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Not Slothful in Business: Macleod, Kempe and the Glass of Govan Old Parish Church


Philip N. H. Collins and Adrian Barlow

This dramatic presentation of the Govan correspondence was devised by Philip N. H. Collins and written by Adrian Barlow. It was performed ( with illustrative slides ) at the launch event on Saturday 7th July 1990 within the Steven Chapel. Adrian Barlow took the part of the Narrator, Philip Collins the part of Charles Eamer Kempe, and Gilbert Bell used his Scots tongue to give flavour to the Govan 'voices'. All three speakers are members of the Kempe Society. Our connection with the Kempe Society was established by Mr. William Murray, formerly Organist at Govan Old. The correspondence between Kempe and his studio and Dr. John Macleod and Govan Parish has been published by the Kempe Society as 'The Govan Correspondence'. The original letters and accounts are deposited by Govan Old at the Strathclyde Regional Archive, located in the Mitchell Library, Glasgow.

Narrator 'Not Slothful in Business', the title of our talk, is part of the inscription to be found on the East window of this Church. This window was installed as a memorial to Dr. John Macleod; and the full text of the inscription, approved by the Kirk Session in March 1899, reads as follows:

Session Clerk John Macleod DD. born at the Manse, Morvern, 22nd June 1840, died at the Manse, Govan, 4th August 1898. "Not slothful in business; fervent in spirit; serving the Lord. This window was erected in affectionate memory by the Congregation and Friends."

Narrator The Macleod Memorial Window, together with eleven other windows in Govan Old Church, comes from the studios of Charles Eamer Kempe, who was one of the leading figures of the Victorian revival of stained glass in Great Britain. In their own ways, both John Macleod and Kempe were eminent Victorians, remarkable alike for the energy and for the great influence the exercised. Macleod, as a preacher and paster, was a formidable figure in Scotland; and this church in which we meet testifies to his vision in creating a setting where the catholic traditions of liturgical worship and doctrine could be married to the traditions of the Presbyterian church. Kempe, who had once hoped to enter the Anglican priesthood, had devoted his life to creating a style of ecclesiastical art that would enrich the catholic worship of the Anglican church.

It was no doubt for this reason that Macleod first approached Kempe to design windows for Govan Old Church, but at first Kempe was reluctant: he knew little of the Presbyterian Church, and probably had little sympathy with its Calvinist heritage; at any rate, he must have doubted whether his reputation would be enhanced by such a commission. It was, after all, only a generation earlier that Sir Gilbert Scott had been pilloried for designing a non-conformist chapel. But Macleod was as persuasive a correspondent as he was a preacher, and in August 1897 Kempe accepted Macleod's offer.

Kempe My dear Sir, I feel I cannot any longer resist your pleadings: and in the interest of our common Christianity; expressed, as I believe you have desired it to be, in the traditional forms of Christian art; I will endeavour to serve you at Govan.

Narrator Kempe's reference to the "common Christianity" is important. Professor James Cooper has painted a striking picture of Macleod's attitude towards Christianity and art:

Cooper He never undervalued preaching. He never disparaged doctrine. He was totally removed from the position of the mere aesthete. If he sought beauty, it was never for it own sake - but only and always as a means to set more fully the truth which God has revealed.

Narrator Those comments could be applied equally well to Kempe, and it is probably that one of the reasons why Kempe devoted such particular time and care to the Govan commissions was because he sensed that he and Macleod shared a clear vision of art in the service of Christianity. Sadly, Macleod was to die before the first commissions could even be begun, but he remained the inspiration behind the scheme, as Kempe readily acknowledged: the twelve windows that now stand in Govan are a tribute to that inspiration. For this reason, we hope to show that the comment "Not slothful in business" applies as much to Kempe as it does to Macleod.

Uniquely, an archive of letters, accounts and other papers relating to the whole history of the Govan windows has survived. From these documents it is possible to put together an intriguing picture of Kempe's business, and of his personality and working methods. First, though, it is important to sketch in some of the background to Kempe's career and reputation.

