Stained glass: Brighton & Hove and beyond

I have become a stained glass nut and hunt it down wherever I may. It is a crucial add-on focus for any trips. It is an addition to the spiritual tourism I am prone to as some sort of secular pilgrim. It is worth saying that this can be virtual tourism: there are myriad images of ecclesiastic stained glass online (look for examples with nice fat image files). That said, I strongly recommend getting into churches and letting the real stuff work its magic: such experiences may overcome prejudices and snobberies.

It happens that my wife and I quite often stay in a flat in Hove and I can readily plunge myself into the wonder of late Victorian vigour in building. It’s most visible in houses (often imposing, as often modest but comely); railways (liberating, vulgarising, often destructive); and churches.

There are dozens of 19th Century churches on the Sussex Riviera area. They are characterised by being large, cod-medieval and having been built in the full ardour of Victorian high-Anglicanism. Their funders and congregations were not, I think, the near-aristocrats and demi-monde that one thinks of as building Regency Brighton. These religious funders seem more like the large class who were affluent through trade. Many but by no means all were second-generation rich. The everything-but-Rome high-church thinking of the last quarter of the 19th Century was matched by an anything-but-Rome low-church alternative but for stained glass, one mostly needs the former. It was – what is easily forgotten now – keen on the sheer beauty and joy of extravagant architecture, decoration and liturgy that protestantism in almost any form somewhat distrusts and even disparages. That said, the happy-clappy worshippers (well aren’ they?) at the mothership of HTB, Holy Trinity Brompton, have some great, very early, but old school, 20th Century glass.

On a recent Brighton & Hove pilgrimage, it was great to find that the three late Victorian churches I visited are all full of spirit, and seem to be maintaining much of the tradition of their founding priests. I find the way to be fairly sure to have a mooch around any church, anywhere is to turn up about half an hour before any advertised service. (Some churches additionally advertise other opening hours.) No-one seems to expect that one will necessarily bend the knee. In my experience almost any open church will also draw in someone or other one’s glad to have met.

At St Michael’s, Brighton, St Mary’s, Kemptown, and All Saints, Hove friendly priests let me wonder round as they (variously) said their mass or shepherded community activities. I mostly gawped at the stained glass in these places and at the bottom of this piece I append some URLs which might prove useful in that regard. All three churches are of cathedral scale. All seem remarkably entire, somehow: they are each a stylistic unity.

I want to write something a bit more general about my experience of churches and stained glass.

In the late 1960s I lived very near at least one giant Victorian church (across the road from wondrous All Hallows in Gospel Oak, between Hampstead and Kentish Town) and have poked my nose into dozens more. For most of my life I would have said they were faintly absurd, creepy even. I should have better understood the draw cod-Medievalism must have had for an age of thrusting scientific materialism. I feel some of that romance myself as the petrochemical gives way to the electronic age. But the hulking, neglected homages to the Gothic which now litter urban and suburban streets did not often move me. Oddly, even their glorious stained glass would have passed me by. I an the years I have been around Margaret Street, W1 on rag-trade business (as a deliveryman and then a buyer and then a journalist), I never was even aware of the wonder that is All Saints, Margaret Street, W1. Some of its glass – a minor point – has the great charm of a kaleidoscope, whose thrills would perhaps not stir the modern infant. All Saints matches St Paul’s in Knightsbridge, which I wandered in to on the way to the revelatory Dylan concert in Hyde Park this summer. The great man smiled and sashayed in the late afternoon sun, much as if he’d had the sort of uplift I got in that brief glimpse of a great church.

Curiously, in my 20s I had a perfectly good way into late Victorian churches and their glass. I used to drive Leonard Cheshire round to the Jesuit church in Farm Street Mayfair where, backstage, I smoked Sobranie cigarettes and roll-ups offered with a nice worldly-unworldliness by one of the priests. I am not sure I even realised that this was a 19th Century church. The ecstatic glass in it now draws me back often and bit by bit I hope to let everything else in the place get to me. Rather similarly, I sneak into the King’s College chapel in the Strand, nicely near the Courtauld and the India Club. (I say “sneak”: one has only to inquire at reception to be waved through.) All Saints, Brighton & Hove, St Paul’s, Knightsbridge, and Farm Street, Mayfair (the Church of the Immaculate Conception) all have amazing images at Wikipedia Media Commons. It’s worth checking out in much research.

