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This booklet describes some of the treasures that can be seen at the parish church of St Andrew in the south Oxfordshire village of Chinnor [Fig. 1]. They include 14th-century window glass, a marvellous collection of medieval funerary brasses, and – perhaps most remarkably of all – sixteen large, unsigned paintings, which are almost certainly by Sir James Thornhill (1675/76?–1734) and were intended as ‘cartoons’ for the rebuilt rose window in the north transept of Westminster Abbey, installed in 1721/22. What makes this booklet of particular interest to Vidimus readers is that it contains colour images and descriptions of all these paintings. It is hoped that this excellently written and produced booklet will encourage people to visit the church and see the paintings in situ.
The cartoons are hung throughout the church: eight in the chancel and eight in the nave [Figs 2 and 3]. Drawing on research by the late June Cray (1928–2002), the author makes a convincing case that they were donated by John Huggins (1655–1745), a one-time keeper of the Fleet Prison and high bailiff of Westminster, whose son was made rector of Chinnor in 1728, and not the Revd James Musgrave, as suggested in the entry for Chinnor Church in the Oxfordshire volume of the Buildings of England series (Pevsner and Sherwood).
Designs were commissioned in 1721 as part of a scheme at Westminster Abbey that saw the rebuilding of the medieval rose window in the north transept and the construction of the west towers to designs by the architects Sir Christopher Wren (1632–1723) and Nicholas Hawksmoor (1661–1736) [Fig. 4]. The work was initiated by Francis Atterbury (1663–1732), a prominent figure in the Church of England, who held the combined post of bishop of Rochester and dean of Westminster. Rather than repair the crumbling stonework of the medieval rose window, Sir Christopher Wren produced an entirely new design for the tracery, and the Chinnor booklet reproduces an entry in the abbey’s account book for 1723, signed by Hawksmoor, confirming a payment of £100 to Thornhill for producing designs of ‘16 large figures 7 ft, high of the Apostles and Evangelists on Canvasses and Frames, in proper Colours, for the Glass Painter to work by; also the Glory in the Middle and Cherubin Heads etc.,’ to grace this new arrangement [Figs 5 and 6].
Thornhill was an obvious choice for such a prestigious scheme. After serving an apprenticeship with Thomas Highmore (1660–1720) – one of London’s leading painters, and eventually sergeant-painter to William III, an honourable and lucrative position within the Royal establishment that involved painting palaces, coaches, royal barges, and festive decorations – Thornhill had worked for a number of important clients, including the duke of Devonshire, before winning the commission that transformed his reputation and which occupied him throughout the greater part of his career. Beginning in 1707, his work in the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, is arguably the most impressive baroque interior in England and established him as the leading native history painter (an artist who uses mythology and allegory for decorative schemes) in a field hitherto dominated by foreigners [Fig. 7].
Success followed success. In 1710, he was employed by Thomas Vernon at Hanbury Hall (Worcestershire), now a National Trust property. The following year, he worked at Hampton Court Palace, and in 1715 he was entrusted with painting the interior of the cupola of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. In 1718, Thornhill was officially recognized as the foremost decorative painter in England and appointed history painter-in-ordinary to the king. In March 1720, he became the king’s sergeant-painter, in place of his old master, and on 2 May was knighted, the first British-born artist to be so honoured.
Thornhill’s paintings for the abbey were rendered in glass by Joshua Price (baptised 1672 – 1722), the leading glass-painter in the capital at that time and the middle generation of three from an incredibly talented family of glass-painters. Joshua’s father, William Price (d.1709), had lived and worked in London throughout his life, and in 1683 was described as being one of only four glass-painters in the city. His earliest known work (1687) was a royal arms (now destroyed) for the east window of St Andrew’s, Holborn (London), but a scheme depicting the life of Christ for the east window of the chapel at Merton College, Oxford, survives [Fig. 8]. This window, dated 1702, is now housed in the north transept of the chapel, and is covered in detail in Tim Ayers’s The Medieval Stained Glass of Merton College, Oxford, CVMA (GB), VI, Oxford, 2013.
