Pevsner and Kempe (i)

By Adrian Barlow / February, 2, 2014 / 0 comments

Hucknall E window (detail)The mid-20th century decline of interest in the work of the Kempe Studio, and of its successor, C.E. Kempe and Co, can be blamed on several factors. Here are a few: the general reaction against all things Victorian in the arts and architecture; the fact that even before 1934, when the firm closed, Kempe’s distinctive style had come to seem old-fashioned, and to be dismissed as derivative and debased. Genuinely modern glass in Britain only really entered the public consciousness with the consecration of Coventry Cathedral in 1962, John Piper’s Baptistry window appearing in every sense like a new dawn.

At this time Victorian and Edwardian glass had few champions, and the fact that one of them was John Betjeman was no advantage: most churches – certainly most clergy and churchwardens – were indifferent to, or entirely unaware of, the Kempe windows under their care.

I want to make a controversial claim, however: that one of the people who did most to create a revival of interest in Kempe glass was Nikolaus Pevsner. His Buildings of England series, launched in 1951, usually made a point of noting when windows were by Kempe, even if the entry was limited to the four words, ‘Stained glass by Kempe’. Of course, Pevsner himself was responsible for some serious inaccuracies, notoriously inventing the firm ‘Kempe and Tower’; and when he did comment on particular windows he often sounded less than enthusiastic. ‘An unusually good window’ was a rare and ambiguous  compliment. Nevertheless, until the publication of Margaret Stavridi’s pioneering book, Master of Glass (1988), indeed before the appearance of the Kempe Society’s Corpus of Kempe Stained Glass (2000), the most reliable way of locating Kempe windows was by scouring the pages of Pevsner.

Pevsner did not actively dislike Kempe glass, nor did he dismiss all things Victorian: after all, with books such as Victorian and After he championed the serious revaluation of Victorian architecture and design. It was he who, half a century ago, was calling it ‘a disgrace’ that there was no book-length biography or scholarly assessment of the architect George Frederick Bodley, Kempe’s friend and early mentor. (There is still no such book, though – mirabile dictu – Michael Hall’s eagerly-awaited biography of Bodley is due to appear later this year: I shall review it when it does.)

Pevsner allowed that some Kempe glass was on its own terms good, particularly what he loosely described as ‘early Kempe’, but he was usually clear about his reasons for preferring Morris’s windows. Here, for instance, and as early as 1951, are his comments on the windows of St Mary Magdalene, Hucknall:

 Visually the predominant feature of the church is … the twenty-five stained glass windows by Kempe, of his best, early, period, beginning with the E[ast] window of 1883, and then mostly of 1888-90, with his dark blues and brownish-reds, his plenty of  vegetation, and his unmistakable faces. If you want to study late Victorian stained glass at its most competent (not the genius, the innovations, the aesthetic purity of Morris, but the accepted High Church medium), Hucknall is one of the best places to go. (Nottinghamshire, 1951, p.86)

 This is the first time Pevsner directly contrasts Kempe with Morris, but it’s significant that, while he can’t suppress his excitement about Morris’s glass (‘genius … innovations … aesthetic purity’), he acknowledges the importance of Kempe stained glass within what he describes as ‘the accepted High Church medium’. This is surprisingly close to the celebrated judgment of Owen Chadwick, cherished by all Kempe enthusiasts, that ‘the art attained its Victorian zenith not with the innovations of William Morris or Edward Burne-Jones but in the Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe.’

In his Introduction to the Buildings of England Shropshire (1958), Pevsner admits that by the 1880s Kempe had become ‘a serious competitor’ to Morris:

 His early work has perhaps more body than the contemporary work of Clayton & Bell or Hardman’s, but it lacks the clarity, the sensitive simplification of design, and the purity of colour which made William Morris a pioneer of the C20. (p.44)

What exactly did Pevsner mean by these qualities he admired in Morris’s work and found lacking in Kempe’s? I think he considered Kempe windows too cluttered, too heavily painted, over-complex in the range of colours used and (perhaps particularly) over-reliant on silver staining; by contrast, Morris – who used silver-staining only sparingly and almost never for the faces and limbs of his figures – allowed (Pevsner thought) more light to shine undistorted through unpainted glass; hence ‘purity of colour’.

These are my words, my own understanding of what Pevsner valued in Morris’s stained glass, but Pevsner himself had this to say in Pioneers of Modern Design (1960):

 Although it must certainly be admitted that there is more detail-realism than we would now approve of for ornamental purposes, it must not be forgotten that when Morris began, stained glass windows were just illustrations with plenty of figures, buildings, and spatial recession, and with a large quantity of colours and shades. His is the merit of having gone back to simple figures, simple attitudes, simple colours, ornamental backgrounds. (p.53)

 Here, I think, is the explanation of ‘clarity’ and ‘sensitive simplification of design’. Pevsner Fairford interior 2admires Morris’s reaction against what he sees as the merely illustrative qualities of mid-19th century glass. Even more revealing is his description of what such glass contains: ‘detail-realism, plenty of figures, buildings and spatial recession’. This surely is the key to Pevsner’s lack of real sympathy with Kempe: the glass he disparages is the glass of the 15th century – precisely the era of stained glass design Kempe had admired. You have only to visit Fairford parish church (Gloucestershire)– where Kempe made detailed and carefully-annotated full-size drawings right at the start of his Studio’s existence – to see early 16th century windows where full-length figures, elaborate architectural settings, detailed interiors and perspective accentuated by chequerboard floors exactly match Pevsner’s description.


I shall explore the significance of this in my next post.


Adrian Barlow


[illustrations: (i) Detail from the E window of St. Mary Magdalene, Hucknall (Notts.); (ii) Fairford (Glos.): Jesus appearing to his mother after the Resurrection.  Photographs © the author and the Kempe Trust