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The Charles J. Connick Stained Glass Foundation, Ltd., Orin E. Skinner, Founder October, 2000
Directors and Officers: Theresa D.Cederholm    Judith G. Edington    Jonathan L.Fairbanks    Elizabeth B. Johnson    Robert G.Windsor    Marilyn B. Justice, President

The Stained Glass Work of Christopher Whall (1849-1924): 'Aglow with Brave Resplendent Colour.'

Reviewed by Lance Kasparian, A.I.A. 

Spirit and imagination are fundamental to artistic expression, but the art of stained glass is also dependent on the coordination of specialized technical processes, a sensitive handling of materials and a responsiveness to architectural setting.  This is not to mention the importance of cultivating liberal and enlightened patronage.  None of these can be taken for granted or left to chance.  In the life and work of Christopher Whitworth Whall (1849-1924), we find a happy coincidence of all these elements, plus a humble desire to work amongst friends and share his gifts.  Indeed, Charles Connick was inspired by Whall. For those who wish to understand the art of stained glass and Connick's prolific career, Peter Cormack, the Charles Connick Foundation and the Trustees of the Public Library of the City of Boston have done a great service with their publication of "The Stained Glass work of Christopher Whall:  Aglow with Brave Resplendent Color."

"Whenever a fresh expression of beauty disturbs the drab routine of a commercialized art you may be sure that an ardent spirit is adventuring in the dusty pathways of the stupid..."  These were the opening lines of Connick's tribute to Whall, published in the Journal of the A.I.A. in July of 1925.  Connick condemned the commercial art industries of his time and celebrated Whall as a romantic hero in the battle to restore artistic integrity to the noble craft of stained glass. Christopher Whall was in fact,  the leader of a progressive movement in stained glass at the turn of the 19th - 20th century.  His belief that a designer of a stained glass window must perform, or at the very least supervise, every stage in the making of his window - from initial sketches to drawing the full-size cartoons, selecting the glass, painting and firing the details and even setting the window in place - emerged out of frustration with the rigid division of labor and factory-like production methods which ruled the stained glass trade during the Victorian era.  But Whall was also motivated by a deep reverence for stained glass as an expressive medium.  His school of stained glass, which blossomed within the broader Arts & Crafts Movement in British architecture and applied arts, was inspired by the writings of Ruskin and Morris on medieval art, the beauties of nature and the dignity of hand craftsmanship.  In practice, however, Whall was more focused than his forbears, with their broad interests and activities, and his approach marked a departure from the conventional methods of production employed at Morris & Company.  Whall was an artist and craftsman who practiced what he preached.  He devoted his life wholly to stained glass work, promoting its esoteric concerns and mundane routines to the status of beautiful necessities, adventures in a noble tradition and ultimately a way of life.

Whall's first stained glass commission came to him in 1879, when as a new follower of the Rosminian religious order, he was asked to design windows for the 13th century chapel of St. Ethelreda, Ely Place in London.  By way of qualifications for this task, he had studied painting as a youth in the Royal Academy Schools, reveled in the art of the middle ages and renaissance while living a peasant life for several years in Italy, and studied the treatise of Viollet-le-Duc on stained glass.  It was a disappointment to him when his cartoons were consigned for fabrication to a commercial firm, from which he was barred while the workmen proceeded to misinterpret and alter the details of his designs without even the courtesy of consulting him.  Realizing that he was unprepared to carry out his own work, he resolved to learn his "trade."  In 1885, with the assistance of a loyal and sympathetic aunt, he and his wife retreated to a country cottage, where he set up a studio and glass painting shop in a cow shed.  Surrounded by chickens, a pig and a cow, he set about raising a family while embarking on a course of discovery and self-instruction in the technical processes of lead glazing and glass painting. 

Whall's conviction that design and technical mastery must go hand in hand eventually drew him into the Art Workers' Guild and the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society in London, where he was introduced to the leaders of the British Arts & Crafts Movement.  Among these were the architects W.R. Lethaby, J.D. Sedding, Henry Wilson and E.S. Prior, who would become his friends and patrons.  The architect, Edward Schroder Prior (1852-1932) had an especially profound influence on Whall.  In 1889, while working at the glassworks of Britten & Gilson and attempting to replicate the luminosity and coloring of early medieval stained glass, Prior devised a new material.  His new type of glass was blown and molded into the form of a rectilinear box, with sides forming slabs of uneven thickness, course texture and vivid blushes of color.  "Prior's Early English glass" or "Slab glass" was a modern invention which captured Whall's imagination and focused his ideas about the unity of design and technical craftsmanship by asserting the importance of material in determining the character of his work.  Perhaps, this revelation was similar to the discovery of opalescent glass by John La Farge and Louis Tiffany a decade earlier.  But, where La Farge and Tiffany had conceived unimaginable opulence in color, decorative effect and pictorialism, Prior and Whall were fascinated with the pure seductive character of ancient colored glass specimens.

