In Memory of … John Dolbel Le Couteur (1883–1925)
This is the fourth in our occasional series of articles that profile pioneering scholars of stained glass in the United Kingdom. The series began with an assessment of the Revd Dr Christopher Woodforde, and continued with biographies of Mary Addison Green and Elsie Matley Moore. This instalment by Mary Callé focuses on the life of John Dolbel Le Couteur, the author of several books and articles about stained glass published in the 1920s and a key figure in the conservation of some of the most important medieval glazing schemes in the UK.
John Le Couteur has been something of a hero of mine ever since I acquired his beautifully written book, Ancient Glass in Winchester, published in 1920. Nor I am the only fan. Many current scholars continue to regard the descriptions in his second book, English Mediæval Painted Glass, of how medieval window glass was made and painted as one of the clearest introductions ever written. For many people it remains a library shelf favourite.
Le Couteur was born in Jersey, one of the Channel Islands, on 20 May 1883 [Fig. 1]. His parents were Philip Edward Le Couteur, described on his son’s birth certificate as the ‘Captain of an ocean going sea vessel’, and Mathilda Stratton Brice of Vingtaine de la Vallée, one of the subdivisions of the parish of St Lawrence. Always disabled, Le Couteur never had any formal schooling, but must have been privately educated, as the 1901 census records him, aged 17 years, as working as a bank clerk in Jersey and living with his uncle, John T. le Riche, aged 67 years, a widower who was a registrar for the island’s Petty Debts and Police Court.
In the preface to English Mediæval Painted Glass, published in 1926, a year after John’s untimely death at the age of 42, the noted medievalist and former director of the British School in Rome, Gordon McNeil Rushforth (1862–1938), wrote a brief biographical appreciation of his friend. Two points stand out immediately. The first is that Le Couteur was forced to leave the bank’s employment, probably when he was around twenty or not much older, after ‘a long illness which left him incapacitated for continuous professional work’; the second is that notwithstanding this setback, ‘his active mind … sought for interests and about 1904 he found one in medieval painted glass which was thenceforward his absorbing interest’. According to Rushforth, as a result of these interests, he ‘moved about from place to place familiarising himself with the glass of Canterbury, Exeter, Wells, Bristol, Fairford and the Cotswold district, Gloucester and Tewkesbury, Salisbury and Oxford’, and using what another writer has said were his powers of ‘accurate observation, excellent memory and untiring diligence’, to gain ‘a wide knowledge of English medieval glass’.
One of these temporary ‘moves’ found him in 1910 in Great Malvern (Worcestershire), where Rushforth says ‘the chance was offered … of following and helping in the re-leading of the larger part of the windows in the Priory church’; another author, Dr Louis Hammond (d. 1955), has said that this process extended to ‘taking an active share in the rearrangement of the windows’. The work itself was undertaken by the Walter Tower/Kempe workshop, under the supervision of M. R. James (1862–1936), considered at the time to be the finest medieval scholar in Britain. Rushforth had lived in Great Malvern since 1903 and subsequently wrote a major study of the glass in the priory there. The 1910 releading was Rushforth’s first involvement with the windows, and it may have been around this time that he and Le Couteur became acquainted. Their friendship formed the hub of an informal network of scholars and enthusiasts, which included the Gloucester-based photographer Sydney Pitcher (1884–1950), the Exeter-based specialist Maurice Drake (1875–1923), and the York scholar John Alder Knowles (1881–1961), whose contribution to stained-glass studies in the first half of the twentieth century was immeasurable. In 1913, for example, Philip Nelson’s Ancient Painted Glass in England 1170-1500 singled out Le Couteur for the ‘invaluable assistance’ that he had given.
Le Couteur’s own foray into print seems to have begun in 1911, when he contributed an article – ‘Notes on the Great North window of Canterbury Cathedral’ – to Archaeologia Cantiana, the journal of the Kent Archaeological Society [Fig. 2]. In it he suggested a possible reconstruction of the appearance of the so-called Royal Window, featuring images of Edward IV, his wife and children, when it was made. In the same year, he was elected a member of the Royal Archaeological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland. According to the 1911 census, Le Couteur may also have moved back to Jersey around this time, as he is listed as living with his widowed mother there. Significantly, in the questionnaire box reserved for occupational details, he listed himself as having ‘private means’.
