Greatness in glass

Valour and loss: St George and The Defeated Dragon, 1922, J. H. Dearle, St John the Evangelist Anglican Church, Cheviot.
Valour and loss: St George and The Defeated Dragon, 1922, J. H. Dearle, St John the Evangelist Anglican Church, Cheviot.

An international exhibition of designs by the great 19th-century artist, writer and designer William Morris will open at the Christchurch Art Gallery next month. Today, KEN HALL looks at a quintet of stained-glass windows in Canterbury as Press Arts begins a series on the life, times and work of Morris.

In 1995 I was commissioned to submit designs for Christmas stamps with a stained glass theme. Success over my North Island competitors was aided by geography: the best gathering of British Arts & Crafts stained glass in the country happened to be here in Canterbury. With advice from Dr Fiona Ciaran (author of the outstanding Stained Glass Windows of Canterbury, New Zealand), and guided generously by the late Roy Entwistle, I received a personalised tour of extraordinary artworks in stained glass, often in remote locations. Shining treasures came alive when studied, every nuance of light and colour shifting when viewed from every different angle. From these visits I gained as much pleasure as I have experienced in any art gallery anywhere in the world.

A pair of spectacular Morris & Co windows from St Mary's Anglican Church, in Merivale, featured in the stamp designs, and are still personal favourites from among all the windows seen. In glowing colours, the elongated figures and flowing robes of the archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary immediately appear to be the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, whose long involvement with stained glass contributed towards some of Morris & Co's most brilliant and enduring results.

As the Merivale windows were shipped out from England around 1910, however, 12 years after Burne-Jones's death, it becomes evident that his influence at Morris & Co continued. While the figures in these windows are indeed largely his, credit for the overall design may be given to (the less widely known) John Henry Dearle (1860-1932), who in adapting Burne-Jones's earlier designs, was following an established mode for the firm.

Opening in London as Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861, and reorganised by William Morris in 1875 simply as Morris & Co, the firm undertook stained-glass commissions from the outset, and is acknowledged as having produced some of the finest stained glass of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Contributors to the firm's stained-glass design include William Morris, Philip Webb, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Ford Madox Brown, but it was Morris's lifelong collaborator Edward Burne-Jones, who established himself as the most talented designer for the medium.

John Henry Dearle had joined the firm in his teens in 1878 as a showroom assistant, and was then taken under Morris's wing as a tapestry-production apprentice. Working alongside Morris and Burne-Jones, Dearle by 1890 had risen to chief designer, creating designs for wallpapers, woven and printed textiles, carpets, tapestries, embroidery and stained glass. Following Morris's death in 1896, J. H. Dearle was appointed Morris & Co's art director, and became principal stained-glass designer after Burne-Jones's death in 1898.

All of the Morris & Co windows in Canterbury are unique designs by Dearle, although most are based on existing designs by Burne-Jones, with the Annunciation windows at St Mary's, Merivale, the earliest of these. Here, Dearle has adapted Gabriel from a design produced by Burne-Jones in 1892 for his own parish church in Sussex, and Mary from an 1895 design for a church in Lancashire. Garments, wings and haloes, however, have been changed from their original cool blue tones to receive a fiery glow, and figures placed within a naturalistic setting in broader frames. The elaborate repeating plant-form panels above and beneath figures are also Dearle's innovation, the overall scheme making explicit his ability with colour, the organisation of pattern and space, and strong, cohesive design with a distinctively Morris & Co approach and feel.

Although World War 1 almost brought about Morris & Co's collapse, it was their stained-glass memorials to the fallen that carried them through the immediate post-war years, with orders coming from throughout the British Empire. New Zealand commissions came mostly from Canterbury clients, who would have been sent small painted versions of Dearle's designs for approval, eventually to be crafted by a team of glass painters in Surrey.

Among the most quietly affecting of these is a pair of windows depicting Sir Galahad and the Vision of the Holy Grail at St Augustine's Anglican Church, Waimate. Unveiled on Anzac Day 1926, the windows were a memorial to Lieutenant Clifford Clapcott Barclay, a 22-year-old Waimate stock agent killed in action at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915. Depicting the young knight Galahad from a scene in Tennyson's the Idylls of the King (1869), the figure was recognised as the embodiment of heroism and devotion to a righteous cause. In this instance Dearle has based the figure of Galahad and his horse on Sir Galahad (1862) by the painter George Frederick Watts.

Another Morris & Co stained-glass memorial with a mediaeval theme is at St John the Evangelist Anglican Church, Cheviot, where a collection of windows by Morris & Co offers a memorable experience. All are connected through their donors to one family, descendants and relatives of William ("Ready Money") Robinson, of Cheviot Hills. The window depicting St George and the Defeated Dragon was dedicated in 1922, gifted by the parents, widow and brothers of Major William Robinson Campbell, DSO, who was killed at Ypres, Belgium, in 1915. William Campbell was the eldest son of William Robinson's daughter Sara and Sir Charles Ralph Campbell, 11th Baronet of Auchinbreck. Designed by Dearle, the window with its flag-bearing warrior is a solemn celebration of English valour; flanking the central panel, trumpeting angels based on 1869 Burne-Jones designs reinforce the theme of sorrow and loss.

Also in Cheviot, the three-light Faith, Patience and Hope window (1928-1929) is another striking Dearle design after Burne-Jones; contrasting juxtapositions of colour create an intensity and beauty seldom matched in stained glass. The original (1895) versions of Faith and Hope were for a church in Camarthen, Wales, while the design for Patience (originally as the Virgin Mary) was made for Burne-Jones's parish church in Sussex around 1894. The Faith, Patience and Hope window was gifted by the three surviving sons of Sir Charles Ralph Campbell and his wife Sara, who is also remembered individually in the nearby Peace window (1928-1929). For this window -- a modest masterpiece of stained-glass design -- Dearle has chosen a willowy figure from a much plainer window designed by Burne-Jones in 1882, and placed her within a glowing leafy setting. The design is strengthened also with a decorative panel of red pomegranates against a bed of green leaves and patterned blue. Among this superb group of Morris & Co windows, Peace is particularly loved by the Cheviot parishioners.

*Morris & Co: The World Of William Morris, March 14-June 29, a joint project between the Christchurch Art Gallery and the Art Gallery Of South Australia.

*Stephen Estall's photographs of Morris & Co windows in Canterbury (as part of his broader photographic study of stained glass in New Zealand) capture a vital and far-reaching aspect of the firm's production and artistic success.

Ken Hall is assistant curator at the Christchurch Art Gallery.


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