David Singing God’s Praise: A Musical Window by Henry Gyles

East window at St Helen’s, Denton-in-Wharfedale, West Yorkshire.

Fig. 1. East window at St Helen’s, Denton-in-Wharfedale, West Yorkshire.

The main centre light contains the only surviving picture window by the York glass painter Henry Gyles (1645–1709). It is signed and dated: ‘Henry Giles Eborac. Pinxit 1700’. The painting shows, in the lower half, King David playing his harp, surrounded by angels, two of whom hold musical scores. The upper part shows cherubim in the heavens around the sacred name, in Hebrew. Beneath that is St Cecilia playing an organ with angels accompanying her on variety of musical instruments, while others hold up music books for the players. Though executed mainly in silver stain and enamels Gyles has also employed pot metal glass (purple, blue and red) for the larger draperies.

Dr Trevor Brighton, a leading expert on Gyles, quotes the antiquarian Ralph Thoresby’s description of the window as ‘The noblest painted glass window in the North of England’. This perhaps says a great deal about early 18th-century taste in glass painting – this was before antiquarians like Horace Walpole, of Strawberry Hill (1717–97), began to collect and stimulate an interest in medieval stained glass. 

North armorial side light by Gyles (attrib.).

Fig. 2. North armorial side light by Gyles (attrib.).

The north side light, also clearly by Gyles, [Fig. 2] depicts the achievement of Lord Fairfax beneath two baronial coronets. Above this are three cherubs supporting a monogram within a laurel chaplet. In the base of the light is a trumpeting putto of victory beneath the baronial coronet of Fairfax. He is seated on a stand of drums with a spear in his hand and around him are the trophies of war – these led Trevor Brighton to conclude that this must be the achievement of Thomas, 5th Lord Fairfax (1657–1710), who succeeded to the title in 1688 and rose to the rank of Brigadier-General in 1701. Fairfax no doubt commissioned the central light for the chapel of his country seat, Denton Hall. 

South armorial side light by Peckitt (signed).

Fig. 3. South armorial side light by Peckitt (signed).

The south side light [Fig. 3] shows in the centre an achievement of Ibbetson impaling Caygill, and commemorates the marriage in 1768 of Sir James Ibbotson, second Baronet, to Jenny, daughter of John Caygill of Halifax. Above is a basket of fruit and wheat and beneath is an intricate arrangement of the implements of husbandry under a swag of flowers suspended from the shield. This glass is dated 1776 and signed ‘W Peckitt pinx’. It was made in July that year according to William Peckitt’s Commission Book (p. 397), where he describes the work thus: ‘For James Ibbetson, Esqr. of Denton. His arms and Lady Ibbetson’s with Crest and Ornaments of Fruit, Flowers, imployments of Husbandry etc. measuring 5Ft. 4¾In. by 1Ft. 5In. £31. 10. 00.’ The Ibbetsons had succeeded the Fairfaxes at Denton. Following a series of fires Sir James had the Hall completely rebuilt by John Carr in the late 1770s; but first he employed the same architect to build St Helen’s church, and had Gyles’ window installed at its east end. [Fig. 4] The source of the design for the extraordinary central light in praise of sacred music is identified only briefly in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Henry Gyles), and has not previously been explored in glass-painting literature. 

Print by Jan Sadeler c.1590. Fig. 5. Print by Jan Sadeler c.1590.

Fig. 4. The church of St Helen, Denton.

Fig. 4. The church of St Helen, Denton.

The image came more or less ready-made from the prominent South Netherlandish printmaker Jan Sadeler (1550–1600). [Fig. 5] Sadeler’s print needed little adaptation to fit the window, and Gyles follows it closely up to the ‘glory’ over St Cecilia’s head. Further members of the cherubic host were needed to fill the arched top. However, some, uncomfortably close to the edges, perhaps indicate that the chapel window for which the glass was designed had a rounded top. 

Painting by Pieter de Witte (Candido) c.1590.

Fig. 6. Painting by Pieter de Witte (Candido) c.1590.

