St Nicholas, Charles Winston and conservation at North Moreton
This month’s panel is a rare survival of a scene once common to many medieval church interiors. It is particularly remarkable because of its context – in the almost intact east window of one of England’s earliest surviving parish church chantry chapels – and because it was the subject of an extraordinarily enlightened mid-Victorian restoration, led by Charles Winston, the celebrated and influential 19th-century stained glass historian.
This month’s panel shows St Nicholas of Myra giving dowries to the daughters of an impoverished nobleman, thereby freeing them from the impending shame of prostitution by enabling them to marry. [Fig. 1.] The image shown here was drawn by Charles Winston in 1858, who was then advising on its conservation. The panel, which dates from around 1300, belongs to the east window of the Chapel of St Nicholas, at North Moreton, Oxfordshire, formerly Berkshire. The chapel, which dominates the church to which it is attached [Fig. 2. Chapel of St Nicholas, All Saints’ Church, North Moreton © English Heritage], housed the chantry of Sir Miles Stapleton, who endowed two chaplains to celebrate masses there in 1299. Although the institution of chantry masses was increasing throughout the 13th century, the construction of dedicated chapels in parish churches did not become widespread until the late 14th and 15th centuries. North Moreton is one of the earliest surviving chantry chapels built in a parish church, along with Bishop Thomas de Bytton’s chapel at Bitton and Bishop Giffard’s at Boyton, Wiltshire.
Stapleton held the manor of North Moreton as a retainer of Aymer deValence, the king’s cousin, and was closely connected with royal circles. Fiona Whyte has related the design and detailing of the chapel to the artistic output of Edward I’s court in the 1290s. Charles Winston dated the stained glass to between 1305 and 1310. The glass is of very high quality and has affinities, particularly in the detail of its naturalistic foliage grounds, figure style and canopies, with stained glass from the side windows of the chapel at Merton College, Oxford (dated by Tim Ayers c.1299-1311). [ Fig. 3. Merton College Chapel, Oxford c1299-1311 © King & Sons], and the main lights of the chapter house at Wells Cathedral (1301-1305). The ‘stacking’ of image niches in the window [Fig. 4. East window, Chapel of St Nicholas, North Moreton © Crown copyright. NMR (003506)] is unusual for the date, but, as at Merton and Wells, the micro-architectural forms relate to contemporary designs in architecture and metalwork. The window is full-colour, notable at a time when band windows were prevalent, but as Tim Ayers has shown at Wells, colour-saturated windows could be reserved for spaces of particular liturgical importance. Although the medieval glazing of the chapel’s side windows has been lost, surviving glass in the nave suggests a grisaille or banded scheme in the main body of the church. [Fig. 5. Nave, All Saints’ Church, North Moreton © Crown copyright. NMR (003508)]
The choice of St Nicholas as patron of his chapel was presumably made by Stapleton, whose family, as Whyte has plausibly suggested, had a long-standing devotion to St Nicholas. By the middle of the 13th century it was customary to flank an altar with images of its titular saint (here St Nicholas) on the north side and of the Virgin Mary on the south. At North Moreton the requisite image brackets survive on either side of the altar [Fig. 6. East window and image brackets, Chapel of St Nicholas, North Moreton © Eric Hardy]. This must account for the position of the St Nicholas panels in the northernmost light and of the Virgin Mary panels in the southernmost light respectively, ensuring that scenes relating to this powerful pair of intercessors were located close to their sculptural forms.
St Nicholas, a great miracle worker especially associated with the protection of sailors and children, was one of the most popular medieval saints, gaining currency as an intercessor during the 13th century. In England there are 13th-century remains of cycles at Westminster Abbey (1246-59), Beverley Minster (c.1230s), Lincoln Cathedral (c.1230s) and at York Minster (c.1280s). At York Minster, of course, there is also evidence of a 12th-century St Nicholas window (a surviving panel is now in S27) and in the early years of the 14th century (c.1306-10) Archbishop Greenfield gave a St Nicholas window for the new nave (s29).
