Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sentiment or sentimentality?

click photo to enlarge
All artists must be wary of the fine line that separates sentiment from sentimentality. However, since the artist's intentions are always subject to the viewers' comprehensions, what one person sees as a finely expressed sentiment, others will see as having tipped over into sentimentality. That problem has been associated with this stained glass. The photograph shows a detail of the Peveril Turnbull Memorial Window in the church of St Oswald in Ashbourne, Derbyshire. It was designed by Christopher Whall (1849-1924) in 1905, and commemorates three daughters who died in a fire.

Whall was one of the principal artists of the Arts & Crafts movement working in stained glass. He was a superb draughtsman of considerable personal and artistic integrity, and his work graces many churches throughout Britain. Perhaps his greatest achievement is the windows in the Lady Chapel of Gloucester Cathedral. These typify his style - deeply coloured glass set against areas of white, a gritty textured feel to the painting, figures drawn from life, and extremely inventive (often historically-based) decorative motifs.

Here at Ashbourne those artistic qualities can be seen. Yet some see the characterisations of the young people as martyr saints (the right figure represents St Dorothea with her roses), as inappropriate. And the criticism has been made that the conception is too "storybook", too perfect, too beautiful, too idealized. However, some of these criticisms may be problems attendant on any memorial to the death of young people. It is a hard subject to deal with, and provokes strong emotions. What do you think? Did Whall get it right in this window? Or has he crossed the line that separates sentiment from sentimentality?

One of the difficulties of photographing stained glass is that it is often at a high level. Pointing the camera upwards produces converging verticals in the window frame and tracery. Correcting this in software often distorts the proportions of the window and the objects depicted in the glass, and is particularly noticeable where the human figure is concerned. One way of overcoming this is to take the photograph from farther away with a long focal length lens on a tripod. That is the solution I adopted here.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen