Conserving Kempe (i): St. John’s Waterbeach

By Adrian Barlow / March, 31, 2014 / 0 comments

Waterbeach 4It is rare for Kempe windows to be in need of major conservation. Most, as it happens, have survived very well, apart from those that have been vandalized or fallen victim to wartime bombs or peacetime terrorism. Relatively few are the windows whose lead-work has become so perished or whose ferramenta (the iron saddlebars to which the panels of glass are attached) so rusted or loose in the surrounding stonework that urgent – and costly – repairs are needed. Indeed it’s a tribute to the quality of the lead Kempe used that so much of it is still sound well over 100 years after its installation. It’s also a tribute to the craftsmen Kempe employed for the unglamorous but vital job of fixing the glass securely – often at scary heights –into church and cathedral windows that they have survived so well. We know that loyal Alfred Tombleson, longest-serving of all Kempe’s inner circle, was at different times glass installer and manager of the Studio glass works as well as master glass painter. Kempe trusted him above anyone else to do a good installation job, taking him to Germany, for instance, in 1877 to insert the memorial windows into the mausoleum of the Grand Ducal family of Darmstadt & Hesse. His huge contribution to the Kempe story is still too easy to underestimate.

But a few windows from the Studio’s early years have suffered from loss of definition (especially of faces and other physical details) or discoloration. It’s not always easy to identify the reasons for this. Dirt and pollution may play a part, of course; so may poor firing of the glass by inexpert workmen. The ‘great borax disaster’ which afflicted so much glass in the 1860s and 1870s did not leave Kempe’s work unscathed either. Occasionally an early Kempe window is in such a poor state that a church may feel some action must be taken – even, at worst, that it should be removed. It is one of the prime objects of the Kempe Trust to provide financial aid to assist in the conservation of Kempe glass, but the trustees would never want to see a window permanently taken out.

This dilemma has been faced by the churchwardens of St. John’s Waterbeach, (Cambridgeshire). Here the west window, a single lancet under the Tower, suffers in places from severe discoloration and loss of detail. It is a sad sight in its present condition, and it is heartening that the church has recognized the need to do whatever it can to preserve this important window.

Why important? I’ll quote from a report I have written on the window in response to a request from the firm of conservators for information that might help them to establish exactly what has been lost. In particular, the firm (Auravisions) wanted help in deciphering what remained of the two inscriptions.

This is an important early Kempe window, created only three years after the establishment of the Kempe Studio. Earlier windows (for example at Ovingdean, Sussex, Frankby and West Kirby, Cheshire) are all smaller in height and overall size than this one. However, the Kempe Studio had by this time also completed at least one large-scale commission overseas, for Bombay Cathedral.

The subject of the window is The Risen Christ, an unusual subject to be chosen for a window at the W end of a church, near to the font where themes related to the childhood of Christ are more common (e.g. The Presentation in the Temple, in the tower W window at Hucknall, Notts). At the top of the window, against a dark blue background within a six-pointed and floriated cartouche, are the arms of the Diocese of Ely (Gules, three crowns or; NB, however, that except in very strong late afternoon light the red of the shield is no longer apparent).

Below this is the full-length Christ. Behind his head a golden nimbus is quartered by a black cross with equal arms. His face is carefully delineated using silver staining techniques: shoulder-length golden hair, a full beard divided under the chin, and heavily-lidded eyes. His naked body is partially covered by a cloak he has gathered into his left hand. It is held under his throat by a clasp with a red precious stone. The outer side of the cloak is white, patterned with sprays of golden leaves; it is edged with a border of golden daisies within circles. The inner lining of the cloak is a rich green. Christ’s right hand is raised in blessing, and the mark of the nail is visible in his exposed palm. His left hand appears to be simultaneously holding the gathered ends of the cloak and grasping the long shaft of the cross that rises above his head. From the top of the cross a billowing red-cross banner of Victory has two fringed streamers that loop around the inscription above Christ’s head.  His feet stand on what would surely have been originally a black and white chequer-board floor.

In a self-contained panel, inserted towards the bottom of the window, is a scene depicting the arrival of the Women at the Tomb. Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalene and Salome (Mark, 16:1) all carry vessels containing embalming ointments. Each has a differentiated red halo: the elder woman on the left – presumably Mary mother of James, though her flowing golden hair might equally suggest Mary Magdalene – has an elaborate head-dress, the others are veiled and wimpled. Greeting them, seated on the empty tomb, is an angel wearing an alb, with a golden stole crossed over his chest. In his left hand he carries a palm. The foreground appears to be grass, dotted with white flowers; the green background is patterned with a lattice of squares, each filled with a quatrefoil.

From top to bottom the window is glazed with diamond-shaped quarries, each bearing the same hand-painted design. The window is edged by a striking blue and black strap-work border, and a series of golden crowns and silver fern leaves threaded onto a continuous rod or stem running around the window’s perimeter.

So much for the design of the window. The inscriptions come next: there are two, each in Gothic script, but with different styles of Gothic lettering presumably painted by different artists. The upper inscription is in black lettering on a white scroll above the head of Christ. The lower, white lettering on a black background (unusual in Kempe windows, but to be seen for instance in the Gloucester Cathedral ambulatory windows ), is seriously faded and in parts indecipherable. The upper inscription, however, is easily understood. It reads

Waterbeach inscription Ego sum resurrectiõ & vita [I am the resurrection and the life]. The letter m and the space between m and r are obscured by the fringe of one of the banner’s streamers. There is one puzzle, however: the bar above the letter o is unexpected. Usually this would indicate a contraction to enable the inscription as a whole to fit into the available space, but the Latin ‘resurrectio’ is the full form of nominative case for this noun. This is the more puzzling because Kempe was usually punctilious about his inscriptions, frequently consulting his old Rugby School housemaster on points of Latin syntax or grammar.

All that can confidently be deciphered of the lower inscription are two words: Ihesus ….. gloria [Jesus … glory]. Conjecturally, the next word is ‘Christus’: a trace of the letter s is apparent, and the first letter could be an upper-case C. If so, there should be a further word. This might be ‘Rex’, though then the final word ought to be ‘gloriae’ [King of glory]. It could also be ‘in’ as in Ihesus Christus in gloria.  A further possibility is that the text might read Ihesus Cui Sit Honor & Gloria [Jesus to whom be honour and glory]; again, though, some contraction might be needed.”

It is frustrating not to be able to identify the missing words. I have so far found no comparable text – either in Kempe or in any other window. If any readers can suggest what the full text should be, the Kempe Trust and the conservators of the Waterbeach window would be very pleased to hear from them.

Adrian Barlow

[illustrations: (i) the W window in St John’s, Waterbeach © the author; (ii) detail of the missing inscription © Peter Robb.