Consumers and Contexts
Author: G. A. Bremner (The University of Edinburgh)
This photoessay presents a number of carefully chosen images of stained glass, found both in Britain and its former colonial empire, in order to provide an impression of the range and type of window that engaged colonial/imperial subject matter during the Victorian and Edwardian periods. These images are accompanied by a short analytical overview, supported with critical commentaries on each image (or set of images). The images are arranged with a view to highlighting how certain themes of concern to Victorian society were communicated, such as civilizational advancement, material improvement, moral and spiritual edification, the pioneering impulse, and the appropriation and symbolic reassignment of local contexts (such as non-European flora and fauna). The aim of the essay is to offer some insights on how stained glass might be understood as a medium through which cultural values were transmitted and reinforced afar, and imperial ideals were displayed and maintained at ‘home’. Notions of spectacle, sacrifice, heroics, duty, history, and trusteeship emerge as some of the key and recurring tropes and mechanisms that stained glass (as a medium) aspired to employ to great effect. The essay also touches upon the processes behind the procurement and transportation of stained glass across the world, considering which manufacturers were involved and in what capacity. In the context of global and imperial commercialization, it highlights how the material and medium of stained glass may be seen as a category/object through which cultural, industrial, and commercial networks were established across the British world.
Keywords: empire, stained glass, photoessay
How to Cite: Bremner, G. (2020) “Colonial Themes in Stained Glass, Home and Abroad: A Visual Survey”, 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. 2020(30). doi: https://doi.org/10.16995/ntn.2900
In the course of my research on colonial church architecture I had the good fortune to gaze upon many stained glass windows from across the former British colonial world.1 Although I did not discuss these in my book Imperial Gothic, I nonetheless took note of many of them, photographing quite a few along the way.2 Indeed, it occurred to me at the time that the subject of colonial stained glass would make a worthy topic of research in its own right. To date no full and systematic study exists.3
Here I shall take the opportunity to offer some general (and tentative) observations about the types and nature of themes depicted in glass throughout the British Empire, including how stained glass was used as a medium through which to transmit and reinforce certain cultural values. Whether in religious or secular settings, stained glass was deployed deliberately to highlight ideals or causes at the heart of Victorian society (Allen, pp. 152–83). These were wide-ranging, embracing such notions as civilizational advancement, material improvement, moral and spiritual edification, the pioneering impulse, and/or the appropriation and symbolic reassignment of local environments (such as non-European flora, fauna, and people).
In this photoessay I will suggest some potential lines of enquiry for this subject, employing a number of carefully chosen images for the purposes of providing an impression of the range and type of window that engaged with colonial and imperial subject matter during the ‘long’ Victorian period. Each image (or set of images) will be supported with a critical commentary. The images have been chosen for what they reveal about Victorian attitudes towards ideas of sacrifice, heroism, duty, identity, and history as recurring tropes employed in stained glass for visual and didactic effect. The photoessay will also touch upon the processes behind the procurement and transportation of stained glass across the world, considering which manufacturers were involved and in what capacity. In the context of global and imperial commercialization, it will highlight how the material and medium of painted glass can be seen as a category through which cultural, industrial, and commercial networks across the British world were established and maintained.
Church extension and its cultures of building were of course central to the presence of stained glass in the British colonial world (and beyond). Needless to say, churches were a major building typology of the nineteenth-century colonial world, and much recent scholarship has revealed the extent and seriousness of church building throughout the British Empire during this period, including developments in the decorative arts.4 The vast majority of these churches contained stained glass, in some cases large amounts of it, and often of a high quality. Much of this glass, especially before local industries emerged, came from Britain.5 This suggests that there was a fairly significant global export industry in stained glass from Britain during the nineteenth century.
In their study Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c. 1850–1914, Gary Magee and Andrew Thompson included a discussion of British-manufactured encaustic tiles as an example of imperially networked consumer habits during this period. In this instance they focused on the famous manufacturers Mintons and Maw & Co. The preferential consumption of such a product was evidence, in their eyes, of a ‘transnational Anglo culture’ at work, and a phenomenon that demonstrated the significant and otherwise inexplicable overlap between empire and the globalization of markets and services.6
Their observation is not backed up with much evidence, but in my experience they are basically correct. In the countless churches that I have visited throughout Britain’s former colonial empire, Minton tiles, or those by rival manufacturers such as Maw & Co., are in evidence virtually everywhere. Wherever one finds British-manufactured encaustic tiles, one usually also finds stained glass. Indeed, as Valda Rigg, among others, has shown, this phenomenon was part of a wider demand in the colonies for medieval-style art and artefacts from Britain during the late nineteenth century, including such devotional objects as illuminated manuscripts.7 With this in mind, stained glass, produced by one or other of the major manufacturers, such as Clayton & Bell, Hardman & Co., or Ballantine & Allan, can also be cited as an index to the consumer culture identified by Magee and Thompson. In my travels I came across glass, in large quantities, not only by the manufacturers mentioned above, but also by Lavers & Barraud, C. E. Kempe, Beer of Exeter, Morris & Co., James Powell & Sons (Whitefriars), William Wailes, Burlison & Grylls, and Percy, Bacon & Bros, to name but a few. Indeed, next to that of Truro Cathedral, St Paul’s Cathedral in Melbourne was Clayton & Bell’s largest single commission.8
Why did so much British-made stained glass find its way to the colonies? And why might this otherwise be unexplainable in a globalized marketplace? The answers are many and varied, but obviously it had a lot to do with the popularity of the Gothic Revival movement in architecture, particularly ecclesiastical architecture, and especially as a pan-imperial phenomenon.9 Accompanying this were certain expectations concerning artistic vision and outcomes. This was of course related to certain demands pertaining to ecclesiastical settings, especially in Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, where degrees of liturgical enhancement were desirable, if not mandatory. This gave scope for the introduction of so-called ‘externals’ in the form of sacramental ornamentation, including stained glass.10 In this respect there was a ready market for stained glass in the colonies. But why so much British glass, especially when there were other manufacturers who were competitive in the global marketplace, such as Mayer & Co. of Munich? Again, Britain had a particularly developed industry by the mid-nineteenth century, but as Magee and Thompson observe, other factors were at play. Here they point to the dynamics of emigration:
It was emigration that conditioned consumption habits within the colonies such that their tastes, expectations and values were readily familiar, communicable and comprehensible to manufacturers back in Britain; and it was emigration that enabled a rapid establishment of trust between commercial partners in the colonies and Britain, thereby facilitating long-distance trade. (p. 118)
As far as Anglican ecclesiology was concerned, these ‘trust networks’ were quite close-knit and thus instrumental, leading to a fairly consistent approach towards the design and decoration of churches, both in Britain and its colonies, including the procurement of stained glass. The production and circulation of pattern books by British manufacturers in the colonies also assisted in maintaining links of commercial loyalty, helping realize that ‘Greater Britain’ conjured by the likes of Charles Dilke, J. R. Seeley, and James Froude.
In considering the culture and traditions of British stained glass in a global context, especially in relation to themes such as empire and/or church extension abroad, there are a number of avenues one might fruitfully explore. These include both the secular and religious dimensions of British cultural life. As mentioned, churches are one obvious place to look, but secular buildings of various kinds such as exhibition spaces, museums, galleries, town halls, schools, banks, and even domestic dwellings are others to which one might turn for clues on the subject. Windows in such settings tend to be quite literal or direct in the kinds of themes they depict, with bold imagery, usually concerning some colonial foundation narrative or seminal figure (or figures) in the history of the place concerned, whether it be a town, city, or colony (Figs. 1, 2). Even in churches it is possible to find windows relaying this kind of foundation myth (Fig. 3).
The Victorians’ penchant for visual narrative in the form of history painting and illustration allowed buildings of state such as town halls to employ mural decoration or stained glass (or both) as a means of translating the past into spectacle, with the aim of instilling collective notions of civility and citizenship.11 This was a tactic understood in another contemporary context as related to the instructive and inspirational capacities of art.12 Indeed, the Art-Union journal described methods of this kind as an effective means by which to secure the ‘welfare of the social state by the exhibition of great actions’.13 A certain political economy was evidently associated with such imagery, and this was exploited in places where that ‘welfare’ was in need of deliberate cultivation (Fig. 4).
