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Kempe: The life, art and legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe,

by Adrian Barlow

William Whyte learns about the likeable and canny C. E. Kempe

CEDRIC HAMPTON, the charming, camp, and flirtatious heir to the Earl of Montdore, is perhaps the most memorable character in Nancy Mitford’s Love in a Cold Climate. Translated from rural Nova Scotia into the English aristocracy, he turns out to be as happy discussing fashion with society ladies as he is discoursing on ethnography with serious academics. During one dinner, he is heard murmuring “Just a narrow edging of white” to the narrator’s husband, a forbiddingly intellectual professor. It turns out that they were debating burial customs in the Yemen. “The fact is”, she concludes, “that Cedric could bring out edgings of white to suit all tastes.”

This significant new study of Charles Eamer Kempe irresistibly recalls Nancy Mitford’s creation. An entrepreneur, an aesthete, a social climber, Kempe was charming, ambitious, and just a little bit absurd. Born Charles Kemp, he added an additional letter to his surname in the hope of asserting a link, which may or may not have been fictitious, with a medieval Cardinal Archbishop and Lord Chancellor. Ironically enough, his putative ancestor’s name is now generally spelt John Kemp.

Kempe — with or without an e — was a Name at Lloyd’s, but he was better known as a pioneering figure in stained-glass design. To be sure, he himself designed little. He was, however, a great talent-spotter, recruiting some of the most gifted artists and craftsmen of his age to produce instantly recognisable work that can be found in dozens of churches, cathedrals, and stately homes today. He also had an eye, something expressed in his work, but still more in his home, which he carefully curated to convey an atmosphere of taste.

Above all, Kempe made his name because of his brilliant eye for the main chance. He was a networker, a self-publicist, a skilled operator in some respects. When Lady Wolseley, wife of the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army, visited his house in 1890, she was delighted to be asked to lay the foundation stone for a substantial new building. Kempe had planned this apparently impromptu invitation so well that he had arranged for journalists to witness the ceremony and to write it up. Lady Wolseley was too wise not to realise this, nor to recognise that every part of the event was contrived. Even Kempe’s decision to use a herb in the loving cup produced for the occasion was quite deliberate. “I am sure he knew the blue of the borage would look well,” she observed. And yet, just like Hampton’s edging of white, the effect was somehow charming rather than forced.

Drawing on sustained research, much of it using material only recently rediscovered, this is a splendid account of Kempe and his world. It is not a biography — and it steers well clear of questioning whether its subject shared Hampton’s rather outré social life. Rather, it offers a series of well-focused essays on aspects of Kempe’s life, works, and legacy, not least the story of what happened to his business after his death. His heir, a distant cousin, Walter Tower, proved still more successful at attracting high society: even working in Buckingham Palace. But Tower struggled to keep the firm afloat, and so, in 1934, Kempe and Co. finally closed.

This book is, we are promised, to be followed by a further, fully illustrated volume on the stained glass itself. That will enable readers to get a better sense of Kempe’s achievements — and his limitations. In the mean time, we can enjoy this work and the insight that it gives us into a mysterious, prolific, and charming man.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.

11 January

From Birmingham Victorian Society

As enthusiasts of Victorian Stained Glass, although of another designer I wonder if any of your members would be interested in a day School which is being held in Birmingham on 6th April on Edward Burne Jones which is being held to clean and restore the Stained Glass at Birmingham Cathedral. This is their Divine Beauty project.

I would be very grateful if you would notify your members of this event.

Details available from

If your Cathedral, Church or Chapel is considering a conservation project in 2022/23 involving Kempe glass or furnishings and would like to be considered for a grant towards the cost, please complete a Grant application form from the Downloads menu and forward or send it to the Trust.

24 November

Adrian’s Kempe Blog

The Master Glaziers                               Adrian Barlow   

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 1987 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.”

Adrian Barlow

*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