Arts & Crafts Stained Glass, by Peter Cormack

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Arts & Crafts Stained Glass, Peter Cormack

Arts & Crafts Stained Glass, Peter Cormack

A review by Albert M. Tannler

Let it be said at the outset that Arts & Crafts Stained Glass is impeccably researched, written with great clarity and nuance, and beautifully illustrated. In nine chapters we read of the complexity of the subject of “architectural glass,” meet the pioneers of the movement, including architects and designers of the Gothic Revival in Britain, critic John Ruskin, William Morris and his circle, the Art Workers’ Guild (founded in 1884) the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society (founded in 1887) and see the extraordinary windows of the glazers who followed them and who were also artist-craftsmen, authors, and teachers, and their apprentices and students through the 1950s. Arts & Crafts Stained Glass illustrates and evaluates the work of over a hundred studios, firms, art schools, and individual artists working in England, Scotland, Ireland, and the USA.

There are extensive notes and a comprehensive bibliography.

Cormack reminds us:

Throughout most of the Victorian era the teaching of stained glass design had been quite separate from any experience of its technical processes, with the result that many designers knew little about the craft processes and relied on subordinate artisans to translate their drawings into glazing. Reclaiming the entire sequence as ‘Art’––recognizing creative possibilities in those processes hitherto seen as purely mechanical

––was fundamental to Arts & Crafts teaching. . . . By providing combined design and technical instruction, the reformed or newly established art schools of the 1890s and 1900s robustly challenged the division-of-labour practices of the ‘Trade’ manufacturers.

He points out that “studies of the Arts & Crafts Movement have tended until recently to give a misleading impression of stained glass and its artist-makers as marginal to the main stream of its spheres of interest.” In fact, he declares: “One of the aims of this book is thus to restore stained glass to its rightful position within the canon of Arts & Crafts work, demonstrating that the art and its practitioners were at the heart of the movement’s philosophical discussions and public activity throughout its history.”

A key figure––artist-craftsman, author, teacher––was Christopher Whall (1849-1924), who exhibited stained glass panels at the first Arts & Crafts Exhibition in London in 1888, and who is today recognized as the leading English Arts & Crafts stained glass artist. Cormack notes:

While progressively consolidating his knowledge of materials and techniques, at the same time [Whall] was studying the history of the craft in England. These historical studies were a gradual process and were quite differently motivated from the antiquarian and revivalist interests of earlier Victorian designers. Whall had no desire to imitate the styles of the past, but he did want to absorb as much as possible of the practical craft experience embodied in ancient windows. Without aiming to make his new work look as if it were old, he nonetheless wanted it to evoke the best qualities of historic glazing.

Whall is best known for his book Stained Glass Work: A Text-Book For Students and Workers in Glass which is still in print and which Cormack, in his introduction to a 1999 edition, called “the first truly comprehensive account of modern stained glass in both aesthetic and technical terms.”

If the learning process and the relationship in the studio between master artist-craftsman and apprentices were paramount, classes and demonstrations in the applied art schools throughout Britain provided key training for a new generation of craftsmen/artists. Equally important, in Britain and Ireland “stained glass became the one major Arts & Crafts activity where there was real gender parity in both status and achievement. By the 1920s, for example, there were in London about as many women as men working independently in stained glass.”

Of particular interest are stained glass artists in Ireland, Scotland, and the United States.

“In Ireland, where there was no historical tradition of stained glass before the nineteenth century and an undistinguished record up to the 1900s, [Whall’s] progressive ideas about the craft were seen as offering a fresh field of exploration for an emerging, self-consciously national school of designer-craftsworkers.” Dublin’s Metropolitan School of Art established a stained glass course in 1900 and hired Whall student and assistant Alfred E. Child (1875-1939) to teach the course. In 1903 a stained glass studio and workshop––An Tür Gloine––Gaelic for ‘The Tower of Glass’––opened with Alfred Child as manager.

The artists of the “The Tower of Glass” explored the ancient vocabulary [of the Celtic tradition] in an entirely new medium (for no historic Celtic glazing, if it ever existed, had survived), recognizing that the complexities of traditional interwoven patterns were particularly suited to stained glass work. Beyond this connection with Ireland’s past, however, there evolved a broader and deeper comprehension of a distinctive Celtic sensibility, one that was communicated above all through colour and the expression of a kind of national (and non-sectarian) spirituality.

