1868: Kempe, Leach and Tombleson in the Cotswolds (i)

By Adrian Barlow / September, 14, 2014 / 0 comments

Fairford St MichaelThe Victoria and Albert Museum houses some of the most precious of all the Kempe archives: folders of drawings and cartoons, many of which can be dated to 1868 and the creation of the Kempe Studio. In this year Kempe had established himself in permanent premises (47 Beaumont Street, W1), but was in effect still a freelance ecclesiastical decorator and designer, though beginning to gather a small team of young assistants around him. Many of these drawings are detailed coloured tracings of 15th and 16th century glass, in particular of glass at three churches in and near the Cotswolds: Cirencester and Fairford in Gloucestershire, and Malvern Abbey in Worcestershire. Often these actual-size drawings, many of them dated 1868, are signed or initialled by Kempe to show that he had approved them, but the work itself was done by two men who play a central part in the development of Kempe’s career and reputation: the Cambridge-based Frederick Leach and his apprentice Alfred Tombleson.

On 12th September 1868, The Builder magazine reported that the British Archaeological Association (BAA) had set up a Fairford Windows Committee ‘for ensuring the illustration and preservation of these windows’. This was to be a high-powered body, chaired by Earl Bathurst, President of the BAA, and numbering among its members the Queen’s Librarian at Windsor, together with ‘other persons distinguished in art … including the Presidents of the Royal Academy, Society of Antiquaries, Institute of Architects, and the Archaeological Institute’. The report concluded that ‘The first work of the committee will be to obtain careful tracings of the whole of the windows with a view to the exchange of portions wrongly placed.’

Did Kempe get the job, even though he was just 31 and still relatively unknown? Certainly, in October he was at Cirencester and had already started Leach and Tombleson on drawing the windows both there and at Fairford. Writing to Leach from the King’s Head, Cirencester, on 13th October, he announced,

 I have examined the glass here & find that it has been a good deal cleaned – & coloured shading removed – but the drawing of the figures in West window is very good. I have told the masons – that you will require two ladders – if you do not find the men have brought them in you must apply to Mr Bridges’ builder.

Cirencester King's headHe then draws a diagrammatic sketch to show which saints and bishops appear in this west window. He adds a further note, listing the order in which he would like these figures to be drawn, ‘working them perhaps in this order, if there is not time for all.’ An additional note, evidently added as a hurried afterthought from the way it is written, tells Leach that ‘There is a figure head in centre of window the most perfect head of all which would be worth having especially as it is said to be a portrait. It is crowned & looks northward [sic].’

It sounds from this letter as though Kempe is anxious here not to record all the glass but to get detailed drawings of the best work. He is doing this both for his own sake and to train others – that, is Tombleson and Leach – in understanding how later medieval designers and painters achieved such wonderful results. From his excitement about the crowned head, it seems that realism in drawing faces was already important to him, but what mattered most was looking and recording minutely the small details to see how the overall composition of the windows was achieved. The rest of this important letter to Fred Leach is worth quoting in full:

There are plenty of small figures and details of all sorts worth studying but I do not think the canopies need be drawn –

 The figures will not take so long as any of the work at Fairford & facsimiles of the heads can be easily taken with a fine sable [i.e. an artist’s sable paintbrush]. I am not sure if the head of S Jerome is old – if on close examination it shd. prove new leave it out.

 I am yours truly,

CE Kempe

 The yellow stain shd. be shown in these & in the Fairford figures yet to do – as it cannot be supplied afterwards –

 It has to be said that this does not sound quite like fulfilling to terms of reference set by the Fairford Windows Committee. Nevertheless, on October 23rd Leach is able to write in his Cash Book that he has received from Kempe

 By cash for own travelling and other expenses between Cambridge, Fairford, Cirencester and Malvern £4-0s-0d.

Ditto Tombleson 27/-, wages 25/-, Lodgings 2/-.

 And this was not the start of their work at Fairford: as early as 16th July, Leach had received a cheque from Kempe to pay Tombleson’s train fare to Fairford (and presumably other expenses too?) of £4.

This information shows how revealing the details of a cash book may be, and it is very good news that Fred Leach’s, meticulously compiled in his own hand, is now in the possession of the Museum of Cambridge (formerly Cambridge Folk Museum; directly opposite to St. Giles’ Church, which incidentally contains fine windows by Kempe and decoration by Leach). With Tombleson thus clearly working for Kempe and Leach at Fairford as early as July, any work and drawings completed there must have pre-dated a commission from the Fairford Windows Committee. And Leach is certainly working at Fairford by October, because on the same day he claims travel expenses for himself and Tombleson, he records paying Mrs Beals, the parish clerk of Fairford, a fee of 3 shillings- and adds that the hire of ladders cost him a florin (two shillings – that is, 10p).

So is it just coincidence that Kempe happened to be recording the windows in Cirencester’s parish church when the town’s most illustrious resident, William Lennox, 5th Earl Bathurst, was seeking someone to carry out similar work at Fairford? I’m still trying to find the answer.

Adrian Barlow

In two future posts I shall discuss, first, the significance of the Fairford windows for the development of Kempe’s own style and, secondly, the way in which the drawings done at Fairford and Malvern were to influence the conservation work of the Kempe Studios and CE Kempe and Co for the next fifty years and beyond.

[illustrations: (i) detail of an unfinished drawing of St Michael: West Window, Fairford, (now in the V&A; (ii) crowned head, formerly in the West Window of Cirencester Parish Church (Photo copyright Adrian Barlow.