In praise of … Montague Rhodes James (1862- 1936)
This instalment (the seventh) in our occasional series of articles about pioneering scholars of stained glass in the United Kingdom summarizes the life and work of Montague Rhodes James [MRJ] who wrote important studies about the medieval stained glass of Canterbury Cathedral; Kings College, Cambridge; St Albans Abbey; Bury St Edmonds Abbey and several other sites between 1893 and 1906. Fascinated from boyhood by Christian iconography, he served as Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge (1893-1908); Fellow, Dean and Provost of Kings College, Cambridge (the latter 1905-18); and finally Provost of Eton College (1918-1936). He was awarded the Order of Merit in 1930 and honorary doctorates from Oxford and Cambridge universities. According to his biographer (Pfaff), he catalogued more than 6,000 medieval manuscripts in his lifetime and was a pioneer in what has been called ‘Christian archaeology’. He is also known as the author of several anthologies of best-selling Ghost stories. A bibliography of his writings about stained glass can be found at the foot of this article. A link to a complete bibliography of his scholarly work is also appended. [fig.1]
Montague Rhodes James [MRJ], known to friends as ‘Monty’ and usually published as M. R. James, was born on the first of August 1862 in the clergy house at Goodnestone (Kent), five miles south-west of Sandwich and approximately seven miles east-southeast from Canterbury.
He was the fourth and youngest child of Herbert James, the curate of the local church, and Mary Emily (née Horton), the daughter of a naval officer. His father’s family owned property in Jamaica until the abolition of slavery in 1807, and Mary Emily’s father, Admiral Joshua Sydney Horton, had been a fighting captain during the Napoleonic wars.
When MRJ was three (1865), Herbert became the Rector of Great and Little Livermere in Suffolk having obtained the living from a female relative who had inherited Little Livermere Hall. As a result, the family moved to the Rectory at Great Livermere, a house MRJ always regarded as ‘his home’. He also remained close, throughout his life, to his parents and his brothers, Sydney and Herbert, and sister, Grace. He never married and after his sister was widowed she lived with him until his death. [fig. 2 ]
When he was eleven years old, MRJ was sent to his father’s alma mater, Temple Grove School at East Sheen, a suburb of Richmond upon Thames in West London; widely regarded at the time as one of the ‘Famous Five’ of English preparatory schools and defined by one writer as, ‘schools to which a duke would be pleased to send his sons’.
In 1876 he followed his father again by winning a prestigious ‘King’s Scholarship’ to Eton College (Berks), a public school founded by Henry VI in 1440. The rest of his life was largely shaped by the interests and friendships he formed during his school years. As a pupil he excelled at Latin and Greek and developed a keen interest in medieval art and manuscripts (MSS), keeping copious notebooks of what he saw and read. Friends included A. C. Benson ( 1862-1925), a future master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, best remembered today for writing the words to the British patriotic anthem, ’ Land of Hope and Glory’.
From Eton MRJ won a scholarship to King’s College, Cambridge where he continued to study classical and early Christian texts, including the apocrypha and apocalyptic literature. He was also a brilliant linguist and even taught himself Danish and Swedish in order to read writers such as Hans Christian Andersen and the Norse Sagas in the originals. He travelled extensively in Europe, generally by bicycle, and reckoned to have visited all but two of the cathedrals of France.
Eton and Kings shaped his life more than anything else. He spent thirty six years of his life at the latter in different guises: student, Fellow, Tutor (essentially Director of Studies), Dean and finally Provost. He was also Director of the Fitzwilliam Museum, (1893-1908) and University Vice-Chancellor (1913-15). In 1918 he accepted an invitation to return to Eton as Provost where he lived and worked until his death eighteen years later. Among his wider achievements in this post was designing the war memorial window in Eton College Chapel (made by Burlison and Grylls, 1921-22) and persuading the governing body to recover and restore some magnificent late fifteenth-century grisaille wall paintings in the choir of the same chapel. [fig.3]
King’s College was an ideal setting for MRJ. Like Eton, the college had been founded by Henry VI, and between 1515 and 1531 the east window of the chapel and twenty four side windows had been glazed with a mix of biblical and heraldic imagery forming the greatest surviving example of Renaissance style glass painting in England. [fig. 4]
To his obvious surprise, MRJ quickly discovered that there was no readily available printed guide to the windows, an omission he promised to rectify, telling his father in 1881, ‘I assure you that I shall end by writing a large book about the windows’. Following his election as College Dean in 1889, one of his earliest priorities was having the windows professionally photographed, apparently as a prelude to writing a book about them. An unintended consequence was that the photographs revealed the need for the glass to be re-leaded and in 1893 the well-known firm of C. E. Kempe was put in charge of the restoration. The work took fourteen years to complete and MRJ took a keen interest in its progress, recalling in later years, ‘Great was the excitement, when a fresh window was thus made accessible, of going all over it, settling what mistakes could be rectified, what glaring modern patches should be taken out and replaced with neutral-tinted glass, and what ancient patches were worth removing and preserving.’