The angel musicians, playing (from left to right) lute, cornett, sackbut (early trombone), violin and violone (contrabass viol), all come from the Sadeler print, as do the four vocal parts displayed in the middle register. These provide the complete music of a short four-part motet by the celebrated Renaissance composer Roland Lassus (Orlando di Lasso c.1530–1594). The text, Laudent deum cithara, is adapted from the 150th Psalm of David, which calls for God to be praised with voices and musical instruments. At the bottom there is a quotation in yellow silver stain from the closely related Psalm 148: ‘Iuvenes et virgines, senes cum iunioribus, laudent nomen domini’ (Young men and maidens, old men and children, praise the name of the Lord). This is also found in the print, but placed across the top. The print in turn follows a painting by Pieter de Witte (Pietro Candido, c.1548–1628) belonging to the Frans Hals Museum, Haarlem, but now in Maastricht on long loan. [Fig. 6] The relationship is not entirely straightforward, since de Witte included only two of the motet’s four-voice parts.

Such three-way collaborations between printmaker, painter and composer were not unknown, but Sadeler made them something of a speciality. He had already worked with several other artists and composers before arriving in about 1590 in Munich, where he met the two men represented here: de Witte, court painter to the Bavarian ducal court; and Lassus, the duke’s Kapellmeister. Lassus probably wrote his tiny motet (which takes less than 50 seconds to perform) for the purpose – no other version of it appeared in his lifetime. The music historian Pieter Fischer has suggested that the impulse for such images arose in the Catholic southern Netherlands when Renaissance humanism was overtaken by the religious spirit of the Counter-Reformation. There is no very potent propaganda element in the scene depicted by Gyles, however, and it is doubtful whether he or his noble Protestant client would have been conscious of it.

Angels holding voice-parts of the Lassus motet. Fig. 7. Angels holding voice-parts of the Lassus motet.

Angels holding voice-parts of the Lassus motet.

Fig. 8. Angels holding voice-parts of the Lassus motet.

On the other hand, the choice of subject suggests that they shared some knowledge and appreciation of music. Gyles took great care to make an accurate copy of the Lassus motet, exactly as it appears in the print, [Figs. 7 and 8] a version which differs in several minor details from that in the Lassus Complete Works (ed. Haberl) published in the 1890s. Competent musicians of the 16th and 17th centuries would have had little difficulty in performing it directly from the window, although present-day singers might struggle with the separate voice-parts, unfamiliar clefs and an absence of bar lines. 

Detail of St Cecilia playing organ and angels playing violin, Cello and tromboneFig. 9. Detail of St Cecilia playing organ and angels playing violin, Cello and trombone

Detail of St Cecilia playing organ and angels, one playing a cornetto.

Fig. 10. Detail of St Cecilia playing organ and angels, one playing a cornetto.

With the exception of the fiddler in the right background, whose bow lies almost parallel to the strings, the instrumentalists all look as if they have some idea how to play their instruments (not always the case in paintings, any more than in film or television) [Figs. 9 and 10]. Even if Gyles was merely copying, he could easily have gone astray here. Sadeler’s print found its way into other media besides painted glass. In 1616 the German silversmith Christoph Lencker reproduced it for a silver and ebony altarpiece which, sadly, vanished in Poland during World War II. Some sixty years later the celebrated wood-carver, Grinling Gibbons – born in Holland to English parents – produced a version in boxwood which turns out to have close, though elusive, links with Gyles’ window. [Fig. 11] Gibbons, whose love of music is amply reflected in his later works, included the notes, but not the words, for all four voices of the Lassus motet; curiously, he started to label the voice-parts but abandoned the attempt after the first three letters of ‘CANTUS‘. The angels circling in front of David are missing, but their anchor points can be seen in the foreground.

Boxwood relief carving by Grinling Gibbons (c1667).

Fig. 11. Boxwood relief carving by Grinling Gibbons (c1667).

