Kempe and Pevsner (ii)

By Adrian Barlow / February, 20, 2014 / 0 comments

Kempe Hereford S transept apostlesI have to keep reminding myself that not every comment in Pevsner’s Buildings of England series comes from the pen of Nikolaus Pevsner himself, any more than every window designed and made in the Kempe Studio had necessarily been overseen by Kempe in person. Pevsner’s assistants – who became his friends, colleagues and successors – shared his vision but had their own opinions. And some of them admired Kempe a lot.

I own many Pevsners (though there are gaps in my collection) and I greatly admire Pevsner the man for what he achieved with Buildings of England. All the same, as I suggested in my previous post – Kempe and Pevsner (i) – there are blind spots and inconsistencies. What Pevsner found hard to accept was, first, that Kempe’s work was grounded in the late mediaeval glass of the 15th and 16th centuries rather than the earlier glass of the 12th and 13th centuries – the glass of Chartres, Canterbury or York. Second, he convinced himself that the style of Kempe glass got stuck early on and never developed.

In the introduction to Yorkshire: North Riding (1966) Pevsner writes:

Kempe started his stained glass shortly after Morris. The North Riding has very much of it, too much for one’s enjoyment. The earliest … are a little more Pre-Raphaelite than he was to be later, but the characteristic colours and curly hair are already there, and these Kempe never gave up; nor did his partner and later successor, Tower.

Here is Pevsner parading his prejudices and getting some of his facts wrong – Tower was never Kempe’s partner – but at least he is correctly identifying early Kempe. My own rule of thumb is that ‘Kempe’ ceases to be ‘early’ by 1883 – the last year in which Wyndham Hope Hughes worked for Kempe (the Four Rivers window at Monmouth); the following ten years are ‘middle Kempe’; from 1893, when John Lisle becomes Chief Draughtsman, up to Kempe’s death in 1907 is ‘high Kempe’. Everything thereafter is Kempe and Co.

I’m sure that when Pevsner began Buildings of England, he knew almost nothing about Kempe. He could record the existence of so many Kempe windows by drawing on on the lists of Victorian glass compiled by the former Director of the British Museum, Sir Thomas Kendrick. Pevsner couldn’t tell the difference between early and later Kempe, as he proved in his entry for the church of St. Swithin’s, Patney (Wiltshire) where he dated an Annunciation window as 1873 –which was merely the date of death of the person commemorated. This window, actually installed in 1893, has nothing in common with Kempe glass of the 1870s (e.g. Annunciations at Much Marcle, Herefs., or Southwell Minster, Notts.), and belongs clearly to the period I’ve called ‘High Kempe’.

Still, it’s what he sees as Kempe’s failure to move forward that gets Pevsner. Writing about the windows in St. Mary the Virgin, Cottingham, on the outskirts of Hull, he notes:

 N and S aisles, 1895, by Kempe and N aisle W, 1930, Kempe & Co. exactly like the Kempe of forty years before, an almost uncanny force of inertia.

 Yet in the same volume (Yorkshire: York and the East Riding, Pevsner and David Neave eds., 2nd. ed. 1995), the entry for St. Giles, Hull, records: ‘E window by Kempe, 1905, Good’ – praise indeed. And there is yet more: for St. James, Sutton-on-Hull, Pevsner (though I suspect this is Neave writing) we read:

Nine mediocre windows of 1870s-80s, including E window, 1874, by Ward and Hughes. The N.E. window, 1906, by C.E. Kempe is far superior.

 In a later post, I shall challenge this idea that there is no stylistic development in Kempe , or even in Kempe and Co. But for now, let me say that other volumes of Buildings of England have unexpected and valuable asides, useful for Kempe research. Here’s an example from Wiltshire (2nd. ed. 1975, Kempe and Cherry). Writing about the glass in St Bartholomew’s, Corsham, Pevsner, or Cherry, notes that the ‘N Chapel E window, 1878, [is] copied from the Flemish C16 glass in the Lady Chapel of Lichfield Cathedral.’ If true, this is important: Kempe himself would restore and reinstate some of the Lichfield Lady Chapel glass some twenty years later. Here is the first suggestion I have encountered that he was already familiar with – and actually copying – this glass in windows of his own as early as 1878.

But of all the comments on Kempe by Pevsner that have puzzled me for over thirty years, the one that seems the most blinkered, is his dismissal of the great S window in the S transept of Hereford Cathedral, the largest window ever produced by the Kempe Studio. I call this piece – especially when seen on a fine late afternoon with the sun slanting through it – a wonder, now.  It depicts the Tree of the Church, and you have to read it from the bottom up, starting with the Apostles. In terms of scale, composition, clarity and colour (it carries the monogram of Alfred Edward Tombleson, Kempe’s master glass painter and the man, too, who would have supervised this enormous window’s installation) it is a masterwork. And when you remember that, in the same year, the Kempe Studio also completed and installed the great S transept window in Lichfield Cathedral, you realize that 1895 was Kempe’s annus mirabilis.

Hereford Kempe shieldEven so, Pevsner isn’t impressed. He prefers the window in Hereford’s N transept: ‘The N window is a Victorian piece to be proud of. It is by Hardman, of 1864. Two very large medallions, going through three lights each, and twenty smaller medallions.’ Indeed, that too is a fine window, in style echoing European cathedral glass of the early 13th century. Hence Pevsner’s preference.  So when he turns to confront Kempe’s S transept window, all he can do is to mutter, ‘It’s curious how parochial, i.e. how un-cathedral, his glass is.’ Parochial? Hardly. The scale, ambition and achievement of this window is immense – but Pevsner just doesn’t see it.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: figs. I and II are details from the S Transept window in Hereford Cathedral.

The Annunciation window from St Swithins Church, Patney, to which I refer above, has been in the news recently. Click here.