Friday, March 03, 2006

A jewel in glass

click photo to enlarge
The reputations of the Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts movements have risen in recent years. During much of the twentieth century artists like Millais, Rosetti and Burne-Jones were looked on as exponents of a somewhat quaint English style that was a side-shoot to the main development of European art in the later nineteenth century. Recent major exhibitions have raised their profile and they have received some of the critical acclaim that they deserve.

This photograph shows the decorative genius that Edward Burne-Jones brought to the stained glass designs that he made for the firm of William Morris & Co. It is a detail of one of a group of five windows in the east wall of the church of St Martin at Brampton in Cumbria. The building is the only church designed by Philip Webb - the architect of Morris's famous home, the Red House, Bexleyheath. All the glass in the church was designed by William Morris and Burne-Jones in 1878-80.

In this detail Burne-Jones shows a pelican feeding its young with drops of blood from its breast. The image is derived from the medieval bestiaries and is a symbol of Christ's sacrifice. The drawing, the red/orange colours and the decorative arrangement of the birds is superb. The lower part of the glass has foliage in darker greens and blues interspersed with jewel-like flowers. Here the juxtaposition of deep and glowing colours is magnificently rich. One of the most interesting aspects of this design is seen in the sinuous lines of the stalks of the plants: these clearly prefigure the forms of Art Nouveau.

I took this photograph using a tripod, on an overcast day around noon. East windows are best shot later in the day to avoid strong light behind the glass. To capture the nuances of stained glass in a photograph is very difficult: it requires careful exposure - slight under-exposure often helps. Then careful post processing is necessary to try and give each tone and colour the luminous quality that the eye saw. In fact this photograph does not fully capture the beauty of this window. However I hope it does enough to show that the best stained glass artists of this period, and Burne-Jones in particular, were capable of marvellous work that bears comparison with the best of any age.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen