The stained-glass windows at Launceston Methodist Church

Michael G Swift

Introduction

In many ways the story of the stained glass glazing of the Methodist church in Launceston epitomises that of non-Conformist glass throughout Cornwall. The one exception is that the church happens to contain one of the most outstanding late Victorian windows in the whole of the county.

The Chapel

Figure 010. The three windows in the Chancel apse.

The present Chapel in Castle Street was opened on , together with new school and class rooms, replacing an earlier building of that had suffered serious structural failings. The design for the new Chapel was entrusted to the architectural firm of Norman and Hine of Plymouth, who were responsible for the decoration of the chancel area.

Each of the three sides of the chancel has a lofty two-light window … and filled in with stained glass of geometrical pattern by Bell, of Bristol. All the other windows are filled with cathedral glass.1

The three windows (Figure 010) by Joseph Bell & Son of Bristol for the small apsidal chancel are typical of the style that was accepted by many Methodist chapels in the mid-Victorian period.2 At that time, figurative and narrative subjects were rare in non-Conformist buildings, and windows providing a certain degree of colour without Anglican iconography were generally preferred. Each panel consists of central coloured quatrefoils surrounded by simple coloured circles. The grisaille backgrounds are motifs of grapes and wheat ears, whilst the simple coloured borders contain oak leaf motifs. In this manner, the windows have a symbolic relevance in the chancel area, but the iconography is inobtrusive.

The windows were only half of the chancel decoration. Between the tile dado of the chancel walls and the window sills the wall surface was painted in panels by Harris of Plymouth to the architects’ designs. The outer panels contained the Ten Commandments, whilst the inner panels behind the altar contained the Gospel texts Behold the Lamb of God … and God so loved the world … The whole sanctuary area therefore would have been illuminated with colour and light from windows that contained discreet Holy Communion iconography, with relevant biblical texts on the content and purpose of Communion behind the altar. This Victorian context is now lost, as the texts are covered by curtains, whilst the windows are obscured by a large descending screen that is part of the technology of the modern form of service. One could argue that this modern context is suitable for the 21st century, but it is always a shame when a Victorian vision is lost.

The Dingley Hall

To the glory of God, and in loving memory of John Dingley, for 19 years President of the Mens’ Bible Class, this window is dedicated by the Members and their friends

Figure 020. The window at north end of the Dingley Hall, showing Christ telling the Parable of the Sower.

Adjoining the church is Dingley Hall. It was built in by Hine and Odgers of Plymouth, next to the church’s fine spire, which was demolished in . The foundation stone for the Hall (known originally as the Wesleyan Institute) was laid on , and reports of the event3 refer to the intention to insert a stained-glass window. Reports of the opening of the hall on 4 confirm that the window (Figure 020) by Fouracre & Watson (later Fouracre & Son) of Plymouth, was unveiled at the same time. This final window in the church is in the north wall of the upstairs meeting room. The dedicatee was John Dingley of Eagle House, Launceston. He was a banker, three times Mayor of Launceston (his arms are in the window in Launceston Guildhall) and was deeply involved in Launceston Methodist church.5 He died on in Madeira at the age of 56. The inscription along the bottom of the window records the dedication to John Dingley, and the Hall was renamed in his honour.

The window consists of five lights separated vertically by thick mullions of varying width.6 Each main light is surmounted by a separate smaller round-headed panel. These smaller panels are in place of normal tracery and, in many ways, fulfil the function of narrative predella panels which are usually found at the base of lights.

Main panels: Christ expounding the parable to the audience

Detail from the first light. Christ, in the garb of a Judean peasant, expounds the Parable of the Sower.

The subject of the main lights is Christ preaching the Parable of the Sower from a boat on the sea of Galilee to an audience of men, women and children, whilst the upper panels tell the actual parable, with the sower in the centre and the fates of the sown seed in the two panels on either side. The background shows the sea and surrounding hills, with trees and other vegetation in the far-right light. Among the salient features of the window’s iconography is the fact that Christ is shown with normal head covering and no halo or nimbus. Also, the women are all portrayed with prominent earring decorations. Finally, although the adult men have prominent Jewish features and dress, the women and children do not, suggesting that this was an effort to show the audience as a mixture of Jews and Gentiles.

Detail from the fourth light. A mother thrusts her children forward to catch the words of the Master, and behind her press forward men of various ages.

Detail from the third light. Several men listen with attention to the teaching.

The main artistic virtues of the window lie in the ways Fouracre solved various practical drawbacks presented both by the window itself and by its location. The window’s northern aspect means it lacks natural sunlight. It is also set rather low on the wall, which again deprives the viewer of natural light. The vertical mullions, especially the thicker outer ones, seriously disrupt the narrative continuity of the composition, and the separation of the upper panels again challenges the artist to integrate them into the overall design.

The choice of preaching the parable of the sower as its subject-matter has itself intrinsic drawbacks, especially when spread over five lights. The focus of the composition must be the seated figure of Christ in the boat, but a five-light window means that centre point is on the edge of the composition. Similarly, having the remaining four lights of the audience all facing one way in profile would be dramatically boring.

