St Aubin's Church window

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This article by Rosemary Hampton was first published in the 1979 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

Nativity window

In 1977 we made an exciting discovery in the church of St Aubin-on-the-Hill. There were no church records about our attractive window in the Lady Chapel and none of the church officials knew about its origins. Then historical researches unexpectedly revealed its story. It is the only Pre-Raphaelite window in Jersey. It was created by the firm of William Morris from designs by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, in that brilliant and unusual partnership which produced so much of the most beautiful stained-glass in the British Isles.

Window's origins

As we look at the history of this small window we shall catch fascinating glimpses of very colourful strata of Victorian life. The London cultural scene of the 1890s was bright with personalities from every branch of the arts. From this rich tapestry of interwoven lives we shall pick out just a few strands especially relevant to our study.

Central to the pattern will be the parts played by the eccentric artist Burne-Jones and his inseparable friend William Morris. Every now and then we shall notice threads of local colour as their lives overlap Jersey personalities such as the actress Lillie Langtry and the painter Sir John Millais. Other strands will come to light as we try to recognise some of the artist's London friends immortalised as Biblical figures in the window itself. And a fourth group of threads will run parallel, when we see the Jersey donor of the window and his adored wife living for a while in London and moving in these same cultural circles. They may well have overlapped the other lives more than we know at present. We shall look at their story first.

Jurat Laurence de Gruchy

In the 1890s Jurat W Laurence de Gruchy and his wife Augusta were living at Highgate in North London. In 1886 sudden financial disaster had caused them to leave their beautiful house Rochebois, overlooking St Aubin's Harbour. Laurence de Gruchy had been a much-loved and respected leader in his native island. After a time as Constable of St Helier he was elected a Jurat of the Royal Court. He was a co-founder of La Société Jersiaise and wrote several papers and a learned book about our legal system.

We wish we knew more about the de Gruchys' seven years together in London. At Highgate they lived only four miles from the Burne-Jones family in West Kensington. We can only guess that they may well have met Burne-Jones and William Morris at the big social gatherings so popular in these circles. They would have had many mutual friends among the Bloomsbury artists and writers. Perhaps in 1888 they attended the crowded opening of Burne-Jones' new gallery in Regent Street, with Gladstone attending and Lillie Langtry making a grand entry.

Certainly Burne-Jones was one of Augusta's favourite artists. One of her poems refers to her own reproduction of his famous picture The Golden Stairs.

My household goddess (A Burne-Jones damsel)

Silence she keeps. Not even at Love's command Speaks she, but yields the mute applause of eyes To my unspoken fancies, wild or wise;
Nor music makes she, though her slender hand Holds the tuned viol. Grave, serene and fair
She, all unstirred by vain imaginings,
Suspends the bow above the soundless strings And waits my pleasure on the" Golden Stair ".
Edward Burne-Jones

And here the threads of our Victorian tapestry overlap a little. We wonder if she recognised some of the faces in this popular picture, with its line of demure maidens descending the stairs of life. At the top of the stairs Burne-Jones shows his own daughter Margaret. The "goddess" playing the viol is William Morris' daughter May. And two of the bottom maidens portray Lillie Langtry, who wrote that she had contributed her face twice and "may be detected, both full-faced and in profile, on two of the lower steps".

Lillie was no stranger to the de Gruchys, having been a very close neighbour in St Aubin while she lived for a short time at Noirmont Manor. But whether the two ladies saw eye to eye is another matter: perhaps Augusta preferred not to recognise her in the picture. Certainly she would not have foreseen the final twist to the story, that years later her son Guy de Gruchy would become the Seigneur of Noirmont.

Augusta's death

Augusta's later life was touched by sadness. As well as financial disaster, she faced the loss of her second son as a baby, and of her daughter Violet at about the age of 12 from leukaemia. And in 1893, after a lingering illness, she herself died in her early fifties.

This sadness breaks to the surface in her poignant last poem, set in her beloved bay behind St Aubin's harbour. But through it all shines her steady Christian faith.

Design details

First John Dearle took two tall angels from a Burne-Jones design made the previous year for Hillhead church in Glasgow. He added Augusta's own choice of words for their scroll, as Jurat de Gruchy noted: "The motto on the scroll which runs across both lights is the one she herself chose for her tomb:

Beati mundo corde, quoriam ipsi videbunt Deum. (Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God).

Sadly, the wide stone pillar between the two lights makes this wording appear rather disjointed and difficult to read.

Beneath the angels were placed two small scenes of the Annunciation and the Nativity, especially suitable for a Lady Chapel. Burne-Jones had designed these beautiful little pictures 20 years earlier, for the famous windows of Jesus College, Cambridge. They reappear singly and with variations in eleven other churches around Britain, and even once in the United States, but St Aubin's is the only church to show them both together.

Under these scenes Dearle placed the relevant Latin texts, which read:

"The Lord be with you. Blessed are you among women"
"Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done to me according to your will."