His first formal publication about stained glass was a brief and anonymous article in the Cambridge Review about the stained glass windows in Kings College Chapel (see: Michael Halls’ introduction to the publication of, “A Night in King’s College Chapel”, Ghosts & Scholars, 7 ed. Rosemary Pardoe, Haunted Library, 1985, p.1).
His next venture was far more important. It appeared in 1893 as an appendix to a longer article entitled, ‘On Fine Art as Applied to the Illustration of the Bible’ and reproduced a set of fifteenth-century verses which had accompanied thirty-two lost cloister windows at St Albans Abbey (Herts), a Benedictine monastery twenty-six miles north of London and the home of the shrine of the eponymous proto- martyr. The verses were written in Latin and consisted of biblical typology, a form of prophetic symbolism where events in the Old Testament (types) are interpreted as prefiguring events in the New Testament (antitypes). According to MRJ there were two types and one larger anti-type scene in each window and the series did not coincide with any other scheme known to him. Among the unusual features was a window which consisted of Samson being mocked, Christ being mocked (before his crucifixion) and a rare scene of Hur being mocked by his fellow Jews. The last scene is drawn not from the Latin Bible but from Hebrew traditions which claim that Hur was an ally of Moses who was surrounded and spat upon until he died after he tried to stop people worshipping the Golden Calf. (fig. 5) MRJ’s comments about this scene speak volumes about James’ erudition for not only did he recognize the scene but also drew attention in the same article to an imported German inscription (without a accompanying picture) in the glass at St Mary’s church, Shrewsbury which reads, Hur Sputes Hebreorum suffocatus, Mag(ister) hist( oriarum).
Three years later, MRJ contributed two articles to the Cambridge Antiquarian Society Journal resulting from discoveries made during the ongoing restoration of the King’s College Chapel glass. The first – ‘On Some Fragments of 15th century painted glass from the windows of King’s College Chapel’ – highlighted some infills which had been inserted during a previous repair to the windows. He discovered entries in the college accounts for 1757-65 which included payments to a William Harlock for various ‘pieces of old glass stopin’ charged at apenny apiece’. According to MRJ, Harlock probably got hold of such fragments during the process of reglazing the windows of other College Chapels and Halls, or churches in the town or neighbourhood. Some of the fragments belonged to a series of twelve medallions, illustrating the occupations or Labours of the Months. He dated the panels to the middle of the fifteenth century and thought them more likely to have come from a secular building rather than a church. They can be seen today in south side chapel K, window 38. [fig.6]
The second article, ‘On a Window Recently Releaded in King’s College Chapel’, focused on a window over the south door (window 24) showing scenes from the Death, Funeral, Assumption and Coronation of the Virgin.
His next contribution appeared in 1895 and was a by-product of a study of the Benedictine Abbey of St Edmund at Bury in Suffolk; before the Reformation one of the most powerful monasteries in England. MRJ’s primary aim had been to list the books in the Abbey’s famous library, perhaps as many as 2,000 plus volumes, and to discover the modern whereabouts of as many as he could. During his researches he found several MSS which included descriptions of the abbey’s appearance before its destruction. Some of these details concerned its architecture and size, others listed verses, mainly in windows but also possibly accompanying wall paintings and carvings. [fig.7]
Using these descriptions and verses he was able to imagine visiting the Abbey church and conventual buildings as it was in the fourteenth-century. He revealed that there were probably twelve windows in the south aisle of the nave, from the western end to the south transept of the church, with the first depicting the Life of St John the Baptist (the Bapistry was probably in the south-west corner of the church) and the remainder showing scenes from the Life of Christ (sixty-seven subjects were listed in the MS). Around the shrine of St Edmund he thought there may have been a window, or a carving, representing the concourse of pilgrims to the shrine and the story of the saint’s miraculous reappearance to kill the Danish invader, Sweyn Forkbeard, the father of king Cnut or Canute. At the eastern end of the church he identified a window illustrating the life of St Martin. In the south transept there were chapels to St. John and St Nicholas with window verses for twenty-two scenes in the former and a few for St Nicholas in the latter. A separate chapel in a guest house for visiting monks had scenes from the Book of Revelation. In the Lady Chapel windows there were three scenes from the Passion of Christ and verses telling the stories of Theophilus, an archdeacon who had sold his soul to the devil but was saved by the Virgin Mary, the death of Herod and the miraculous healing of a clerk by the Virgin Mary. By the door into the refectory near the lavatorium where the monks washed their hands, there were windows painted with representations of the sun, moon, stars and Labours of the Months. There may also have been windows with scenes from the Life of St Benedict in the Infirmary.