Fouracre’s solutions to these difficulties are generally successful. The disruption of the subject’s continuity by the mullions is solved by a willingness to crop people and their garments and ensuring all the sight lines of the ship’s spar, the hills and sea are continued from one light to the next in a very artistic manner, to such an extent that one hardly notices the mullions. The bold use of red of Christ’s garment and the solid bulk of the ship’s hull, mast and spar concentrate the viewer’s attention on the far-left light. This is balanced by the seated figure on the far right. The use largely pastel shades for the figures is enlivened with patches of “jewel colours”, as in the belts, scarves and flowers, which lift the scene from being too muted. The audience is shown looking left, half-left and full front, giving a rhythm to the rest of the composition. The merging of the azure sea and cliffs works well as a background, and the slope of the cliffs toward Christ leads the eye to the most important figure, as well as concentrating the viewer’s attention to the figures in the foreground setting.

Fouracre were noted in the 1880s for their use of coloured vegetation in a pre-Raphaelite manner, and this adds a colour variety to both the far-right light and the Sower panels above. A technical point is the way in which their design ensures that the horizontal saddlebars do not go through any essential details of the composition. The varied use of colour throughout solves the problem of lack of natural light, yet still gives a glow to the whole window. Only four years later, Fouracre used the same subject in a window in Chapel Street Methodist Church in Penzance which is completely ruined by over-heavy colouring and a congested design. Finally, a major feature of the early decades of the Fouracre firm was their characterful face-painting and the use of live models as their subjects, and this is abundantly clear in the faces of the children and adults in the audience.

Upper panels: illustrations of the parable

Behold a sower went forth to sow (Matthew 13:3).

Figure 020. The upper part of the third light, showing the sower.

The simplicity of the four panels showing the fate of the seeds is admirably effective. The Sower panel itself is remarkable in the angle of the pose (low down from one side), the dynamism in the effect of the wind on his clothes and head scarf, and his naturalism compared to the figures in the scene below.7 One cannot avoid being struck by the similarity to many of Burne-Jones’s aesthetic paintings of the 1880s, and it reinforces the effect that Morris & Co had on Fouracre in the studio’s earlier years.

The upper part of the left-hand light. But other [seed] fell into good ground (Matthew 13:5–8).

Compared with the typical biblical subjects of stained glass windows around , this window has real character and shows significant artistic merits.

The Fouracre studio

The firm of Fouracre, Stonehouse, Plymouth was formed in and, until the 1900s, was the only glass studio west of Exeter, giving them a monopoly in the Cornish market for local stained glass.8 They eventually inserted over 200 windows in a wide range of Cornish buildings, including Anglican and nonconformist churches, municipal and civic buildings, and Masonic Lodges. Originally the firm was called Fouracre & Watson, with John Fouracre the principal designer and Henry Watson the chief glass painter. Watson retired in , the year this window was commissioned, and from onwards continued as Fouracre & Son with WD Snell as the chief glass painter.

The Dingley window comes precisely at this major transition in the life of the Fouracre firm. Narrative windows were always a minority part of Fouracre’s output, which usually concentrated on figurative subjects and purely decorative schemes. The Dingley window is probably their most ambitious narrative window in Cornwall, carried through with confidence and skill. It must be said that there are many features that show Henry Watson’s influence in the design and execution of the window. The use of white gothic script on a black background was a Fouracre trademark (as it was for William Morris). The high standard of Watson’s characterful and naturalistic face-painting was not sustained under Snell. Similarly, Watson’s pre-Raphaelite flowers and vegetative backgrounds quickly disappeared from Fouracre & Son’s designs, as the colour palette of their windows became heavier and duller. One is tempted to claim that the Dingley window is the last example of Henry Watson’s influence on Fouracre’s windows, and therefore is of considerable historic significance.

Conclusions

The Dingley Hall window had a distinct didactic purpose, set in the context of a room used to hold Bible study audiences of over a hundred participants. It was an apt subject to commemorate the memory of a man who who had devoted so much of his time and effort to religious education. It was an artistic visual teaching aid to a class of late Victorian adult learners, and has both artistic and historical significance.

References

  1. From the description of the chapel provided by the architects, Norman and Hine, reported in Western Morning News p 4, West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser p 6 and quoted by Toy, H Spencer, The Methodist church at Launceston, , p 26.
  2. Such ‘geometric’ windows were also much cheaper than mosaic style stained glass. Toy, op. cit., p 28. The chancel windows were priced at £24, whilst painting the chancel panels cost £14.
  3. Western Morning News p 8, Royal Cornwall Gazette p 3
  4. Western Morning News p 7, Exeter and Plymouth Gazette p 2, Cornish & Devon Post p 4 (cited in Toy, H Spencer, op. cit., p 42), Royal Cornwall Gazette p 7. Mrs. Pethybridge, who had been unanimously requested by the class to do so, stepped forward and pulling a string drew back the crimson curtains concealing the memorial window and said:—I have great pleasure in unveiling this window in memory of my dear cousin, Mr. John Dingley, and I earnestly pray that God’s richest blessing may rest on this building and the whole enterprise.
  5. Toy, H Spencer, op. cit., p 25.
  6. This account is based on a Statement of Significance prepared by Michael G Swift for Launceston Methodist Church in .
  7. Toy, H Spencer, op. cit., p 29. Interestingly, this is the only panel that the author does not comment on.
  8. Swift, Michael G, Stained glass windows in Cornwall by the Plymouth firm of Fouracre