Wednesday, 23 May 2012

A Pre-Raphaelite Masterpiece in Yorkshire: the stained glass of St Mary's, Nun Monkton

I thought I would share with you some of the research I did for a fund-raising lecture for the village church. 

The East Window of St. Mary’s Church, Nun Monkton

Edward Burne-Jones, The Virgin with St. Anne

This unexpected masterpiece, tucked away in a small Yorkshire village, fulfilled the desire of the artist, Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) to create a sense of wonder through his work.  He confessed ‘I want big things to do and vast spaces and for people to see them and say ‘Oh!’, only ‘Oh!’. 

1. Why was the glass commissioned?
2. Who designed it?
3. What does each section mean? 

1. Why was the glass commissioned?
St. Mary’s Church, Nun Monkton is the only remnant of the medieval Benedictine nunnery that gave the village its name. Founded in 1153, it was probably built on the site of a pre-Conquest hermitage.  The architecture of the church shows the transition between the Romanesque and Gothic styles, and is inch-perfect. After the dissolution of the nunnery in 1536 under Henry VIII, the priory chapel became the parish church.  But the Reformation in worship meant that the building was radically transformed.  The East end, which had been the focal point of the Roman Catholic Mass, was now a blank wall with plain glass windows and a few memorials.  A print hanging near the font shows what it looked like in the early 19th century. 

The interior of the church remained plain and white-washed until the mid 19th century when, throughout Victorian Britain, there was a revival of interest in medieval buildings.  This was accompanied by a desire to inspire greater devotion in the congregation. The reinvigoration of the Church of England was partly a response to the challenge of Non-Conformist churches, like the Methodists and Baptists.  They appealed to the working classes through uplifting sermons and popular new hymns.    

Some in the Church of England believed that the best way to encourage worship was to focus on holiness.  They wanted to demonstrate that Church should be different from the everyday, by increasing the sense of ritual, and concentrating on the ‘beauty of holiness’.  This strand within the Church grew out of debates in Oxford in the 1840s, and so became known as Oxford movement.  Some aspects of the movement were very controversial, like having candles on altars, using incense, or priests wearing embroidered robes.  But they were intended to add to the sense that the act of worship was special, and also to look back to the highpoint of Christianity in Britain in the Middle Ages.  This was part of greater stirring of interest in the medieval: the Gothic Revival.

This historical context helps to explain why the people of Nun Monkton were prepared to pay so much for the restoration of their church, and also why the East window looks like it does. 

Between 1869 and 1873, the East end of the Church was made Gothic again.  It became the focus for the ritual of communion and the actions of the priest.  The Gothic was not just a style, but a way of thinking about art and life.  It was based on natural forms of leaves, flowers and trees.  Victorian commentators claimed that the Classical Georgian architecture of the 18th century, was enslaved by the need to be exact.  It was based on uniformity and straight lines.  We only have to think of the
Royal Crescent
in Bath – a perfect sweep of identical houses – to understand this principle.  The Gothic, by contrast, was free to adapt to needs of the people who used a building. 

The great propagandist for Gothic architecture, John Ruskin, made the Victorians look at medieval buildings afresh.  He showed them how the best of the medieval could be recreated for the modern world. Ruskin demonstrated the continuing vitality of the Gothic style:  it could ‘coil into a staircase, [or] spring into a spire, with undegraded grace and unexhausted energy’.  The Gothic was not just about pointed arches, but about ‘grace and energy’ in buildings and in their decoration.  The stained glass windows of Nun Monkton are a perfect example of the Gothic revival in practice.    

The people of Nun Monkton were caught up in this enthusiasm. The Lord of the Manor, and owner of Priory, Isaac Crawhall led them in a campaign to beautify the church.  It would no longer be the bare box of Georgian times.  Now it was full of colour and decoration, with new glass, pews and pulpit. 

The restoration took place between 1869 and the installation of East Window in 1873.  The architect was John H Walton.  Unfortunately we know very little about him, except that he also designed John Smith’s Brewery in Tadcaster.  His offices were registered in Buckingham Street, London, and his plans for Nun Monkton Church were illustrated in the Building News in 1884. The cost of restoration was £4,400, at a time when £300 per year would be respectable income for middle class man to support his wife, children and probably a couple of servants.  In the late 1860s, only 300 people were living in village, but they all tried to contribute to the cost.  Some local women, for example, made needlework to help with fundraising. 