 Mr. Cormack writes with the knowledge of a historian and connoisseur, and the sensibility of a craftsperson.  He offers intimate interpretations of Whall's life and work, with a keen sense of the potential of stained glass as an expressive medium. "There is an 'experimental' character to many of Whall's windows of the 1890's," he explains.  "One senses that he is exploring all the basic ingredients of the medium - the various textural qualities of glass, the character and function of the lead line, the infinite subtleties and possibilities of color." Whall's liberal use of pure white (clear) glass to enhance his colors and create sparkling and silvery effects, was something of a trademark.  According to Cormack, this trademark was as much a practical response to the mild light of Britain and a reference to a distinctly English historical idiom, as it was a reflection of the artist's personal taste. "Throughout the 1890's," Cormack writes, "Whall combined technical experimentation with the study of ancient and contemporary stained glass, absorbing practical and aesthetic lessons as they evolved through generations, and placing himself within an ancient and living artistic tradition, without becoming preoccupied with scholarly interpretations."  In his masterpieces, produced for the 15th century Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral between 1897-1913, this led Whall to incorporate surviving fragments of medieval canopy glazing into his designs, isolating them "out of respect and as a lesson," but drawing on them for  "the proportions of white and colored glass, the scale of figure subjects and the size of background quarries" in his own designs.  Here in the U.S., the architect Ralph Adams Cram proclaimed Whall's windows at Gloucester Cathedral to be "at the same time perfectly Medieval and perfectly Modern."  Admiring the integration of these windows in their historic architectural setting, Connick wrote that Whall's "gracious control of this large interior, in terms of light and color, suggests the power of an amiable composer-conductor over a vast orchestra." 

Continued on the OVERLEAF.
Dr. Nicola Gordon Bowe will give the Orin E. Skinner Lecture on stained glass Wednesday, November 1, 2000, 6:30 p.m. in the Rabb Lecture Hall at the Boston Public Library, Copley Square. 
Dr. Bowe, a leading authority on Irish stained glass of the early 20th century and a prolific writier on Irish Arts and Crafts and the 'Celtic Revival', is professor of history of art and design and complementary studies at the National College of Art & Design in Dublin. The Boston Public Library and the Connick Foundation sponsor the Orin E. Skinner Annual Lecture. It is free and open to the public.
Please address questions, comments and/or gifts to The Charles J. Connick Stained Glass Foundation, 37 Walden Street, Newtonville, MA 02460.  Telephone (617) 244-2659.

In a 1979 exhibition catalogue, Mr. Cormack noted that Whall's designs had the dubious distinction of being rejected in 1909, as "too modern" for Westminster Abbey, the national shrine of Great Britain.  Nevertheless, by the turn of the century, his synthesis of craft ethic, historical tradition and personal style was recognized as a progressive force on both sides of the Atlantic, earning him positions as a teacher of stained glass at the London County Council's Central School of Arts and Crafts and the Royal College of Art, as well as appointments as lecturer at the Architectural Association School and the Royal Institute of British Architects and numerous other honors.  In 1905, Whall produced a masterpiece of another kind, when he was commissioned by the architect and editor, W.R. Lethaby, to contribute a volume on stained glass to "The Artistic Crafts Series of Technical Handbooks."  At first, Whall was a reluctant author, writing in his preface:  "I have always held that no art can be taught by books and that an artist's best way of teaching is directly and personally to his own pupils... but I have such respect for the good judgment of those who have... worked in the teaching side of the art and craft movement, and, such a belief in the movement... that I felt bound to yield..."   Entitled  simply, "Stained-Glass Work," his handbook is a testament to the seriousness with which he viewed the work of his students and his responsibilities as their teacher.  Beyond mere instruction in designing and making stained glass, Whall's lessons were an attempt to stimulate the spirit and imagination of his fellow artists and craftsmen, by embracing the broad fields of art, science and human nature as they related to the technical matters at hand.  (This book has recently been reissued by the William Morris Gallery, Lloyd Park, Forest Road, London E17 4pp, U.K; tel: 01-144-20-8527-3782; fax 01-144-20-8527-77070 in London. This 1999 publication has an introduction and color photographs by Peter Cormack.)

Aside from his handbook, most of what we know about Christopher Whall in the U.S., has come down to us incidentally in the works of Ralph Adams Cram and Charles Connick.  Whall was commissioned by Cram to produce windows for two Boston churches in order to serve as examples for the emerging school of stained glass connected with the contemporary neo-gothic movement in American architecture.  These were the Townsend memorial window (1907) for All Saints Church at Ashmont and an ensemble of clerestory windows for the Church of the Advent (1910).  In his own 1937 book, "Adventures in Light and Color," Connick recalled his impression upon seeing the Church of the Advent windows in 1910: 

"I recalled that impression with a start when I saw those sections of glass glowing serenely and beautifully in light as parts of the clerestory windows in the Church of the Advent... When I had solved the mystery of that transformation, I understood how tiny spots of light through those areas of dirty paint had, in distance, illumined entire windows in a gracious fashion new to me yet curiously true and good, I awoke again to the charm of glassiness and soon I gloried in the discovery of Christopher Whall."

Within weeks after this discovery, and with Cram's financial assistance, Connick was off to London and his first meeting with Christopher Whall.  Today, sequestered almost out of view in their original clerestory settings, Whall's Boston commissions undoubtedly represent a seminal influence in the development of Connick's personal style and sensibility.  With his new book, The Stained Glass Work of Christopher Whall:  'Aglow with Brave Resplendent Colour,' Mr. Cormack has provided a fresh and thoughtful appraisal of a vital force behind Charles Connick and the blossoming of stained glass as a contemporary expression in 20th century Boston.

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