Shelves of Glass

An Interview with Bookseller Morris Venables

For almost a quarter of a century one of the highlights of the stained glass
calendar has been the annual publication of Morris Venables’ sales list: Books on Stained Glass. Often including over six hundred items, each list has been a treasure house of antiquarian rarities, hard-to-find titles, offprints from obscure journals and new publications from around the world. Inevitably, however all good things come to an end and earlier this year Morris and his wife Juliet, announced that the 2010/2011 list would be their last. As a tribute to their contribution to stained glass studies, Roger Rosewell, Vidimus News Editor, visited Morris in his Bristol home.
Morris Venables is warm, funny and knowledgeable. He works from a converted stable with shelves bumping the ceilings and precariously balanced stacks of books reaching almost as high. But despite what to my eye seems like disorder bordering on chaos, he knows exactly where to look for any book he wants [Fig.1].

Fig. 1. Morris Venables

Fig. 1. Morris Venables

“I started cataloguing books about stained glass in 1988. In the early ’90s my brother-in-law, George Wigley, the well-known collector and dealer in medieval glass, gave my name to the late William Cole (1909–1997), an expert on sixteenth-century Netherlandish roundels and the author of an important volume about them for the British CVMA. William’s surplus books provided me with the first large quantity of stained glass books to come my way. Fortunately other collections followed.

I published my first dedicated list about stained glass in 1988. It had 159 items for sale. Since then I’ve produced a list every year with the exception of 2007. My latest list has nearly 700 entries. Since 1989 the cover design has featured King Ezechias from the fifteenth-century Tree of Jesse window at the parish church of St Dyfnog at Llanrhaeadr, (Denbighshire) [Fig. 2].

As the business grew I became increasingly interested in the subject. I used to take  a selection of my books to the annual conferences of the British Society of Master Glass Painters and sometimes to those of Stained Glass Museum. I also set my stall up at the Corpus Vitrearum Conference when the International Colloquium was held in Bristol in 2000. I listened to lectures, joined trips to churches and met an ever-widening circle of artists, historians, conservators and collectors.

What I didn’t know, I was forced to learn as customers asked me for books I had never heard of. Many used me as a resource on the phone – ringing to ask if I knew if there were books or articles about particular aspects of stained glass. At times I felt like one of the family. I cannot say that I am an expert on stained glass, but after twenty-five years in the business I think I know a fair amount about books on stained glass! Discovering new fields of interest are part of the joys of being a professional bookseller.

I was born in north London. At the beginning of the war our family was on holiday in north Wales and my parents, apprehensive of the probable dangers of living in the capital, decided that my mother, sister and I should stay in Wales while my father returned to his job in Southgate. After a year of this arrangement the whole family returned to Enfield. The following morning I woke up under the dining room table. It was the first raid of the blitz.  In May 1941 we moved to Evesham.

Fig.2. The Last List 2010

Fig.2. The Last List 2010

I fell in love with books in my late teens after finding a second-hand shop in the town tucked away down a dark passage. The woman who owned the shop was, in those days, a strange creature. She wore layer after layer of dresses, jumpers and cloaks and smoked so much I was convinced her hair was stained with nicotine.  But I didn’t care about her appearance or the smell. I remember sitting on the floor of her shop for the afternoon fascinated by one book in particular, John Earle’s Miscrocosmographie, issued by Cambridge University Press. It was the first book I’d seen that was wonderfully attractive not only in its content but also in its presentation.

After leaving school I spent eighteen months national service in the navy before going up to Oxford University to read English at Pembroke College. Thereafter most of my working life was spent as a specialist English tutor in teacher training colleges. I was a principal lecturer in English and Academic Registrar at Redland College in Bristol, before it was merged with Bristol Polytechnic, which is now the University of the West of England.
I started selling books in 1969. At this stage, and for a further 13 years, it was a hobby and an agreeably convenient of raising a little extra cash, but I was still teaching full-time. I dealt largely in English literature, especially poetry. I produced my first list of books for sale in 1970, and from 1973 onwards exhibited at Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association fairs during vacations and at occasional weekends. The contacts made in this way, and through further lists, proved very useful when I started to specialise in selling books on stained glass. Other dealers would ring me up if they bought interesting titles and sometimes people tipped me off when they saw rare books for sale. 

Bookselling is a patient profession. Sometimes sales can be slack; on other occasions it can take days to fulfil a large order, ensuring that the books are packed properly and unlikely to be damaged in transit. I have duplicates of many items – one can never tell what demand will be like. Some years I might not sell a single copy of a particular book, the next year I have received half a dozen orders for it in the same number of weeks. On one occasion I bought a large number of copies of a splendid book about the early sixteenth-century windows of a particular church. This helped to ensure its publication after a previous commitment to purchase had collapsed and put the whole project in jeopardy. It seemed risky, but I’m glad I did it. The book was a success and I sold all of the copies I had bought. Encouraged by such experience, I started to think about publishing my own reprints of some important out-of-print titles.

