The Renaissance of Stained Glass

“These Gothic windows, how they wear me out,

With cusp and foil, and nothing straight or square,

Crude colours, leaded borders roundabout,

And fitting in Peter here, and Matthew there!”

So wrote Thomas Hardy, who had helped “improve” a few churches with Gothic additions when training as an architect in the 1860s. The use of stained glass is one example of Victorian design that has yet to receive the recognition that it deserves. Until recently, Victorian stained glass has been vastly underrated, not to say ignored: “insipid”, “sentimental”, “the glass is Victorian and not worthy of comment” are typical guide book remarks. Pevsner acerbically commented that those who wish to study Victorian glass do so out of “a somewhat morbid aesthetic curiosity”!1 Yet the mid to late 19th century saw what was undoubtedly the greatest flowering of stained glass manufacture since the middle ages, and by looking at the windows we often see the best in 19th century artistic styles. They are “public art”, if you will. Edward Burne-Jones, for example, saw his stained glass designs in this light. They were a way of giving art to those “whose childhoods had been without beauty” (As his own had been).2

Nor had the windows’ teaching function, so important in medieval times, been entirely lost for they reminded church-goers of important tenets of their faith. So while we can admire Victorian stained glass as art, we can also study it to learn about how the Victorians saw their God.

In the 19th century techniques for working with and colouring glass were rediscovered; tougher glass, less likely to crack or shatter, became available and most important of all, the demand for stained glass windows for churches, public buildings and homes was ever increasing. Whilst it is undoubtedly true to say that much of the stained glass produced, especially towards the end of the century, was of inferior quality, a great deal of 19th century glass is worthy of our attention and further study. Wolverhampton has excellent examples from several major workshops; for a provincial town the glass in its churches is of singular variety and quality. (See section on Artists and Craftsmen).

The fine stained glass windows at the eastern end of the Chancel in St. Peter's Church, Wolverhampton.
The reasons for the 19th century Renaissance in stained glass manufacture are manifold; some technical, some architectural, others ecclesiastical. All are in some way connected with a longing for an ideal past which began with the 18th century Romantic Movement and which, as we have seen in the chapter on architecture, later became something of an obsession for certain Victorian artistic groups such as the Pre-Raphaelites and architects such as A.W.N. Pugin.

Romantic beliefs about an “ideal past” were reinforced for those wealthy enough to make the Grand Tour through France to Italy and often on to Greece. Such travellers saw not only classical remains but also the glories of medieval stained glass in cathedrals such as Chartres. This was a revelation as most English glass, certainly that of the highest quality, was destroyed at the Dissolution of the Monasteries and during the Commonwealth. The technique of stained glass manufacture used in medieval times, especially that of colouring had been lost. How the medieval glass makers had achieved the glorious deep blue present in so much of their work was a mystery.

In the late 1840s a barrister and antiquarian named Charles Winston, with the assistance of a chemist called Dr. Medlock, rediscovered the technique for making blue glass. Other pieces of medieval stained glass were analysed by chemists at the glass firm of Powell of Whitefriars and their secrets rediscovered. Chance Brothers of Swethwick began to produce stronger, clearer glass. This so called “antique glass” became essential for artists and designers.

As we have seen, architects from the 1840s onwards increasingly turned towards medieval styles for their inspiration. It was inevitable that a resurgence of interest in, and use of the styles of this period should become known as the Gothic Revival.

Established Church politics also left their mark. The Oxford Movement of the 1840s founded by J. H. Newman, H.E. Manning and others aimed at restoring the High Church ideals of the 17th century. Despite the reception of Newman and Manning into the Roman Catholic Church in 1845 and 1851 respectively, the Oxford Movement’s ideals continued to gain grounds throughout the 1850s leading to an increasing interest in Anglican worship and ceremonial, which in turn had a considerable impact on church design.

All in all, the stage was set for a demand for “medieval” stained glass. The new churches, built as existing towns and cities expanded and new towns grew; and the decaying churches of the established parishes, lovingly if heavy-handedly restored by Victorian worthies, all cried out for glass. A number of workshops fulfilled this demand. 
Part of the north window in the Memorial Chapel in St. Peter's Church, Wolverhampton.
The greatest was undoubtedly the firm of Morris and Company, much of whose glass was designed by Edward Burne-Jones. Unfortunately, Wolverhampton has no ecclesiastical glass from the Victorian heyday of Morris and Company, although Wightwick Manor has fine domestic examples and those prepared to travel to Birmingham and Shropshire will be rewarded by some fine examples. The town does however contain good examples from other prominent workshops.

Styles in stained glass did not remain constant through the Victorian period. In the 1850s and 60s “medieval” glass was popular. It fitted well with the prevailing Gothic style of the new and restored churches, and many churches installed windows showing lots of small scenes in predominantly dark tones which must have made their interiors dim and gloomy.

However, as in else, fashions in glass changed as the century progressed. By the 1870s and 1880s more naturalistic designs, with larger scenes and fewer dark colours, were the order of the day thanks to the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic movements. Churches found themselves without outmoded and unloved windows. So in the 1870s, 80s and 90s many Gothic designs were replaced, having stayed the course for a remarkably short time. St. Peter's Church is a good example of this trend. In the 1850s, after the church was restored, Gothic windows by the top firms of the day, Hardman and Company and Michael O’Connor, were installed. By the 1870s these were already being removed and gradually replaced by the designs that we see today; by the end of the Great War they were all gone.


1. Pevsner, "The Buildings of England: Cambridgeshire", p.363.
2. Penelope Fitzgerald, Edward Burne Jones, Hamish Hamilton. 1975, p.85.

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