Wednesday, October 09, 2013

The Tiffany window at Kimbolton

click photo to enlarge
The stained glass windows and lamps of the U.S. designer, Louis Comforty Tiffany (1848-1933) are internationally renowned. The colours, style, drawing, shapes and lines that he used show him to be allied to the Art Nouveau and Aesthetic movements. His work was popular at the time of its creation and remains so today. There are examples in the British Isles - the Haworth Art Gallery at Accrington has Europe's largest collection of pieces - and windows can be found in private houses, and a few public buildings. However, unsurprisingly, most of his work is in the United States.

Bearing that in mind, imagine my surprise when walking around the church at Kimbolton in Cambridgeshire (formerly in Huntingdonshire) and coming upon one of Tiffany's stained glass windows. All the more remarkable because it isn't mentioned at all in the relevant county edition of Pevsner. Had it been taken away for repair when he visited? Who knows? The window is at the east end of the south aisle where it adds an unearthly glow to that corner of the church. It was commissioned by the widow of the Duke of Manchester as a memorial to her two daughters who both died young. The Countess was an American of Cuban extraction so that may account for the choice of stained glass artist. Unfortunately the tops of two eighteenth century memorials impinge on the bottom corners of the window, so a full view (or photograph) of the stained glass is impossible to achieve. The composition shows Christ with two girls, surrounded by children and angels, all set in traditional architectural canopies with putti gazing down from the tracery above. One of the most interesting features of the window is that none of the clothing is represented by a single colour: rather, multiple colours are softly blend together. This gives an overall iridescence to the piece that put me in mind of some Symbolist work by the likes of Gustave Moreau.

When I first saw the window I was captivated because, compared with most English stained glass it is unusual. Moreover, it has a rich, jewel-like quality. However, I was also unsettled by it because, for me, the richness of the effects that Tiffany deploys evoke something akin to decadence rather than reverence. The quality of the figure drawing doesn't help in that respect: the flanking children look odd, gaunt, emaciated even. I've read somewhere that Tiffany wasn't especially keen to tackle religious subjects in stained glass, and after viewing this window I can see something of why that might be. His techniques seem more suited to secular and non-figurative subjects. Looking at the approach of the Kimbolton window again I can see it being more successfully applied to, say, an Arthurian illustration or something from the Norse sagas.

I occasionally come across stained glass windows where the style of the artist seems at odds with the subject. Last year I wrote about Walter Crane's "psychedelic" window in Holy Trinity Hull, and several years ago I was taken to task by someone over what I think is a downright weird, "storybook" window by the wife of Whistler in Orton church, Cumbria. On the whole I'd put Tiffany's window at Kimbolton alongside those two: interesting, not without some appeal and certainly bravely different in approach, but ultimately unsatisfactory.

photograph and text © Tony Boughen

Photo 1
Camera: Canon
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 105mm
F No: f4
Shutter Speed: 1/125 sec
ISO: 1000
Exposure Compensation: -1.0 EV
Image Stabilisation: On