By 1898, when Kempe first started work on Govan, he had been in business for over thirty years and had established a reputation - and a fortune - which had enabled him to buy and restore an historic house in Sussex, Old Place Lindfield. Here he was able to entertain clients and friends, who included leading churchmen and lay patrons as well as artists and architects. Among these was George Frederick Bodley, to whom Kempe had first gone to learn the rudiments of church decoration and ecclesiastical architecture. From Bodley he learned much about 15th century English Gothic architectural style; with his encouragement, he joined the firm of Clayton and Bell ( from whose studios came the east window behind us ) to study the principles of refined stained glass design and manufacture. Kempe's first window, designed for Gloucester Cathedral in 1865, already shows two characteristics of his style: the dominant use of large figures, set ( in the 15th century style ) in ornate canopy niches, with smaller scenes underneath, and the careful use of iconography and mediaeval costume or vestments. Kempe's style is essentially historical and traditionalist, but what begins to mark out his firm's work from the early 1870's onwards ( once he had set up on his own ) is a confident handling of rich ( often deep ) colour and a delight in details which make even the smallest windows fascinating to study. Angels always have wings of peacocks' feathers, and often carry musical instruments of great beauty or intricacy; saints are identified by their traditional symbols and by the initial letter of their name topped by a crown. Above all, perhaps, as Kempe's business grew, he gathered around him artists and craftsmen who created a house-style notable for the balance between fine draughtsmanship and refined colour and decoration. His practice, at 28 Nottingham Place, London, grew so rapidly that at its height he was employing nearly 60 men, and producing well over fifty windows a year.

In the year that Dr. Macleod first approached him, Kempe's studios produced sixty two windows, a formidable total of 8747 sq. feet of glass. Some of these were monumental commissions from cathedrals, others were tiny windows in village churches. Today, there is not a county in England and Wales ( nor a continent anywhere on the globe except Antarctica ) without some Kempe glass.

Neither must we forget that Kempe was also skilled in church decoration and furnishing: as early as 1868 he was working with Bodley to create one of the great masterpieces of English Tractarian art, St. John the Baptist, Tue Brook, Liverpool, where the richness of Kempe's colour magnificently offsets the simplicity of Bodley's design. His work also encompassed lecterns, pulpits, vestments and altar frontals, some of which ( such as the frontal from St. Agnes, Liverpool ) are now finding their way into national art collections.

It is against this background that Kempe's work at Govan needs to be understood. Stewart Thomson, in his I, records that:

Thomson When the building was completed in 1888 its windows were at first filled with plain glass. Dr. Macleod determined to make them a Gospel picture book following a definite scheme which would teach its silent lessons to old and young alike. In this project, he was fortunate in securing the cooperation of a notable master of his art, Charles E. Kempe of London. Kempe had hitherto worked only for Episcopal Churches; but by appealing to the hope of Catholic reunion, Dr. Macleod overcame his scruples[1].

Narrator Certainly, having accepted the commission, Kempe lost no time in discussing the themes and subjects of the windows with Macleod. After setting out ideas for the Transept windows on the North side ( actually the quasi-North side for, unusually, this Church is built on a North-South, not East-West, axis ) he wrote,

Kempe You were good enough also to name the ( quasi ) West window with a view to its glazing with coloured glass. I am inclined to advise that these three tall lancets should be dedicated to the belief in the Doctrine of the Holy Angels: and I could show a figure of Our Lord in the upper portion of the central opening with SS. Michael, Gabriel and Raphael forming a tier below him, and the rest of these lights might be given up to other figures of Angels in attendance upon them. The refrain "The Lord is the King of the Archangels, O come let us adore Him" might form the text of the whole composition. I think in this case I should be able to give you an estimate of Four Hundred and Fifty pounds ( £450 ) for the three openings...

Narrator Macleod approved of Kempe's suggestions and quickly replied to the letter:

Macleod If you are satisfied that what you recommend for the quasi West window is best...I am prepared now to entrust it to you, at the price you name - and I am also ready to be guided by your opinions as to the Transept windows as regards the style of treatment.

Narrator At this point, however, the whole scheme nearly foundered before it had really begun. Kempe spent most of August 1989 on holiday in the country, and returned to London to receive news that Macleod had unexpectedly died.

Kempe To Mr. N. A. Macleod: Dear Sir, On my return to London I have heard with great regret that your Father's illness...had a fatal termination. I need hardly say that having seen him in health and vigour so recently, it was a serious shock to find how early he had been removed from us. Slow as I was to act in his behalf I was called on to work for no ordinary man: and now I regret that so much time has slipped away without my fulfilling any of his wishes. Please accept my hearty condolences on this event which has robbed you of such a parent - and many others of a wise and steadfast friend. Your very truly, C. E. Kempe

Narrator Fortunately, Macleod's son was able to reassure Kempe that he should continue to work on the commissions he had been expecting any day to receive from Macleod. Kempe wrote with relief:

Kempe I am glad to learn from your correspondence that notwithstanding the lamented death of Dr. Macleod, there is a prospect that the glass, which he had practically decided to place in his Church, may be executed.

Narrator By return, Macleod's son replied to Kempe's letter:

Norman Macleod In designs for the windows, whether Transept or otherwise you will of course abide by my Father's ideas and your suggestions as explained to him. I am obtaining authority in writing from the Kirk Session of the Govan Parish Church to complete my Father's window scheme... I have requested this written authority so as to avoid any trouble with the successor in charge of the church and parish...

Narrator It is worth noting that all these arrangements were being completed within three weeks of Macleod's death. His son's anxiety to get authority from the Kirk Session so as to prevent anyone from later abandoning the scheme, suggests how important the windows must have been to Dr. Macleod. The window scheme, itself the completion of the whole Govan church building project, was already becoming a memorial to Dr. Macleod. For this reason, it is particularly interesting that Macleod's son, in the same letter, wrote:

Norman Macleod I hope to be able to get you the order of the Chancel quasi East window so you may be working out a design and estimate for this also.

Narrator It was this glass which was to become the Macleod Memorial Window. It is appropriate to record here that the Govan Old Church owes a great deal to Macleod's son. In the two months following his father's death, he immediately established a rapport with Kempe to make certain that the windows project went ahead. What is more, he personally raised promises of money to underwrite it; established a general fund for the windows to be administered by his mother, and arranged for trustees to look after future negotiations: he himself, now that his father was dead, was going to emigate to India. Before he left, he wrote eloquently about the relationship that had already evolved between Kempe, Govan and Macleod:

Norman Macleod I have every confidence in your doing your very best for the Church as regards the orders which may be placed in your hands. My Father desired nothing but the best workmanship and you will have a full knowledge through correspondence and otherwise as to his ideas and tastes in regard to Church windows.

Narrator Kempe for his part was equally ready to pay tribute to Macleod's inspiration. Writing in November 1898 to John Young, whoe took over the Govan end of the negotiations from Macleod's son, he said:

Kempe I am obliged for your letter of enquiry respecting the large 'East' window at Govan...I hope I may have the privilege of executing the stained glass for it; as Dr. Macleod intended me to do it, and my letter of July 29th brought the matter as far as it was then possible; and it has only been interrupted by his lamented death.

I submitted then the suggestion that the Figure of our Lord should occupy the centre of the great upper circle, and be surrounded with attributes of glory, and holy prsonages; whilst the lower three lights might show a selection of scenes beaing upon His Incarnation and Passion.

I had no opportunity of receiving Dr. Macleod's criticism of these detailed suggestions; but I know he accepted them in the main part as part of our scheme for the Church, which we had discussed - and had he lived I should have had his help in perfecting this scheme. As regards the cost of this 'East' window, I adhere to the sum Six Hundred Pounds (£600) named in that letter for the glass; and you are right in supposing that all ironwork, carriage, fixing, wire-guards ( if necessary ) etc., would be extras...

Narrator Within the month, Kempe had received Young's commission to begin work on the Macleod Memorial East window and promised to start on the drawings without delay, only adding:

Kempe I hope in these dark days I may be allowed some two or three weeks for the development of so large a work.

Narrator Nearly one hundred years later we take electric light so much for granted that it is good to be reminded how the short days and long evenings of winter had a real effect on the rate at which work such as Kempe's could be produced. His premises in London were, if not cramped, certainly not extensive; and the work of sketching, drawing cartoons, painting the glass and assembling the windows all required good light if the job was to be done properly. Kempe himself ( as the Govan correspondence illustrates ) dealt with clients, developed ideas for windows and furnishings, and superintended all aspects of the business; he did not ( certainly after the early years ) actually draw the designs or paint the glass himself. The inspiration and style were his; the actual artistry and craftsmanship came from his team of draughtsmen, painters and glaziers. Their names deserve to be better known, for just as behind any window labelled 'William Morris' lies the skill of a Philip Webb or a Burne-Jones, so behind Kempe's glass lies the skill of artists such as Alfred Tombleson, Master Glass Painter and craftsman, Edgar Carter and John Lisle, designer cartoonists. ( The same is true, of course, today of any successful design practice: the name of a Terence Conran or of a James Stirling may be what sells the product or the building, but the detailed development of the work is done by usually anonymous assistants. )

In the event, the two or three weeks Kempe had asked for to develop the drawings for the Memorial East window turned into three months, but by 11th March 1899 they were ready to be sent from London to Glasgow.

