glass firms, as members of staff joined up. The leading artist William Montgomery (1850-1927) felt this severely – three apprentices killed in World War One and his own son ‘Mont’, who planned to follow in his father’s business, killed in 1918, ‘on the last day that the Australians were engaged on the front line’ (p. 53). The firms were even harder hit when stained glass was deemed an unessential industry in World War Two. Chapter 4, ‘Saints, Symbolism, and the Secular’, traces the changing iconography from St George and the usual Christian saints (fig. 2) to the khaki-clad Australian digger. By the 1920s, the Australian soldier with slouch hat had begun to appear, as at the King’s School Parramatta, Sydney; the RSL Caulfield (Victoria), a rousing portrayal of The Light Horse at Beersheba; and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra (ACT) (pp. 81-93).

The appalling loss of young lives comes into full focus in Chapter 5, ‘Schools and Sacrifice’, with an epigraph from a high school student, J. D. Burns:

O England! I heard the cry of those that died for thee

Sounding like an organ voice across the winter sea

They lived and died for England and gladly went their way

England! O England! How could I stay?

These are no empty words – Burns left Scotch College Melbourne in 1914, enlisted with the 21st Battalion, and was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. In this chapter, William Montgomery’s work is well displayed, especially his portrayals of the archangel Michael. As Hughes shows, Montgomery had a close familiarity with Paradise Lost and drew inspiration from Milton’s warrior archangel, ‘Michael, of Celestial Armies Prince’. His St. Michael (1921) in Holy Trinity Church Kew, Melbourne aptly commemorates one of Australia’s early airmen, Bob Kay, an old boy of Geelong Grammar School (fig.3). This chapter includes a perceptive appraisal of the octagonal War Memorial Library of Brisbane Grammar School, a small architectural gem built in 1923 with stained glass all around its walls (pp. 108-09).

Figure 3. William Montgomery, St Michael, 1921. Holy Trinity Chruch, Kew (Vic.). Photographer Vlad Bunyevich

Figure 3. William Montgomery, St Michael, 1921. Holy Trinity Chruch, Kew (Vic.). Photographer Vlad Bunyevich

he Second World War comes to the fore in Chapter 6, ‘Naval Commemorations’. Among the many stories documented, the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942 is prominent, ‘a sea battle that remained alive in the memories of many local people fifty years later’ (p. 138). It is commemorated in St Monica’s War Memorial Cathedral in Cairns (Queensland), built in 1967-1968. Designed in the ‘brutalist’ style by Ian Ferrier, its interior is transformed and charged with meaning by a programme of windows designed and made in 1995-2001 by Gerry Cummins and Jill Stehn of Eumundi (Queensland). Their Peace window movingly recognizes Australians, Americans, and Japanese, and includes three different helmets on the ocean floor (pp. 138-40).

Stained glass adapted to the new architecture, as here at Cairns, looks forward to Chapter 7, ‘Old and New, Artists and Architecture’. This has the most interesting epigraph of all, the same used by Sir Basil Spence for his book Phoenix at Coventry: the Building of a Cathedral (1962):

Only a fool will build in defiance of the past. What is new and significant always must be grafted onto old roots, the truly vital roots that are chosen with great care from the ones that merely survive. And what a slow and delicate process it is to distinguish radical vitality from the wastes of mere survival, but that is the only way to achieve progress instead of disaster. (Bela Bartok)

Hughes gives an account of Spence’s radical design for the new Coventry Cathedral, sited adjacent to the ruins of the old cathedral bombed in the Second World War. As at Coventry, in the 1950s and ’60s Australian stained glass needed to adapt to the new modernist architecture ‘with its vast expanses of glass’ (p. 143). Alan Sumner (1911-1994) met this challenge in his war memorial windows for churches and schools in the state of Victoria, notably in his design for Caulfield Grammar School (pp. 116-18, fig. 4).  In the Northern Territory, an inspired achievement was the soaring east window designed in 1961 by the leading Queensland artist William Bustard (1894-1973) and incorporated into the bold parabolic shape of the new war memorial Cathedral of St Mary Star of the Sea Darwin. A misleading source (note 11, p. 212) leads Hughes to misidentify the architect, who was the prolific Ian Ferrier (1928-2000), American-born and Brisbane-based. The old St Mary’s Church had been badly damaged in Japanese air raids in 1942 and, ‘like Coventry, [this] spawned the idea of a new architecture that responded to the environment of commemoration’ (p. 146).

