Panel of the Month

Discovering the Grappenhall Workshop


St John the Baptist, c, 1334, church of St Wilfred, Grappenhall, Cheshire. © Gordon Plumb.

Fig. 1. St John the Baptist, c, 1334, church of St Wilfred, Grappenhall, Cheshire. © Gordon Plumb.

This month’s Panel comes from the parish church of St Wilfred at Grappenhall, a small village near Warrington in Cheshire. Made c.1334 it is one of a number of panels of this date to have survived in the church. It was made by a workshop active in the north-west of England, whose output has recently been discussed by Dr Penny Hebgin-Barnes in her recently published CVMA catalogue of The Medieval Stained Glass of Cheshire (see Further reading: Hebgin-Barnes)

Description of panel

Our panel shows a full-length figure of St John the Baptist standing beneath an architectural crocket and gable canopy with crenellations, pinnacles and flying buttresses. The saint is standing on a base diapered with small contiguous circles, each containing a cross patonce, the charge borne by members of the Boydell family who commissioned the glass. The background is green hawthorn rinceau (a French word describing foliate designs), picked out from a wash of matt black paint. St John wears an ochre camelskin and a blue cloak and holds an agnus dei on a book in his left hand. Some yellow staining is also visible. The panel measures 1.40m high by 0.50m wide. [Fig. 1]

The Grappenhall glass

Fig. 2. St Bartholomew. © Gordon Plumb.

Fig. 2. St Bartholomew. © Gordon Plumb.

Fig. 3. St Mary Magdalene. © Gordon Plumb.

Fig. 3, St Mary Magdalene. © Gordon Plumb.

The earliest parts of the church date from the twelfth century but in the early fourteenth century a one-bay chantry chapel was added on the south side of the nave by William Boydell. His son, also named William, signed a charter in 1334, witnessed by his father, promising to find an honest chaplain to pray for his parents’ souls after their deaths.

Our panel was commissioned for Boydell’s chapel and is one of eight saints set against similar rinceau grounds. All are now placed together in a rather jumbled fashion in one south aisle window. The panel containing St John is the most complete and the only one to have retained its canopy. The other figures are St James Major, St Peter, St Thomas, St Bartholomew (the latter instantly recognisable by the flaying knife he holds in his right hand and the parcel of his removed skin shown folded neatly beside him, a reference to the horrors of his martyrdom), St Philip holding a scroll with the Lombardic inscription PHIL[IPPUS], an unknown apostle, and an incomplete figure of St Mary Magdalene holding a white ointment jar in her right hand and raising her left hand. [Figs. 2 and 3]

The figurative and ornamental features of stained glass produced in England between c.1250 and 1350 is usually known as the Decorated Style (Further Reading: Marks). It includes elements such as naturalistic foliage and figures set under canopies based on architectural forms.

As with most medieval art of this period, the name(s) of the glazier or workshop which made the Grappenhall panels is unknown. None of the glass is signed and any documentation which might have been drawn up at the time of the commission seems to have been lost.

Although at first sight the windows resemble those of a similar date in York Minster, Penny Hebgin-Barnes has identified features which differentiate it from the York style, being instead characteristic of the work of a workshop active elsewhere in the north-west. At Grappenhall, the eyes are narrow and almond-shaped, the hair flows in curling waves, one eyebrow sweeps downwards to become the bridge of the nose, and the mouth is a thick black line with a thinner line denoting the upper lip. The drapery is also distinctive with folds deliberately exaggerated and outlined in black and sculpted by smear shading.

The architectural canopies also display some distinctive features. These include an awkwardness in handling perspectival illusions, such as the way that the canopy offsets are angled forwards and outwards in an attempt to create a sense of three-dimensional depth and the impossibly steep forward slant of the base. The decorative treatment of some of these micro-architectural details is also distinctive.

Detail of St John the Baptist panel with hawthorn rinceau. © Gordon Plumb.

Fig.4. Detail of St John the Baptist panel with hawthorn rinceau. © Gordon Plumb.

The background consists of green hawthorn rinceau [ Fig. 4] and the border comprises ruby rectangles diapered with quatrefoil and diamond patterns, alternating with rosettes and geometrical motifs.

More sites

By matching these design features with other surviving fourteenth-century glass in the north-west of England, Dr Hebgin-Barnes has built on the work of Canon Maurice Ridgway (1918–2002), a former curate of Grappenhall, who recognised that the Grappenhall glaziers were responsible for schemes of a similar date elsewhere in Cheshire and north Wales (Further Reading: Ridgway). They can be seen at the parish churches of Shotwick, Tattenhall, Marton, Nantwich, Over, Bunbury,Mobberley, and Prestbury (Cheshire) and at the church of St Mary at Treuddyn (Flintshire) in north Wales, about thirteen miles west of Chester. All of this work has been assigned to ‘the Grappenhall workshop’ on the basis that the Grappenhall glazing provides by far the best and most extensive surviving example of its output. However, it is important to stress that although known as ‘the Grappenhall workshop’ it is highly unlikely that the glazing team who made the windows was actually based there. A more likely location for their business was the county town of Chester, the administrative hub of the region in the fourteenth century. Dominated by a royal castle complex and a prosperous Benedictine abbey founded by the first Earl of Chester in 1092–93, such a workshop could have catered for these and other wealthy clients on their doorstep as well as serving a wider catchment area radiating from this important centre.