Kempe Dear Sir, I am now able to forward you the drawing for the (quasi-) East window at the Parish Church of Govan: prepared upon the lines already suggested...I hope it will obtain the necessary sanction and approval.

Narrator This necessary sanction and approval was obtained - but only just. Instead of the usual sketches with notes, Kempe had sent a coloured scale drawing of the window. This would probably have been drawn and coloured by John Lisle, who was by this time his chief draughtsman, and was to a scale of 3/4in to the foot. ( In other words, a drawing of a light sixteen feet high would have been twelve inches tall. ) The Fund Raising Committee, to whom the drawing was sent, had their reservations:

John Young In regard to the wheel window, it was thought that the central figure designed by Mr. Kempe as 'Our Lord in Glory' suggested rather the first person in the Trinity than the second, the figure in the design being venerable and not such as to convey the idea of our Lord risen in triumph.

It appeared to the committee that the figure might with advantage be more slender. It was also thought that the design coming second in order in the right hand lancet light referred to by Mr. Kempe as 'Our Lord's Descent into Hell' and being that of our Lord preaching to the spirits in prison did not sufficiently bring out the nature of the subject and might possibly be improved...

Narrator This was potentially very embarrassing to the Kirk Session, which did not relish having to send back Kempe's designs. In the end, they agreed to forward the Committee's comments to Kempe, but not to endorse them. They argued that Kempe had, after all, based the designs on preliminary discussions with the great Dr. Macleod himself; what was more, the scale drawing as relatively so small that it was risky to draw firm conclusions. Above all, however, they felt...

John Young ...they were safer to leave themselves without reserve in Mr. Kempe's hand, not only having regard to his acknowledged position as an artist and being at the very top of his profession, but also having regard to his expressed desire, both on account of his affection and regard for Dr. Macleod, to do his very best and also because this is the first work he has ever done for any Presbyterian Church in Scotland[2].

Narrator The Kirk Session was right to be diplomatic, for Kempe could be severe with those who criticised his proposed schemes. The East Window went ahead according to plan, but later windows were the subject of some tricky negotiations. When the new minister, Mr. Kirkpatrick, put forward his own Resurrection scheme for the nave windows, Kempe politely but firmly rejected all his ideas and substituted his own:

Kempe I feel that I am taking somewhat of a liberty in so rudely handling your own scheme and suggesting my own in its place; but I am sure you will understand that such suggestions as these are necessary for the dramatic illustration of so great a subject revealed to us in Scripture.

Narrator He was a good deal less polite when the donor of a clerestory window, Lady Pearce, objected to his proposals:

Kempe There is no Angle of Fra. Angelico's that I know of which represents monumentally the single figure of "the Angel of the Resurrection"; nor is such a figure known of in Christian art...If you still feel it desirable to disturb our scheme and show an ordinary Angel in a white alb... and call it 'the Angel of the Resurrection' I am willing to do it; but its value as a witness to the Doctrine is not so great...

Narrator In this way the Govan correspondence helps to provide an important insight into Kempe and how his studios worked. Between 1899 and 1904 he installed twelve windows in Govan Old Church, over 1000 square feet of glass. From the letters, we also get some interesting light on aspects of stained glass which usually receive little attention. The Kirk Session, anxious to protect its new and precious windows, asked Kempe to quote for installing wire guards. Kempe, quite rightly, believed that wire guards distracted from the impact of the window, and tried to put the Kirk Session's mind at rest over this:

Kempe Having seen the Church, and its position, I scarcely think that any wire is necessary over the large 'West' window; and the 'North' windows also seem to me to be in such a position as regards the Churchyard, and the tall houses beyond, that it is scarcely possible for them to be broken by casual stone-throwing. I think that they might be very safely left without external protection which so greatly hurts their effect.