Fig. 3. Christopher Whall

Fig. 3. Christopher Whall

My first venture, in 1999, was a reprint of Christopher Whall’s much sought after 1924 book Stained Glass Work. The idea came from Peter Cormack, the art historian and expert on Arts & Crafts glass. He wanted to produce a new edition to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Whall’s birth. He contributed a superb introductory essay about Whall and I added fourteen colour plates to update its appeal [Fig. 3].

Then, in 2000, I produced a single volume reprint of two works: Dr A. M.  Gessert’s Rudimentary Treatise on the Art of Painting on Glass or Glass Staining and Emanuel Fromberg’s essay on the Art of Painting on Glass.  In 2001, came Marta Galicki’s commendable booklet on Victorian and Edwardian Stained Glass: the work of five London studios 1855 – 1910, which had originally been published by English Heritage to complement an exhibition of the same title at the RIBA Heinz gallery in 1987.

Our most ambitious project followed in 2002. A title I always hoped to find was Nathaniel Westlake’s four volume masterpiece  A History of Design in Painted Glass originally published by James Parker & Co between 1881 and 1894. But whenever I found a copy I was nearly always disappointed. The bindings were often in poor condition. Now, with the help of a grant from the Glaziers Trust, the charitable arm of the Glaziers Company, I was able to reprint a limited edition of 150 copies of these books in a smaller two volume format, properly bound and at an affordable price. 2003 saw the production of Stained Glass Windows and Master Glass Painters, all nine issues of the directories issued by the B.S.M.G.P in one volume. Finally, in 2004, we published two books by Tom Honey, Stained Glass Windows of Gordon Webster, and Sadie McLellan, Artist in Glass.

Although I enjoy handling early books like J.G. Joyce’s elephant size folio monograph on the Fairford windows (1872), William Warrington’s History of Stained Glass (1848), Haudiquer de Blancourt’s The Art of Glass (1699) and Henry Holiday’s Reminiscences of my Life, I do not have a favourite title. I am always astounded by the hard work, dedication and scholarship which informs the British CVMA volumes. Other books I remember fondly because I knew and liked the authors: the late Hilary Wayment (1912 -2005) instantly springs to mind, a man whose smile could light up any room. Sadly many otherwise excellent older books suffer from what can best be called gloopy pictures, indistinct black and white plates which are pretty much next to useless. This was not the fault of the photographers. Over the years I have seen many excellent monochrome images of stained glass where every brushstroke is discernible. But reproducing those images at affordable prices seems to have been beyond most printers. The contrast between some of these old books and the best of the new publications is staggering. I have recently sold my last set of the five volumes of the stained glass in the canton of Aaugau produced by the Swiss CVMA: Glasmalerei im Kanton Aargau (2002). The colour plates were wonderful. It was a pleasure to turn the pages.

What now? Juliet and I are slowing down. I stumbled into stained glass through my wife and my brother-in-law. It has been a lovely and memorable experience. But although we will no longer produce annual lists we are still open for business!

Morris Venables can be contacted at:

Name That Roundel Solution

This month’s puzzle shows a story from the early life of Joseph (Old Testament, Book of Genesis, Chapter 37). 

Joseph was the eleventh son of Jacob and Rachael. He was also his father’s favourite. After his father gave him a ‘coat of many colours’, his brother’s became resentful as this preferential treatment. Their envy grew when he told them about his dreams: in the first, the brothers were binding sheaves of wheat in a field when his stood upright and the other sheaves bowed and made obeisance to him; in the second, the sun and moon and eleven stars also bowed down and made obeisance to him. When he told his family about his dreams, his father rebuked him for suggesting that they bow down to him.

Fig. 1. Joseph recounting his dreams to his father

Fig. 1. Joseph recounting his dreams to his father

After his brothers left to tend their father’s flock in Shechem, Joseph was sent to join them. A ‘a certain man’ found him wandering in a field and told him how to find them. When Joseph’s brothers saw him approaching they initially decided to kill him until Reuben suggested that they cast him into a pit alive. When he reached his brothers, they seized him, stripped him of his precious coat and lowered him into a pit without water.
As they sat around afterwards, they saw a party of Ishmaelite merchants carrying spices to Egypt. One of the brothers suggested selling Joseph to them. The others agreed and Joseph was sold into slavery for twenty pieces of silver.  Thereafter the brothers retrieved his coat, dipped it in the blood of a young goat and carried it back to their distraught father who assumed that his son had been devoured by an evil beast.

The roundel shows Joseph asleep with his dreams depicted in the roundels above ( the sheaves are particularly visible); Joseph telling his father about the dreams while his brothers listen; the man telling Joseph where to find his brothers; and his brothers lowering Joseph into the pit and staining his coat with blood.

Joseph’s story was seen as a metaphor for the just and the unjust, the story of a righteous man protected by God. The subject was often shown in roundels of this period. The design of this month’s roundel seems to be based on an earlier design by the Flemish artist, Hugo van der Goes.

Further Reading
T. Husband, The Luminous Image; Painted Glass Roundels in the Lowlands, 1480 – 1560, New York 1995.

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