The bulk of cost - £2500 - was for rebuilding the chancel.  This is the most important part of church, where the altar now stands.  The church was lengthened by 2 bays, choir stalls were added, and the new East Window was installed.  This work was paid for by Isaac Crawhall personally.  He originally came from County Durham, and had bought the Priory in 1860.     

It is not clear how much the window itself cost.  For comparison, we know that one of Isaac Crawhall’s daughters paid £1000 for three other windows in the West End, above the organ, showing the archangels – Gabriel, Raphael and Michael - and saints.  These include the local abbess St. Hilda of Whitby, St. Chad with Lichfield cathedral and St. Etheldred.  The windows were added as a memorial to Isaac Crawhall himself in 1901.

The East window seems to have been dedicated as a memorial to Isaac’s wife Ann who died 1860.  We can trace the history of the Crawhall family on their tomb, which is in the churchyard, near Priory Wall.  It is a granite cross, with an iron railing around it. 

So the window remembers a wife and mother.  It is a work of art in praise of women.  On a personal level, it commemorates the life of Ann Crawhall.  On another level, it recognises that the church was originally part of a nunnery.  And of course, it reminds us that this church is dedicated the Virgin Mary.

The idea of celebrating women is woven into the designs for the glass.  This theme probably encouraged Morris and Company to accept the commission; womanhood was a favourite subject of William Morris (1834-1896) and his friends.  As young men, they had scandalised a stuffy Oxford don who asked the artists how they imagined heaven.  They replied that it would be ‘a garden full of stunners’ – stunner was slang for a beautiful woman.  So here is their vision of heaven, full of distinctive Pre-Raphaelite women with long thick hair, strong faces, and curvaceous figures. 

Edward Burne-Jones, The Annunciation

2. Who designed the glass?
The early 1870s, when this window commissioned, are regarded as the highpoint of stained glass production by Morris and Company.  The firm had begun making stained glass in 1861 in their first workshops in central London.  They produced glass for church decoration as well as for homes.  It was part of their desire to beautify British houses and public buildings, not just through their designs for wallpaper and curtains, but by making everything from tiles and wine glasses to cushion covers and light fittings.
In the early years, stained glass design was the mainstay of their business. It supported the other branches of their practice.  Morris began by employing just 2 experienced craftsmen, a glass painter and a fret glazier (who puts the jigsaw of coloured glass together).  They were helped by 2 boys.  Within a year, the workshop had expanded until there were 12 men and boys working through the stained glass order-book.

3. How were the windows made?
Morris and Company bought in coloured glass from Powell and Son, a well established source. (They later supplied the West windows, designed in-house by J.W. Brown.) This raw material was known as ‘pot metal glass’.  Morris cared deeply about every stage of production in his workshops, but did not feel compelled to make his own pot metal as Powell and Son lived up to his exacting standards.  The glass was cut to fit the pattern, and then the details were painted on.  Finally all the pieces were assembled, following designs created by Morris’s colleagues.  These included one of the original Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the painter D. G. Rossetti, his old friend Ford Madox Brown, and the architect Philip Webb.  Morris himself also designed some of the figures.

The most prolific designer for Morris’s firm was Edward Burne-Jones.  He had worked on stained glass from the earliest days of his career.  Even before Morris and Company had been founded, he had created designs for Powell in 1857.  This had been one of his first paid jobs as artist.  By the 1870s, Burne-Jones had taken over bulk of design work for Morris and Company.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Nativity

The art of stained-glass manufacture is in selecting colours.  This is what makes Morris and Company glass so distinctive.  Morris chose strong but not acid colours – ruby rather than scarlet, leaf green rather than turquoise.  Other Victorian companies had begun to make Gothic Revival glass.  We can see an example from late 1850s on the North Wall of Nun Monkton’s church, dedicated to Isaac Crawhall’s daughter Maria who died in 1857, aged 20.  Comparing this window with the great East window, we can appreciate the shift in style and approach in the intervening 15 years.  Maria’s window has geometric borders, cramped figures, and colours that grate.  The designer has attempted to recreate Medieval feel, and it is certainly a very high quality product.  But when we contrast this with Morris’s window, we recognise how stained glass design can be inspired by the Middle Ages, yet still remain fluid, glowing, and immediate.  