I should have known better, earlier. My grandfather Stanley Kennedy North was an artist in stained glass, as in several other genres, including medieval pastiche. Amongst the myriad things I don’t know about him, I have no idea how hands-on he was. Many stained glass artists depended on glassworks and artisans to translate their work. I have recently discovered that in the 1920s, for instance, there was a glass-works in Regent Street, W1 which had employed 300 glassworkers in its late-Victorian heyday. Anyway, I now pay far more attention to the small glass panel he painted of his then wife, my grandmother Vera. And I treasure a rather humdrum piece of glass from the Hunston convent in West Sussex which is now Chichester Free School.

Of course, I imagine I have developed quite good taste in stained glass. I have, for instance, acquired a snobbery such that medieval glass strikes me as more interesting than the sentimentality of the 19th C. I don’t want to overstate this: from any age, this is religious art and there is some point in keeping the mind’s snobbish calibrations in obeyance. The kitsch can get a person to their knees as truly as can the high-tone. Still, I notice my taste seems to be refining itself. I am currently very much enjoying the handling of foliage in some 19th C stained glass. I am noting how the depiction of plants and fabrics provide fabulous opportunities for deployment of rich colours and pleasing shapes. I fancy that I can tell a window from the likes of the William Morris factory from something more humdrum.

I said earlier that this is religious art. Some of it must be, in the sense that both patron and artist had overt, primary and specific religious purposes. But some stained glass, even in churches, like much “religious” painting anywhere, presumably grasped at religious themes (and funding) but delighted, really, in the purely (or the impurely) secular artistic possibilities they afforded. I think some of the portrayals of saints (especially St George and St Jerome, for instance) are good examples of this, and so is the astonishing crop of WW1 memorials from the 1920s. The last are often quite modernist. I rejoice in the depiction of soldiers in khaki as Archangels and it is good to see aeroplanes and machine guns amongst the clouds and fields of the older tradition. Both wars produced memorials which seem to mark a sort of high point. There was a new freedom of subject and style in religious stained glass. After it came a modernism which looks to this mainstream, middlebrow eye a sort of infantalism.

That last gloomy thought is worth refining. John Piper was surely a very great stained glass specialist (and one who depended on interpreters in glass-works). His glass is often abstract and he understood shapes much as Matisse did. It might seem only fair to include Marc Chagall with him: but a Chagall on glass is not very different from a Chagall on paper so he does not quite qualify. And then there is the Irish artist, Evie Hone, whose work (and indeed that of her followers) thoroughly understands the “shard” approach. (Hone and Piper share exciting spots in Eton College chapel.) In St Wilfrid’s chapel, Church Norton, there is uplifting modern glass of the era of the fine Overlord Tapestry in Southsea’s D-Day museum. They share an aesthetic that has lots to do with baby-boomer comics and graphic art, in a good way. I was taken by the modern work in the Roman Catholic Church in Rottingdean. If you don’t like it, don’t worry: in St Margaret’s C of E parish church there are cracking Burne Jones’s, as executed by Morris. Burne Jones loved the village and did work for it as late as 1919. I can’t say what brought Edith Lungley to design – and make – a St George window for the church in 1937. I can’t find anything beyond a tantalising reference to a Joan of Arc window by her in Brighton & Hove.

I am fairly sure that my point about the cultivation of a certain modesty is reinforced by my reaction to a lovely rose window depicting the Tree of Life in St Margaret’s, Kemptown, Brighton & Hove. (It’s a subject essayed by Stanley North.) “Blimey”, I opined to the patient priest, ” I normally don’t like modern glass, but that’s lovely”. It was abstract and vivid. “That isn’t modern”, he replied. “It’s the oldest piece in the building”. It’s a Luxford of 1878.

St Mary’s, Kemptown, Brighton & Hove. Rose window by George Luxford 1878

All Saints, Hove, Brighton & Hove

Stained Glass Records: astonishing record of who did what

Sussex Parish Churches: architectural history

Wikipedia Media Commons

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Publication date

07 October 2019


Mind & body; On art