John Betjeman and Kempe

By Adrian Barlow / May, 18, 2015 / 0 comments

JB imageIn 1949 John Betjeman wrote to Rosalie Mander, widow of Sir Geoffrey Mander. Sir Geoffrey had inherited Wightwick Manor from his father Theodore, who had built the striking black and white timbered manor house between 1887 and 1893. Lady Mander, already an authoritative biographer and an enthusiastic promoter of Wightwick as a show-piece of Pre-Raphaelite art and decoration, had written to Betjeman asking for information about Kempe. Betjeman by this time was one of the best-known champions of Victorian decorative arts : his reply helps us to understand better the downward trajectory of Kempe’s reputation in the mid-twentieth century.

I would so like to see Wightwick Manor too. Old Mr Wyndham Hope Hughes, who taught Kempe how to make stained glass, died at the beginning of this year aged 100 in the Victoria Hospital, Swindon. His son, Colonel Christopher Hughes, M.C., Marlborough, Wilts., could give you information about Kempe. I have always liked the early glass of Kempe but his later glass and imitations of it, all green and grey, have ruined so many churches for me that I would like to see the good early Kempe which I have so often heard about at Wightwick. (14th May 1949)

It is a measure of the rapidity with which Kempe had fallen from public notice that barely forty years after his death, and only fifteen since the closure of C.E. Kempe and Co., information about one of the most influential figures of nineteenth century church art was hard to find. It’s interesting, too, that Betjeman makes no mention of Walter Tower, who had been Kempe’s young cousin and his heir. He was still alive and living in Salisbury, and might have been the person best placed to answer Lady Mander’s enquiries. Instead, Betjeman refers her to the son of Wyndham Hope Hughes, then an entirely unremembered figure in the Kempe story. He implies that he himself knows nothing about Kempe’s life, before offering a less than lukewarm judgment on his work and influence, especially of ‘his later glass and imitations of it’.

Most puzzling – most inaccurate – is Betjeman’s confident assertion that it was Hughes ‘who taught Kempe how to make stained glass’. Not only is this not true as a statement of fact – Kempe learned the elements of stained glass making during his time with Clayton and Bell, for whom he produced a window in Gloucester Cathedral in 1865 – but simple mathematics would have shown Betjeman that his statement was wrong. Hughes was born in 1849, and was therefore only sixteen when Kempe was already designing glass for the leading firm of the day. In the five years that followed, Kempe used the London firm of T. Baillie to make the windows he had designed, and then engaged the Cambridge ecclesiastical artist-craftsman, Frederick Leach, to establish the first glass works for the newly formed Kempe Studio. It is not until the 1870s (after Kempe had paid for him to attend art school in London) that young Wyndham Hughes started – as an artist, not as a glass maker – to contribute to the development of the Kempe style: he designed the windows for the Royal Mausoleum at Darmstadt (one of the Kempe’s most significant commissions); he painted, under Kempe’s supervision, the pulpit in All Saints, Cambridge, and was responsible for some vibrantly designed and coloured windows in churches such as Kempley (Herefordshire), St. Bridget’s, West Kirby, and the Four Rivers window (1884) at St. Mary’s Priory Church, Monmouth.

If by saying that Hughes taught Kempe ‘how to make stained glass’ Betjeman had meant Hughes helped Kempe evolve the style by which his glass would become known, this would have been a fair comment. But how did Betjeman know enough about Hughes to make such a claim? He didn’t. This claim was hearsay. Writing to Ninian Comper in 1950, Betjeman told the architect (whom he greatly admired and promoted):

 The Architectural Review wrote to me to write an article about Kempe. I said they ought to get you to do it, if you had the time, as you knew and appreciated him. A man called Wyndham Hughes who died in Swindon a year ago aged 100 taught Kempe stained glass, I am told. Kempe taught you. But you are so much better than Kempe it is hard to believe he taught you. I have seen some Kempe windows I’ve liked, but many more I have regretted. That greenish tinge is so painful.

Betjeman evidently found green the defining feature of Kempe glass. In 1958, he wrote this description of a typical inner-city Anglo-Catholic church:

 Through the screen we glimpse a huge reredos painted green and red and gold, with folding doors. The floor of the Sanctuary is paved with black-and-white marble. Riddel posts with gilt angels on them – the famous ‘English Altar’ introduced by Sir Ninian Comper in the ’eighties … Blue incense rises to the golden reredos and the green Kempe window.  ( John Betjeman, Collins Guide to English Parish Churches, 1958)

To Betjeman’s delight, Comper did write an article on Kempe for the Architectural Review, but it was never published. Indeed, the first significant post-war article on Kempe eventually only appeared in 1973, written by Rosalie Mander. By this time Lady Mander and John Betjeman had become colleagues on a number of heritage projects: to her must go the credit for changing the by-then Poet Laureate’s view of Kempe. Perhaps, too, he had been converted by the fine glass he’d seen at Wightwick: both the relocated work of 1875 (designed, as it happens, by Wyndham Hughes) and glass commissioned by Theodore Mander in 1888 and 1893. Just how enthusiastic Betjeman had latterly become can, finally, be judged from an undated note sent to Lady Mander, probably in response to her article, ‘The Work of C.E. Kempe’ in Apollo (February 1973):

Thank you oh thank you … and God bless your work on Kempe. I think his family came from Blisland.

Blisland was a favourite village of Betjeman’s, close to his own home at Trebetherick on the north Cornish coast. It is a mark of his new-found enthusiasm that he now wants as it were to claim Kempe (inaccurately as it happens) for a near neighbour. But most telling of all is the way he signs off his note to Rosalie Mander:

Yours to the last peacock feather,


 Adrian Barlow


The letters between John Betjeman and Rosalie Mander from which I have quoted, are on exhibition at Wightwick Manor. Quoted correspondence between Betjeman and Comper supplied to me by the late Stephen Bucknall.

For a full account of the relationship between Kempe and Ninian Comper, see Anthony Symondson SJ, ‘ “An ass or a devil”? Sir Ninian Comper and Charles Eamer Kempe’, The Journal of Stained Glass, vol. xxxiv, 2010; also Anthony Symondson and Stephen Bucknall, Sir Ninian Comper (Reading: Spire Books in association with the Ecclesiological Society, 2006).