The aim of Morris and his craftsmen, once they had established a colour-scheme, was to select materials that would keep painting to a minimum.  The ideal was to create folds of fabric, or waves of water through the innate colouring of pot metal.  This has been successfully achieved, for example, in Joseph’s ruby robes in the central panel of the Nativity.  Then there was the skill required in piecing the glass together, so that the glazing bars followed the lines of composition.  They should not interfere with the design, but enhance it, as if they are part of the drawing.  No-one wants glazing bars cutting across faces or hands.  They should act as a web that stands between us and the light.

The craftsmen were supervised by Morris.  He was obsessive and passionate about his work, wanting to unravel every detail of design and production.  He was well-known as a poet before he started Morris and Company.  In fact, he said that if you could not compose poetry while also weaving a tapestry, you were no good as a poet.  A larger-than-life figure, he wore a full beard and by the 1870s was growing stout.  He was an adventurer, who particularly loved travelling to Iceland.  He liked extremes.  Morris was a genius at pattern-making.  He could take the natural forms of leaves and flowers, and transform them into repeating designs, but without losing the individuality of the original.

The results can be seen here in the stained glass, with its intricate background of green tendrils and tiny white flowers.  These tendrils hold together and harmonize all the figures. Friends described how easily and joyfully he created these patterns.  He would take a large sheet of paper, one pot of black ink, and another of white.  Using a brush he would stroke the outlines onto the paper.  It looked as if he were stroking a cat.  There is a sense of flowing pleasure in the creation of these natural networks.    

The glass makers had to translate his brush and ink patterns into the brittle medium of glass, while still maintaining sense of fluidity. 
By 1873 when this window installed, they were helped in this process of translation, by using photography to enlarge Morris’s drawings.

From the early 1870s, Burne-Jones was designing most of the figures for the workshop.  He worked on these in the evenings after dinner. His wife described how, like Morris, the shapes flowed out of his hand onto the paper: ‘he made the designs without hesitation,… it seemed as if they must have already been there, and his hand were only removing a veil.  The soft scraping sound of the charcoal in the long smooth lines comes back to me, together with his momentary exclamation of impatience when the [charcoal] stick snapped off short, as it often did, and fell to the ground.’

Burne-Jones and William Morris had met at Oxford, and had been best friends ever since. They had made a decision together to become artists.  They were two very different characters.  Burne-Jones had a mischievous sense of humour, but was less robust than Morris, and more introspective. He delighted in the Middle Ages, which seemed to offer an ideal alternative to the industrialised landscapes of his childhood.  He had been born in Birmingham, into the lower middle class.  He was brought up by his father, a picture frame maker, as his mother had died soon after his birth.  He did well at school, and made it to Oxford, but never forgot the dirt, the oppressive buildings and the poverty he had grown up with.  He looked to the past - the world of Chaucer and Malory – as a time of great deeds, chivalry, and open spaces.  He created a landscape of the imagination, and almost felt as if he lived alongside the knights and ladies of his pictures.  The medieval world was his true home. 

Why were Morris and Burne-Jones commissioned by Isaac Crawhall to create a window for Nun Monkton?  We do not know for sure, but there are various theories.   It could be simply that Morris and Company were the most successful glass makers of their generation.  They had caused a stir at the International Exhibition in London in 1862 with their designs.  Perhaps the Crawhalls or their architect had seen their work in London or elsewhere and simply liked the look of it, and wanted to buy the best.  There are other local connections.  Morris and Co. had installed windows in St. Martin’s Church, Scarborough from 1862.  Our Annunciation panel is a version of the Rose window in Scarborough.  The firm also installed windows in Knaresborough in 1873, so clearly they had become fashionable in this part of Yorkshire.   