A tantalising possibility is that the ‘Grappenhall workshop’ might have been led by Master John de Chestre, a glazier who was employed by Edward III in 1351 to help with the glazing of St Stephen’s chapel in Westminster where, at one time, he received 7s a week for designing various figures for the windows, making him of one the highest paid craftsmen on the site. He may even be the same man as John le Glasewright of Chester whose name appears in the royal accounts as repairing the east window of the great chapel in Chester castle in 1353.

The output of the Grappenhall workshop

Female saint at the church of St James and St Paul, Marton, Cheshire. © YM Pictures.

Fig. 5. Female saint at the church of St James and St Paul, Marton, Cheshire. © YM Pictures.

At the parish church of St Michael at Shotwick canopy fragments in the east window of the chancel and other pieces in the west window of the tower exhibit many of the details found at Grappenhall. These include masonry blocks diapered with reserved annulets or quatrefoils. Similarly treated blocks can also be found in the canopies of two windows in the chancel at the parish church of St Alban at Tattenhall.

Comparisons between our panel and the incomplete figures of two female saints in Cistercian habits dating from the 1340s in the parish church of St James and St Paul at Marton also confirm their Grappenhall workshop paternity. [Fig. 5]

Again, fragmentary figures at the parish church of St Mary at Nantwich have enough similarities with the Grappenhall glass to suggest a common origin, as do some surviving canopy fragments at the parish church of St Boniface at Bunbury.

The Legh arms, Church of St Wilfred, Mobberley, Chancel, south window, sII. © P. Hebgin-Barnes.

Fig. 6. The Legh arms, Church of St Wilfred, Mobberley, Chancel, south window, sII. © P. Hebgin-Barnes.

At first glance the fourteenth-century glass at the parish church of St Wilfred at Mobberley seems difficult to compare with the other sites as it is purely heraldic, however the white hawthorn rinceau on the Legh (Leigh) family shield dated to around 1330–1350, has sufficient stylistic similarities with the green rinceau at Grappenhall to suggest that it too was a product of the same busy workshop. [Fig. 6]

Further examples of its work include decorative borders at the parish church of St Peter at Prestbury which are similar to those at Grappenhall, and the head of a female saint at Treuddyn which is in the same style as the figure of St Mary Magdalene at Grappenhall.

It is possible that this list might be extended as more English counties are catalogued by the CVMA and additional discoveries are made which throw extra light on the reach of this workshop. In Lancashire, glass remaining at the parish church of St Cuthbert at Halsall shows marked similarities to its architectural and decorative elements. But according to Mostyn Lewis, whose survey of the stained glass of North Wales was published in 1970, Treuddyn is the only site in that region where glass by the Grappenhall workshop remains (Further Reading: Lewis).

Some of these windows can be dated firmly, with that at Marton linked to the church’s foundation in 1343 and the few canopy fragments in a north window at Bunbury likely to come from the east window of the chancel which formerly contained an inscription dated 1345, consistent with the style of the glass.

But thereafter the trail runs cold for nearly a century with only the mentions of John de Chestre indicating that Chester may have remained a centre for supplying painted window glass in the 1350s and later.

What happened?

Speculation is easier than answers. Medieval Cheshire was a large but thinly populated county. Perhaps there was insufficient work when economic times were tough. Maybe the workshop was shattered by the impact of the Black Death in 1348–49. Perhaps it pottered along as a tradition in the town until England began to recover from the hardships of the fourteenth century. Another possibility is that examples of its later work were more plentiful than appear to be the case today but were destroyed during the rebuilding campaigns of the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries which transformed the size and appearance of many Cheshire churches.

Whatever the explanation(s) there is little doubt that its peak the Grappenhall workshop could hold its own with any other in England at that time and left a legacy which, in the fifteenth century, saw a new generation of Chester glaziers thrive. Dr Hebgin-Barnes’ important study of its work extends our knowledge of regional medieval glazing commissions and provides a methodology that others can follow in identifying the oeuvre of other workshops elsewhere.

Further Reading

  • P. Hebgin-Barnes, The Medieval Stained Glass of Cheshire, CVMA (GB), Summary Catalogue 9, Oxford, 2010
  • R. Marks, Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, London, 1993
  • M. H. Ridgway, ‘Coloured Window Glass in Cheshire Part I – XIV Century’, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, lix (for 1947), 1948, pp. 41–84
  • M. H. Ridgway, ‘An Introduction to the Making of Coloured Window Glass with special reference to the early Glass destroyed and extant in Cheshire’, Journal of the Chester Archaeological Society, xxxvii/1, 1948, pp. 107–32
  • M. H. Ridgway, ‘Grappenhall, Cheshire, Fourteenth Century Glass’, Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters, x/4, 1950–51, pp. 198–204
  • T. Barns, ‘The Architectural Antiquities of the Parish Church of St Wilfrid, Grappenhall. co. Chester’, Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Historic Society, xxxiii (for 1880–81), 1881, pp. 85–122
  • M. Lewis, Stained Glass in North Wales up to 1850, Altrincham, 1970

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