The restoration of the medieval St Kew window A personal journey

Joanna Mattingly and Michael Swift

This article was originally prepared for the Truro Diocesan magazine The Coracle, January 2006.

It seemed just another routine visit to inspect a leaking window at the time, but little did we suspect as we drove from Truro to St Kew in the summer of 2003 that it was to be a journey we were to repeat many times, and that this window was going to be a dominant feature of our work for the next two years. Of course we knew that the north chapel east window at St Kew was important (even if Nikolaus Pevsner didn’t give it its full due) but with closer inspection it was increasingly clear that this was one of the most significant windows in the Southwest. However, as we gazed at the daylight that was visible between the glass and leads, and the degraded state of the glass on the exterior, we quickly realized that both the glass and the stonework were in a very fragile and vulnerable state. A really bad easterly gale in winter could have caused irreparable damage, and an immediate programme of major conservation and restoration work was imperative.

The north chapel east window n3 at St Kew, showing scenes from the Passion of Christ, before restoration.

The one lesson that we think we have learned from the past two years is the absolute need to involve all the interested parties in the discussion process at every stage: in this way the parish’s commitment to the project was supported to the utmost. The Truro Diocesan Advisory Committee (DAC), with their wealth of expertise, debated what became known simply as ‘The St Kew window’ at some length, and offered considerable help to the Parochial Church Council (PCC) in their most crucial decision of the whole enterprise—the choice of the glass studio to do the restoration. It became immediately apparent that there were complicated issues and points of principle involved at all stages, including the cleaning of the glass, the degree of intervention (replacement, repainting and repair of the medieval glass), the placement of the panels in a different order, and the use of isothermal glazing to protect the window and prevent any further deterioration to the fragile glass. The ethical questions on how far we should go to change and ‘improve’ the window contained the potential for a serious clash of opinions between local and national groups. It was clear to the DAC that a full discussion and the need to arrive at a consensus between all parties were the only safe way forward. Archdeacon Clive Cohen duly chaired a December meeting in the church at which the PCC, Holy Well Glass, the DAC, the church architects, English Heritage, the Council for the Care of Churches and others quietly froze (on account of wintry conditions) whilst every aspect of the conservation programme was thrashed out and agreements finally reached. On the question of the use of isothermal protection, both English Heritage and the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings reversed their previous opposition and ended up in support of Holy Well’s scheme.

The north chapel east window n3 at St Kew, showing scenes from the Passion of Christ, after restoration.

All the major decisions having been taken in principle, the next months for the parish were a flurry of fund raising, media involvement, and detailed planning whilst, in the background, we were involved in a lot of historical research on all aspects of the window. Liz Bartlett generously shared her research with us and her interpretation of the subject matter of some panels based on the Passion play of the Cornish Ordinalia—the Scourging and Harrowing of Hell in particular—proved to be extremely useful when the time came to restore. Another useful source was Francis Cheatham’s book Alabaster Images of England as this covered many of the scenes featured in the Passion window. The three dimensional quality of many of the St Kew panels may have been influenced by the alabaster reredos or altar piece carvings that could well have been once displayed beneath. Dating the window more closely was the other major priority.

Since 1875 there has been a tradition that this north-east Passion window was the one bought second-hand from Bodmin church in 1469. Reverend JJ Wilkinson, the originator of this theory, was the editor of the Bodmin church rebuilding accounts of 1469–72 and his views have been taken up very recently by Pat Munn in a lively and thought-provoking article in the Old Cornwall Journal (2005). Earlier writers, however, like the Lysons brothers c1805 and CS Gilbert in 1820 had favoured the Jesse or east window of the south chapel (our own preference if pushed). Of course, the truth may be that neither window was bought second-hand at Bodmin, as the surviving glass represents only about an eighth of the total once in St Kew church.

