It has been said that the most famous suffer the greatest reverse of fate. It is certainly true of Charles Eamer Kempe whose distinctive style in stained glass reached the peak of popularity in the late 19th century but for some years has had scant appreciation from modern critics. A notable exception is Owen Chadwick who states in his book The Victorian Church that "the art attained its Victorian zenith not with the innovation of William Morris or Edward Burne-Jones but in the Tractarian artist Charles Eamer Kempe". There is scarcely a church in Britain within a radius of thirty miles that does not have a Kempe window or some other example of his ecclesiastical furniture.
In 1987 it was the 150th Anniversary of his birth and the Kempe Society, formed in his name in 1984, celebrated the occasion with an exhibition which visited the Cathedrals of Durham, Chichester and Southwark and the Church of St Botolphs Aldgate in the City of London and produced an informative leaflet which some of the following information is taken.
Charles Eamer Kempe was born on June 29th. 1837, at Ovingdean Hall, near Brighton, the fifth son and youngest child of Nathaniel Kemp, (Charles preferred the older spelling of his surname later in life) a prominent figure in the county and his young second wife Augusta Caroline, the eligible daughter of Sir John Eamer, city magnate and former Lord Mayor of London. Brought up by a devout mother at the time of the Tractarian revival in the Church of England, Kempe hoped to become a clergyman but, as an undergraduate at Pembroke College, Oxford he realised his severe speech impediment would prevent him from passing on the Christian message by word of mouth. Providence, it would seem acted wisely for although the disappointment was great Charles found some sublimation in developing a latent artistic ability.
He decided "if he was not permitted to minister in the Sanctuary he would use his talents to adorn it". His career began while studying the rudiments of architecture in the firm of his friend George Frederick Bodley, the already popular young Tractarian architect. An apt pupil with an innate sense of the light motif he was soon trusted with the decoration of the walls and ceiling of the churches Bodley was building or refurbishing in the "correct" Gothic manner. Among the first commissions were the fine mural decorations for All Saints, Jesus Lane, Cambridge and St John The Baptist, Tue Brook, Liverpool. It was, however, to stained glass that Kempe was particularly drawn as a means of expressing his christian message, and at this time he studied the art and craft with the highly respected studios of Clayton & Bell. The first recorded stained glass window designed by Kempe, was the Bishop Hooper Memorial window in Gloucester Cathedral, made by Clayton and Bell in 1865.
By 1866 Kempe had started working, with two assistants, as an independent designer in studios which he opened in his London home at 47 Beaumont Street, London. At this time his designs were executed by the firm of Thomas Baillie & Co. who carried out work for Bodley. An intensive study of mediaeval glass had made him an authority on that period, and was consulted on the restoration of the ancient glass in churches as far afield as Fairford in Gloucestershire, and Llandyrnog near Denbigh, Clwyd.
This 15th century stained glass inspired Kempes style as the most suitable to harmonise with the atmosphere of old or new churches, and its influence was to appear in all his ecclesiastical stained glass work. The style of design, the use of mainly green, blue and ruby glass, the delicate and detailed painting of figures and their settings, and the masterly use of large areas of silver stain, all combined to produce a new refreshing interpretation in Victorian stained glass, which quickly gained in popularity.
In 1869, dissatisfied with the quality of the work produced for him, Kempe started his own workshop at Millbrook Place, London, with the professional co-operation of Fred Leach. The idea for a design would first be drawn by Kempe, and then the full size cartoon would be produced in his studios by his chief draughtsman and a team of artists who added the detailed decoration. The cartoon was then taken to his Millbrook works for glass cutting, painting and leading. The glass was always carefully selected, supplied by either messrs Miller Beal & Hilder Ltd, or James Hetley & Co. at 35 Soho Square, who reserved a room for Kempes glass.
In 1888 the studios and offices moved to 28 Nottingham Place in Central London., and by the end of the century he employed over fifty people.
Such success and demand was bound to lead to repetition , and some of Kempes later work involved adapting earlier designs. But unlike other large Victorian studios he never allowed the quality or individuality of his work to deteriorate. The senses are always thrilled by the spirituality of his stained glass.
His studios, in spite of their heavy commitment to stained glass also produced designs for church furniture, reredos, screens, altars and panelling and Kempe himself continued to design splendid vestments and altar frontals that were embroidered exquisitely by the Anglican order of Clewer Sisters. The decade from 1895-1905 was the busiest the Kempe glassworks were to experience and it was ro culminate in a commission to produce a window of St George for Buckingham Palace. This window, the victim of wartime bombing can now be seen in the Ely Stained Glass Museum in Ely Cathedral.
Kempe kept up his business interests with great energy, busily visiting sites ("such motor journeys!" he writes in 1905); making sketches for designs and watching the effects in the glassworks. But for some years before kempes death, John Lisle had become the ghost designer for the firm and Kempe, who still enjoyed initiating a project and making suggestions, came to rely more and more on his juniors collaboration, eventually handing responsibility for designs to him.
From 1895 the studios used the wheatsheaf, taken from Kempes family arms, to sign their work. This simplified the complete arms of "Gules three garbs within a bordure engrailed" which had been used sparingly.
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Wulfran, Ovingdean, Sussex. 1869.
Baptist, Tue Brook, 1871.
Charles Eamer Kempe died suddenly on April 29th 1907 at 28 Nottingham Place London, but was buried in the family tomb in the churchyard of St Wulfran at Ovingdean, Sussex, which he had helped to restore and decorate in 1869, in memory of his father, who had been its faithful servant as a churchwarden.
By his former wish the studios continued as C.E. Kempe and Co. Ltd. With four of his principal colleagues as directors: John Lisle as designer and Alfred Tombleson in charge of the production. Walter Tower, an architect and Kempes younger cousin and his legatee, entered the company as Chairman and a year or two later added the "tower" symbol to the head of the "wheatsheaf" to distinguish glass produced by the new firm , of C.E.Kempe & Co Ltd., from that of the former studios.
As the Gothic cult faded and in the sad years of the "slump", the demand for expensive memorials ceased and after sixty years and the making of over 4,000 windows "Kempes" closed down in 1934.
The influence of Kempe remained long after his death both in the commissions of the firm that succeded him and in others, for example Bucknall & Comper. It is revealing to note that Ninian Comper had studied ecclesiastical furnishings at Kempes studios for a period and it was his firm which carried Kempes traditional approach to stained glass (in a greatly diluted form) up to the second world war. It is unfortunate that the memoirs of some contemporaries have left an impression of Kempe as a theatrical eccentric with a very spiky trend in religion. If we judge by deeds, we can see something of the beauty and sincerity of his character in the work he dedicated to God.
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Peter, Boxworth, Cambs 1908---1930.
Chapel, Norfolk. 1911.
The Corpus of Kempe Stained Glass in the UK and Ireland ISBN 0-9513125-1-0
The Kempe Society, one of the leading societies in Britain for the appreciation and study of stained glass, has published a catalogue of the complete British output of the Kempe Studios. Please follow the above link for details.
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