Kempe windows

Article from 2007 Queens’ College Record 

That Queens’ College Chapel is one of the major works of George Frederick Bodley (1827–1907) is well known; it is less well known, though, that the Chapel marks one of the most important collaborations between Bodley and Charles Eamer Kempe (1837–1907), the most influential English stained glass designer and maker of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

In the year marking the centenary of the deaths of both men, Kempe’s windows deserve a much closer look. Under his personal direction, the Kempe Studio created the East Window and all the windows on the north side of the College Chapel.

Kempe was born and grew up in Brighton, which was also Bodley’s family home; indeed Bodley’s father, a local GP, was the Kempe family doctor. Kempe went to Rugby (he is said to have been the original of the hapless Tadpole in Tom Brown’s Schooldays) and from there to Pembroke College, Oxford. He had plans to enter the Church, but an increasingly bad stammer made it impossible for him to practise such a vocation. Instead, inspired by seeing William Morris working alongside Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Edward Burne-Jones on the designs for the Debating Chamber of the Oxford Union, Kempe decided that he would make ecclesiastical decoration his career.

His first task, on leaving Oxford, was to gain some work experience: with the help no doubt of his father (a friendly word with the family’s physician) he was able to persuade Bodley to take him on as an assistant, and thus he found himself in Cambridge just at the time when Bodley was beginning the building and decoration of All Saints, Jesus Lane. Here he was able to learn from both Bodley and William Morris and to develop his sense of how to colour a church. He was never formally apprenticed to Bodley, and by 1864 (with Bodley’s encouragement) he had joined the firm of Clayton and Bell to learn the elements of stained glass: everything from initial design to drawing the cartoons, cutting, painting and firing the glass, assembling and installing the windows. His earliest window, designed for Clayton and Bell in 1865, depicts the martyrdom of Bishop Hooper and can be seen in the south aisle of Gloucester Cathedral.

Kempe was not himself a trained artist, though in the early years of his career he devoted much time to sketching stained glass in cathedrals such as Nuremberg, Rouen and York, and in churches such as Fairford (Gloucestershire) and Malvern Priory. Part of his success lay in his ability to spot young talented artists and craftsmen whom he brought into his studios and who worked with him to develop the distinctive Kempe style. The ‘Kempe Studio for Stained Glass and Church Furniture’ had opened in 1866 and, by the time of its founder’s death, the Studio employed over sixty men; but at first Kempe relied heavily on already established artists such as Fred Leach of Cambridge, who in turn recommended young artists to join Kempe’s team. Of these, the most important was a young painter from Hemingford Abbots, A. E. Tombleson, who became the Studio’s Master Glass Painter and, after Kempe’s death, a director of the firm C. E. Kempe and Co., which carried on the tradition of Kempe’s work until it finally closed in 1934. In almost seventy years, nearly 5000 windows had been made and installed in churches around the world, from Scotland to South Africa, India and New Zealand. At one time the firm had even had to open an office in New York.

Kempe was fortunate in two respects: first, he enjoyed royal patronage from the 1870s onwards (the chancel of Sandringham church was only the last and largest of these royal commissions); second, his style and Bodley’s harmonised so well that in some of the latter’s most famous churches Kempe’s glass and decoration make an essential contribution to the overall impact of the design. This is true particularly in Queens’ College Chapel, but can also be seen in churches such as St John, Tue Brook (Liverpool) and the chapel of Clumber Park (Worksop, Notts., now a National Trust property). Not that Bodley and Kempe were ever partners; indeed, Bodley was instrumental in setting up a rival stained glass firm, Burlison and Grylls, and Kempe himself had no intention of becoming known only as a disciple of Bodley. Nevertheless, throughout their respective careers they frequently collaborated, especially when a patron stipulated that the stained glass inserted in a new church or chapel should be by Kempe.

In Cambridge, Kempe glass can be found throughout the city and the university. It is most spectacularly seen in the East and West Windows of Little St Mary’s, but is also prominent in St Giles, Castle Hill, and All Saints, Jesus Lane. Apart from Queens’, Kempe glass is also to be found in the Chapel of Selwyn; and later glass by C. E. Kempe and Co. is found in several roundels and small lights in Sidney Sussex. Outside the city, there is an important and very early Kempe window (1871) in the tower of Waterbeach parish church, and Kempe glass is exhibited in the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral and in the Victoria and Albert stained glass gallery.

So what are the distinctive features of Kempe windows? For some people it is the remarkable quality of the draughtsmanship, particularly of faces and architectural settings; for others, it is the rich and often deep colours – red, green, blue and gold – of the glass, usually offset (as in Queens’ Chapel) by surrounding glass of antique or horn white. Perhaps the best place in Cambridge to see the contrast in quality (and, no doubt, in price) between Kempe’s windows and those of other stained glass firms of the period is in the North aisle of St Botolph’s: at the East end is a Kempe window depicting the crucifixion, with the figures of the Virgin and St John flanking the cross. Adjacent to it is a window of the same year by the local firm W. H. Constable. The differences in colour, composition and draughtsmanship make it hard to believe that both windows were inserted in 1889.

Other characteristics of Kempe glass include the use of peacock feathers for the wings of angels, and the insertion of jewels in the borders of the copes or cloaks worn by bishops or kings. Compare, for instance, the jewelled borders of the garments worn by Bishop Fisher (North wall, West Window), St Patrick (North wall, East Window) and the Virgin Mary in the East Window (second light from the left).

