Sir Edward Burne Jones

The more famous of St James the Less Church stained glass is of course the sanctuary panels, although we have some other well known work, they are famous because, apart from their subject matter and artistic merit, they were designed by the nineteenth century artist Edward Burne Jones.  He was one of those characters in which the Victorian era seemed to specialise.

For most of his life he was plain Edward, or “Ned”, Jones.  He began to use the Burne late in life, largely at the insistence of his profligate son, who felt that a double barrelled name was more appropriate to the position in society which his father’s success and wealth had brought him.

Born in 1833 in Birmingham, the son of a self employed tradesman, Burne Jones senior distinguished himself at the King Edward Grammar School but, in the days when tertiary education was the preserve of the wealthy and privileged, seemed to have little prospect of a university education.  He was however able to go up to Exeter College, Oxford, to study theology.  Some biographers affect to find this highly mysterious as his father could certainly never have been able to support him there, but it seems probable that he may have been in a situation similar to the Scottish “lad o’ pairts” where a young man of limited means, but high academic ability found a wealthy sponsor.

Four reasons are often given to suggest that he was a deeply religious and spiritual person: his choice of undergraduate study, his apparent intention of setting up a religious order with friends after graduation, his frequently expressed desire in later life to retreat to a monastery, and his extensive work in religious stained glass.  Each of these can be explained respectively as: the need to, unlike most of his contemporaries at university, earn a living after graduation, late adolescent fantasies, middle aged angst, and career and financial prospects.  There are equally good reasons for believing that his beliefs and spirituality were not of a high order; he liked money and the material possessions and social standing that it brought; he professed a contempt of organised religion; and his private life was turbulent, and regularly the subject of public scandals.

Although he is usually referred to as “the Pre-Raphaelite artist EBJ”, the original Pre Raphaelite Brotherhood, which most of its members thought a thoroughly silly name, had broken up by the time Burne Jones began his career.  He was apparently persuaded to abandon his studies at Oxford by one of them, the fabulous Gabriel Dante Rossetti, and to follow a career as an artist by apprenticing himself to Rossetti.  In the days when specialist art schools were rare, although Rossetti himself attended one, this was a common way to learn to paint.  Naturally Burne Jones learned the techniques of his mentor and followed the style of the Brotherhood.  It did him little harm, he spent virtually no time starving in a garret and was a critical and commercial success almost from the start.  He had real talent, and a capacity for hard work, which never left him, but it seems likely that his early fame had something to do with Rossetti’s contacts and influence.

Another friendship made in university days was equally important.  William Morris, one of the putative members of the religious order, and no mean artist himself, formed a lifelong association with Burne Jones.  This turned out to be to their mutual benefit in many ways.  Not the least of these was that Morris took over and improved a family business which was involved in, among other things, the production and supply of stained glass.  There was a huge expansion in church building and improvement in the nineteenth century, with stained glass being particularly fashionable and, having the prodigiously talented Jones as his chief artist and designer, Morris and his company made a fortune.  Jones always thought of himself as primarily a painter and was persuaded into stained glass design by Morris.  He soon proved to have an affinity for the work and, although he sometimes affected to despise it, he was not averse to the fame and fortune which it brought.  It is also difficult to believe that he consistently produced work of the highest quality over many years in an area he found distasteful.

The design of our stained glass dates from the period 1873-74, when Morris’s company was commissioned to install the stained glass in the chapel of Jesus College, Cambridge.  According to the experts, Burne Jones was at the time at the peak of his powers and his work in the Chapel, and in particular his designs for the four windows depicting the Evangelists, is masterly.  In this design the artist was strongly influenced by Michaelangelo and the actual portraits of the central characters form only part of a very large and carefully constructed design, our panels being repetitions of a detail, albeit the main detail, of each of the windows.  Apparently recycling successful designs was common, and not frowned on, at the time.  This depiction of the Evangelists can also be found in churches in Tavistock, Devon, and Youlgreave, Derbyshire.

Although Sir Edward Burne Jones was then, and is now, regarded as one of the foremost 19th century exponents of the art of stained glass, there was a short lived, but powerful, movement in the 1930s to downgrade the importance and merit of his work on the grounds that, unlike most designers, he did not personally supervise the installation of the glass on site.  The movement did not succeed, and seems to have attracted more contempt than support in the art world, a community which epitomises those torn by dissention and strife, so our glass remains very famous.

It seems to be fairly common knowledge that the Burne Jones panels came from the church at 133 Woodlands Road which is now occupied by St Jude’s Congregation of the United Presbyterian Church of Scotland.  This was originally built, and consecrated in 1875, for a congregation of the United Presbyterian Church, which had two previous homes from its formation in the early 19th century.  The building was designed in Gothic style by the architect John Burnet Snr and became a Category B listed building in 1970.  In the early 20th century the congregation and church, without apparently changing anything else, changed their name to Woodlands United Free Church, which they remained until 1974, when the congregation amalgamated with Wellington Church.  The church building was then redundant and subsequently sold to its present occupants.  The source for the above information contained one of those irritating dead ends which anyone carrying out research, even at the most mundane level, comes across regularly.  What I was really interested in was the stained glass, and this was referred to in one line: “Contained stained glass by Burnes (sic) Jones which has since been removed”, which was fairly useless information by any standard.  However the date of consecration ties in well with the dates of the commission of the stained glass in Jesus College, Cambridge, and, unless the contrary is proved, it seems safe to assume that the windows were commissioned from William Morris & Co. when the church was designed and built.

The other stained glass in the main body of the church came from Trinity Church, Claremont Street, and was designed about 1900 by one Stephen Adam jnr., about whom I have been able, so far, to discover absolutely nothing, other than that our windows are regarded as being famous enough, or of sufficient artistic merit, to be included in a guide to stained glass in Britain which at present does not refer to the Burne Jones windows.  In the 1970s Trinity Church was deconsecrated and is now the Henry Wood Hall, occupied by the Scottish National Orchestra.  In both cases the new occupants wanted to remove the stained glass from their buildings: the Free Presbyterians because they believe that stained glass is, or at least might be, idolatrous; the SNO for the more prosaic reason that they needed more natural light.  The windows were rescued and stored by Glasgow District Council Museums Department, with whom our architects liaised during the building of the church, the Department preferring to have such applied art displayed in a suitable setting, rather than languishing in vaults.  I am told that the rather unusual setting of the four Evangelists is, in part, an ingenious solution to the potential problems of protecting items of such high artistic and financial value.

(extracted from articles in St James the Less magazine, March/April 1999, written by Alex Leishman, then Convenor of the Fabric Committee)

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