It is possible that the commission came about because of Morris and Burne-Jones’s links with the Howard family, who owned Castle Howard.  They were good friends of George Howard and his wife Rosalind.  Howard was a well-regarded artist.  Burne-Jones said he produced ‘simply the best watercolour work…[of] the present day…the most refined, the most poetic.’ The couple were part of a vibrant artistic circle, and they invited Burne-Jones and Morris to decorate the drawing room of their London house in Kensington.  George’s uncle owned Castle Howard, and commissioned Morris and Company to create stained glass windows for his chapel.  These were installed in 1872.  Perhaps this contributed to the fame of the firm in Yorkshire.
There is sadly no evidence that Morris or Burne-Jones ever visited Nun Monkton, but it would be good to think that they stopped off here on way North to George and Rosalind Howard’s country house in Naworth in Cumberland.  We know that they travelled to Naworth in the late summer of 1873 when this window was being fitted.  It is interesting to imagine them coming up river from York.  Morris always loved boats and fishing.  The pair would have enjoyed poking about here, but might have been anxious about the extent of the restoration work.
In fact, Nun Monkton is lucky to have the window at all.  In 1877 Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.  After that he refused to supply modern glass for medieval churches.  He had been appalled by insensitive restoration of old buildings, notoriously at St. Mark’s in Venice, but also in Burford in Oxfordshire.  He felt the restorers were stripping away the centuries to try to create a sanitised version of the Gothic.  Morris tried to persuade architects that old buildings should show their age.   He also hated grandiose schemes that tried to turn parish churches into ‘small French cathedrals.’  His business manager described the Morris and Comapany ethos.  It was essentially English in character.  Churches should be ‘small as our landscape is small, sweet, picturesque, homely, farmyardish.’

At present we do not know exactly how the design was commissioned and ended up here.  But we do know the Crawhall’s got their money’s worth.  This is one of the finest Morris and Company windows to be seen anywhere.

William Morris, St. Cecilia’s angel

3. What does each section mean?
It helps to imagine the design as a cartoon strip, with the same figures appearing in different boxes, and several locations appearing one after another.  The window tells a coherent story, but on a number of levels. 

The side panels are a vision of heaven with musician angels, three on each side.  These were designed by William Morris in the 1860s. They appear on tiles made by Morris and Company, as well as in stained glass windows in many other churches.  They were originally drawn without wings, as they were intended for a domestic setting. When the wings were added, they became angels. 

Why do they make music?  The musical instruments create an extra dimension of imagined sound, that is meant to evoke ‘music of the spheres’.  It is something beyond our hearing, but we can still imagine it.  Specifically, music was associated in medieval religion with the Virgin Mary.  Many saint’s tales described her with musical attendants.

The window design also gives a nod towards the legend of St Cecilia, the patroness of music.  The 3rd angel down on the South side is a female figure playing a little portative organ, which is the Saint’s traditional accessory.   She wears garland of flowers around head, which provides a clue to the legend of St Cecilia.  According to the story, the flowers were given to Cecilia by her guardian angel as proof of her connection with heaven.  They were meant to reinforce her faith.  This was a favourite subject of Morris’s friends Burne-Jones and Rossetti.  So here is Cecilia’s guardian angel playing the heavenly music that Cecilia heard as she prepared to get married.  The music encouraged her to turn away from the wedding ceremony, stay celibate, and ultimately to accept her martyrdom at the hands of the Romans.   

We can compare the angels by Morris in the outer panels with the other female figures by Burne-Jones.  Morris’s female figures are fairly sturdy and substantial, while Burne-Jones’s girls seem more willowy.  Burne-Jones designed all the other figures.  We can look at these section by section.

The scenes at the base, and in the centre are all in praise of Virgin Mary. They tell her story.

On the pulpit side, Mary is shown as young girl being taught by her mother, Anne.  The Education of the Virgin Mary is a traditional subject.  It emphasises Mary growing up as spiritual child, learning the scriptures, and preparing for her role as Mother of God.  Also, the subject is particularly appropriate in this context, as the East window is a memorial to Isaac’s wife Anne.  Like St Anne, she will be remembered as a virtuous mother.  On the outside wall of the East End of the church, there is an inscription explaining that the restoration project was undertaken in memory of Anne. This inscription can now only be seen from the private Priory gardens.