Cormack notes that “Wilhemina Geddes (1887-1955) and Harry Clarke (1889-1931) are the two best-known artists associated with the Irish school of the early twentieth century.”

Cormack observes that Scotland “had no surviving medieval glazing that might otherwise have inhibited stylistic originality, and it was also dominated by robust Protestant religious traditions that were largely immune to the ecclesiastical concerns and increasingly codified Gothic Revival tastes of the Anglican Church.”

Leading Scottish glazers those work is discussed and illustrated include the firm of J. & W. Guthrie, Robert Anning Bell (1863-1933), Stephen Adam (1848-1910), Oscar Paterson (1863-1934), and most importantly, Douglas Strachan (1875-1950).

The Arts & Crafts approach to architectural glass in the United States was, as was the case in Ireland and Scotland, a 20th-century achievement and its leading proponent was Charles J. Connick (1875-1945). Connick had been trained in Pittsburgh, and worked in Boston, Pittsburgh, and New York before settling in Boston in 1909 where he opened his own studio in 1913. Cormack notes:

As an early twentieth-century American, from a country with no Gothic past and with little allegiance to the imitative revivalism that had beset European applied arts, Connick self-confidently embraced the medieval glazing language and, in his own work, was to transform it into something new and equally vital. It was an intellectual but also an intuitive reaction to the past. More fully than any of his contemporaries in the USA, he comprehended the essential qualities of historic stained glass and their potential for reinterpretation to modern aesthetic sensibilities.

In 1910 Connick traveled to England and Europe. He met Christopher Whall, whose six windows in two Boston churches installed between 1907 and 1909 and commissioned by Ralph Adams Cram had greatly impressed Connick, and whose Stained Glass Work Connick had read and greatly admired, and they kept in touch until Whall’s death. Cormack notes:

The radical transformation effected in stained glass by Connick and others is inseparable from that achieved in architecture by Cram, [Bertram] Goodhue and their followers. In the 1900s and 1910s enthusiasm for large-scale architectural projects in the Modern Gothic style was stimulated by a number of prestigious commissions. . . . Throughout the USA, the revitalized Gothic championed by Cram rapidly superseded the more eclectic styles hitherto used for church and collegiate architecture.

On April 21, 1913, Connick opened his own studio at 9 Harcourt Street in Boston. Connick’s “considerable experience of working for firms since the 1890s, as well as his 1910 visit to London and especially to Whall’s studio, helped to mould his ideas about organizing his new enterprise. It would, from the outset, be based on an Arts & Crafts model of collaboration.” Cormack notes: “Charles Connick became, within a few years of instituting his Boston studio, the undisputed leader of, and principal spokesman for, the new school of American stained glass.” Cormack also notes that Connick’s efforts in Boston were supplemented by a number of English, Scottish, and Irish glazers affiliated with the Arts & Crafts movement who immigrated to New York City and vicinity beginning in the 1890s through World War I, most notably John Gordon Guthrie (1874-1961), Clement Heaton (1861-1940), Ernest W. Lakeman (1882-1948), and Henry Wynd Young (1874-1923).

Regarding the next generation of Arts & Crafts glazers in Britain, Ireland, and the USA, Cormack observes:

The Arts & Crafts Movement’s philosophy was successfully transmitted to a second generation of artist-craftworkers whose careers would span the first four decades or more of the twentieth century. In the field of stained glass, these young women and men, born in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, benefited immeasurably from the technical innovations instigated by their teachers and, equally importantly, from new opportunities to work independently or in small collaborative groups as full-time designers and makers of stained glass. Making the transition from apprenticeship and having the right sort of studio and workshop arrangements not only facilitated artistic activity; it also helped to consolidate the spirit of Arts & Crafts camaraderie, of following a vocation rather than simply a trade or profession.

I will close this review of what will certainly be the definitive English-language study of Arts & Crafts stained glass with the following quotation:

[R]ejection of rigid historicism in favour of a more organic view is at the heart of Modern Gothic, allowing both the architecture and glass (and other applied arts) to explore new ways of articulating their interrelationships within the overall Gothic canon. At best, the end product is something authentically new and yet full of meaningful reference to the past.

This is an abridged version of a longer review prepared by Mr. Tannler in 2015.