The Enigma of George Herbertson Charles
by Peter Cormack
In the first two decades of the twentieth century, a lively
polemic about the aesthetics, techniques and materials of stained
glass informed public discussion of the craft in the
U.S.A. One especially comprehensive essay on 'Stained and Painted
Glass', published in the book American Churches
(2 volumes, New York: American Architect, 1915; vol. I, pages 67-83),
articulates the growing reaction against opalescent glass
and pictorialism with cogent eloquence. The writer, George
Herbertson Charles, argues that 'transparent colored
or white glass (painted … so that the light is "stopped down" but not
obscured in heavy masses), is the logical medium to use
in the making of stained and painted glass windows'. Quoting
extensively from Viollet-le-Duc's 'Vitrail' (in Leicester
B. Holland's translation), with its sophisticated analysis of the
optical and coloristic qualities of twelfth- and thirteenth-century
windows, he contrasts medieval principles of glazing with
the tendency in much American glass 'to nullify and obscure
the light' by picture-making in 'opaque' and 'undefined' colors.
It is perhaps not surprising to find that volume I of
American Churches has an introduction by Ralph Adams Cram, most
ardent of all American medievalists.
As a contribution to the propaganda of the modern Gothic
Revival in America, which Cram did so much to orchestrate, G.
H. Charles's plea for a return to the ancient verities
of the glazier's craft is worth examining in some detail, not least because
his illustrated essay presents one of the earliest published
surveys of contemporary American stained glass in a non-opalescent,
Gothic-inspired, idiom. Fifteen of the twenty-two illustrations
are of windows or designs by William and Annie
Lee Willet, Nicola D'Ascenzo, Heinigke & Bowen, Henry
Wynd Young & Owen Bonawit, J. F. Rudy and Charles J.
Connick. None of these American 'glass-men' (and one
woman) is mentioned by name except in the captions, so their work
must speak for itself, but one infers that they exemplify
for the writer those 'who are striving earnestly to express, sincerely
and frankly, the high ideals which this medium might
well be expected to evoke'. The other seven illustrations are of
medieval English and French glass (two from sketches
by Connick) and of modern English work by Sir Edward Burne-Jones,
Christopher Whall and James Powell & Sons.
Whilst reference to France's 'rich treasures of Chartres,
of Bourges or of Reims' and to Viollet-le-Duc's subtle appreciation
of the medieval tradition forms one of the writer's major
themes, the stained glass revival in England provides another
equally significant component of his argument. For Charles
points out that 'the making of glass in rich, pure color such as
was used by the masters of old, is no lost art' and instances
'the prismatic colors which rivaled the glories of the famous
glass in Chartres' in Burne-Jones's 1885-97 windows—made
by Morris & Company—for St Philip's Cathedral,
Birmingham. He explains that these colors were created
by 'a well known London glass firm', identifiable as James Powell
& Sons, one of Morris's principal glass suppliers.
He goes on to praise the English glass-makers' subsequent successes,
instigated by Christopher Whall and his colleague Louis
Davis, in producing yet more convincingly medieval-like material
for the modern craftsman, in the form of both 'antique'
sheets and so-called 'Norman Slabs'. The 'lustrous' intensity of the
latter are particularly emphasised.
George Herbertson Charles's awareness of current developments
in glass manufacture and the role of leading 'Arts &
Crafts' designers such as Whall and Davis suggests some
first-hand contact with the craft in England. Clearly he was also
familiar with Whall's influential Stained Glass Work
(1905), since he repeats verbatim the book's eulogy of Burne-Jones's
Birmingham windows as examples 'of noble thought and
work carried to the pitch of perfection and design.' Charles's
characterisation of the medium as 'the singing splendor
of pure transparent color infused with light' likewise resonates with
Whall's poetic language and, more generally, his text
echoes the Englishman's idealistic message of stained glass as a lofty
vocation rather than simply a trade. One might reasonably
conclude that Charles, this thoughtful—indeed
zealous—theorist, was also a practitioner of the craft.