The middle scene at the base is the Annunciation.  Here the angel Gabriel is bringing word to the Virgin Mary that she will bear the child Jesus.  This is the critical moment of God’s intervention in history.  As in the first scene, Mary is shown as a pious girl, praying at her prie-dieu. Burne-Jones played around with this figure group over many years, starting in 1863.  In this version of events, he imagines a bold encounter, characterised by billowing robes and dramatically twisting bodies.

Edward Burne-Jones, The Repose on the Flight into Egypt

On the Priory side of the church, there is a design made especially for Nun Monkton.  (The rest of the images had been used previously in different configurations for other commissions).  This third scene is the Repose on the Flight into Egypt.  Mary and Jesus are escaping from Herod.  Burne-Jones’s account book says he charged Morris and Company £10 for this design in June 1873.  It would be hard to identify the subject without Burne-Jones’s own notes.  The Virgin is not wearing the same colour robes as in other scenes, which would have helped us to identify her.  And there are no clues in the background: often this subject would include details like camels or pyramids, but Burne-Jones clearly thought these would be a distraction. Here is simply a woman caring for baby.  The image is stripped down to basics. 

At the heart of the East window is the Birth of Christ, his Nativity.  Again the Virgin Mary is prominent.  The Baby is lying on flowery grass, not in a manger.  This is a striking image, and not straightforward so it is worth taking some time to look at all the details.  Heaven and earth are coming into contact.  Only a band of waves or clouds separates the red-winged angels from the humans.  The individualised faces of angels give the impression that we should recognise them.  They are singing ‘et in terra pax’ (‘and in earth, peace’).  

The angels are looking over edge of heaven at the figures gathered around Christ.  One angel has descended to earth, and is playing music.  Again, this musical intervention creates the sensation of an extra dimension of sound and movement.  But the angel’s face is strained.  He seems to be singing, but it is a rather jarring note.  On other side, towards the Priory, are two standing men.  They are probably meant as shepherds, but there are no obvious sheep.  They stand in for us, the onlookers, the people who Christ has come to save.  Beneath the whole scene is the Latin inscription ‘verbum caro factum est, alleluia, alleluia’ (‘the word was made flesh, alleluia, alleluia’). 

Above the heads of the shepherds, the great star shines, and smaller stars glimmer.  There is a sense of the immensity of space.  Joseph and Mary seem overawed by the presence of the child.  They contemplate Him as he lies on the grass sprinkled with forget-me-nots.

This is no shed or stable.  This is the entrance to a cave.  Blocks of stone frame the figures.  The prominence of these rocks might make us uneasy, as they create a blank at the heart of the image.  Everything else whirls around this static space.  For all the singing, this is a scene of contemplation and anticipation.  The stones prefigure the great stone rolled across the grave after the Crucifixion.  The Child is bound and stretched out on the grass, not held by his mother and cuddled.  In the beginning, we have the seeds of the end of the story.  It is as if we are left to ponder it: the implications of this moment of connection between heaven and earth.  We are shown what Mary has been given, and what she will lose at Easter. 

This meditation on the subjects in the East Window should not leave us down-hearted.  We can enjoy the patterns of colour woven across the different scenes, creating a harmonious whole.  The window can be appreciated as a vision of light and colour, held together by the underlying web of Morris’s tendrils.  But it can also be unpicked.  Each scene can help us to understand the human element in the story of Salvation. We are constantly reminded of motherhood, and holy women.  

Morris once declared ‘My work is the embodiment of dreams’, and in this small corner of Yorkshire he offered a glimpse of something beyond the everyday, a hint of the beauty that lies just out of reach.  We should be grateful to Isaac Crawhall for his generosity.  Sadly he only had four years to enjoy the East window.  He died in 1877.  But we are thankful for his foresight in giving this gift to the people of Nun Monkton. 

1 comment:

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Lecture synopses:

1. Christopher Dresser: Designer for the Modern World?

In the 1930s, Pevsner hailed Dresser as a pioneer of modern design. But is this the best way to account for the extraordinary objects that he helped to create? This lecture considers Dresser’s work as a prolific industrial designer, the impact of mechanization on his products, and the diversity of his influences from Pre-Columbian pottery to botany.

