New Discovery of Rare Painting Technique at St Mary’s, Fairford
CVMA technical advisor Keith Barley and his specialist team have made an important new discovery about the painting techniques used at St Mary’s church, Fairford, Gloucestershire.
St Mary’s is the only parish church in the UK to retain its original medieval glazing scheme in its entirety (Fig. 1). The scheme consists of twenty-eight windows installed in a single campaign c.1500 – 1515. Although authorship of the windows is entirely undocumented, stylistic comparison suggests that they are the work of one of the Anglo-Netherlandish glazing teams that became increasingly prominent in the early sixteenth century. Some scholars have even gone so far as to attribute them to Bernard Flower, a native of the Netherlands and glazier to Henry VII and Henry VIII, from 1497 until his death in 1517. In the absence of firm documentation, however, such attributions remain speculative.
For almost a quarter of a century, the conservation of the glass has been entrusted to Keith Barley, and last month Vidimus was on site when he made a new discovery about the techniques used by the artists who painted these remarkable windows (Fig. 2).
‘It happened when we removed the glass from window nVI (number 20 in the church numbering plan). This window has four main lights, each depicting a prophet holding a Creed scroll, together with tracery lights above incorporating angels and prophets [Fig. 3]. When I examined one of the “angel” tracery panels, I found a new example of an unusual painting technique that I have never seen anywhere else, except at Fairford.
‘Instead of following the normal procedure for glass painting as outlined by the twelfth-century artist and author, Theophilus in his treatise Diversarum Artium Schedula, which recommends that artists begin by painting the main trace-lines of the design on the interior face of the glass before adding shading and other details, at Fairford this process was in some senses reversed. The artists seem to have worked from sketchy trace-lines made on the exterior face of the glass by a quill, similar to what might be applied by a mapping pen today. Shading and details were then painted on the interior face, followed by the addition of ‘finishing’ trace-lines as the final, rather than first step. Such a method enabled the painters to achieve a far softer and more painterly effect without solid outlines. Usually the exterior marks were rubbed off before firing, except in this case they were not.’
Figure 4 shows the trace-lines on the exterior face of the panel for the tips of an angel’s wing. These can be seen as a series of jagged lines to the upper right of the glazier’s thumb. Figure 5 shows the interior face of the same panel.
Keith Barley went on to explain: ‘This is the third example of this technique that I have found in the church since I became involved in 1984. The first was in window sII (number 6 in the church numbering plan) – The Deposition of Christ from the Cross. This is one of the most famous windows in the church. In the seventeenth century, the poet William Strode [1600–45] described the image of Christ’s body being lowered from the cross as “Like a true Lambskinne dangling down” [Figs 6 and 7].
When I inspected the exterior glass of this window I found sketchy outlines on the legs of Christ showing where the intended trace-lines and shading should be applied. Two parallel lines indicate the desired width of the intended interior trace-line [Fig. 8]. Three sketched circles indicate the areas for shading at the turn of the foot. Similar sketched shapes can be seen indicating the proposed positions of the wounds.
‘The other example of this technique was in window nV panel 1d (number 1 in church numbering plan) [Fig. 9]. The exterior face of the side view of Solomon’s throne retains the trace-lines for a painted saltire cross which, in the final version, never appeared. While the discovery of a third example of this technique is not conclusive, it certainly suggests that more windows may have been painted in this manner.
‘A slightly different discovery elsewhere in the church supports this supposition. When we had north nave clerestory window NV (number 25 in the church numbering plan) in our studio for conservation, we were able to examine it under a microscope. Looking at one of the six devils in the tracery lights of this window we saw that the trace-lines for its eyes and other features were applied over, or on top of, the earlier layers of washes, stippling, hatching and brushing.’
Vidimus is extremely grateful to Keith Barley for his help with this item. For more information about Barley Studios, visit the website. To see more images from Fairford, visit the CVMA Picture Archive. Visit our Books page for details of the recently published revised edition of the 1997 study of the church and its stained glass co-edited by CVMA chairman, Sarah Brown, and Lindsay MacDonald.