Wakehurst Place, in Sussex, is the most disappointing National Trust property I have ever visited. Of course, people tend not to go there for the pleasure of wandering from room to room of this once splendid Elizabethan mansion: Wakehurst is all about the spectacular gardens and the National Seed Bank. Indeed, you are hardly aware as you walk round and look respectfully up at the tallest Christmas tree in England that the NT has anything to do with the estate at all; it seems to be only the partnership with Kew Gardens that counts here.
At least, though, the house is open – even if it lacks furniture and atmosphere. There are a few rooms reserved for wedding receptions and others apparently available for school groups on field trips. The ground floor has the feel of a one-time prep school waiting to be put to new use. There’s even a chapel, or there was: stripped now not only of its altar but of every other furnishing, the only thing left is the important stained glass. And even this is under threat.
I want to focus on the Crucifixion window, which was commissioned from the Studio of Charles Eamer Kempe in 1905. At first glance it is conventional enough: a ‘Stabat Mater’ scene with St Mary and St. John, the beloved disciple, standing either side of the Cross. The depiction of the dying Christ is conventional too: the crown of grotesque thorns is powerfully drawn, but the loincloth lacks the billowing defiance that is a distinctive feature of earlier Kempe Crucifixion windows. Why, then, do I call this window important?
Well, for a start the figures of Mary and John are finely drawn, St John particularly. Far from abject, he stares fixedly at his dying friend, and his pose suggests a firmness of purpose: only the whites of his knuckles as he grasps the hem of his cloak suggest the horror of the event.
Then the background to the scene is remarkable. Often such windows were designed with lozenge-shaped quarries to fill the space behind the central image and the accompanying figures. (A good example is the chancel window of Llandinabo Church, 1893, in Herefordshire, which has several features in common with the Wakehurst window.) Here, though, Kempe has chosen to depict an open sky with naturalistic clouds gathering on the horizon. Such expansive whiteness is rare in stained glass of any period and would be arresting enough, but it is the vista in front of the horizon that demands our close scrutiny.
In the foreground, the summit of Calvary is depicted as a dark and fertile meadow: harebells, gentians and daisies grow among the grass and ferns. But the distant view beyond and below the Green Hill is what draws the eye: across all three lights – the narrow tall central light and the wider lower outer lights – Kempe’s chief draughtsman, John Lisle, has produced an extraordinary fantasy roofscape: a medieval city of cloud-capped towers, streaming pennants, bartizans, pantiles and buttressed walls. Some of the spires are topped with crosses, yet on the road down from Calvary towards the gateway into Jerusalem, Roman soldiers stand and chat at the city’s gatehouse, where the portcullis is raised.
Anachronism, even historical and cultural confusion on this heroic scale, has always been a feature of stained glass representation of biblical events. What is so arresting here, however, is the dramatic and exclusive use of silver staining for the whole composition of the distant city: black and white, silver and grey, ochre and umber, lemon and gold – these are the colours characteristically created by silver staining. And indeed they dominate the entire window and unify the whole design: the cross is silver stained, so are the great wedges hammered into the ground at its base. So, too, the capacious cloaks worn by Mary and John, and likewise the architectural framework of each light, where pairs of rather mannered classical columns support round-headed arches topped by chubby cherubs, from whose necks green foliate swags loop down to either side of the arches.
Extensive and exquisite use of silver staining is an absolute hallmark of Kempe glass, both sacred and secular – see for instance the panel originally made for Kempe’s own home, Old Place, Lindfield (not far from Wakehurst) – but now at the National Trust’s Wightwick Manor near Wolverhampton . But I can point to no other window that employs silver staining with such bizarre bravura as at Wakehurst.
To judge the strangeness of this window, compare it with a window in Rendcomb Church, Gloucestershire. This, dating from a little earlier (1895), depicts the Supper at Emmaus, on the evening of the Resurrection. Again the roofs and towers of Jerusalem form a backdrop to the scene, but this time our viewpoint is not looking up to the face of Christ and then to the top of the cross and the bowed head of the dying Christ; now we are looking at him at eye-level across the table. So we look down onto the rather crudely drawn cottage loaf, from which Jesus has pulled the top-knot in the act of breaking bread. (We’ll overlook the fact that the bread should have been unleavened.) In the distance, blue-grey Jerusalem is silhouetted against the hills in the background: no silver staining there. And the whole scene is framed by a kind of pergola supporting a vine dripping with huge pendulous bunches of grapes. One has only to contrast the range of colours in the Rendcomb window with the austerity of the Wakehurst palette, to see how striking this endangered window is.
It’s endangered because the architectural consultants who are advising the National Trust on what to do about Wakehurst Place want to take the Kempe windows out of the Chapel, so that the space can be (dread word!) ‘re-purposed’. They don’t like the fact that below the stained glass, the lower part of the three-light window has been blanked out with a stone infill, which, from the outside, looks rather clumsy. This was hardly Kempe’s fault: I assume that the infilling had been done originally to accommodate a tall reredos behind the altar and that the window, when designed by the Kempe Studio, was intended to come to the top of the reredos, and no lower. The reredos has disappeared, of course, along with everything else that once gave the Chapel meaning – except the stained glass. To remove the glass would be absolutely the wrong thing to do. It should stay.
[illustrations: (i and ii) East window, Wakehurst Place, Sussex, by the Kempe Studio, 1905; (iii) Annunciation roundel, formerly at Old Place, Lindfield, and now at Wightwick Manor (courtesy, the National Trust); (iv) The Supper at Emmaus window, Rendcomb Church, Gloucestershire, Kempe, 1895. Photographs © the author.