The stained glass of Charles Eamer Kempe

Adrian Barlow

‘Stained glass by Kempe’ –these words in a church guide book, or in Pevsner’s Buildings of England, are often the only nod of recognition towards one of the most important figures in Anglican church art of the past 150 years.

Ignored or disparaged for a long period after his death in 1907, Kempe’s reputation has revived dramatically in the past twenty years. Today, not only Kempe himself, but the artists and craftsmen who made his Studios the most sought-after in the later nineteenth century, are being acknowledged and revalued.

Charles Eamer Kempe was born in 1837, in Ovingdean on the edge of Brighton, and Sussex remained central to his life. It was here that he met the architect George Frederick Bodley, with whom he began his career and with whom he collaborated on some of the churches that best exemplify the Tractarian spirit in Victorian architecture. Among these were All Saints, Cambridge and St John’s Tue Brook on Merseyside, Clumber Chapel in Nottinghamshire and the church of the Cowley Fathers in Oxford.

In Sussex itself, he not only undertook one of his earliest and most important commissions, the decoration of Cuckfield Church, but bought and magnificently restored an Elizabethan manor house, Old Place at Lindfield, which was to become his life-time home and his centre for entertaining friends, clients and fellow artists. After his death an impressive memorial was dedicated to him in Chichester Cathedral.

A second memorial to Kempe was erected in Southwark Cathedral, and windows from his studios can be found in cathedrals across Britain: at Hereford, Southwell, and Lichfield, as well as Chester, Edinburgh, Gloucester and Winchester. In churches and cathedrals around the world, too, windows by Kempe stand out, identified by their rich colours offset by horn-white glass, and by their composition and the quality of the draughtsmanship - especially of the faces.

Kempe’s figures, whether angels, saints, biblical or historical characters, are always finely clothed. Their ga
rments or robes are often embellished with jewel-like pieces of deeply coloured glass or decorated with pearls, each one carefully highlighted and etched before and after the glass had been fired.

Two other distinctive features of Kempe windows: his angels have peacock feather wings, and many of his windows are signed either with a single wheatsheaf or with a red shield emblazoned with three garbs (the heraldic term for wheatsheaves). Occasionally a yellow shield with the initials AET acknowledges an important work by Kempe’s master glass painter, Alfred Edward Tombleson. In churches where Kempe and Bodley worked closely together the arms of Bodley and Kempe can be found side by side, high up in the tracery of one of the windows.

In windows installed after Kempe’s death in 1907, the single wheatsheaf (usually found near the bottom left corner) has a small black tower superimposed upon it. This identifies a window as being made by C.E. Kempe and Co. Ltd, the firm established to continue the work of the Studios over which Kempe had presided in his lifetime. The Chairman of the firm was a member of Kempe’s family, his distant cousin Walter Tower. Kempe himself never married.

Kempe’s original plan had been to seek ordination, but an acute stammer made this ambition impossible. While still a pupil at Rugby, he had begun to show an interest in church decoration and stained glass. Next, at Oxford in the late 1850s, in search of an alternative vocation and seeing the work of Morris and Burne-Jones beginning to appear, he decided that if (as he put it) he could not serve God in the sanctuary, he would make the decoration of the sanctuary his life’s work. That he was able to achieve such success and fulfilment can be seen in the motto he added to the family arms: Qui seminant in lacrymis in exultatione metent (They that sow in tears shall reap in joy).

In beginning his career under Bodley, Kempe was fortunate to work with an architect whose Tractarian and aesthetic principles accorded closely with his own. Bodley encouraged him to make the decisive move towards stained glass, and in 1865 Kempe went to learn the elements of stained glass design and manufacture with the leading mid-Victorian firm of Clayton and Bell. His first known design is the Bishop Hooper memorial window in Gloucester Cathedral.

From the first, Kempe’s designs owed most to the tradition of English glass of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. He developed his style by making painstaking full-size drawings of windows in churches such as Fairford and Malvern Priory. Some of these drawings, now in the V and A, contain detailed annotations where Kempe had examined the precise colours and techniques of drawing, stippling and etching used by the medieval glaziers.

Throughout his career he encouraged young artists joining his studios to learn as he had done, sometimes paying for them to travel to France and northern Europe to analyse the stained glass in cathedrals such as Rouen and to copy fabric design and costume details from windows and painters in Germany and Belgium. As the Kempe style evolved, the influence of artists such as Albrecht Durer can be increasingly noted.

Kempe’s output was never limited to stained glass and until the closure of C E Kempe and Co in 1934, the firm’s designers continued designing reredoses, screens, war memorials and other furnishings. These commissions were often executed by the Sussex firm of Norman and Burt, the distinctive figures and relief scenes being carved by Zwink of Oberammergau. Examples of Kempe’s non-ecclesiastical work can be seen in Wightwick Manor, Staffordshire (National Trust) and at Temple Newsam House, Leeds.

The revival of interest in Kempe’s work is largely owing to the Kempe Society which for over twenty years has produced a regular newsletter, The Wheatsheaf,  for its world-wide membership. It has also held study weekends and advised clergy and diocesan bodies about the history and importance of Kempe windows in local churches. Two of its publications have had a particular impact: a biographical study of Kempe and the Kempe Studios, Master of Glass (1987) by Margaret Stavridi, and the Corpus of Kempe Stained Glass (2000), edited by Philip Collins, which catalogues every known Kempe window in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Armed with the Corpus, one does not have to travel far in Britain to find a Kempe window and to judge for oneself the truth of Owen Chadwick’s claim, in The Victorian Church, that Kempe was ‘first among several fine artists’ in stained glass and his assessment that ‘The art attained its Victorian zenith, not with the aesthetic innovations of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, but in the Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe.

[Illustration: St Elizabeth with the infant John the Baptist - a detail from a window of 1898 in the church at Newland, Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire (photograph copyright the author)