Arts & Crafts Stained Glass (Yale University Press, 2015), by Peter Cormack, hardback, £50
When Charles Sewter published The Stained Glass of William Morris and his Circle in 1974, not only did he set an academic standard for historical and critical writings on post-medieval stained glass, he also set the standard for public appreciation of stained glass as an art form. Morris & Co. have long been associated with the Arts and Crafts movement, and the firm’s stained-glass windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones are amongst the most recognizable and celebrated across the world. Yet, as Peter Cormack demonstrates in Arts & Crafts Stained Glass, there was an entire generation of pioneering artists working in stained glass during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, who, inspired by the glass of Morris & Co., sought to fulfil more honestly and fully an Arts and Crafts ethos. These artists reacted against the large-scale commercial studio practice that emerged to meet growing demand for stained glass during, and immediately after, the Gothic Revival.
Arts & Crafts Stained Glass focuses on what Cormack describes as the ‘regeneration’ of stained glass by a number of significant artists working in Britain, Ireland and the USA from the 1880s until 1940s. These individuals were committed to putting artistry and craftsmanship on an equal footing, and thus advocated the artist’s involvement in and understanding of all aspects of the production of a stained-glass window, from its artistic conception to completion. These artists’ unique engagement with the craft aspect of the medium resulted in a deep appreciation and interest in the material of glass and its effects. This is the defining feature of many Arts and Crafts windows. Developments in modern glass materials aided new approaches to design, and Prior’s Early English, or ‘slab’ glass, was a particularly important innovation. First made by Britten & Gilsen in 1889, the slabs were created by blowing glass into a rectangular bottle. Slab glass was created in a variety of colour tones, each of varying thickness. Due to the density and weight of the slab glass, artists required thicker lead cames to hold it, so many Arts and Crafts windows are characterized by a denser pattern of lead holding the jewel-like pieces of glass in place.
Christopher Whall (1849–1924) is a central figure in the book, and the author describes his life and career in detail, highlighting his interconnected roles as influential artist, teacher, and theoretician. The son of a clergyman, Whall first trained at the National Art School (later Royal College of Art) at South Kensington and after travelling on the Continent returned to London, where he designed his first stained-glass windows in 1879, for St Etheldreda’s Church, Holborn. These windows, which were destroyed during the Blitz, were made to Whall’s cartoons by W. G. Saunders & Co. and were a great disappointment to the artist, who felt that his designs had not been well interpreted. Having experienced other frustrations whilst working as a freelance designer for large stained-glass firms like Hardman & Co., Powell & Sons (whom he worked with for a decade), and J. W. Guthrie, he began learning how to cut, paint, fire and lead up his own windows from a workshop set up in a former cow shed at his home in 1887. Incidentally, this was the year that the Arts and Crafts Exhibition Society was founded. At the Society’s annual exhibitions the art of stained glass was represented alongside a variety of other arts and crafts as an equal counterpart, and Whall was a regular exhibitor of stained-glass designs and cartoons from 1888.
When the Central School of Arts and Crafts opened in 1896, Whall taught classes in stained-glass work, and held a teaching post at the Royal College of Art 1900–1909, where his classes in stained glass were open to students of architecture, sculpture, painting and design. Some of the most talented stained-glass designers of this period, including Paul Woodroffe and James Clarke, gained direct experience of the craft by being taught by or apprenticed to ‘Daddy Whall’. He influenced a number of major stained-glass artists working in this period, including Louis Davis, Douglas Strachan, and Wilhelmina Geddes, the subject of another recent monograph, by Dr Nicola Gordon Bowe. However, it was Whall’s 1905 publication Stained Glass Work: A Text-book for Students and Workers in Glass that became a manual to generations of artists beyond his immediate circle and across the world.
An entire chapter of Cormack’s work is devoted to the transatlantic connections between artists working in Britain and North America, and the roles that Boston architect Ralph Adams Cram and stained-glass artist Charles J. Connick played in the American adoption of the British Arts and Crafts movement. Both Cram and Connick were influenced by Whall’s approach to stained glass, and Connick travelled to England and France in 1910, during which time he visited Whall’s studio. The influence that this peculiarly British movement had in America is a curious thing, given that American glass-makers and stained-glass artists Tiffany and La Farge had achieved global recognition for their new opalescent glasses. Yet Cram and his followers objected to the pictorialism of these modern windows and sought to set up a new school of American stained glass more rooted in the medieval European traditions of the art, inspired by the British Arts and Crafts movement.
Arts & Crafts Stained Glass presents a major piece of research, and makes a vital contribution to the handful of academic studies on post-medieval stained glass. It is an erudite text that presents the author’s case for ‘restoring the art of stained glass to a rightful position within the canon of Arts and Crafts work’. Importantly it also presents for the first time detailed biographical information about these artists, their networks, studio practice and productions. One of the most significant outcomes of the Arts and Crafts movement was increased opportunities for women artists. Cormack draws attention to the large numbers who successfully forged careers in stained glass and benefited from artistic training being opened up to women, including the little-known but significant Mary J. Newill, working in Birmingham, and Mary Lowndes, who went on to found the Glass House in Fulham, London, with Alfred Drury in 1897. Outside London, Glasgow and Dublin, the author acknowledges the role of regional centres like Birmingham and Manchester in the production and development of stained glass, and this is an area that merits further research.
Whall’s constant presence throughout confirms his importance, but this is perhaps to the detriment of other artists such as Leonard Walker, who combined his artistic talents with a keen interest and understanding of the capabilities of glass materials, producing some exquisite windows. The author admires these Arts and Crafts artists for exploring ‘a more personal integration of artistry and craftsmanship’ than the popular commercial studios of the time. Of course there were many competent artists and craftsmen employed by some of these larger studios, but, from the author’s perspective, few who might be recognized as working in an Arts and Crafts tradition. As Cormack suggests, the demise of Arts and Crafts stained glass was partly due to the large demand for First World War memorial windows in more historicist styles, and also to the increased bureaucratic control of ecclesiastical patrons and architects, both of which hampered artistic freedom.
There are numerous high-quality colour illustrations throughout the book, well selected to include details as well as images of complete windows, which greatly enhance one’s reading. Arts & Crafts Stained Glass is undoubtedly a landmark publication in the field of stained glass studies which will hopefully encourage a greater appreciation of stained glass.