2. Painting and Poetry: An introduction to the Pre-Raphaelites

Victorian painters were fascinated by the interweaving of art and literature. This lecture reveals the complex and very personal responses of artists to their favourite poets, from Dante to Tennyson. In particular it traces the idea of the ‘double work of art’ in Rossetti’s art, and in pictures by his friend Edward Burne-Jones.

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Charismatic and romantic, Rossetti was one of the leaders of the Pre-Raphaelite revolution in British art. A poet as well as a painter, he wove words and images together to create a new landscape of the imagination. When his art was criticized for being too ‘fleshly’, he withdrew into his inner circle of friends and refused to exhibit in public. After his death in 1882, a mythology sprang up around his life and art: Rossetti and his wife Lizzie Siddal became icons of a new generation of rebel artists. This lecture explores Rossetti’s life and art, and considers the tensions between the ethereal and the sensual in his work.

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Victorian women like Lizzie Siddal, Julia Margaret Cameron and Evelyn de Morgan, learned to negotiate the male-dominated art world. Many female artists began experimenting with new media, including photography and poster design, to create alternative images of the Victorian world. This lecture shows how, by the early 20th century, women were subverting the traditional feminine skills of book illustration and needlework to develop radical designs for the Suffrage Movement.

5. St Cecilia’s Halo: Music, Sex and Death in Victorian Art

The Pre-Raphaelites are usually thought of as literary artists. But music was also inextricably woven into the fabric of Pre-Raphaelite art. Figures on their canvases are playing music or listening to it; instruments are tucked into unexpected corners, adding an extra dimension of sound to the pictures. This lecture demonstrates the revolutionary intention of this music-making. It shows how the Pre-Raphaelites took a traditional subject, like St. Cecilia, and subverted it. Painting music helped to trigger a broader shift in Victorian art from narrative paintings towards Aestheticism, and its focus on abstract beauty, ambiguity, androgyny and sensuality.

6. The Model Wife: Women in Pre-Raphaelite Art

Who were the women whose faces gaze out at us from the canvases of the Pre-Raphaelites? This lecture explores the private lives of a revolutionary group of Victorian artists, and the haunting stories of their loves – Lizzie Siddal, Janey Morris and Effie Gray.

7. Frederic Leighton, James Whistler and the Cult of Beauty

Leighton was one of the most slippery characters in the Victorian art-world. He managed to walk a social tight-rope: he was an Establishment figure, honoured as President of the Royal Academy, for his portraits of distinguished men. But he also created some of the most disturbingly sensual images of his generation. This lecture considers the art of self-presentation in the lives of Leighton and his colleague in the Aesthetic revolution, James Whistler, as they pursued ‘Art for Art’s sake’.

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The Victorians were well aware that there was a down-side to the great Imperial and Industrial progress that they enjoyed. In contrast to the historical and poetic fantasies of the Pre-Raphaelites, a number of artists, including Herkomer, Doré and Langley drew attention to the sufferings of the poor. This lecture looks at images of urban poverty, through paintings, photography and illustrations that were made to raise awareness of the ‘submerged tenth’ of the British population.

9. Edward Burne-Jones

Burne-Jones’s dream-like images became icons of the Aesthetic movement, disturbing and inspiring his contemporaries in equal measure. This lecture also focuses on the life-long partnership between Burne-Jones and William Morris. They collaborated on an astonishing range of projects, from book design to tapestry weaving and stained glass, flooding houses and churches with light and beauty.

10. Women and the Ideal Home

What is the truth behind the Victorian ideal of the ‘Angel in the House’? This lecture considers the relationship between domesticity and design, looks at the rise of ‘shopping for pleasure’ and the gendered decisions involved in decorating a 19th century home. It also highlights the careers of women who subverted contemporary expectations by turning home-making into a profession.

11. Pre-Raphaelite Art in the V&A Museum

The Pre-Raphaelite collections in the V&A are one of the museum’s best-kept secrets. The paintings, drawings, tapestries, tiles, and even pianos are scattered around the galleries, making it hard to get an overview of the movement. But, as this lecture shows, the decorative arts were essential in developing the distinctive style of these revolutionary Victorians. Rossetti, Millais, Burne-Jones and their colleagues moved easily from one medium to the next, creating objects – like illustrated books and stained glass - that reached a far wider audience than their easel paintings.