Dating from heraldic evidence is fraught (Vivian’s Visitations of Cornwall is notoriously incomplete), and in this case was complicated because the heraldry was incomplete. Starting with the complete coat of arms on the left, the Carminow arms of the wife’s half were clear but the identity of the three pied birds on an argent ground with a sable (black) chevron was a mystery. The traditional attribution to the Kingdons, whose arms included three magpies, is curious. They were a Quethiock-based rather than a St Kew family and no marriage with a Carminow has been noted. A better possibility seemed to be the Pentire family who held the manor of Pengenna in St Kew. Their arms included three sea-pies and appear on a holy water stoup in the neighbouring church of St Endellion. More significantly, an appropriate marriage had occurred sometime prior to 1493–4 when Jane Pentire née Carminow remarried (her first marriage to John Pentire was noted in connection with only Helland not St Kew by Alice Bisley and John Maclean). Jane’s sister Elizabeth Carminow married John Bere of Lannow in St Kew by 1490 as in 1491 their daughter Philippa was born so Liz Bartlett’s suggestion that this marriage may have been commemorated in the incomplete coat of arms could be correct (blue glass has now been substituted for white here hinting at the Carminow arms). Pat Munn’s important work on the earlier Bodmin connections of these families (the Carminows being a Bodmin family) could explain why St Kew was able to snap up spare glass from Bodmin in 1469.

The royal coat of arms is of a type current between c1405 and 1603, and not very useful for dating purposes. Glass with English inscriptions is comparatively rare before the late fifteenth century according to Richard Marks, those in St Neot church are all rendered in Latin as are fragments of writing from elsewhere in St Kew church. Putting all the evidence together a date of 1490 or a little earlier can be suggested and the consensus amongst art historians is that the glass was probably made in Exeter. Few windows of the Passion of Christ survive in as complete a condition anywhere in the world. Great Malvern in Worcestershire had two such windows, both more fragmentary than here, while Renaissance-style versions survive at Fairford in Gloucestershire and King’s College Chapel in Cambridge.

A panel (3a) from n3, showing the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot, before restoration.
A panel (3a) from n3, showing the betrayal of Christ by Judas Iscariot, after restoration.

We had not realized quite the stir that the project was making until, at an international conference in London a year ago, some of the leading figures in the stained glass world were coming up with remarks such as we are all very excited about what’s happening to that window at St Kew. Cornwall is on the map at last, and now we have something to match the medieval glass windows at St Neot!

A panel (3c) from n3, showing the flaying of Christ, before restoration.
A panel (3c) from n3, showing the flaying of Christ, after restoration.

Fast-forward to May 2005 and another meeting in Wells at the Holy Well Glass Studio, hosted by Stephen Clare and his talented team. All the interested parties spent a mind-throbbing five hour session crammed into a very confined space looking at each piece of glass in every panel. The basic decisions on the replacement and repainting of the glass, the repair of the inscriptions, and the re-ordering of the panels were re-examined in the minutest detail so that each part of the window was dealt with in a fully consistent manner. Personally, we found that this was an amazing learning curve, as this was probably the only time that we are ever likely to be involved in the detailed conservation of such an important medieval window in Cornwall. This was the moment when the skill and artistry of those anonymous fifteenth century artists and craftsmen could be seen at the close quarters. The colours of the newly cleaned glass and the details that emerged from beneath decades of grime all confirmed our opinions on the historic significance of this window. The fact that, compared to the windows at St Neot (apart from the Creation window), a much higher percentage of medieval glass had survived and had not been replaced by Victorian repairs, only increases the historic importance of the window.

Now the restored window is back in place it is clear that this has been an amazing journey. A nationally important medieval window has been rescued from serious danger, and for the first time for several centuries can now be admired and studied in something like its original glory. The visual message of the Passion of Our Lord interpreted by anonymous craftsmen of the late fifteenth century and conceived through the medium of colour and light is now again part of the religious and artistic heritage of this fine parish church and its congregation. To reach this journey’s end has involved so many people, not always in absolute agreement, yet in the end united in their determination to use their skills and expertise to support the project to its successful conclusion. After all, it is only one window in one Cornish parish church, but its religious, artistic, and historical significance make it very special indeed. And probably the most heartening lesson from this journey is how a small congregation can justifiably take enormous pride in their central part in the enterprise—all the experts could have achieved nothing if the people in the parish had not made the brave decisions, worked so hard, and shown such determination and single-mindedness. We have enjoyed being part of your team.