Joshua Price trained with his father. In 1715, he reset the seventeenth-century glass in the chapel of Queen’s College, Oxford, and between 1719 and 1721 he supplied twelve windows for the chapel at Cannons, the house of the 1st duke of Chandos at Stanmore, Middlesex. Ten of these are now at Great Witley (Worcestershire); of the other two, a Conversion of St Paul and a Stoning of St Stephen, only the former survives, at St Andrew by the Wardrobe, London. Joshua’s last work was the rose window at Westminster Abbey based on Thornhill’s designs. Although he seems to have rendered the figures accurately, he changed some of the background colours to improve the balance of the window. Joshua’s son, William Price the Younger (1702/7? – 1765), completed the family trio of glass-painters and painted the west window of Westminster Abbey in 1735–36. Between 1735 and 1740, he executed five windows for New College, Oxford. There followed the east window (c.1742) of Turner’s Hospital at Kirkleatham (Yorkshire), which has been covered in a previous issue of Vidimus. About 1747, he installed the windows that his father had made for the duke of Chandos’s house in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Great Witley (Worcestershire).
Joshua’s work at the abbey was clearly judged a success. Ninety years after it was executed, it was described in The History of the Abbey Church of St Peter’s Westminster (1812, vol. II) as follows.
‘A large and superb rose-shaped window, consisting of sixteen painted leaves, which are divided into as many smaller ones, near the centre. They all proceed from a circle, in which are eight round leaves, in the centre of which on a ground of deep yellow is an open bible inscribed with the Greek words ΛΟГΟΣ ΣΤΑΥΡΟΥ [‘Word of the Cross’]. The divisions of the central circle are in straw colour; and in that beyond is a surrounding band of cherubim; while the large leaves are filled with the figures of [Christ (centre top) and St Peter (centre bottom) and the other] apostles and evangelists. The triangular intervals formed by the points of the leaves are enriched with foliage, and the large spaces left between the window and the upper part of the arcade below it, are filled with foliage; in each of which a numerical figure is fancifully inserted, which, when combined, give the date if the year 1722 … Its shape and variety, with the brightness and splendour of its colours, form an equal combination of grandeur and beauty.’
Sadly that was not the end of the story however. Even before Price had finished painting the window, Dean Atterbury had been arrested and charged with high treason for conspiring to overthrow George I (reigned 1714–1727) and replace him with the so-called Jacobite ‘Old Pretender’, James Stuart (1688–1766), the son of the deposed king James II. Instead of being executed alongside his fellow traitors, he was stripped of his religious positions and permanently exiled from Britain [Fig. 9].
Worse was to come towards the end of the nineteenth century, when the stonework of the window again gave cause for concern. According to the booklet, the task of restoring the window was begun by Sir Gilbert Scott (1811–1878), the leading Gothic revivalist architect of his day, and completed by his successor as Surveyor of the Abbey, John Loughborough Pearson (1817–1897), an able if controversial figure, whose heavy-handed treatment of many historic churches and cathedrals was frequently criticised by members of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, a pressure group founded by the Arts and Crafts pioneer William Morris (1834–1896). Such criticisms were more than justified at Westminster, where Pearson callously disregarded Wren’s design, and Price’s glass, and instead of repairing the original stonework, produced a new design with semi-disastrous consequences. According to a contemporary writer:
‘The figures of the Apostles and Evangelists which figured so well in the old lights have actually been shortened by feet to make them go into the shorter lights. Such a sheer piece of bungling as this seems almost incredible. We can only conclude that Mr. Pearson intended to do away with the old glass and have new glass designed for the new window but after the tracery was executed he was compelled to reinstate the old glass. That some such explanation as this is at the bottom of the matter we must charitably hope, but it is an absurd business at the best’.
As the author of this booklet explains, it was not just the feet of the apostles etc., which were lopped off by Pearson. The four panels of glass bearing the 1722 date also disappeared, and the entire outer surface of the window was smeared with a wash to impart a thirteenth-century effect to the surviving Georgian glass. Thanks to the efforts of conservators this wash has now been removed and the window glass returned to something akin to its original brilliance. Despite Pearson’s mutilations, the window is a landmark monument to the skill and vision of artists such as Thornhill and Price, who kept the traditions of glass-painting alive in England in a generally indifferent climate.
As mentioned earlier, Chinnor Church has other treasures beside the Thornhill paintings. The early fourteenth-century window glass, for example, includes a rare and largely intact scene of Clothing the Naked from the Seven Works of Mercy [Fig. 10].
J. Cray, ‘Paintings by Thornhill at Chinnor’, Burlington Magazine, 132 (1990), 789–93
‘Thornhill, Sir James (1675–1734)’, The Art World in Britain 1660 to 1735, http://artworld.york.ac.uk (accessed 23 December 2013)
P. Newton, The County of Oxford: A Catalogue of Medieval Stained Glass, CVMA (GB), I, London, 1979
E. Cruickshanks and H. Erskine-Hill, The Atterbury Plot, Basingstoke, 2004
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