Narrator The Kirk Session, perhaps knowing the neighbourhood better than Kempe, preferred to take no chances. When the Macleod Memorial Window was being prepared they resolved that it should be protected on the outside by plate glass. Kempe himself did not handle this side of affairs; instead he sub-contracted it - in an interesting arrangement - to the manager of his own glassworks, A. E. Tombleson. Alfred Tombleson had devoted his whole life to working for Kempe, and his contribution to the firm's reputation was immense - so much so that he alone of Kempe's assistants was sometimes allowed to sign the windows made under his supervision, though none of the Govan windows carries his monogram. It may have been as a further sign of his appreciation that Kempe enabled Tombleson to set up on his own account in the window protection business.

Kempe I will hand to Mr. Tombleson your instructions respecting clear glass being used as a protection to the outside of the windows; and he will doubtless in due course report to you on the construction and expense of the same...I feel sure Mr. Tombleson will do the best he can for you, if it is insisted upon; but I fear you will find it both difficult and expensive.

Narrator Difficult and expensive it certainly was. Over the next two years some of the windows were duly protected with plate glass installed under Tombleson's direction, but the Committee could not at first afford Tombleson's estimate for the whole of the East window, and Tombleson himself pointed out that it would probably be cheaper to repair individual breakages as they occurred than to cover the whole window with plate glass. Perhaps inevitably, it wasn't long before a stone was indeed lobbed through one of the windows - the Macleod Memorial Window itself - and Kempe had to shrug off the embarrassment as best he could.

Kempe I am sorry to hear of the little accident to the East Window. I will see that it is repaired in due course. If there is a danger of further fragments of the glass falling out, perhaps you will see that a piece of brown paper might be, for the present, pasted over the hole. I will let my glazier attend to it at the earliest date possible.

Narrator Further correspondence shows that the brown paper was still in position twenty months later! Today none of the plate glass panels has survived and the conventional wire guards are doing a good is less-sightly job instead.

The Govan glass shows all the versatility and confidence of Kempe's glass when the studios and their founder were in their hey-day. The correspondence from which we have been drawing in this lecture provides valuable and unexpected information to explain Kempe's intentions from the moment the ideas for individual windows began to crystallise to the day the windows themselves were fixed in the church. Thus, for example, the two-cusped windows set high in the transept were described by Kempe in a letter accompanying the initial sketches:

Kempe You will see that I show two angels holding shields, which have reference to the figures of 'Faith' and 'Hope', which occur in the windows below. I propose to put them on red or blue grounds, within a wreath of roses and leaves, obtaining thereby a full effect of rich colours.

Narrator For Kempe, each window in Govan was part of the plan he had first discussed with Dr. John Macleod; it is the harmony of doctrine and art, of colour and line, of symbolism and natural form - whether seen in the great East and West windows or here in the Transept glass - which marks the real achievement of Kempe's studios at this time. When we understand this, it is easy to agree with Professor Owen Chadwick's claim that "the art of stained glass reached its zenith, not with the aesthetic innovations of William Morris or William Burne-Jones, but in the Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe."

Kempe's association with Govan Old Church was one of the happiest and most successful of his career: the rapport which had been established between Kempe and Macleod at the outset had sustained both church and artist throughout the period of negotiation, planning and execution. When the final bill was paid ( the total cost being for those days the formidable sum of £2395 ), the Minister, Mr. Kirkpatrick, spoke of the general feeling at Govan that the money had been well spent. John Young too wrote warmly to Kempe, and Kempe replied in similar terms:

Kempe 17th January 1905 My dear Sir, I hope I may be in time before you leave England to express my sincere gratitude for your letter of yesterday. It is seldom that such heartfelt words of admiration or of gratitude reach me. They almost make me look back with shame on my original backwardness to serve Dr. Macleod; and indeed in the course of the work I have learned very much, which I should never have acquired had I not been in contact with him, and with yourself...Let me against assure you of my great appreciation of your kindness. Believe me, sincerely yours, Charles Eamer Kempe.

Narrator Kempe himself was to live another couple of years after this - he died in 1907 - but perhaps nothing in the remainder of his professional career gave him more pleasure than the memory of what had been achieved here in these twelve great windows of Govan.


  1. Dr. Stewart Thomson was trailing his coat here. Kempe had by this date installed stained glass windows in a number of Church of Scotland buildings.
  2. A possible source for Thomson's error.

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