To be sure, stained glass, especially in religious settings, had always been seen to carry this instructive capacity. In the Victorian age, however, this idea was given renewed impetus and meaning. Part of the purpose of the narrative impulse was not just to record and relay local events or scenery as history, but to ‘invent’ history as well. One curious example of this is the stunning portrait windows of the Petit family which grace the J. N. Petit Institute in Mumbai (rebuilt in 1898) (Holliday, pp. 169–76). The Petit family were textile magnates during the boom days of British Bombay and, like most leading Parsi families at the time, were keen philanthropists. These windows thus record and communicate with impressive clarity the ‘joint enterprise’, as Preeti Chopra has called it, of the communal benefits that flowed from commercial and political collaboration with the British in the growth and transformation of that city.14
Another noteworthy example of the Victorian narrative impulse in glass can be found in the programme for windows in the Great Hall at the University of Sydney (Fig. 5). Manufactured by Clayton & Bell, these magnificent windows were designed to invite observers to imagine the University of Sydney as some kind of global extension of the universities of Oxford and Cambridge.15 As the Ecclesiologist noted in 1857, if the buildings themselves in all their Gothic Revival glory were not enough to evoke such a connection, then the hall was to ‘be filled with stained glass; each light containing a figure. The subjects are to be the English Sovereigns, the founders of all the Colleges in Cambridge and Oxford, and the most conspicuous names in English literature.’16 This is ironic given that many of Sydney’s early professors were Scottish, and the educational system itself was based in part on that of the ancient universities of Scotland, not England.17
Nevertheless, these windows, as well as the architecture, represent a kind of ritual process of validation that was seen to both legitimate and nationalize educational aspiration and attainment, twelve thousand miles from its centre of inspiration, positing the University of Sydney as a missionary agent of British cultural values.18 The role of such imagery may also be understood as imparting considerable emotional and wider patriotic sentiment, especially in a land that was seen as largely lacking sites of historical and cultural imagining in a European sense. With this in mind, stained glass in such contexts was used both to represent and contrive history in temporal, cultural, and, eventually, racial ways.
Importantly, stained glass of this kind, and the narrative programmes it sought to establish, were often part of wider decorative and symbolic regimes that stood alongside other pictorial schema, such as murals (as mentioned above) or figurative sculpture, both inside buildings and in their immediate vicinity. An example of such a programme can be found at Belfast City Hall (Fig. 6). Here, stained glass windows pointing to regal and unionist themes were installed alongside statuary of British royalty and landed aristocracy, evidenced in the conspicuous statues of Queen Victoria and the Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (both Governor General of Canada and Viceroy of India) which grace the hall’s grounds. In the context of Home Rule politics at the time, a programme of this kind worked to create a distinct atmosphere of empire, leading to an imperial landscape of sorts that spilled from the building’s interior out into the confines of the city beyond (Fig. 7).
What these examples suggest is that there was a dimension to the use of stained glass in the Victorian and Edwardian periods that concerned both the activation and agitation of patriotic and/or loyalist sentiments (civic and national). In this sense it was part and parcel of what Benedict Anderson would describe as the mechanics and paraphernalia of ‘imagined communities’.19 Looking at buildings of this kind offers another way to understand the relationship between stained glass, its subject matter, its artistic context, and the wider British world.
However, there is perhaps a distinction to be drawn here between the nature of such thematics as they appear in Britain and how they are depicted in the colonies. Although I have not carried out any systematic research on this, my sense is that such themes when represented in glass in Britain tended to be explicitly imperial, to the extent that they were either celebrating Britain’s extension into the wider world in some way (such as in the case of the Imperial Institute), or were commemorative of some person or event that had definite imperial and/or colonial connotations. The Jubilee memorial window (1887) at Great Malvern Priory by R. W. Winfield & Co. (designed by T. W. Camm) springs to mind, as do windows in churches memorializing missionary martyrs or colonial conflicts, such as those commemorating the Second Anglo-Boer War in Winchester Cathedral and at St Leonard’s church, Middleton. Although memorial windows of this kind can be found in colonial contexts (Fig. 8), the tendency was for slightly more diffuse representations of the extension of European civilization, either through the promotion of Christian themes and imagery, or the depiction of ‘pioneering’ deeds.
In the case of ecclesiastical glass, the thematics are ideologically related but scenographically different. Also, as a form of ecclesiastical decoration, stained glass had a sacramental purpose in church settings besides any commemorative purpose it may have served. In Roman Catholic and High Anglican churches, especially, the liturgical east (or chancel) end of the building was considered sacred, with stained glass often used both to indicate and celebrate ideas of holiness. In terms of subject matter, it is once again pertinent to make a distinction here between Britain and the colonies. When one encounters reference to the colonial church in Britain it is usually in relation to missionary martyrdom, or as memorials to those who served the missionary cause in the wider world. At St Ebbe’s church in Oxford (c. 1891), for instance, there is a window of this type dedicated to Thomas Valpy French, Bishop of Lahore (Fig. 9); or, staying with the Asian theme, the windows depicting the great missionary martyr Henry Martyn at Truro Cathedral in Cornwall. Other interesting examples of the type include the Mackenzie memorial window at Haslingfield church in Cambridgeshire (Fig. 10).20
It is worth pondering for a moment if, and to what extent, such windows were accurate in their depictions of the people and places they depicted; or, whether this even matters. Extant portraits of Mackenzie show that the Haslingfield window is a good likeness, but what about the individual panels and their subject matter? In many ways the window speaks for itself: it commemorates the mission and sacrifice of Charles Mackenzie, once a familiar figure in the pulpit at Haslingfield, who became the first bishop of the Universities’ Mission to Central Africa, that ill-fated endeavour which sought to establish what was termed at the time an autonomous ‘negro church’ in modern-day Malawi, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Its objectives also included stamping out the East African slave trade.
Certain elements among the scenes depicted in the panels are of course stylized, such as the vegetation or the slaves themselves, who, in their facial features at least, look rather more like darkened Caucasians than indigenous sub-Saharan Africans. But what about the basic accuracy of the scene? Were people who gazed upon this window to know any different? Scenes of this type aimed at being accurate and were often based on well-known images circulating in the printed press at the time (which were themselves usually made from in situ sketches). Mackenzie and the UMCA would have been known to most if not all educated Anglican churchgoers in 1860s’ Britain, not least because he and the mission were associated with David Livingstone’s famous expeditions up the Zambezi River in the mid-1850s.
As a tribute to martyrdom, this window clearly played into the ‘missionary hero’ tradition that was current in Victorian culture, which was itself a subset of the wider tendency in Britain to make a virtue of failure.21 We also detect a certain visual economy at work in the immediacy of the scenes represented. It was designed not only to communicate as effectively as possible the moral and righteous basis of Mackenzie’s actions, but was also calculated to prick the Victorian middle-class conscience through an appeal to selflessness and sacrifice.22 Here, issues of Christian duty and trusteeship of non-European indigenes were at the fore.
A similar type of window can be found at St Aldates church in Oxford. In this case the imagery is more general. In the central panel is a depiction of the Lord risen, standing on a globe signifying the worldwide obligation of Christian mission, flanked by martyrs and teachers typical of the first and nineteenth centuries (Fig. 11). On the far left we have the martyred James Hannington of Church Missionary Society fame, Bishop of Uganda, who, like a number of missionary bishops before him, was killed in the field, in Hannington’s case having been captured and executed in 1885 by the Buganda king, Mwanga II, for violating his territorial sovereignty. On the far right is the famous evangelical missionary Henry Martyn. Here too we find an extraordinary depiction of the CMS missionary cathedral atop Namirembe Hill, on the outskirts of modern-day Kampala (Fig. 12). This singular structure has long since vanished (burned down in 1904), and would be all but forgotten today if not for its depiction here, in vivid and accurate detail.
Windows of this kind, and the imagery they contained, were designed to emphasize two things in particular: first, the ‘good’ that Britain and British civilization was supposed to be doing in the world in bringing ‘progress’ and ‘improvement’, whether spiritual, material, or both. This had something to do with the perceived duty that Britain saw itself as having in the modern world. It also worked to soften, if not morally assuage, home audiences’ attitude towards the more indiscriminate and brutal thrust that lay behind the reality of British imperial expansion.23 Secondly, the imagery emphasized that such a sense of duty was not only willingly acknowledged but also delicately poised, oftentimes requiring considerable sacrifice. In other words, people (in some cases, many people) were willing to die for it. Such windows were therefore an effective device in reminding those who looked upon them of the gravitas of that responsibility and the sacrifices it required. In case those sitting comfortably at home had forgotten what made Britain ‘Great’, such imagery would serve as a type of aide-memoire to what was actually involved in facilitating and maintaining the spiritual and civilizational basis of British political power across the globe.
Such windows and their scenery were of course hardly the preserve of the Anglican Church, and could be found in churches of all denominations across the British world. In the colonies the types of theme one comes across varies, and in parish churches in towns and cities (especially in settler colonies) they include anything one might normally find in a Victorian parish church in Britain. Missionary memorial windows are also found on occasion in such places. In the town of Milawa in northern Victoria (Australia), for instance, there is a window dedicated to Bishop John Coleridge Patteson, the ‘missionary martyr’ of Melanesia. The reasons for its location here are unclear, but it contains scenes of St Paul preaching to the Athenians, and St Stephen being stoned: both biblical references to Patteson’s endeavours, with the latter alluding to his death at the hands of Solomon Islanders in 1871.