The dowry-giving scene at North Moreton is in abbreviated form, showing St Nicholas giving gold to only two of the three daughters. It appears to be a rarer survival in English stained glass than images of Nicholas’ revival of three butchered boys, or his calming of a storm. It could be the subject of a very damaged panel in the chapter house at York (CHs4). Although previously identified as Nicholas blessing a recumbent man [Fig. 7. Chapter House, York Minster c1280s © Crown copyright. NMR], the panel probably shows St Nicholas handing gold through a window to the first of three women gathered behind their father’s bed. The presence of the father is paralleled in contemporary manuscripts and in a 13th-century version of the scene which, until destroyed by fire in 1972, survived at the parish church in Upper Hardres, Kent. Fortunately photographed by Nigel Morgan, it uses a similar (if reversed) composition to that at North Moreton, with St Nicholas passing the gold through a window in a wall which divides the panel vertically in two. [Fig. 8. St Nicholas giving dowries, Upper Hardres, Kent © Nigel Morgan (005928)]
At North Moreton the design of the east window, which represented scenes from the lives of Christ, the Virgin Mary, St Peter, St Paul and St Nicholas in each of its five lights, allowed only three scenes per saint. The St Nicholas sequence, which begins with his enthronement as bishop, also includes an image of his revival of the butchered boys in the pickling tub [Fig. 9. St Nicholas and the butchered boys, North Moreton © Gordon Plumb]. The selection of the dowry and butchered boys scenes recalls their pairing on the 12th-century font at Winchester Cathedral, where they evoke the sacraments of marriage and baptism respectively. Fiona Whyte also suggests the redemptive meaning of both scenes, enhanced by their association in the window with images of St Paul’s Conversion, Christ’s Resurrection and the Virgin’s Assumption.
In the 1850s, the poor condition of the window attracted the attention of Charles Winston, the pioneering stained glass historian. Winston, although a lawyer by profession, was perhaps the first writer to apply art historical methods and technical analysis to its study. He initially learned most by keen observation and painstaking drawing, which he began as a sixteen-year-old. The copying process, which often involved tracing, relied on – and refined – his eye for detail, an eye which was sharp, insightful and almost always reliable, as anyone who has read his work will know. He produced many drawings for his important book, An Inquiry into the difference of style observable in Ancient Glass Paintings, first published in 1847 and itself the result of 15 years of ‘amateur’ study, undertaken during his leisure time. Frustrated by the difficulties of reproducing adequate copies of complete windows, he concentrated instead on details, all copied or traced from real examples, which demonstrated points of style, design and technique. Winston aimed ‘to familiarise the reader’s eye with the handling, as well as the general effect of ancient glass paintings. How far I may have succeeded in this remains to be seen. I have, however, taken care in every plate to notice those minute features which are peculiar to glass paintings, as the leads by which the work is held together, &c’. In 1865, the year after his early death, almost 800 of his drawings and tracings were presented by his widow to the British Museum. 367 of them are viewable on the CVMA website. They are of inestimable importance to the stained glass community, historians and conservators alike.
Charles Winston’s drawings often emerged from his involvement in restoration projects; he advised on schemes at Bristol, Lincoln, Gloucester and at North Moreton. During the late 1840s the Bristol glazier Joseph Bell, restoring the glass of the Lady Chapel at Bristol Cathedral under Winston’s guidance, sent panels and fragments to him in London for inspection. The resulting drawings are stunning, and can be seen on the CVMA website. Sarah Brown has shown the considerable extent of Winston’s art-historical and technical contributions to the restoration. With the exception of its tracery lights, the Lady Chapel glass was bewilderingly fragmentary and disordered. Winston offered a reconstruction of the east window, and advised on how best to mitigate the effects of the inevitable difference in tone and texture between the new glass and the old. He suggested, for example, that Bell overfire soft white glass ‘so partially to melt its surface’, thereby producing a pearly effect that would contrast less with the greenish tones of the medieval whites. Winston’s technical advice evolved during the course of the restoration, as his own researches – aided by the chemist Mr Medlock and Edward Green, of James Powell & Sons – into the chemistry of medieval pot metal glass yielded results. By 1852 he could recommend the use of the new blue, green and yellow glasses made by Powell to Medlock’s recipes.
