Thursday, November 29, 2018

Into the light

Adrian Barlow, Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe
Published by Lutterworth Press

Most people who visit churches admire the stained glass, but how many of us know more than a smattering about the people who designed and made church windows? Stained glass certainly isn’t my own area of expertise, and like many others, my knowledge is limited mostly to those who are famous for doing something else – people like Edward Burne-Jones or John Piper. Many stained glass artists are shadowy figures, even if we know their names. One figure whose name is familiar (from countless church guidebooks, from Pevsner) but whose life is little known is the Victorian designer and maker of stained glass Charles Eamer Kempe. Adrian Barlow’s new biography is here to put us right.

Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe tackles the life in the opening chapters . Barlow leads us through his subject’s upbringing: the unhappy prep school years of a shy and stammering boy, the happier times at public school and university. It was a good time for a young man interested in church art to be up at Oxford, with G E Street’s office in the city, William Morris and his friends around (and painting the murals in the Oxford Union library), the study of ecclesiology rife, and the Oxford Movement that worked towards a more ritualistic approach to worship getting going. Oxford also gave Kempe the chance to make visits to churches such as Fairford, across the county border in Gloucestershire, with its stellar late-medieval stained glass. His time there also forced on him the realisation that his stammer would make him unfit for his chosen career in the priesthood. Following Oxford, there are accounts of post-university travels, including Kempe’s discovery of the 15th-century stained glass of Normandy, which influenced his own, and his early work, especially with the great architect G F Bodley, and the setting up of his own studio.

From then on, the studio became Kempe’s life, and the life is one of friendships with colleagues and patrons. Kempe never married, but he was a good friend, and the book deals at length with his relationships with three people who became (if not by name at least in practice) his chief draughtsmen: Wyndham Hope Hughes, John Carter, and John William Lisle. This is where the book is variously illuminating, because these three, and Kempe’s final notable colleague, Walter Tower, all get the attention they deserve. Barlow is able to correct several misconceptions about them. Until recently for example, even the identity of Wyndham Hope Hughes was unclear – he’d long been confused with the Pre-Raphaelite painter Arthur Hughes. Barlow is also able to be more even-handed in his assessment of Walter Tower, who has not had a good press in some quarters, and that’s a useful and revealing redress of the balance.

More that all this, there is the glass. These biographical accounts bring out much about how it was produced, and by whom. Kempe is given his considerable due as a creative artist, but so are the other people in his studio – one should not, as the book makes clear, run away with the idea that being a ‘draughtsman’ involved merely the mechanical skills of the copyist. These people were creative, and Kempe’s relationships with them were creative, as were those with Bodley, and with various patrons. Barlow’s assessment of the work is further clarified by case studies of some key projects, backed up by some excellent photographs by Alastair Carew-Cox.

One comes away with a sense of the shape of Kempe’s life, an interesting set of insights into his working methods, and, above all, the sense that he’s a considerable artist. There’s no doubt that Kempe has been undervalued. My own view of him had been tainted by no less a person that Sir John Betjeman (whom I revere, generally), who proclaimed that Kempe’s glass was green and gloomy and, apart from some of the early work, not very good. A rare slip, and a great shame given Betjeman’s prominence and influence. Adrian Barlow’s Kempe will send people back to the work, with much more background knowledge, with a clearer understanding of how his big Victorian studio worked, and, above all, with new enthusiasm and new eyes.

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* Kempe chose Pembroke College, Oxford (or failing that, Corpus, he said, but Pembroke took him).

† Betjeman did not slip up that often, but he did sometimes speak too quickly. He could change his mind though. He began, in his early years at the Architectural Review, as a thorough modernist, but then ditched the white boxes when he realised how wonderful Victorian architecture could be. That change and his subsequent campaigns for threatened Victorian buildings were to his and our lasting benefit, and showed a kind of courage when architects and architectural writers had turned away from everything Victorian. This engagement with the Victorians makes his lapse regarding Kempe both puzzling and sad.

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