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Book Review: The first in-depth study of Pre-Raphaelite stained glass

Angels and Icons is an important contribution to Pre-Raphaelite studies and a welcome addition to scholarship on post-Medieval stained glass in Britain

Stained glass held visual appeal and symbolic significance to the Pre-Raphaelites, many of whom turned their hands to stained glass design, including Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Madox Brown and Simeon Solomon. William Waters’s Angels and Icons: Pre-Raphaelite Stained Glass 1850-1870 is the first sustained study of the glass produced by the British artists associated with and influenced by the Pre-Raphaelite movement. Although Pre-Raphaelite painting has, since the 1960s and 1970s, generated large amounts of scholarship and blockbuster exhibitions, its stained glass has been largely ignored. But, as Waters demonstrates, both Pre-Raphaelite paintings and stained glass windows of this period have shared characteristics: simple, linear draughtsmanship; naturalism; religious expression and, most importantly, a vibrant use of colour.

Waters reassesses the work of five influential British stained glass firms, Clayton & Bell; Heaton, Butler & Bayne; Lavers, Barraud & Westlake; James Powell & Sons; and Morris & Co, in relation to Pre-Raphaelitism between 1850 and 1870. He argues that it was John Richard Clayton (one of the founders of Clayton & Bell, established in 1855), not William Morris or Burne-Jones, who “became the anchor upon which the new design movement in stained glass was founded”. Clayton initially trained as a sculptor at the Royal Academy and was later apprenticed to the acclaimed Gothic Revival architect George Gilbert Scott. As Waters reveals, he was also well acquainted with the group of young Pre-Raphaelite painters, and was a close friend of Rossetti.

Angels and Icons is an important contribution to Pre-Raphaelite studies and a welcome addition to scholarship on post-Medieval stained glass in Britain, demonstrating a new approach to the medium. Waters shows how the medium of stained glass was an integral part of the wider Victorian art world. He unravels complex artistic networks, and draws attention to the roles that individual freelance and in-house designers such as Alfred Hassam and John Milner Allen, and architects such as George Gilbert Scott, William Burges and George Edmund Street played in the design and development of stained glass in this period. An enormous amount of research has gone into the book and it brings to light new biographical information, identifies potential iconographic sources, and highlights the role of public exhibitions in showcasing designs and specimens of stained glass and gaining commissions.

Yet despite its extensive coverage and handy gazetteer (which focuses on the British Isles), the editing of the whole is rather clumsy. Readers might forgive the odd incorrect date, however the omission of a contents page and an index is a frustration that impedes its ranking with Charles Sewter’s The Stained Glass of William Morris and His Circle (1974), Martin Harrison’s Victorian Stained Glass (1980) and Jim Cheshire’s Stained Glass and the Victorian Gothic Revival (2004) as key reference books for 19th-century stained glass. The book is extensively illustrated throughout, thanks to the high quality colour photographs by Alastair Carew-Cox, although these mostly focus on details rather than whole windows. While this method is valuable in supporting Waters’s arguments on painting techniques, design, tone and colour, readers might find it is less useful in terms of, say, understanding architectural contexts and comparing overall iconographic schemes.

Angels and Icons: Pre-Raphaelite Stained Glass 1850-1870, William Waters and Alastair Carew-Cox, Seraphim Press Ltd, 368pp, £50 (hb). Special offer for readers of The Art Newspaper: £45 including p&p. Cheques to Seraphim Press, Home Farm, Abbots Morton, Worcestershire WR7 4NA

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Simple, natural, colourful'