Remnants of a Glittering Treasure: Thomas Johnes’s Stained Glass at Hafod
The fashion among the English aristocracy in the later eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for collecting late Gothic and Renaissance stained glass brought much fine Continental stained glass of the sixteenth century to England. William Cole’s Catalogue of Netherlandish and North European Roundels in Britain (CVMA Summary Catalogue 1, London, 1993) was an important step charting this practice, listing work in private and public collections as well as churches. He made no claims to be exhaustive, and no examples were listed in Wales. In his Stained Glass in Wales up to 1850 (Altrincham, 1970), Mostyn Lewis described some Continental glass in churches and houses in north Wales, while more await detailed attention in the southern half of Wales.
The collection of Renaissance stained glass amassed at Hafod by Thomas Johnes (1748 1816) probably eclipsed all others, but there are now only a few remains of his glass today. Johnes inherited the estate of Hafod Uchtryd near Devils Bridge in Cardiganshire in 1780, through his wife Maria Burgh. He was of Welsh descent and first cousin to Richard Payne Knight (1750 1824), and certainly shared Knight’s interest in both the Picturesque and in the use of the Gothic in architecture. Johnes set about creating a picturesque landscape at Hafod and filled his lavish house with fine and decorative arts while translating the work of the medieval French chroniclers Jean Froissart and Enguerrand de Monstrelet for volumes published by his own press. He was also active in the improvement of agriculture on the estate and in the well-being of the farming tenants.
By the early years of the nineteenth century, Johnes had begun to collect Continental stained glass. A visitor to Hafod in 1803, Benjamin Heath Malkin, recorded that stained glass had been placed in the newly completed ante-library, including a portrait of a kneeling cardinal, which was thought to have been a copy of a portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger. A catalogue of art works at Hafod published in 1807 listed painted glass in the ante-library that had come from a German convent after its suppression by the Austrian emperor Joseph II. It singles out a large portrait of the Cardinal of Bouillon in the brief description, perhaps the same one that attracted the attention of Benjamin Malkin, and also speculates that it was probably designed by Holbein and engraved by Dürer. The identification of the cardinal, who had also been an archbishop in Valencia, probably dates the panel to the second quarter of the sixteenth century.
A letter written by Thomas Johnes in August 1806 records that only part of his collection of glass was in the ante-library, as he placed more in an upstairs gallery, and further glass in his new church at Hafod. The origin of the glass is uncertain, but it was clearly acquired at the height of interest in the Renaissance stained glass being sold off from monastic houses on the near Continent. However, a letter of 1803 in Lichfield Record Office, discovered by Marie Groll and concerning the installation of the glass from Herkenrode in Lichfield Cathedral, sheds additional light on Thomas Johnes’s glass. The writer of the letter, Hugh Owen, was a vicar in Shrewsbury, and wrote admiringly of the stained glass currently in the hands of a local glazier, probably John Betton, which was bound for ‘Haffoed near Aberystwyth’. This glass, he recorded, was from an abbey church in Antwerp, and Johnes had acquired ‘the whole spoil of the Abbey’, which was in many styles, although some of it was thought to be very similar to that from Herkenrode (near Liège), which was bound for Lichfield. Owen also singled out the near life-size portrait of a cardinal before an altar on which was ‘a saint in episcopal vestments’, which was ‘far beyond anything I have ever seen in the art’ and clearly attracted the attention of visitors to Hafod.
Later traditions about Thomas Johnes’s acquisition of stained glass were less commendatory. Thomas Johnes also owned a house in Cardigan known as the Priory, adjacent to the former Priory Church of St Mary, and in her 1904 book Cardigan Priory in the Olden Days (London, 1904), Emily Pritchard recorded the tradition that Johnes removed the medieval stained glass from the east window of the church and taken it to his library. This story was refuted by Herbert Vaughan in an article of 1925, in which he described Emily Pritchard’s handsome book as ‘containing a profusion of errors of every description.’