The publication of these verses provided a rare glimpse into the glazing of a major monastery.
The same year he published an article on more lost glass at St Albans Abbey; this time reproducing verses which had appeared on the window glass of the library alluding to the subjects or ‘classes’ of books stored on the adjacent shelves. With one exception, each of the twelve windows contained four of the leading figures in the various branches of science and literature. Thus, for example, the first window contained images of Donatus (mid-fourth century Roman grammarian and tutor of St. Jerome), Didymus (Greek scholar and grammarian), Priscian (author of the Institutes of Grammar, a standard textbook for the study of Latin during the Middle Ages) and Hugutio (twelfth-century Italian grammarian) and seems to have lit the grammar class of books. A list of the figures in the other windows can be found both in the article and in Marks Stained Glass in England during the Middle Ages, p. 101. [fig. 8]
1899 finally saw the publication of his guide to the King’s College chapel glass; shorter than once intended but still a huge improvement on what had not gone before. It consisted of a brief introduction followed by descriptive notes on the subjects depicted in the windows. According to MRJ’s biographer, although the approach was kept simple and translations were provided throughout for the Latin scrolls, ‘ the amount of information about medieval legends [was] more than most readers would have wanted while there is virtually no information about design, colour, technique or any other artistic quality’.[fig. 9]
Despite these criticisms, it proved an invaluable aide for visitors; a second edition with a preface and appendix by the then Dean of Kings, Eric Milner-White (1884-1963), on the side chapel glass appeared in 1930.
MRJ’ s ongoing involvement with the conservation of the King’s glass held him in good stead when he was invited to discuss the restoration of the damaged but still remarkably complete fifteenth-century windows in the Priory church at Great Malvern (Worcs) in 1900. MRJ’s brother had been headmaster of Malvern College since 1897and after a visit to him in 1899 MRJ somehow became involved in this important project. ‘ It was’ he wrote, ‘a job after my own heart’, but as his biographer has observed, his enthusiasm outweighed his tact and he clashed with members of the restoration committee when he proposed what would in effect have been a massive rearrangement of the glass in the church.
Suffice to say the committee reacted cautiously, if not doubtfully to these proposals and in the event nothing happened for another ten years until a limited programme of rearranging took place when the glass in south choir chapel of St Anne was re-leaded with MRJ giving helpful advice. [fig. 10]
The same year, MRJ undertook a very different type of project, when one of his Cambridge undergraduate contemporaries contacted him regarding the design for a new window at Westminster Abbey. Joseph Armitage Robinson (KCVO, DD 1858-1933) was a canon at the Abbey (and later served as Dean 1902-1911), and in 1900 he asked MRJ to prepare schemes for several new windows. James responded at once and his design for the south rose window was accepted. It consisted of thirty two figures in the outer circle representing the preparation of the world for Christ, and in the inner circle sixteen figures symbolic of the virtues and orders of angels surrounding a central figure of Christ. The figures were drawn by the architect G. F. Bodley (1827-1907) and the glass was made by Burlison and Grylls. The window was dedicated on 26 September 1902. [fig. 11]
1901 saw the publication of an article about the inscriptions which had once accompanied a set of twelve Biblical or typological windows in the choir of Canterbury Cathedral. Although only a few of these late twelfth-century windows remain intact James was able to use a fourteenth-century MS in the Cathedral library to reconstruct the original typographical programme. A significant feature of the windows was the inclusion of parables, such as the story of the Sower (Matthew13: 3-5) whose seeds fall on stony ground and are eaten by birds which was paired with a scene of the Pharisees turning away from Christ. (fig.12)
Several years elapsed before James wrote about medieval glass again, but in 1904 MRJ published yet another discovery about the window glass in medieval libraries – this time at Eton College. Unlike the St Albans verses, which featured named figures in the window glass, the Eton glass relied on pictorial imagery to indicate the nearby classes of books; thus a cardinal between two doctors represented Canon law while two judges and a man with a long court roll represented Common law. [Unfortunately copyright laws make it impossible for us to show these windows; they can, however, be seen in context (right-hand windows) here.