Themes that do occur with relative frequency in stained glass in the colonies are those concerning the great missionary apostles, the idea of evangelism, and the sacrament of baptism (Fig. 13). Such subject matter signified the church as being in a missionary and therefore ‘militant’ state, as was indeed the case in many of Britain’s colonies at the time. Moreover, being themes that were also common in stained glass at home, they may be seen as having extended a sense of continuity between the mother country and its colonies. One particularly beautiful if remote rendition of the sacrament of baptism in stained glass can be found in the Anglican church of St Barnabas, Norfolk Island. This window, along with the others in the church, was designed and produced by Morris & Co. (Fig. 14 left). It is notable for its depiction of the baptized as a non-European of dark complexion, in this case an Ethiopian eunuch being baptized by St Philip (Acts 8.26–40). This clearly connects a portrayal of non-European ‘otherness’ with Pacific Island peoples. In this respect the window is both local and universal: local in the sense that it addresses the missionary context of the Pacific Islands; universal in that it can be taken as a general allusion to the spiritual condition of ‘heathendom’, with the black figure standing in as visual shorthand for the peoples of the non-Christian, non-European world (i.e. those that required their souls to be saved). Broader portrayals of Christian mission in stained glass likewise often resorted to depictions of non-European ‘others’ in an attempt to capture the ethnographic dimensions of the worldwide missionary endeavour (Fig. 14 right). This included, as Hilary Carey has argued, a certain desire to subsume indigenous cultures within the frame of a romantic European medieval heritage (‘The Secret of England’s Greatness’).
Feelings of longing and attachment to ‘home’ were also important factors in maintaining the tradition of stained glass in the wider British world. Discourse surrounding colonial church design was replete with aspirations of recreating the old world in the new, and was of course part of wider medievalizing tendencies in Victorian culture, both at home and in the colonies. This was especially the case with Anglican and Roman Catholic ecclesiology, where a certain appeal to medieval authenticity was de rigueur.24 In some cases attempts were made at copying known specimens of medieval stained glass to be sent abroad. For example, at Fredericton Cathedral in New Brunswick, designs from the windows in the chapel at Merton College Oxford were initially mooted, with copies of those from Selby Abbey, Exeter Cathedral, and St Mary’s, Snettisham eventually being sent. These were produced by manufacturers in England such as William Wailes, Robert Beer, and William Warrington.25
Moreover, stained glass was not only beautiful and uplifting in its own right, but also aided in recreating that all-important ‘dim religious light’ so commonly associated with medieval religious space. We know from written accounts that this is something that colonial clergymen remembered with fondness from their lives in England.26 This applied especially in places such as Africa, South Asia, and Australasia, where the light was far more intense (and intrusive) than in northern Europe. In an 1849 number of the Ecclesiologist, for instance, we find a request from St Paul’s church in Chippendale, Sydney for ‘sheets or fragments of glass’ to make stained glass windows for the new building in order to keep out the harsh north light.27 Again, this was concerned with ideas of ‘ecclesiology’ and the setting for what was considered ‘correct’ and dignified religious worship. In many cases it was anticipated that all the windows in a church would eventually be filled with coloured glass of some kind, whether sacramental, commemorative, or just decorative — hence the call in Sydney for any available fragments that might be fitted into existing windows. The hope would have been that, as the congregation grew and consolidated, donors would step forward to supply funds for new, more artistically sophisticated types of stained glass.
This example suggests that there was clearly an emotive power with respect to the use of stained glass in colonial contexts. It not only evoked memories of home but also reaffirmed ideas of a Christian culture that was understood as having its modern origins in Europe. The stresses and strains of this emotive imaginary could be quite profound, as the stark realities of colonial existence tore away at the romantic soul. Take the following passage from an Anglican clergyman in South Africa, the Rev. William Abiah Newman:
It is with much satisfaction that we are enabled to inform our readers, that the English Churches now building at Rondebosch, George, Graff-Reinet, Colesberg, and elsewhere in this colony, will be in a style calculated to recall the ‘goodly fabrics’ in which we have been accustomed to worship in other lands.
In recalling such ‘goodly fabrics’, Newman turned to the poems of Pope:
The reader must therefore bear with us, if, in giving liberty to our unrestrained remembrances, we try to lead him with us to ‘domes with spiry turrets crown’d, | Where awful arches make a noon-day night, | And the dim windows shed a solemn light.’28
Indeed, all Newman’s writings on architecture were deeply felt, if rather saccharine, recollections of a world left far behind. Nevertheless, such pangs, in what might appear to us now as somewhat overwrought language, bring home just how important filtered religious light was understood to be in recreating forms of religious experience in colonial contexts. This atmosphere of sanctity, as Newman called it, was seen as having enhanced value in the colonial world, as it was difficult and often costly to recapture.