Winston was later to describe the work at Bristol, where so little medieval glass survived, as ‘a renovation rather than a restoration’. North Moreton presented different conservation problems and produced a much less interventionist response. Unlike the fragmentary remains at Bristol, the east window of its south chapel was substantially intact, but the poor condition of its leads threatened its survival. Many heads of the figures in its fifteen narrative scenes were already lost or broken, probably as a result of targeted iconoclasm – the three images of Christ were particularly damaged – while other pieces, including much of the tracery glass, had simply fallen out due to the decayed leading. In 1856 Winston alerted the Archaeological Institute to the lamentable condition of the window, in order to attract subscriptions to fund remedial work, without which, he feared, the remaining glass would be lost as the leading deteriorated further. He promised would-be subscribers a conservative – and therefore relatively cheap – approach to the restoration. Nothing beyond repair would be attempted. The glass would be releaded and, ‘where a piece of the original white or coloured glass had been lost, a corresponding piece of white or coloured glass … inserted, simply dulled over for the purpose of toning it down somewhat into harmony with the ancient material’. Subscriptions were forthcoming from The Society of Antiquaries and a number of individuals, including the late Vicar and Winston himself. The repairs were carried out by Ward & Hughes, and came in at £31, well under Winston’s estimate of £50. Reporting to the Archaeological Institute in 1862 on the completion of the project, Winston exhibited full size drawings of five panels, all of which are on the CVMA website, including that of St Nicholas. Today, the principles of Winston’s conservation of the glass at North Moreton are wearing well. The 19th-century insertions are clearly discernible, but as original lead-lines are retained where known, and the colour balance is generally good, the overall effect is generally harmonious, legible and credible. Gordon Plumb’s excellent photograph [Fig. 9. Winston’s restoration, North Moreton © Gordon Plumb] shows the way in which Ward & Hughes inserts were cut – where possible – according to the original lead-lines, colour-matched and moderated with a tonal wash. This is more effective on the canopy-work than on the figures, allowing the medieval micro-architecture to be easily distinguished while recreating the overall shape and line of the super-structure. It was a technique which Winston was to apply at the east window of Gloucester Cathedral in 1861.
When fundraising for the North Moreton project Winston complained that the British Government, unlike the French through its Comité Historique, offered no financial assistance ‘for the repair of national monuments’. That he should confidently classify as a national monument this small impoverished country parish church, little known in published literature, is greatly to his credit. It is tremendously important.
For a full account of the glazing scheme and its architectural context see Fiona Whyte, ‘The East Window of the Chapel of St Nicholas at All Saints Church, North Moreton’, The Journal of Stained Glass, xix, no.2, 1991–93, 105–29. See also Tim Ayers’ discussion of the exchange of micro-architectural designs across media in The Medieval Stained Glass of Wells Cathedral, CVMA (GB), Oxford, 2004, 14–15 and 492–3.
Sarah Brown’s illuminating account of Charles Winston’s evolving attitudes to restoration can be found in ‘The Stained Glass of the Lady Chapel of Bristol Cathedral; Charles Winston (1814-64) and Stained Glass Restoration in the 19th Century’, Almost the Richest City, Bristol in the Middle Ages, BAA Conference Transactions XIX, ed. Laurence Keen, 1997, 107–17.
For manuscript examples of dowry-giving see Nigel Morgan, A Survey of Manuscripts Illuminated in the British Isles, IV, Early Gothic Manuscripts 1190-1285, vol 2, London, 1988, 150, 163, 165, ill. 328.
For more pictures see the CVMA Picture Archive and search under North Moreton.