Fig. 4. Alan Sumner, War memorial window, 1966. Assembly Hall, Caulfield Grammar School, East St. Kilda (Vic.)

Fig. 4. Alan Sumner, War memorial window, 1966. Assembly Hall, Caulfield Grammar School, East St. Kilda (Vic.)

Chapter 8, ‘Foreign Fields’, boldly explores memorials for Australians in England, Egypt, Canada, New Guinea, Borneo, and Thailand, with the emphasis on World War Two. Hughes records the important role of the Empire Air Training Scheme, which drew in Australian airmen who joined the Royal Air Force together with New Zealanders and Canadians (pp. 173-78). The close connection between Australian and Canadian air training is epitomized in a window by the Toronto firm of Robert McCausland at All Saints’ Church, Collingwood (Ontario) commemorating Australian airmen (p.175). The war with Japan and the horror of the prisoner of war camps form the second part of this chapter. The ‘death marches’ in Borneo and the ‘death railway’ in Thailand inspired stained glass windows, though not until years after the events, when the horror had sunk in. The Sydney artist Philip Handel (1931-2009) designed Windows of Remembrance in 2005 and 2008 for St Michael and All Angels Church in Sandakan, Sabah (north Borneo, fig. 5). In 2015, Gerry Cummins and Jill Stehn designed two graphic windows for the Death Railway Museum in Kanchanaburi, Thailand.

Chapter 9 concludes the book with a question, ‘Lights Everlasting?’ The changing culture of the late twentieth and twenty-first century resulted in the closure of many churches and loss or neglect of windows. This chapter makes manifest that the book is far more than an art book. It includes windows, often from tiny village churches, that ‘may seem insignificant compared with many other more decorative examples’, but the stories behind them are shown to be far from insignificant (p. 191).

The book is liberally illustrated by a miscellany of photographers. Presumably, the photographs are by the author except where a photographer is named in the caption. A note should have clarified this. The emphasis of the book on the stories behind the windows might make allowance for the fact that the illustrations do not approach the calibre of the scholarship, sometimes the designer’s fault. Some large windows are relegated to a small space on the page. Photographs that capture windows in their architectural setting are sadly missing, which is particularly unfortunate in the chapter on modernist architecture, where the windows of St Mary Star of the Sea in Darwin and St Monica’s Cathedral Cairns are outstanding examples. Many important windows are not illustrated at all, although the author always provides detailed documentation and description, for example, of the large lunette in the Soldier’s Memorial Hall in Ipswich by William Bustard and the Morris & Co. window at All Souls’ Church Adelaide, both showcasing the Australian soldier in uniform (pp. 82-3, 85).

The Bibliography, Notes, Glossary, and Index are impressive, but a list of Abbreviations should have preceded the Notes, an editorial flaw and an annoyance for an enquiring reader. Further, this large, heavy volume does have a sturdy cardboard cover but it should have been published in hardback.

Fig. 5. Philip Handel, design for The Window of Remembrance, 2004, St Michael and All Angels' Church. Sandakan, Sabah. Photographer Neil Silver

Fig. 5. Philip Handel, design for The Window of Remembrance, 2004, St Michael and All Angels’ Church. Sandakan, Sabah. Photographer Neil Silver

Over and above all this, the unquestionable achievement of the book is its vast and invaluable repository of history, while the narrating voice of the author takes the reader on an absorbing journey from beginning to end.  A short review like this cannot do it justice. A final thought – as a book devoted entirely to a nation’s war memorials in stained glass, it might well be unique.

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