This exquisite carved panel, no bigger than the print itself, was unknown until it surfaced at Sotheby’s in 1963 – attributed to Gibbons on grounds of style and a faint back-to-back GG monogram on the organ played by St Cecilia. Later it was noticed that Gibbonshad also subtly altered King David’s harp, substituting an English coat of arms for those of the Duke of Bavaria. The arms (Three bears’ heads erased…) were those of a Yorkshire family, the Barwicks, closely related to the Fairfaxes by marriage and belonging to the same circle of artistic patronage. As David Esterly, the distinguished woodcarver and Gibbons expert, has shown, it dates from Gibbons’ earliest days in England, when he worked in York between 1667 and 1670, and throws new light on the sculptor’s training in Holland. In fact Dr Esterly thinks the panel may have been brought from Holland as a specimen of his work and the Barwick arms added in York. Previously little was known about the three years Gibbons spent in the city as a journeyman for the architect John Etty; he then moved to London, where the diarist John Evelyn famously ‘discovered’ him at Deptford in 1671 and introduced him to King Charles II.     

But what member of the Barwick family could have commissioned this delightful piece of work? The Barwick pedigree (in Joseph Hunter’s Familiae Minorum Gentiumshows that the Yorkshire family, though influential, was surprisingly small. Suspicion originally fell on Sir Robert Barwick of Toulston, Recorder of Doncaster and York, and father-in-law of the fourth Lord Fairfax whose son commissioned the Gyles window some 30 years later. But Sir Robert died in 1660, several years before Gibbons arrived in York. His only son, Robert, was drowned in 1666 while swimming in the River Wharfe. Robert was unmarried, so his married sister, Frances (Lady Fairfax), became Sir Robert’s sole heiress. This leaves only one obvious candidate, Sir Robert’s widow, Lady Ursula (née Strickland). In 1666 she was grieving for her husband and son at Toulston Hall, the mansion and estate at Newton Kyme that Sir Robert had originally bought from the Fairfaxes. In earlier years Ursula had looked after various Fairfax cousins there while their fathers were away fighting in the Civil War. Direct proof of a link between Dame Ursula and the Gibbons carving is unlikely after all this time, but there are several clues pointing to a plausible scenario: 

Arms of Barwick impaling Strickland, Toulston Lodge.

Fig. 12. Arms of Barwick impaling Strickland, Toulston Lodge.

According to one local historian (William D. Bruce) Sir Robert ‘had the manor and Towlston Hall about 1646, and also the lodge’. This would be Toulston Lodge, which unlike the Hall survives today much altered, and now forms part of Tadcaster Grammar School. In later years Toulston Lodge became known as a ‘dower house of the Fairfaxes’, but on its wall is a stone carving of Sir Robert and Lady Ursula’s marital arms – Barwick impaling Strickland. [Fig. 12]

Following the death of her son in 1666, this seems to suggest, Ursula Barwick left Toulston Hall – which would revert to the Fairfax family in due course through her daughter’s inheritance – and moved to the Lodge, taking the coat of arms with her. According to the Wharfe Valley historian, Harry Speight, these were at one time displayed over the north door, and later moved to the south front. If Ursula adopted the Lodge as her dower house, it would not be surprising if it needed the attentions of John Etty and his assistants – among them a talented young man with an odd Dutch accent and a carving to sell… Ursula was buried at Newton Kyme when she died in October 1682, aged 81. 

King David and angels, detail from the staircase window at Womersley Hall.

Fig. 13. King David and angels, detail from the staircase window at Womersley Hall.

If something like this did happen, the Gibbons carving could have migrated to Denton at some point, perhaps to be displayed in the chapel there. Henry Gyles first showed awareness of its subject matter in August 1682, when he was negotiating to paint the east window of University College chapel, Oxford: he sent his friend and intermediary, Pierce Tempest, a sheaf of drawings including ‘a circle of angels around King David’ – which sounds very like the lower part of Sadeler’s print. The College eventually settled for a Nativity (dated 1687 and later removed) and the sketches are lost. However Gyles seems to have been much taken with the subject: King David and his Angels appear in a composite window now at Womersley Hall, Yorkshire, which Brighton says is certainly by Gyles. [Fig. 13] 