The former presence of figures in the east window was recorded by the antiquarian Samuel Rush Meyrick, in his The History and Antiquities of the County of Cardigan (London, 1810), although they were no longer there when he visited in around 1809. A few medieval fragments still remain in the window, which was filled with stained glass by Horace Wilkinson in 1925, and as these are the only other remains of medieval glass in the whole of Cardiganshire, Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire (apart from a small pieces excavated at Strata Florida, and a few fragments south of Carmarthen at Laugharne), are worth detailing here.
Six heads of angels are still visible in the upper tracery lights, some hands, and parts of architectural canopies [Fig. 1]. A photograph of the five-light window reproduced in Emily Pritchard’s book shows four of these heads in the uppermost cusps of the outer main lights, flanking a small roundel that seems to depict the upper part of a man with a large upturned animal beneath in the central light. A shield of the Trinity in the tracery appears to be complete, and is probably what Pritchard took to be the arms of Canterbury. Visiting the church nearly one hundred years previously, Meyrick suggested that this heraldic device (opposite the Trinity shield) was the arms of Edgar Atheling, of the deposed House of Wessex, who nonetheless eventually made peace with William I and accompanied him through south Wales in 1081; this heraldry does not appear to have been retained in the current window.
We are fortunate to have an earlier account that was probably the source of the confusion regarding the removal of the glass by Thomas Johnes. Rowland Laugharne, a Parliamentarian major general, took possession of Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire and Cardiganshire in spring 1644, and recorded the iconoclasm of his troops, which included the destruction of stained glass. However, he succeeded in preventing them from destroying the east window of the Priory Church of St Mary because of its beauty, even though it contained figures of ‘idolatry’ and a priest dressed in red by an altar. The memories of this figure (the only figure described in the seventeenth-century account) and that of the impressive cardinal placed in Thomas Johnes’s ante-library, were obviously conflated. In all likelihood, Johnes would have probably been uninterested in acquiring local medieval glass, and age and neglect probably completed the work of the Puritan iconoclasts.
Despite the fame of his house and picturesque landscape at Hafod, personal tragedy accompanied the life of Thomas Johnes. His first wife died childless in 1782, and his second marriage to his cousin Jane Johnes caused a rift in the family. Their only child Mariamne died in 1811. In 1807, a devastating fire destroyed almost the entire contents of the house at Hafod, but he was to rebuild, despite his increasing financial hardships, which were exacerbated by his lavish collecting and expenditure on the estate. These difficulties were to prove too much for him, and by 1813 he had retired to Devon. He died there in 1816.
With the loss of his stained glass at the house in 1807, only the glass given to the church at Hafod that would outlast him (although he may have bought more glass for the house after the fire, and it was perhaps during this period that he bought glass from William Beckford at Fonthill). In 1803, Thomas Johnes built a new church on the site of an earlier church of 1620, which had become the parish church for Llanfihangel y Creuddyn Uchaf in 1760 and was known as Eglwys Newydd, dedicated to St Michael [Fig. 2]. The architect was none other than James Wyatt, whom Beckford had engaged at Fonthill, although it is not a distinguished building, even accounting for the alterations of 1841 and by Archibald Ritchie in 1887.
In letters to two different correspondents, in September 1805 and August 1806, Thomas Johnes relates that he gave ‘a fine painted window’ to his church. It has been assumed that he would have installed his glass in the east window, but Samuel Lewis’s A Topographical Dictionary of Wales (3rd edn, 1840) locates Johnes’s stained glass in the ‘southern, or rather south-western, transept’, where the family sat. By contrast, S. R. Meyrick describes Johnes’s stained glass as in ‘the north-west window’, consisting of ‘nine compartments, containing representations of circumstances in the New Testament, &c., and fourteen small circular pieces above these’. It does seem possible that Johnes gave two gifts of stained glass, perhaps once in 1805 and again in 1806, but the unusual alignment of the church to the south-west probably caused the confusion.
The reason for our uncertainty about the stained glass in the church during the nineteenth century is that a fire consumed the building in 1932, robbing us of most of the rest of the fine collection of stained glass that Hugh Owen had admired in the Shrewsbury glazier’s studio in 1803 (after much of it had already perished in the fire at Thomas Johnes’s home in 1807). The only remains of the stained glass are now collected in the two side lancets of the sanctuary, mainly in diamond- and round-shaped panels created as part of the restoration of the 1933 church by W. D. Caröe, either side of a new three-light window by Heaton, Butler & Bayne [Fig. 3].
A postcard of the interior of the chancel with a photograph taken before the 1932 fire shows stained glass in the (liturgical) east window, with nine scenes in the main lights perhaps corresponding to those observed by S. R. Meyrick in around 1809 in the north-west window. Two further sanctuary lights given in the 1880s are also visible on the postcard, and these three windows were mentioned in a description of the church by the local antiquary George Eyre Evans in 1903, as well as further roundels located in a vestry window. As the sanctuary apse was added to the (liturgical) east wall in the 1887 alterations, it seems likely that the stained glass in the transept on the north-west side of the church was moved to become the new focus of the chancel in the central window.
The present remains are more suggestive of the roundels that S. R. Meyrick mentions than of the larger scenes, which were presumably from the abbey church in Antwerp [Figs 4-7]. However, the variety of styles that Hugh Owen observed in the assemblage of stained glass in the Shrewsbury glazier’s studio could indicate that they all came from the same abbey, as small roundels could have been placed in smaller chapels or cells of the abbey. Only a few subjects are discernable now, and only one can be easily identified, which is a partially complete roundel of the execution of John the Baptist, with the executioner presenting the prophet’s head to two standing women. These partial scenes, as well as various heads and hands executed in paint and silver stain, are mostly suggestive of a sixteenth-century date. Curiously, the only date found in the fragments reads 1632, even though there is very little evidence of the use of the enamel colour that was characteristic of seventeenth-century stained glass.
There is also some coloured glass, but this mostly has only the suggestion of texture or drapery. A single exception appears to be a blue fragment with the text ‘VE MARIA GRA’. This not only suggests a possible Annunciation scene compare Gabriel’s greeting ‘Ave Maria, gratia plena’ (‘Hail Mary, full of grace’) in Luke I, 28 but also the likelihood that it came from one of the larger-scale panels, as it looks as if it may have come from the hem of a garment in a scene made up of white and coloured glass. Some of the fragments that depict hands and faces on a slightly larger scale might also be from these larger scenes, and it is possible that some of the more sketchy groups of figures might in fact come from the backgrounds to these scenes, rather than roundels.
It also seems likely that some of the coloured glass came from the remains of the Victorian memorial windows. Even though the stained glass by Heaton, Butler & Bayne added to the east window has late Gothic canopies over the scene, earlier Victorian glass was sometimes discarded in the period as being old-fashioned and poorly made. Fortunately, what could be salvaged of the early glass was saved, offering us a glimpse of the splendour of what was once, and quite briefly, perhaps the best collection of Continental Renaissance glass of its day in Wales.
Martin Crampin has produced a booklet with large colour illustrations of all of the main surviving stained-glass fragments [Fig. 8]. It is available from his website for £5 + postage.
I am grateful to Joseph Spooner, Marie Groll, Stephen Briggs and Caroline Kerkham for their help while researching the stained glass at Hafod.
Martin Crampin, Stained Glass from Welsh Churches, Talybont, 2014
Elisabeth Inglis-Jones, Peacocks in Paradise, Llandysul, 1990
Thomas Lloyd, Julian Orbach and Robert Scourfield, The Buildings of Wales: Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, London, 2006
Peter Lord, The Visual Culture of Wales: Imaging the Nation, Cardiff, 2000
Samuel Rush Meyrick, The History and Antiquities of the County of Cardigan, London, 1810
Richard J. Moore- Colyer (ed.), A Land of Pure Delight: Selections from the letters of Thomas Johnes of Hafod, Cardiganshire (1748–1816), Llandysul, 1992
Herbert M. Vaughan, ‘Some letters of Thomas Johnes of Hafod (1794–1807)’, Y Cymmrodor, 35, (1925), pp. 200–13
Friends of Hafod Collection, Ceredigion Record Office.