When war was declared in 1914, Rushforth says that Le Couteur volunteered for military service, but owing to his physical disabilities had to be content with temporary employment at a bank in Portsmouth, a city on the Hampshire coast, best known for its naval garrison. Although information about this period of his life is scant, it seems that he still found time to devote himself to stained glass. Gloucester Archives (formerly the Record Office) owns a remarkable manuscript in Le Couteur’s own hand dated 1916. It consists of 49 foolscap leaves and three pages of folding plans/diagrams, and describes the stained glass in the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral. Before entering the Archives, the book belonged to Sydney Pitcher, who pasted in some of his own photographs of the window glass. Le Couteur’s pioneering work on the Gloucester Lady Chapel glass was generously acknowledged by Rushforth when he delivered a lecture about it to a meeting of the Royal Archaeological Society and the Bristol and Gloucester Archaeological Society in the cathedral in 1921. Other interests evidenced in 1916 deserve mention. In May of that year, Le Couteur sent two letters to Rushforth detailing his thoughts about some of the glass in Great Malvern Priory. One of these consists of an eighteen-page assessment of the so-called Magnificat Window in the north transept. The correspondence survives as part of the Rushforth collection in Malvern Public Library. In 1917, he was listed as a member of the Kent Archaeological Society, although he is still given as living in Jersey, at ‘Rosedale’ in Beaumont, a district on the south of the island.
After the end of the war, Le Couteur moved permanently to Winchester. A letter to Rushforth dated 17 August 1919 and sent from St Peter’s Villa, St Peter Street, in the city explained the circumstances: ‘I am very sorry that my bank work has ended. My application for the permanent staff could not be entertained on account of ill-health, but tho’ I greatly regret the termination of my work I must be thankful to be out of Southsea [a suburb of Portsmouth].’ Despite the reasons for his relocation, the move fostered the most productive – and possibly the happiest – period of Le Couteur’s life. According to Rushforth, ‘he at once set to work to make a survey of all the old glass in the city’, and in doing so made new friendships within the cathedral community and Winchester College, the famous public school founded in 1382 by William of Wykeham (b. 1320, bishop of Winchester from 1366 until his death in 1404). They included Herbert Chitty FSA (1863–1949), the bursar of the College 1911–27 and thereafter its archivist until his death, and William Holden Hutton (b. 24 May 1860), the dean of Winchester Cathedral from 1919 until his death on 24 October 1930. An appreciation entitled ‘Wally’, penned after Le Couteur’s death by a Winchester College pupil and given in full on a separate page of this issue of Vidimus, provides a rare insight into his appearance and spirit at this time.
We first became aware of him as a sort of local curiosity. His tall figure with obese stomach, a face of unhealthy pallor, the binoculars always across his shoulder, the walking stick carried with its handle in his pocket: all these combined to make him a notion. In some notes I made at the time he is of ‘weird shape’, and further on he is ‘one of the seven wonders of the world’. To see what would happen one of us took off his hat to Wally one day, he removed his with a curious jerky notion, which was carefully noted for future mimicry. And then it became a notion to make Wally jerk off his hat by uncovering to him. Then inevitably we got into conversation with him and found he spoke rapidly in a high voice and was nervously gushing and polite. All this was imitated, but what began as a joke ended in mutual esteem and a firm friendship, based on archaeological research, between Wally and many of the men in College. He had us to tea in the Norman Palace tearooms and we had him back. Le Couteur became Le Touceur, then Wally Tooker and finally Wally. He was a great favourite with us, and when we realised the scope and quality of his work, and the great modesty and sincerity of his nature, we all admired him.
Despite his poor health, Le Couteur’s energy was impressive. The survey was finished in just over a year, and with the help of Chitty, to whom the volume was dedicated, Ancient Glass in Winchester was published in that city in 1920. It was Le Couteur’s first book; it had 152 pages (including the index) and included many photographs by his friend, Sydney Pitcher. The book itself consisted of several parts – an introduction to the craft of stained glass, followed by discussion of the glass in the cathedral (dating to the late fourteenth, second quarter of the fifteenth, and first quarter of the sixteenth centuries); the glass in the houses and offices of the Cathedral Close (mainly French/Netherlandish imports); the glazing of Winchester College, including the original scheme in the chapel of c.1393 (largely replaced in the period 1821–28 by the Shrewsbury firm Betton & Evans) and the fragments of mid-fifteenth-century glass by John Prudde in Thurbern’s Chantry; the glass in the Hospital of St Cross (including the church and almshouses) and the city churches (small amounts in St Peter, Cheeshill, and St John-in-the-Soke, Figs 3, 4 and 5); the fate of the original Winchester College Chapel glass after its removal by Betton & Evans in the nineteenth century; and a brief summary about the preservation of stained glass.