Here the cherubs hold simpler scrolls, bearing the words Gloria Deo and Pax hominib[us] , and the scene occupies only six panes of glass compared with fifty four at Denton, but otherwise the image is virtually the same. The Womersley window includes numerous coats of arms of the Fairfax family and their alliances, including three generations of the Barwick line – Fairfax impaling Barwick, representing Henry Fairfax (4th Lord Fairfax) and Frances Barwick – the parents of Gyles’ patron at Denton; Barwick impaling Strickland, for Sir Robert and Lady Ursula, and even Strickland impaling Wentworth for Ursula’s antiquarian father, Walter Strickland of Boynton and his wife Frances Wentworth. The glass is undated, and there is nothing to identify the house (or houses) for which it was originally made: Brighton suggests Denton, or Nun Appleton (another Fairfax house, for which Gyles supplied a sundial window in 1670), as the most likely. 

To produce either of these windows, Gyles would have needed access to Sadeler’s original print; it is conceivable that Gibbons left his copy with his Yorkshire client, but more likely that Gyles obtained a fresh example through one of his friends. He belonged to a circle of Yorkshire virtuosi – artists, antiquarians and scientists – who regularly met for discussions at his house in Micklegate, York. Several had connections with the print business, and any one of them could have found Gyles a copy of the Sadeler print. 

In 1702, two years after Gyles painted the highly detailed Denton window, Ralph Thoresby recorded in his diary a convivial evening spent with Gyles. It seems the conversation may well have turned to Grinling Gibbons’ brief sojourn in York, and perhaps even touched on his King David carving:

Evening sat up too late with a parcel of artists I had got on my hands, Mr Gyles, the famousest painter of glass perhaps in the world … Mr Carpenter, the statuary, and Mr Etty, the painter, with whose father, Mr Etty sen., the architect, the most celebrated Grinlin Gibbons wrought at York, but whether apprenticed with him or not I remember not well. Sate up full late with them.

It is a pity Thoresby did not recall the details of this conversation, even though he owned another even smaller Gibbons carving from the same period. He catalogued it as: ‘The History of Elijah under the Juniper Tree, supported by an Angel (I Kings, 19); all perform’d in Wood by the celebrated Mr Grindlin Gibbon, when resident at Yorke. Six inches in Length and four in Breadth‘. The Gibbons carving of this scene has disappeared, but Horace Walpole reported seeing it in the 18th century.

Geoffrey Lane and Gordon Plumb


All the photographs of the Denton glass are © Gordon Plumb.

With thanks to the owners, Mr and Mrs A. Alfred Taubman, for permission to reproduce the photograph of the Grinling Gibbons panel.

Thanks also to Editions Mirkoff for permission to reproduce their plate of the Sadeler print, and to the Frans Hals Museum, for supplying the photograph of the painting by de Witte

Thanks to Brian Sprakes for his picture of the Womersley glass and to Graeme Middleyard, of Tadcaster Grammar School Business and Enterprise College, for supplying the photograph of the Barwick arms.

Further Reading

T. Brighton, ‘Henry Gyles, Virtuoso and Glasspainter of York, 1645–1709’, York Historian, 4, 1984.

T. Brighton (ed.), ‘William Peckitt’s Commission Book, 1751–95’, Walpole Society, 54, 1988.

P. Fischer, Music in Paintings of the Low Countries in the 16th and 17th Centuries, Amsterdam, Swet & Zeitlinger, 1975.

A. P. de Mirimonde, Sainte-Cécile: Metamorphoses d’un Theme Musical. Geneva: Editions Minkoff, 1974.

D. Esterly, Grinling Gibbons and the Art of Carving, London, V and A, 1998 L. Sayce and

D. Esterly, ‘He was Likewise Musical … an Unexplored Aspect of Grinling Gibbons’, Apollo, 151 (460), 2000), pp.11–21.

C. R Markham, Life of Robert Fairfax of Steeton, London (Macmillan) 1885

H. Speight, Upper Wharfedale, 1900; Lower Wharfedale, 1902

W. D. Bruce, “An Account of the Parish of Newton Kyme, In the County of Yorkshire”, The Topographer and Genealogist (ed J G Nichols, Vol I, 1846, 501) 

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