But who was he? His name, as far as I can trace, appears nowhere
else in the literature. Was it perhaps a nom-de-plume
and, if so, does his text contain clues which might identify him?
First, there is the evangelising tone of someone sharing
a personal revelation about the true nature of his subject, an
understanding arrived at through absorbing Viollet-le-Duc's
inspirational theories after seeing for himself the masterpieces
of medieval glazing. There is also the detailed knowledge
of specific English artists and glass-makers, along with the
essay's particular context, i.e. within a volume introduced
(and its content implicitly endorsed) by Cram. In addition, a
letter written by one of Cram's circle to Christopher
Whall in November 1914, referring to 'an opportunity, which I have
long desired, to write an article for an important American
publication on modern stained glass work' and asking for
illustrations of Whall's glass, may well be relevant.
The letter, written by Charles J. Connick and now in the
Connick Archives, recalls Whall's kindness when the two men met
in London in 1910 and his 'sympathy for all intelligent
efforts to foster an honest appreciation of the beautiful possibilities
given the sincere artist who works in stained and painted
glass.' On that same London visit (which immediately preceded
his first study-tour of the French Cathedrals), Connick
had met Thomas Cowell, principal glass-painter at James Powell &
Sons and Louis Davis's main collaborator. As a result
of their meeting, Cowell would for almost twenty years arrange
transatlantic shipments of the finest English antique
and slab glass to Connick's Boston studio, as well as help to persuade
one of his Powell's colleagues, W. M. Francis, to join
the Harcourt Street workforce in 1913.
On these grounds, Connick—for whom the discovery of Whall's
Stained Glass Work and Leicester B. Holland's translation
of Viollet-le-Duc were formative 'Adventures in Light
and Color'—does seem an eminently plausible candidate as author of
the 'George Herbertson Charles' essay. The idea is further
reinforced by two similarly-worded references, one in the essay
itself and one in Connick's own advertisement in the
final pages of the first American Churches volume, to the usefulness
of photographic color transparencies of stained glass
Continued on the OVERLEAF.
Finally, family names offer a ready source of pseudonyms.
What more natural ploy than for Charles Connick to combine his own
first name with those of his father, George Herbert Connick,
to devise the name 'George Herbertson Charles'? By this cryptic
allusion to his parentage, I suggest, Connick modestly
cloaked his own identity at the tentative outset of what proved to be a
literary career in the service of his craft.
Acknowledgements: I am grateful to Sandra Coley, Janice
Chadbourne (Curator of the Fine Arts Department, Boston Public
Library), Joan Gaul, Marilyn Ibach (at the Library of
Congress) and Marilyn Justice for useful information.
Mr. Cormack, Deputy Curator of the William Morris Gallery,
London, gave the 1997 Orin E. Skinner Lecture on Stained Glass. His
subject, The Stained Glass Work of Christopher Whall,
was jointly published in 1999 by the Boston Public Library and The
The sixteenth Annual Connick Foundation Directors meeting
was held April 9, 2001 in Boston.
An anonymous donor gifted The Connick Foundation a copy of
Adventures in Light and Color that is beautifully bound in blue leather
and inscribed "Bound for Charles J. Connick by the Harcourt Bindery in
cooperation with his fellow workers of the Connick Studio. Christmas 1938."
Cathie Zusy, Curator of The Connick Foundation's exhibition
planned for 2003, organized a Memory Party at St. John's Episcopal Church,
Newtonville, MA on June 9, 2001. People who were associated or familiar
with the Connick Studio shared their recollections.
Please address questions, comments and/or gifts to Marilyn
B. Justice, President, at The Connick Foundation.
Chancel Window in St. Gabriel's Church
Marion, Mass. 1913
Photograph courtesy of the Trustee, Boston
"I want to make beautiful interiors for both churches
I want...[all people] to hear my windows singing..."
Charles J. Connick