The East Window in the Chapel forms in effect a second reredos, placed high in the wall, so that one has always to look up at it. Above the magnificent Bodley reredos, and complementing but not competing with it, the seven lights of the window represent in glass, as it were, an elaborate stone screen with painted statues of saints occupying the niches. In the centre of the window, the eye is drawn at once to the crucifixion; below it is a scene depicting the deposition of Christ from the Cross, and below that, the pelican in its piety. This popular ‘Corpus Christi’ symbol, representing Christ nourishing his church with his own body and blood, can also be seen, close up, in the Kempe window in St. Botolph’s. Indeed, that window affords probably the best opportunity in Cambridge to study at close quarters the draughtsmanship and colouring of Kempe glass.

The long-standing links between Queens’ College and St Botolph’s church (the college stands in the parish of and are patrons of St Botolph’s) are further emphasised by the figure of this East Anglian saint depicted in the first (left-hand) light of the chapel East window. Next to him are the Virgin and Child and then, in the third light, St Etheldreda. As foundress of Ely Cathedral, she is a reminder that the college is situated within the Diocese of Ely. To the right of the crucifixion, and flanking the figure of Christ in Majesty (sixth light) are two other figures closely associated with the original foundation of the college: St Bernard and St Margaret, the College’s patron saints. In the lower part of each light are New Testament scenes: on the left, the Annunciation, the Visitation and the Nativity; on the right, three resurrection events – the women at the tomb, Christ appearing to Mary Magdalene in the garden, and the supper at Emmaus.

In the tracery above the main lights, a keen eye may detect four shields, each emblazoned with Instruments of the Passion. Above these, larger shields represent mainly College and University heraldry, but the outer shield on the right has a different significance. In the small tracery light above the figure of Christ in Majesty is a red shield with three golden ‘garbs’ or wheatsheaves; the shield itself is edged in gold. These are the arms of Kempe himself, the symbol he used to sign his most important windows. That the symbol appears twice more, in the windows of the north wall, is an indication of the importance he attached to these commissions.

To find the Kempe wheatsheaves in the other windows again requires keen eyesight: Kempe was not a self-promoter in his glass: he let his windows speak for themselves. The window nearest the altar (1892) depicts three key figures associated with the story of Christianity in the British Isles: SS Augustine, Patrick and Alban. Underneath, Adam and Eve are depicted with the serpent coiled around the Tree of Life. The serpent prefigures the snakes that St Patrick expelled from Ireland, one of whom is shown coiled at the feet of the saint. In the tracery above can just be seen two shields: one contains the Kempe arms; the other, a golden shield bearing the initials AET, contains the monogram of Alfred Tombleson, and indicates that Kempe’s master glass painter was responsible for these chapel windows. The Tombleson shield is a rarity, demonstrating both Kempe’s wish to acknowledge the contribution of his most valued colleague, and the importance he attached to these commissions.

The North Windows were added in the ten years following the Chapel’s consecration: the second from the East continues the theme of early Christianity in England, with the figures of St Theodore, the Venerable Bede and King Alfred. The sacrifice of Isaac is depicted below (including an angel with typical Kempe ‘peacock’ wings). Next come two windows depicting early champions of the English Pre-Reformation Church: Archbishops Langton, Anselm and Lanfranc (below, Abraham and his soldiers encounter Melchizedek), followed by John Wycliffe, King Edward I and Bishop Robert Grosseteste (below, Moses and the brazen serpent). Finally, nearest the entrance, three figures closely associated with the College itself: the scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Smith, Bishop Fisher (his crozier resting on the execution block at his side) and Erasmus (below them, Moses and the burning bush and Gideon with his fleece). In this gallery of fifteen worthies, each face seems a real portrait, and each individual is identified by some emblem of his life and work or by a scroll bearing his name or by his initial surmounted by a crown – another Kempe characteristic. Patience is needed to discover in the central window a third Kempe shield and (in the westernmost) a single wheatsheaf – Kempe’s most familiar trademark.

It is well worthwhile to compare the East window of Queens’ (1890, and thus in place when the Chapel was dedicated in 1891) with the East window of Little St Mary’s (1892). This is one of the most powerful of all Kempe’s large-scale windows: set much lower, and almost filling the East wall of the church, one meets it at eye level; and its central subject, the Annunciation, is represented by two almost life-size figures: the Angel Gabriel on the left and Mary on the right. The figure of Mary is one of the finest in any Kempe window. Far from statuesque, a young girl rather than a pious Virgin, she is caught as it were in the act of turning in surprise at the arrival of the angel, and this dramatic moment is trumpeted by more than fifty angel musicians who crowd every available space in the window. If the east window of Queens’ cannot compete with such drama, it nevertheless embodies all the refinement of the late Gothic style perfected by Bodley and Kempe. No wonder that Owen Chadwick, writing in The Victorian Church of the revival of interest in stained glass in the nineteenth century, concluded that “the art attained its Victorian zenith not with the innovations of William Morris or Edward Burne-Jones but in the Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe.”

Adrian Barlow

Adrian Barlow is Director of Public Programmes at the Institute of Continuing Education. In 1991 he gave the College Chapel Centenary Lecture on ‘The Architecture of George Frederick Bodley’.