Although he remained interested in stained glass for the remainder of his life, MRJ’s last specific publication about the subject was extremely brief, a terse guide to the window glass in the chapel of Ashridge House, (Herts), published in 1906. He had first seen this glass during his schooldays, when the Eton Officers’ Training Corps had camped in the grounds of the house. Installed in 1811 for the first Lord Brownlow, the glass consisted of superb Renaissance panels from not only the German abbey of Steinfeld as MRJ believed, but also from the abbeys of Mariawald and the Charterhouse of St Barbara in Cologne. When the house was sold in 1928, the glass was bought at auction by an anonymous donor (later identified as E. E. Cook, grandson of Thomas Cook of travel agency fame) who donated the windows to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London where they can be seen today. [fig. 13]
Thereafter his excursions into stained glass can be grouped into five categories.
First, advice to churches with important collections of stained glass; these included Wells Cathedral; St Mary’s church, Shrewsbury; Malvern Priory (1918), and York Minster.
Next, in his role as a Commissioner on Historic Monuments (a body first set up in 1908 to make a list of ancient and historic monuments and to preserve them) where he had special responsibility for stained glass. He was involved with volumes concerning Westminster Abbey, Essex and Huntingdonshire. His introduction to the first named pointed out that the contract of 1526 for the windows of King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, referred to the king’s new chapel at Westminster (the Henry VII Lady Chapel) as the model to be followed at Cambridge in, “form, manner, goodness, curiosity, and cleanliness.” Whether these guidelines extended to details of the Cambridge scheme and subjects itself is not quite clear but if that was the intention MRJ concluded that the now lost windows of the Westminster Abbey Lady Chapel would have included scenes from the lives of the Virgin and Jesus Christ illustrated by Old Testament types taken from the Biblia Pauperum and the Mirror of Salvation, and accompanied by figures of prophets and angels holding explanatory scrolls, similar to the King’s College windows.
Elsewhere he was responsible for checking the stained glass entries pre-written by the Commission staff. In the Huntingdonshire volume a typical entry, for example, at Keyston (now Cambs) read: a tracery-light with figure of a saint (? St. Barbara) with nimbus, long hair, embroidered gown and plain cloak, holding in right hand a palm-branch and in left hand a tower (?), all on field of oak-leaf. [fig. 14]
Another area where he remained active was in occasional contributions to wider studies. These included a nine-page survey of medieval glass in France, including historical development, the type of subjects depicted and where to see the best examples (Tilley, Medieval France, 1922); a four page essay on ‘Glass’ for The Prayer Book Dictionary (Harford, 1925) and a lecture on the Apocalypse in Art published in 1931, which included a description of the East window in York Minster. One other publication deserves mention. In 1924 he was given a car and a driver by Great Western Railways to write a guide book to monastic ruins in the area served by GWR, the south-western counties and central England (it was to be part of a three volume set, the others focusing on cathedrals and castles). The book appeared in 1925 and sold well. The success of this book led to another ‘popular’ guide book, this time to Suffolk and Norfolk: A Perambulation of the Two Counties with Notices of Their History and Their Ancient Buildings (1930), which was heavily weighted towards churches and their stained glass, including foreign glass installed in the 19th century. [fig. 15] Under the same heading he also helped and advised various authors working in stained glass, such as Philip Nelson whose ‘Ancient Painted Glass in England’ appeared in 1923 and Canon Frederick Harrison’s ‘The Painted Glass of York’ published in 1927.
Yet another contribution was indirect; a number of his articles and books published from 1906 onwards have often proved invaluable for stained glass historians. These include his important book, The Apocryphal New Testament, published in 1924 which contained texts such as The Proto-Evangelium of James, the source for stories such as the Assumption of the Virgin; ‘An English Mediaeval Sketch Book’ (1925) which reproduced leaves from a fifteenth-century sketch book which may have provided patterns for glass painters, and ‘Pictor in Carmine’, a collection of types and antitypes for use by artists possibly compiled by Adam II, the abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Abbey Dore in Herefordshire around 1200.
Finally, of course, there are his ghost stories. Of the approximately forty he wrote two concerned stained glass. The best, ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, was inspired by his discovery of references to Steinfeld Abbey in the panels at Ashridge Park in Hertfordshire. The second ‘A Night in King’s College Chapel’ was written c. 1892 and never published in his lifetime. It tells of someone inadvertently locked in the chapel overnight and who discovers that the figures in the glass come to life and converse. Both can be accessed here and here.
