Kempe in the Cotswolds (ii)
One of Kempe’s Sussex friends was the writer A C Benson. Some friend! In his voluminous diary Benson recorded his impressions of Kempe’s windows wherever he saw them. Perhaps more precisely, he recorded his reactions to Kempe: at Gloucester Cathedral, for example, he complained:
Mr Kempe is everywhere. I really begin to hate his glass; the same simpering faces everywhere. It seems to me that he has entirely crystallised into a tradition …. (18 April 1904)
and later in the same year he found Kempe in York Minster:
There he was in many postures, wrapped up in carpets and staggering under the weight of jewelled chalices in window after window, faint, handsome and affected. (8 September 1904)
These two extracts are enough to give a clear sense of what Benson disliked: not only were Kempe’s windows ubiquitous, they were, he thought, repetitive. And not just repetitive: he saw in every saint’s and apostle’s face the face of Kempe himself (‘There he was in many postures’). Beyond that he clearly disliked the elaborate heavy garments and props – the robes and vestments, the cloaks and copes – that seemed to him to have ‘crystallised into a tradition’: ‘crystallised’ here not in the sense of clarified and refined, but of ossified – incapable of further development.
Benson’s private outbursts (his diary was not published in his lifetime) are exaggeration, of course: there are only nine Kempe figures in York Minster; and a quick glance at the faces of St Peter and St Laurence, for instance, will show that neither face looks remotely like Kempe’s own. But for all Benson’s caricature – ‘wrapped up in carpets and staggering under the weight of jewelled chalices’ – there is just enough to make one understand how the reaction against Kempe’s glass could have set in almost before Kempe himself had died. Well before 1907, the work of Christopher Whall, James Eadie Reid and others was moving towards a radically freer style, one rooted less emphatically in the glass of the late medieval and 16th centuries. Those who cherished the Kempe style – whether for its own sake or as a mark of ecclesiastical good taste and craftsmanship – were only too pleased that the Kempe Studio, and its successor, C.E. Kempe and Co., remained faithful to the vision of its founder. Those on the other hand who sought a rejuvenation and a redefinition of stained glass looked elsewhere.
What matters now, however, is to put Benson’s criticisms to the test. In 1907, he toured the Cotswolds and one day cycled from Cirencester to Fairford. It was his first visit, and the stained glass amazed him:
The windows are marvellous – most of them familiar to me from reproductions at home: the faces of the old saints and patriarchs so ugly and full of character as well as humanity – so different from Mr Kempe. (5 April 1907)
If the windows at Fairford provide us with a touchstone of what Benson admired, then one can say that he liked naturalism in depicting individuals – both as individuals and as members of society at large. He clearly admired the depiction of individual character in the faces that he saw in Fairford, and regretted the lack of this individuality in the faces he found in Kempe’s glass.
There are no windows by Kempe in Fairford, but its glass was supremely important to him when he was researching and recording it at the start of his career. But is Benson fair, is he even accurate, to describe Fairford’s old saints and patriarchs as ‘ugly and full of character’? Ugly and expressive faces abound in these windows, but they are usually the faces of soldiers, executioners and murderers – does any stained glass anywhere have more fun than Fairford with Cain bashing the living daylights out of Abel? By contrast, faces of the great and the good are often curiously expressionless – posed in the same way that the sitters for early photographs posed. On a Kempe-spotting visit to Twineham in Sussex, Benson had noted ‘A sly, ferret-faced angel, incredibly involved in raiment, as though the celestial temperature were arctic, making his announcement to a Virgin, who looks as if she were being photographed, very demure.’ This description is arresting, but could as easily be applied to some of the figures in Fairford windows (Mary Magdalene, for instance, mistaking Jesus for the gardener; or Adam and Eve, kneeling politely before an entirely expressionless Christ during His Descent into Hell) as to one of Kempe’s Annunciation windows.
Kempe learned a great deal from Fairford – about technique, colour, design and
detail. The drawings he commissioned in 1868 from Fred Leach and Alfred Tombleson, pencilled notes added in Kempe’s own hand to record the techniques
used by the original draughtsman and painters to create their effects; these laid the foundation for what would become in time the Kempe style. It’s particularly striking to see the way small details are included to establish a narrative. In a dramatic window depicting the Descent from the Cross, the executioner carefully lowers the flopping, lifeless body to the ground, while the gruesome pincers in his belt remind us that, before the body could be lowered, the nails had had to be pulled out from hands and feet. This is what Kempe learned and this is what Benson, in his rush to belittle the work of his friend, missed entirely. Had he looked more carefully, Benson might have noticed how Kempe borrows many details – of beards, for instance, and costume (hats especially) directly from the Fairford patriarchs.
Above all, one face at Fairford compelled Kempe’s attention, influencing his own characteristic depiction of faces
throughout his career. This is St Mark, in the Evangelists’ window (NW nave aisle). Mark, as an older man, looks downwards not outwards: his hooded contemplative eyes with widened eyelids become almost a trope in Kempe’s windows. The well-defined cheeks, nose and chin; the wide, sensitive, expressive mouth – all these we recognise in Kempe’s finest faces, and Kempe himself saw them first at Fairford. It’s a shame Benson didn’t.
[photographs: (i) St. Mark (detail, c. 1500, Fairford); (ii) Cain and Abel, c.1500, Fairford, (iii) Jesus meeting Adam and Eve in Hell, c.1515, Fairford; (iv) The descent from the Cross, (c.1500) Fairford; (v) St Anne (detail, 1898, Newland, Glos.; (vi) St. Augustine (detail, 1904), Bishop Burton, Yorkshire: E. Riding.
All photographs © Adrian Barlow