The Master Glaziers
In memoriam Peter Gibson, obit 13 November 2016
There is a watercolour sketch of A E Tombleson painted in 1924 by a young draughtsman, Rudolph Tanner, who had recently joined Kempe & Co. It was painted while they were working together on one of the most significant commissions ever awarded to Kempe & Co., the restoration of the Presbytery windows in Tewkesbury Abbey. They were fifty years apart in age, but Tanner’s respect for Tombleson is clear from the way the older man is shown, sitting comfortably, pipe in hand, gazing into the distance. His walrus moustache is impressively shaggy but his clothes – Homburg hat, neat collar and tie – suggest a man who likes things to look just the way he wants them to look. The sketch is entitled ‘The Master Glazier’.
Apprenticed originally to Frederick Leach of Cambridge, Tombleson had been with Kempe from the beginning: in 1868 he was in Gloucestershire, making careful life-size drawings of the 16th century glass at Fairford; the following year, he was decorating the walls of Staplefield Church in Sussex; ten years on, he was both Kempe’s leading glass painter and manager of his Glass Works in Camden Town while also in charge of installing windows in churches and cathedrals. Kempe took him to Germany in 1878 to insert the glass in the Royal Mausoleum in Darmstadt; a decade later he was allowing Tombleson’s monogram to be included in the design of some of his most important works.
After Kempe died in 1907, Tombleson became one of the Directors of Kempe & Co., and when the firm finally closed he was still there on the last morning, overseeing the resale of unused glass back to the suppliers and checking everything was done properly. Truly, his was a life in stained glass, and a remarkable career for someone who born in a farm labourer’s cottage. He died in 1943, aged 92.
It’s easy to underestimate Tombleson’s importance. Not only was he the single most loyal and long-serving member of the Kempe enterprise (66 years between 1868 and 1934); not only was he one of the very few members of the team who was skilled in every branch of stained glass window creation and craftsmanship – drawing, selection of glass, glass cutting and leading, painting and firing, glazing of windows in churches (installation, protection, conservation and restoration) – but he managed a large team at the Glass Works and was clearly an impressive organiser and leader of men. Without such skills, the Kempe Studio simply could not have produced so much glass of such high quality consistently on schedule.
The premises at 2 Millbrook were not purpose-built, and surviving photographs of the workrooms suggest they were dingy and cramped. Yet it was from here in 1895 that Tombleson sent out, and then installed, four of the largest and most important of all Kempe’s commissions, not to mention a large number of other windows produced during this annus mirabilis: the S transept windows at Hereford and Lichfield, together with the two large and spectacular windows in the Lichfield Lady Chapel, one of Kempe’s most cherished projects. These were windows of Flemish glass that Kempe had purchased from Christie’s, the London auctioneers, restored and reconfigured to fit into the unusually tall window openings. Recreating these windows (which had been purchased simply as fragments stored in boxes) was an extraordinary task. Kempe’s sketches for the rearrangement of the surviving, and the insertion of new, glass are in his own hand, but fittingly he included Tombleson’s monogram in both windows, for it was he who had supervised the leading-up of the glass and then the installation of the completed windows in the Cathedral.
With this work, with other mid-1890s commissions to conserve the Lady Chapel windows in Gloucester Cathedral and of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, and then with the later work at Tewkesbury, Tombleson became simply the most experienced stained glass conservator in Britain. Who has a better claim than he to be called the Master Glazier of his generation?
There can be little dispute about his successor to that title. Peter Gibson, the first Superintendent of the York Glaziers Trust, worked for the Dean and Chapter of York Minster for sixty years, beginning his apprenticeship only two years after Tombleson’s death. During this long association, Gibson restored the Minster’s great 16th century Rose window not once but twice: first in 1969-79, and then again in 1884-5 after the South Transept suffered the disastrous fire of 9 July 1984. He told the story of his own part in saving the Rose window, in a lecture given in 1988:
‘When I carried out my initial examination of the glass from a narrow internal walkway at the base of the window only an hour after the fire, the glass was still warm to touch. Strapped to a fireman’s turntable ladder I then carried out a thorough external examination of the glass from its uppermost rung more than 100 feet above the ground. Only two hours after the fire I reported the condition of the glass to Dean Ronald Jasper, saying that although the glass was as severely damaged as it could possibly be I was confident that one day it would shine once again in the South Transept.’*
Peter Gibson, like Tombleson before him, was a modest man. He was an exemplary lecturer, his illustrated talks during Kempe Society weekends eye-opening in the best sense: he loved teaching people how to read stained glass. He was the Society’s Patron, always supportive and encouraging. Long-standing Kempe Trust supporters who visited York this summer recalled the climax of a 1989 tour of the Minster glass led by Peter Gibson himself. Keeping the Zouche Chapel until last, he led us down the steps and over to the altar. Behind it, a little window of 14th century glass – easy enough to miss – showed Cardinal Kempe, and in the quarries surrounding the image were wheatsheaves. See,’ said Peter, smiling rather mischievously, ‘I put that there myself, specially for the Kempe Society.”
*Peter Gibson, ‘Our Heritage of Stained Glass and its Care in the Twentieth Century’, RSA Journal, vol. cxxxvi, no. 5379, February 1988, pp.167-8
[illustrations: (i) Portrait of A.E. Tombleson, by Rudolph Tanner, 1924 (Kempe Trust Archive; (ii) Peter Gibson, OBE, at work on the restoration of the Rose Window, York glaziers Trust c. 1986 (iii) Cardinal Kempe window, Zouche Chapel, York Minster