Among the memorable features of the book are Le Couteur’s meticulous descriptions of the windows, in terms of their colour and iconography. He had rare powers of observation, and an ability to record what he saw accurately and succinctly. Another quality was his ability to see glass in its art-historical context. This is especially true of his description of Bishop Richard Fox’s glazing scheme of c.1515–25 in the north-east window of the cathedral, where he observed that Fox must have instructed the glass-painters to replicate the canopy designs of an older scheme in order to achieve a harmonious effect.
Le Couteur’s knowledge of the cathedral glass led Dean Hutton to ask him to help with the releading and rearrangement of the great west window. One result of this work was an article Le Couteur contributed to the Hampshire Observer in 1921 describing some of the discoveries that had been made, the chief of which was that much of the window had been glazed the wrong way round during an earlier restoration campaign. This article was subsequently republished in the second (revised) edition of his Winchester book, which appeared in 1929.
As mentioned earlier, one of the chapters in Ancient Glass in Winchester dealt with the glazing of Winchester College, and in particular the college chapel. Installed in 1393 by Thomas of Oxford, it is one of the best-documented schemes of the period. Tragically, most of this glass was lost in the early nineteenth century, when it was replaced with facsimile copies made by Betton & Evans. By 1921, the state of the chapel glass was giving concern, and Le Couteur was asked to oversee its repair. One of the College buildings, College Mill, was converted into a workshop, and one by one the windows of chapel were brought down, laid on trestles, repaired, and completely releaded [Fig. 6]. In the course of the work, Le Couteur discovered that a few sections of the original glass had escaped the attention of Betton & Evans and were still in the windows.
Le Couteur’s involvement with the cathedral also saw him give ‘great assistance to the Bishop of Winchester’s advisory council’, of which the dean was chairman. Among other artefacts, the council dealt with stained glass for the whole diocese. Rushforth’s brief biography suggests that Le Couteur gave ‘help in secretarial work’ to the dean, although no mention of any formal position features in the dean’s tribute to his friend, so there may be some confusion with work Le Couteur undertook for the Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC). Le Couteur visited various churches in the Hampshire diocese, perhaps as part of his involvement with the DAC. Reports on the condition of the stained glass at Stoke Charity and Michelmersh can be found among the papers deposited in the Hampshire Record Office. An article about the surviving canopies at Timsbury appeared in 1925 in the Journal of Stained Glass; based on his Winchester experience, Le Couteur suggested that were produced by the workshop of Thomas of Oxford, a view he also extended to a collection of ‘heads’ at Michelmersh.
Le Couteur’s interests were not restricted to stained glass. In 1924, together with D(ouglas) H. M. Carter, a former Winchester College pupil, he published a paper suggesting that two round-headed Purbeck marble stones recovered from the fill of a Romanesque doorway blocked up at the Reformation and reopened in 1885 came from the famous shrine of St Swithun destroyed in 1538. The results were communicated to the Society of Antiquaries and published in their journal in October 1924. In fact, as John Crook FSA has recently shown, the stones are more likely to have come from a mid-thirteenth-century tomb-shrine of the port-hole type that preceded the construction of the more famous shrine built in 1476.
Arguably Le Couteur’s best-known achievement is his English Mediæval Painted Glass, published in 1926 by the Society for the Promotion of Christian Knowledge (SPCK). It has 184 pages, including index, and 52 illustrations, and can often be found in second-hand bookshops and on line. Sadly Le Couteur died on the 13 August 1925, at the age of 42, without seeing his book in print. His death certificate, certified by F. J. Child M.D., says he died of a mediastinal tumour, but the ‘Wally’ account says that it resulted from neuritis and spinal dislocation following a drive in a Ford car, possibly an allusion to a car accident.
Le Couteur was interred in St James’ Hill cemetery in Winchester. Wreaths were sent by Sydney Pitcher, Herbert Chitty, Gordon McNeil Rushforth, and the boys of the Winchester College Archaeological Society. A plaque was subsequently erected at the eastern end of the south nave aisle of the cathedral in his ‘dear memory’ [Fig. 7].
Although he never married and had no children, his legacy lives on through his books, and the valuable friendships he formed with other scholars.
I am extremely grateful to Roger Rosewell for his help with this article. Thanks are also extended to Suzanne Foster, the archivist of Winchester College, and Gill Rushton of Hampshire Record Office for their help and diligence.
1. ‘Mr. J. D. Le Couteur’, obituary in The Times (London, England), 17 August 1925. The obituary was reproduced in the Journal of the British Society of Master Glass Painters.
2. G. McN. Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery, Oxford, 1936.
3. Gloucester Archives, B227/31997GS.
4. This was subsequently printed in the Transactions of the Birmingham and Gloucester Archaeological Society, xlii (1921), 191–218.
5. See further the page on Le Couteur’s publications.
6. Ancient Glass in Winchester, p. 39.