Although MRJ continued to advise about stained glass, the latter years of his life were blighted by ill-health. In 1930 he was advised by doctors to stay in bed on Mondays. He slowly lost his capacity for walking. He might have even suffered a slight stroke. He finally died of renal failure in 1936 aged seventy-four. He is buried in Eton parish churchyard with the epitaph – No longer a sojourner, but a fellow citizen of the saints and of the household of God. [fig.16]
His best biographer, Professor Richard Pffaf (1936-2016), summed him thus:
‘The only man in modern times to have Provost of both King’s and Eton; one third, or even one quarter of his scholarship, would have been recognized by a knighthood; in his branch of Christian scholarship he was in a class by himself; as a student of Christian archaeology he was both a pioneer in England and a peer of those on the continent; his work on medieval manuscripts was worth at least two lifetimes.’
That aside, let the famous historian, Lord Acton (1834-1902) have the final word. Visiting Cambridge when James was in the early thirties he asked a King’s man, ‘Do you know Montague James?’ ‘Yes I know him’. ‘Is it true that he is ready to spend every evening playing games or talking with undergraduates?’ ‘Yes, the evenings and more.’ ‘And do you know that in knowledge of MSS he is already third or fourth in Europe?’ ‘I am interested to hear you say so, Sir.’ ‘Then how does he manage it?’ ‘We have not yet found out.’
M. R. James. Eton and King’s: Recollections, Mostly Trivial, 1875-1925, Williams & Norgate, London, 1926.
R. W. Pfaff. Montague Rhodes James, Scolar press, London, 1980. The standard biography
M. Cox. M. R. James: An Informal Portrait, Oxford University Press, 1983.
Lynda Dennison (ed.), The Legacy of M.R. James: papers from the 1995 Cambridge Symposium, Shaun Tyas/Paul Watkins, Donington, 2001.
1892 The stained glass in King’s College Chapel [anonymous], Cambridge Review for May 26th.
1893 ‘Verses from the Cloister Windows of St Albans Abbey’, Appendix pp. 64-69, to ‘On Fine Art as applied to Illustrations of the Bible’, Antiquarian Communications, Cambridge Antiquarian Society (CAS) 7, pp. 31-64 (Cambridge, 1888-89).
1895 ‘On the Glass in the Windows of the Library at St. Albans Abbey’, Proceedings of the Cambridge Antiquarian Society (PCAS) 8, pp. 213-20.
1896 ‘On Some Fragments of 15th century painted glass from the windows of Kings’s College Chapel’, PCAS 9, pp. 3-12.
1899 A Guide to the Windows of King’s College, Chapel Cambridge, London.
1899 ‘On a Window Recently Releaded in King’s College Chapel’, PCAS 9, pp. 237-41.
1901 ‘Verses formerly inscribed on Twelve Windows in the Choir of Christ Church, Canterbury’, CAS Octavo publication 38, London.
1904 ‘Description of the Stained Glass in the Windows of Election Hall’, Etoniana 3, pp. 38-9.
1906 Notes on Glass in Ashridge Chapel, Leatton & Eden, Grantham.
1922 ‘Sculpture, Glass, Painting’ in A. Tilley (ed.), Medieval France: a companion to French studies, Cambridge, pp. 388-434.
1922 Glass entries checked, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 3, North East, London.
1923 Glass entries checked, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 4, South east, London.
1924 ‘Introduction to the Inventory of Monuments of Westminster Abbey: The Church’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in London, Volume 1, Westminster Abbey, London, pp. 1-13.
1925 ‘Glass’ in G. Harford (ed.), The Prayer Book Dictionary, Isaac Pitman, Bath, rev. edn., pp. 390-4.
1926 Glass entries checked, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Huntingdonshire, London.
1927 The Apocalypse in Latin MSS in the collection of Dyson Perrins, FSA, Oxford. The east window of York Minster is discussed on pp. 38-39.
1930 A Guide to the windows of King’s College chapel, Cambridge, 2nd edition, with an appendix by E. Milner-White, Cambridge.
1936 Review of G. McN. Rushforth, Medieval Christian Imagery (1936), Burlington Magazine 68, pp. 196-7.
Other publications of interest:
1924 The Apocryphal New Testament, Oxford University Press.
1925 ‘An English medieval sketchbook, no. 1916 in the Pepysian Library, Magdalene College, Cambridge’, Walpole Society XIII (1924-5), pp. 1 -17.
1930 Suffolk and Norfolk: A Perambulation of the Two Counties with Notices of the History and Their Adjacent Buildings. Dent & Sons, London and Toronto.
1931 The Apocalypse in Art, The Schweich lectures, 1927, British Academy, Oxford University Press.
1951 ‘Pictor in Carmine’, Archaeologia, 94, pp. 141-66.
1904 ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, in Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, London.
1985 ‘A Night in King’s College Chapel’ (story manuscript) Ghosts & Scholars 7.
Complete Bibliography of Scholarly Writings