Writing about Kempe (i): at Ovingdean

By Adrian Barlow / January, 24, 2018 / 0 comments

Now that my biographical study, Kempe: the life, art and legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, is with the publishers, Lutterworth Press, and due to appear later this year, I am returning to my Kempe blog. In a new series called ‘Writing about Kempe’, I shall discuss some of the questions I have tried to answer in my book. I shall also write about some of the discoveries I have made and the places I have visited. I begin, as Kempe himself began, at Ovingdean Church , just outside Brighton, where he was baptised and where he is buried.

 When did the Kempe Studio open its doors?

Strictly speaking, it never did; there never was a formal organisation, or business, or defined group known as ‘the Kempe Studio’, though some people referred to Kempe’s ‘school’ of artists. Kempe himself never referred to his Studio;the Kempe mark, the wheatsheaf, was never formally recognized, let alone registered, as the trademark or logo of anyone other than Kempe himself. Kempe thought of himself as a professional man, and to work as a professional and as a gentleman (the two ideas went together in those days) meant working on your own account.

Margaret Stavridi believes that ‘in 1866 the Kempe Studio for Stained Glass and Church Furniture was started in two extra rooms of his lodgings at 47 Beaumont Street W1’ (Master of Glass, p.26), but I have been unable to find any evidence to confirm this, and there was never any such business. Not one advertisement for Kempe glass appeared in Kempe’s lifetime. My own suggested date is 1868, for that is the year in which Kempe invited Frederick Leach, the Cambridge-based ‘art worker’ (Leach’s own phrase), who was already working for the architect George Fredrick Bodley and Bodley’s friend William Morris, to work for him, taking charge of the production of his stained glass.

Previously, Kempe had been working primarily as an assistant to Bodley, and had had to outsource the making of his stained glass to a London firm, T. Baillie & Co. Now he wanted control of all aspects of his work. He had been a customer of Baillie; henceforward he would have Leach working with and for him. As soon as Leach had agreed, Kempe sent him and AE Tombleson to Gloucestershire to start making a detailed study of the famous late medieval glass at Cirencester, Malvern Priory and Fairford. Tombleson had only just joined Leach as an apprentice, but immediately came under Kempe’s influence and was soon working for him alone.

This is what, to my mind, justifies 1868 as the starting point for the Studio: a group of artists beginning to surround Kempe, studying under his instruction and learning the elements of 15th and 16th design that would be used to develop the ‘Kempe Style’. But I accept that one could make a case for the previous year, 1867, in which Kempe had undertaken his redecoration of St. Wulfran’s Church, Ovingdean. In a discreet corner of the chancel ceiling he placed this Latin inscription:

+ E dono familiam Kempe et Eamer. Ad Gloria[m] Dei, hoc opus Karolus Eamer Kempe cum sociis fecit i[n] festum fest[o] Corporis Xti mdccclxvii. Orate pro n[obi]s et om[nib]us benefa[c]tor[i]bus huius eccl[es]ie.

[+ Given by the family of Kempe and Eamer. To the Glory of God, Charles Eamer Kempe and his colleagues completed this work on the Feast Day of Corpus Christi 1867. Pray for us and for all benefactors of this church.]

This inscription has a number of points of interest. First, Kempe is anxious to begin by saying that the redecoration was paid for by both sides of his family, maternal and paternal. It is likely that much of the money came at this time from his mother, the daughter of the late Sir John Eamer, Lord Mayor of London, and widow of Nathaniel Kemp. St Wulfran’s had become something of a family shrine: there are memorials to both Sir John and Nathaniel in the church, and Kempe had placed his father’s hatchment prominently over the porch. It is also possible that he had prevailed upon some of his brothers to contribute to the redecoration fund, and perhaps upon his mother’s sister, Aunt Charlotte, the late Sir John’s eldest daughter: Kempe was her favourite nephew and, in due course, her executor.

Secondly, the reference to his ‘colleagues’ (sociis) is teasing. Who were they? It is unlikely to have been Frederick Leach, for Leach was working almost full-time for Bodley in 1867, and it cannot have been Alfred Tombleson, for he had not yet become apprenticed to Leach, so Kempe would not have known him. One is tempted to think that he might simply have invited some friends to help him out during the summer, but the work looks too accomplished for that. Probably the colleagues were other young members of Leach’s staff whom Kempe would have met while working first for, and then with, Bodley. ‘Colleagues’, however, implies people with whom you work on equal terms, but Kempe’s Studio, however loosely defined, was never an association of equals. So I continue to believe that the Studio (however understood) opened in 1868, and not earlier.

Finally, Kempe is keen to emphasise that the work was completed on the Feast of Corpus Christi (in 1867 this was 20th June). There were two Feast Days in the church’s year that had particular significance for him: the Feast of St Peter, (29th June) for that was his own birthday, and Corpus Christi, because the symbol of Corpus Christi was the Pelican. No other emblem had such importance for Kempe: the pelican plucking at the wheatsheaf was the one he adopted as his own. Indeed, pelicans and wheatsheaves fill the quarry glass in most of the windows of Ovingdean. At a time when his career had hardly begun, he will have thought no one would ever guess why completing the decoration on the Feast of Corpus Christi – in fest[or]um fest[o], on the feast of feasts – mattered so much. But on this occasion at least, Kempe will have thought wrong.

[Illustrations: (i) inscription written as on a parchment roll,  on a beam in the NW corner of the Cancel of St. Wulfran, Ovingdean, Sussex.

(ii) detail of the diamond-shaped quarries in an 1867 window at Ovingdean depicting St John the Evangelist and St John the Baptist. Wheatsheaf and Pelican motifs surround the arms of the Kemp family.