Monday, May 08, 2006

Beautiful or not?

click photo to enlarge
If we know anything about James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), it's usually his mother! Many will recognise his painting, "Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Painter's Mother". If we don't know that image, then we may recall both John Ruskin's accusation on seeing Whistler's "Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket" - that the artist was "flinging a pot of paint in the public's face" - and the court case that followed these intemperate remarks. Whatever your views on Whistler's art, and I'm an admirer, no one could accuse him of being conventional!

What then are we to make of this stained glass window at Orton church in Cumbria? It is not by Whistler, but by his second wife. Born Beatrice (Beatrix) Philip, she was the daughter of a sculptor, and married Whistler in 1888, two years after the death of her first husband, the architect E. W. Godwin. Beatrice had worked in the workshop of her father, and studied with Godwin, producing furniture designs, decorative panels and designs for wallpaper and tiles. She painted in oils, modelled for Whistler, and did further design work, in jewellery and stained glass, including this design for Campbell Smith & Co., commemorating the death of an eight year old girl.

So, what about this window. The Centre for Whistler Studies at the University of Glasgow describes it as "beautiful". I'd call it storybook, twee, fey, and saccharine! It's not the subject matter, or the composition that are the problem: they're fine. It's everything else! The treatment of the commemoration, in my opinion, lacks dignity. The angels are badly drawn, attenuated and, with their ears poking out of their hair, elfin. This makes them worldly in an irreligious way, and consequently inappropriate. And what about their wings? They seem to have been borrowed from larger beings, and are just silly! There is no gravitas to the treatment of these figures. At the top of the window the sky is abstracted in a way that, apart from the colour, has little relationship to the rest of the design. Perhaps the best parts are the flowers and the commemorative script. One wonders how Beatrice Whistler got this commission, and why it is admired.

Why then did I set up my tripod, carefully meter a mid-tone, photograph it, and post process it to even out the brightness across the image? Because I have an interest in church architecture and stained glass, and, in the canon of English glass this piece is odd! Interestingly, it was only some months after taking this photograph that I found out the designer's name.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen