National Heritage Church Window Collection

Breaking news!! BBC is reporting that some of the Ancestor panels in Canterbury's Chapter House have been redated using a new fangled 'windowlyser' to between 1130 and 1160. We will check it out as soon as we can get down there, and revise the National Heritage Church Window Collection accordingly.

Momentous Britain is steeped in church windows. Our father, an artist, loved churches, especially window tracery and stained glass. We were dragged around churches as children instead of going on holiday. For our part, we admire the National Historical Fleet which lists the 200 or so most important vessels in Britain. We think church windows deserve an equivalent, so we have created the 'National Heritage Church Window Collection'. It collates 36 of the most important church windows in mainland Britain.

Our approach was to pick the best and most representative examples of window styles and window artwork. As far as we are concerned, there is a watershed between the two in 1861, defined by the formation of 'Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co'. Before 1861, we are mainly concerned with style and technology. After 1861, we are only concerned with artists and their creations.

All the buildings in the list are churches, by which we mean any Christian place of worship, including abbeys, cathedrals, churches and chapels. Secular and non-Christian religious buildings will be in a separate Collection. We did not try to accommodate a range of iconography, subjects, production milestones, or manufacturers, other than when they impact the style or artwork. These might be the subject of future Collections.

A couple of the major cathedrals could have 10 or more windows in the collection if we only chose the best examples of each style and each artist. This would make the Quest short and tedious. We therefore tried to maximise the number of churches on the list by selecting windows from churches that are otherwise unrepresented where possible. We were fairly successful. All the churches have one window on the list apart from Canterbury and York cathedrals.

Our task was horribly difficult. Britain, after all, has more than 100,000 stained-glass church windows in some 25,000 churches. They cover dozens of techniques, dozens of styles and hundreds of artists. Some windows are the size of a tennis court. Some are no bigger than a tennis racket. Ugh!

For our purposes here, a window can mean two or more lights or lancets, even if they have different styles or different subjects. To cull the possibilities, we adopted three rules:

  1. There should be no more than one eye-level and one high-level window per style or per artist;
  2. The windows must be accessible, both visible from public spaces, even if binoculars are required, and in places that are open almost every day;
  3. Where there is a choice between similar windows at different locations, we have picked the church that is not otherwise represented on the list or the church that has the most other interests.

Ancient glass presents some additional issues. One problem is that many early stained-glass panels or fragments were taken from their original windows and reset into later windows that are mixed in style, age or origin. Another is that early windows have nearly all been moved, sometimes because they were imported from France long after they were made. We do not want any Trigger's Brooms - he says that he has been sweeping roads with the 'same broom' for 20 years, even though it has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles. In other words, we reject windows that have been so heavily conserved or restored that they now have more modern glass than old. To address these issues, we have an additional rule:

  1. The age of a window is whichever is the later of the majority of the glass or the majority of the design.

Victorians, once they had overcome issues with the firing technique, mass produced church windows like Liquorice Allsorts. It would be overly harsh to say that some of the figures look like Bertie Bassett, but not by much. We did not have time to visit more than one hundredth of British churches anyway. Our key resource for separating the wheat from the chaff was Painton Cowen's book 'A Guide to stained-glass in Britain'. It is rather old. June Osborne's book 'Stained Glass in England' is a bit more up to date. William Waters' book 'Angels & Icons Pre-Raphaelite stained-glass 1850-1870' and Peter Cormack's 'Arts & Crafts stained-glass' are useful for those periods. For the rest, we picked those that we found most thrilling.

All but three of the windows on our list are in England. We are not biased. Wales has a sparse population serviced by small chapels that could not afford high-quality stained-glass. Scotland suffered a stained-glass apocalypse during the Scottish Reformation. Then, unlike churches across most of Europe, the Kirk adopted a universal literacy policy, teaching people to read the Bible rather than showing them Bible stories in murals and stained-glass windows. Indeed, stained-glass was banned in Scottish churches until 1866. The Kirk's policy might have contributed to Scotland's wonderful intellectual legacy, but it has rather blighted their artistic legacy. Scotland and Wales have some fabulous 20th century windows, but so has England.

Making stained-glass

We should precis the basic glass making techniques before we start. Until the 19th century all glass was 'blown' using a blob of molten glass on the end of a pipe. The two dominant techniques for making church window glass were cylinder and crown. The former is made from a blown glass cylinder that is snipped along its length, unrolled and flattened. The latter is made from a blown glass ball that is rotated and pressed to flare out into a flat disk. Mass production techniques were introduced during Victorian times to manufacture cheap flat flawless transparent glass, ideal for normal windows. It was tried in church windows but lacked vibrancy and interest. Church window producers reverted to cylinder and crown glass.

Stained glass is made by mixing metal oxides into a pot of molten glass: hence its name 'pot-metal'. Some metal oxides, especially that used for ruby red, make glass opaque unless it is wafer thin, but thin glass is too fragile for church windows. To overcome this, glaziers developed the technique of 'flashing', whereby clear glass is dipped into molten coloured pot-metal glass, leaving a coloured coating that is thin enough to absorb the right amount of light.

During medieval times it was only possible to make glass in small irregular quantities, so it was delivered as fragments. The die was cast. Still we tend to use similarly small fragments. These fragments are joined together with lead strips known in Britain as 'calms'.

Detail - skin, hair, facial features, clothes, etc - is painted onto the fragments of coloured glass with a sticky viscous paint which is fused before the window is assembed. The paint is traditionally 'bistre brown'; a brown gunge that was mixed with gum arabic to make it stick to the glass. Lines are traced with a thin brush, sometimes as thin as a single badger hair. Shading is often made with stippled Ben Day dots, like a Marvel comic (500 years before Ben Day came up with technique). Heavy shading or inverse detail is usually achieved by covering the glass fragment with bistre brown paint, then selectively removing the detail with a pin or badger hair. Once the detail has been applied, the fragment is fired to make it fuse. The process has hardly changed since the 14th century, although modern bistre brown is thankfully less poisonous.

In the early 14th century, someone discovered that certain silver minerals would chemically bond to glass in a process known as 'silver stain'. Initially, it was used on the back of clear glass to make yellow or orange fragments. Bistre brown detail could still be painted into the front. In later years, silver stain was traced on the back of blue glass to make green details, for foliage, for instance.

An alternative production technique dating from the 15th century is to fuse coloured glass powder onto clear glass in the process known as enamelling. Originally it was done mainly with grey powder, so the process became known as 'grisaille'. Enamelling materials and techniques improved until by the 16th century it was commonplace to produce entire pictorial windows by painting coloured enamels onto clear glass.

Some modern stained glass artists, Thomas Denny comes to mind, use a hybrid technique, flashing plain glass to create a colour base, then etching parts of it with acid to create texture and colour shades. This is used as a canvas, upon which detail can be painted with bistre and a thin brush, or a bistre wash can be applied, some of which is rubbed away or scraped away with a pin to create inverse details.

The Collection

Our collection has to start with the earliest stained-glass church windows in Britain. We cannot afford to be picky. Medieval glass was expensive and fragile. It was uncommon to begin with and much of it was lost between the 15th and 17th centuries. Most of England's pictoral church windows were destroyed by puritan iconoclasts during the reign of Edward IV. England's abbey windows were destroyed along with their abbeys during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Nearly all of Scotland's stained glass church windows were destroyed during the Scottish Reformation. Much of what survived across the entire British Isles was destroyed during the Civil War.

The oldest stained glass in Britain was almost certainly in the northeast. Bede writes about coloured glass in his Monkwearmouth monastery in the 8th century. Here we are checking out the location. Unfortunately, the monastery fell down, destroying its windows. Broken fragments have been unearthed nearby. Some of these fragments have been pieced together into windows now on display at Jarrow Hall, St Paul's, Jarrow and elsewhere. As far as we can see, they are postulations rather than jigsaw puzzles. If so, using Rule 4, the windows are not old, even though the glass is.

Perhaps the glass making skill was lost because there was a three hundred year hiatus before the Normans reintroduced stained glass windows. The first serious candidate is a window at York Minster that bears the inscription: "The oldest glass in England C1150". Wikipedia says that this is the oldest stained-glass window in Britain. But the inscription only applies to a 2ft square panel in the middle, which is all that remains of a larger 12th century Tree of Jesse window. This panel is now set into a younger window on York Minster's north aisle. Again, using Rule 4, it is not old the oldest window in York, let alone Britain. Moreover, it is now thought that the panel only dates from the 1170s and it would not be oldest in Britain even if it dated to the 1150s.

Conservation work by the York Glaziers' Trust suggests that Britain's oldest stained-glass window is St Michael at All Saints, Dalbury. It has been dated to the early 12th century or late 11th century. This makes it some 50 years older than any other window in Britain. It is disappointingly dull, but it has to be in the collection.

St Mary the Virgin, Brabourne has a window dating to the 1190s that - probably rightly - claims to be the oldest in-situ stained-glass window in Britain. This window is an abstract pattern with no figures, presumably because it was originally made for a Cistercian abbey. Some think that this is probably how most early British church windows looked because Cistercians and early Benedictines did not approve of pictorial windows. Brabourne was one of John Betjeman's favourite churches. Ours too. It is in.

Other 12th century windows in Britain are rare. And some of them are inaccessible. Those at Westminster Abbey are closed to the public. Some of those at York Minster are in clerestories where they are difficult to see. Both sets are qualified out. That leaves the wonderful collection of 12th century windows at Canterbury Cathedral. The only problem here is picking which is best for the collection. We have chosen the Chartres inspired Miracle Window (extract above), now thought to date from the 1180s.

We have to consider the glass at Twycross (St James), Rivenhall (St Mary & All Saints) and Wilton (St Mary & St Nicholas). These windows are constructed from 12th century panels originally made at St Denys and St Chapelle. Admittedly, they are really museum pieces, having been imported during the French Revolution and jumbled together into windows once they arrived, but they are from the two greatest medieval stained-glass production centres. We secretly hoped that the churches would not be open, so that we could qualify them out, but Wilton is open almost every day and it is an extraordinary church with lots of other interests. It is in. We picked its apse window for the collection.

Moving on to the 13th century, the best examples are at Canterbury Cathedral and Lincoln Cathedral. Star of the show, at least according to June Osbourne, is the Dean's Eye rose window in Lincoln's north transept. It is in. Canterbury has lots of lovely 13th century glass. We picked its 'Poor Man's Bible' window, which featured on the 1971 Christmas stamps, for the collection. The best of the rest is Beverley Minster's Great East Window which has twenty 13th century panels in its outer lancets. It is in too.

The earliest surviving grisaille windows in Britain also date to the 13th century. The reference example is York Minster's Five Sisters window (extract above) from around 1260. It is also the oldest complete window at York. It is in. An early eye-level grisaille is the left light of the Great East Window at Blessed Virgin Mary, Madley. It is in. The earliest surviving silver stain windows in Britain date from the 14th century. The reference example is the Holy Spirit Chapel window at St Mary Magdalene, Newark. It is in too.

Late medieval stained-glass is relatively common. It includes two of the grandest windows ever made. One is the 14th century Great East Window at Gloucester Cathedral (extract above), which was the biggest in the world when it was installed. The other is the 15th century Great East Window at York Minster, which became the largest medieval window in the world and remains so. It has recently been restored to its sparkling best in one of the biggest conservation projects ever undertaken. Both these windows are in.

The Great East windows at Gloucester and York are high. The best collection of eye-level 15th century glass in Britain, if not the world, is at St Mary's, Fairford. Amazingly, it still has all 28 of its original 15th century windows. It seems a bit ridiculous to pick one when they are all so good, but we have to. For no reason other than that it is our favourite, we selected the Miraculous Draught of Fishes window, just outside the Corpus Christi chapel on the north aisle.

Presaging production techniques 150 years later, one of the earliest enamelled windows in Britain is the 1533 Jesse Tree at St Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr. Glass expert Mostyn Lewis reckons it is the most beautiful window in Wales. It is in.

Llanrhaeadr was one of the last windows installed before Britain suffered the mass destruction of church windows during the English Reformation, the Scottish Reformation and the English Civil War. No new stained glass was installed in Scotland until the mid-19th century. English puritans prevented stained-glass being made or installed in England and Wales until the Restoration, by which time the skills to make it had died out. 

These were troubled times in Europe too. Calvinist iconoclasts destroyed most of the stained glass in Northern France, Switzerland, Denmark, Belgium and Holland. Then Louis XIII sacked Lorraine in 1636, destroying the furnaces of Europe's main pot-metal production centre. This was frustarating because post-Restoration churches wanted to install fancy windows but there was no source of high quality pot-metal glass. Instead they turned to Flemish/Dutch glass and Flemish/Dutch artists who painted coloured enamels onto plain glass. In effect, they used plain glass panels as a transparent canvas.

The best enamelled windows in Britain are the Herkenrode collection in the Lady Chapel at Lichfield Cathedral (extract above). Some say that they are the best examples of Flemish painted glass in the world. Cowen complains that they are rather faded but they have been restored since. They are in.

All Saints, Hillesden has a lovely early 16th century painted glass window. It is also one of most interesting churches in the country. It is in too. Perhaps the greatest exponents of the art in Britain were the Flemish van Linge brothers. The best examples of their work are at Oxford Cathedral. We have chosen the Jonah window (extract below) for the collection.

European style enamelled plain glass worked reasonably well for small eye-level windows, but it lacked the vibrancy, luminescence and grandeur of medieval glass. In the first half of the 19th century, Thomas Willement, who is often referred to as the 'Father of Victorian stained-glass', researched and re-discovered the techniques used to create medieval stained-glass.

Meanwhile, Augustus Pugin was promoting the Gothic Revival style of architecture. He encouraged window designs that were based on the medieval windows at Canterbury Cathedral. Production was subcontracted initially to three separate firms run by Willement, William Warrington, William Wailes. Pugin was disappointed in the results. Even using Willement's production process, the windows were not as vibrant as the medieval windows he was trying to copy.

Charles Winston realised that the problem was cheap mass produced glass, which was too regular and flat. He recommended a return to manually blown crown or cylinder glass, which produced lumpy irregular fragments that better captured the light.

A combination of Willement and Winston's techniques have been used in the vast majority of British stained-glass windows through to the present day.

Pugin struck up a friendship with John Hardman who produced his windows through to the end of his life, most notably at Westminster and St Chad's Cathedral, Birmingham. He thought that these were the finest quality windows made since medieval times. We are less convinced. The other leading manufacturer of the day was Clayton and Bell. Their work at Truro Cathedral was the largest stained glass project ever undertaken. They were first to adopt Winston's techniques, which they had perfected by the time they worked at Truro. The results are often said to be the finest Gothic Revival style windows ever made. Experts reckon that the three rose windows are the best. Our favourite, and therefore the one we put into the collection, is the South Transept, not because it is a better window but because we like the tracery.

1861 was a watershed in British stained-glass. Hitherto, notwithstanding the temporary diversion into enamel work during the 17th and 18th centuries, stained-glass window designs had not changed much since medieval times. But an artistic revolution was underway, first with the pre-Raphaelites in the 1850s, then with the Impressionists in the 1860s. Both genres spread out into music, literature and stained-glass.

William Morris was an early pre-Raphaelite admirer. In 1861 he formed the furniture and decorative arts company 'Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co' to promote pre-Raphaelite concepts. He drafted in two of his pre-Raphaelite artist chums - Ford Maddox Brown and Edward Burne-Jones - to design wallpapers, textiles and stained-glass. Another pre-Raphaelite painter, Henry Holiday, took Burne-Jones's position at Powell Glass Works. These guys were brilliant artists in whatever medium they chose. Their ideas revolutionised stained-glass design in Britain. The collection needs an example from Burne-Jones and Morris at least.

For Burne-Jones, we have chosen the east window at St Martin, Brampton (extract below). This extraordinary place is the only pre-Raphaelite church in the world, designed by Philip Webb and stuffed full of pre-Raphaelite artwork. For the Morris, we have choosen St Michael & All Angels, Waterford. This place is also a gem. It is our favourite small church in the entire country, with a Minton floor, Whitefriars mosaic reredos and wonderful eye-level windows by Morris, Maddox Brown, Burne-Jones, Douglas Strachan, Selwyn Image and Karl Parsons. Its windows are so stupendous that they rejected a design by Harry Clarke! We could not decide between them. Glass expert Lucinda Lambton reckons that the Morris one of the 12 best windows in the country. Good enough for us. It is in.

Moving into the 20th century, the central figure is Christopher Whall who ran the stained-glass department at the Central School of Art. It was here that he mentored many of the great names in British and Irish stained-glass. His star pupils included Henry Payne, Louis Davis, Eddie Nuttgens, Karl Parsons, James Clark, Jasper Brett, Paul Woodroffe and Thoedora Salisbury.

Whall's influence passed down the generations through his students. Parsons took his position as leader of the Central School of Art. Nuttgens tutored Patrick Reyntiens, who eventually took over from Parsons at the Central School of Art. His star pupil was was John Piper, with whom he later collaborated in many important projects. Evie Hone and Alan Younger also studied at Central School of Art under Reyntiens's successor. Meanwhile, another Whall protege, Alfred Child, set up the stained-glass department at Dublin Metropolitan School of Art, where his star pupils included Harry Clarke and Wilhelmina Geddes.

Whall was a prolific artist in his own right when he was not teaching. Our favourite Whall window is at St Ethelbert, Herringswell, but it is locked during the week. We were tempted by his west window at Leicester Cathedral because it is perhaps most typical of his style, but his most admired work is in the Lady Chapel at Gloucester Cathedral. We have picked The Fall of Man on the north side for the collection, because most of the others were completed by his daughter.

Nuttgens' most famous work is the east window at St Etheldreda (RC), a treasure trove of modern windows. Reyntiens's best window of his own design is at St Martin, Marden (above). June Osbourne is rather sniffy about it. We suspect that it was so far ahead of its time that it had not come into fashion when she was writing. Reyntiens usually worked with John Piper. Their best known collaboration is the monumental Bastistry window at Coventry Cathedral. We prefer his church windows, especially the Tree of Life at St Peter's, West Firle, which happens to be a treasure trove of lovely Arts & Crafts windows. All five of these are in.

The two best Parsons windows are at St Lawrence, Ansley and St Peter's, Bardon, but neither of them is open during the week and Ansley is not open at all during the Winter. The Parsons window at Waterford is next best, but it is very small and Questors will see it when they visit the Morris window. The best large-scale accessible Parsons windows are the east window at St James the Less, Pangbourne and the north chancel window at St Mary's Bibury, both of which featured on the 1992 Christmas stamps. Bibury is a more interesting church but Pangbourne has the better window. Having qualified out the best three Parsons windows, we feel that we cannot compromise any more. Pangbourne (above) is in.

Harry Clarke is thought by many to be the greatest ever stained glass artist. He was Irish and worked mainly in Ireland. His only church windows in Britain are at Bedworth, Nantwich and Sturminster Newton. They are not his best. He did, however, make a stupendous set of windows for Ashdown Park Convent. The eight lancets and a dazzling jewel box east window are as good as any modern windows anywhere in the world. The convent closed in the 1980s. It is now part of Ashdown Park Hotel. We know we are stretching our own rules but the east window (above) has to be in. In our defence, it is in a church building, it is almost impossibly beautiful - our favourite window of its period in Britain - and it is relatively accessible (open every day although visitors have to arrange viewings to avoid conferences and weddings).

Douglas Strachan is Scotland's greatest stained-glass artist and one of the greatest that Britain has ever produced. The best collection of his work is at St Thomas', Winchelsea. There are nine windows in all, every one a gem. We have chosen his Sea window (above) at the eastern end of the Lady Chapel for the collection. In the spirit of full disclosure, we confess that one attraction of this window is that it features Norman-style longboats landing at Winchelsea and we believe the Normans did indeed land at Winchelsea (see blog here). The Winchelsea windows are quite high. It seems reasonable to have an eye-level Strachan in the collection. We have included his War Memorial window at Aberdeen Cathedral (St Machar's), near his place of birth.

The most popular British stained-glass artist working today is Thomas Denny. His most monumental works are at Durham Cathedral and Leicester Cathedral, but they are too high to see the intricate details for which he is famous. For instance, we failed to find the Leicester City football that is apparently hidden within one of the windows at Leicester Cathedral despite searching for most of the morning. We prefer his eye-level works, especially his windows at Gloucester Cathedral, Hereford Cathedral and Tewkesbury Abbey. The detail drawing in these windows is utterly extraordinary. They are all superb. We have to pick one for collection. We plumped for his window in the chapel of St Catherine and St John the Baptist at Tewkesbury Abbey (above), not least because we found it an inspiring place to visit.

The Great West Window at St Editha, Tamworth (above) is one of the best known by Alan Younger, and it is a stunning place with lots of interesting windows and the world's only DNA staircase (built 400 years before the structure of DNA was discovered). It is in.

St Andrews, Wickhambreaux has the only Art Nouveau church window in Britain (above). It was produced in the Manhattan workshop of John La Farge - one of the great names of American stained-glass - from a design by London based Danish artist Arild Rosenkrantz. It is in.

The collection is filled out with rare windows by famous artists. All Saints, Tudeley is entirely decorated with glorious Chagall windows. It is one of only three churches in Britain that has a Chagall window and the only church with two or more. We have picked his east window (part of which is shown at the top of this blog) for the collection. Southwark Cathedral has the only major La Farge design in Britain. It is not one of his best, but it is too important to omit from the collection. Queen's Cross, Glasgow is the only church designed by Charles Rennie Macintosh with his only church windows. We picked the chancel window for the collection. It is unspectacular but typical of his style. St Andrew, Kimbolton has the better of the only two Tiffany church windows in Britain. It has to be in. Finally, Canterbury Cathedral has the best Bossanyi window in Britain (extract above).

This is the complete collection:

  • St Michael @ All Saints, Dalbury Lees
  • North wall abstract @ St Mary, Brabourne
  • Miracle Window @ Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury
  • Apse window @ St Mary & St Nicholas, Wilton
  • Dean's Eye rose window @ Lincoln Cathedral, Lincoln
  • Poor Man's Bible window @ Canterbury Cathedral, Canterbury
  • Great East Window @ Beverley Minster, Beverley
  • Five Sisters window @ York Minster, York
  • Great East window @ Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Madley
  • Holy Spirit Chapel window @ St Mary Magdalene, Newark
  • Great East window @ Gloucester Cathedral, Gloucester
  • Great East window @ York Minster, York
  • Miraculous Draught of Fishes window @ St Mary the Virgin, Fairford
  • Jesse Tree window @ St Dyfnog, Llanrhaeadr
  • Herkenrode window @ Lichfield Cathedral (St Mary and St Chad), Lichfield
  • Miracles of St Nicholas window @ All Saints, Hillesden
  • Jonah window @ Oxford Cathedral (Christ Church), Oxford
  • Great East window @ Truro Cathedral, Truro
  • Great East window @ St Martin, Brampton
  • Morris window @ St Michael & All Angels, Waterford
  • East window @ St Etheldreda (RC), Holborn
  • East window @ St Michael & All Angels, Marden
  • East window @ St James the Less, Pangbourne
  • Baptistry @ Coventry Cathedral, Coventry
  • Tree of Life @ St Peter's, West Firle
  • East window @ Ashdown Park Hotel & Country Club, Forest Row
  • Sea window @ St Thomas, Winchelsea
  • War memorial window @ St Machar's Cathedral, Aberdeen
  • St Catherine and St John the Baptist Chapel window @ Tewkesbury Abbey, Tewkesbury
  • Great West window @ St Editha, Tamworth
  • Rosenkrantz window @ St Andrew, Wickhambreaux
  • East window @ All Saints, Tudeley
  • La Farge window @ Southwark Cathedral, Southwark
  • Chancel window @ Queen's Cross, Glasgow
  • Tiffany window @ St Andrew, Kimbolton
  • Bossanyi window @ Canterbury Cathedral