In the little triangle at the top of the window sits a pelican feeding its young with its own life-blood - an ancient symbol for the mother church. Dearle modified this from a cartoon by the architect Philip Webb, but it is perhaps the least successful part of the window, as it is hardly recognisable without binoculars, and, as Burne-Jones used to emphasise: " the figures must be simply read at a great distance".

Creation of the window

The colours of these various cartoons had to be harmonised, and Dearle himself drew the foliage background. The new technique of photography was called into use to enlarge the cartoons. Then the richly coloured glass had to be carefully cut, and the team of glass painters set to work to cover every inch with painstaking detail. The window could then be leaded. Burne-Jones enjoyed utilising these lines of black lead to enhance his designs. He wrote that they "are part of the beauty of the work and as interesting as the lines of masonry in a wall-and the more of them ... the deeper the colour looks".

Partnership of Morris and Burne-Jones

The Morris and Burne-Jones families had a custom that "the day when a window was finished would be a kind of picnic when both families went down to the works to see it propped up against the light".

We can imagine the oddly-contrasted couple examining the window. While Morris was an exuberant giant of a man, " Ned was too tall and too pale, gentle, fragile, hesitant ... Morris broke chairs beneath him, Ned sank into them as though his whole spine was seeking rest. Together they looked like a blundering King and an ailing aspirant to knighthood". They had worked together in this brilliant and uniquely close partnership for nearly 40 years.

Colour in the window

In his windows, Burne-Jones aimed to show "spirituality expressed through colour"; William Morris could handle coloured glass like no other. For several centuries Britain's churches had been content with watery tints and dull brown overpainting. But Morris rediscovered medieval techniques - so much so that the Victorians at first thought he must be reusing ancient glass to find such jewel colours.

The first and lasting impression of Augusta's window is of colour. From the cool greens of the leafy background we can imagine a shady woodland, with undertones of the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life, or perhaps a suggestion of acanthus leaves to symbolise eternal life. Against this sombre green, the tall angels stand serene, like two jewels of ruby and sapphire. Lower down, carefully placed near eye level, are the small, bright pictures of the Annunciation and the Nativity-two perfect little examples of Burne-Jones at his best.

Angels

His biographer Penelope Fitzgerald writes that he was "born with the gift of filling spaces". But he was not just a clever pattern maker and colourist. Earlier in his life he had planned to go into the Church, and there was always a deep spirituality behind his art. He was "dedicated to the idea that art speaks, not from surface to surface, but from soul to soul".

About his angels he wrote to his friend Oscar Wilde:

"The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint: their wings are my protest in favour of the immortality of the soul." There is an other-worldly tranquility and peace about his slender figures."

In another context he wrote:

"No man or woman on earth looks out of their eyes as they do. His people are looking either away or inwards: but which?"

The tall angels in our window are typical of his work in the l890s about which the art historian Charles Sewter wrote:

"The figures are very tall, with small heads and hands, and they stand in calmly relaxed and dreamy attitudes. Their draperies fall in long straight folds They look tired, anaemic and occasionally sexless".

Burne-Jones' pictures quote from many periods of history. These draperies are strongly influenced by the 12-century carvings from Chartres Cathedral which he admired so much: "Coats like no coats ever were .... with such lovely folds as can hardly be imagined." The model for the angels themselves appears to have been the rather heavy-featured Bessie Keene. She and her mother "were delightful and pious women who sat for Burne-Jones through two decades".

The figures in the small scenes

Rather different are the figures in the two small scenes, which were designed 20 years earlier, during the firm's greatest period. Here we find an echo from sixth-century Byzantine times: the Gabriel of the Annunciation is a close relative of an exquisite ivory angel in the British Museum, where Burne-Jones spent hours of study. Then in the angel of the Nativity perhaps we may trace a slight resemblance to the vivacious Mary Zambaco, Burne-Jones' current lady love.

In this scene we find a reflection of his family life. His little wife Georgie is not shown, but the worshipping Joseph has the profile of Burne-Jones himself, and the chubby baby is surely his small daughter Margaret, whom he adored. It is said that "children loved him because they felt special when he talked to them". He even had a friendly rivalry with Millais and Gladstone to see who could be the best grandfather, and outdid them both by allowing his small grand-daughter to butter her bread on both sides.

Influence of William Morris

What about William Morris in this story? By this period, the great designer and creator was only a background figure at the workshops. He had moved on to a multitude of other projects, and was engrossed in printing his illustrated edition of Chaucer. His health was soon to fail, and he lived only another three years. But we can still see his unique influence in the jewel-like glass, the impeccable workmanship, and the intricate foliage background. The decorative richness beautifying so much of the drapery in the window is typical of this firm: think of all those flower patterns flowing over wallpapers and fabrics which made William Morris a household name.

Burne-Jones' pictures hold this strange dichotomy: a strong first impression of austerity of line, but close inspection revealing an incredible patina of tiny detail, handled with the delicacy of a cobweb. He said that painting should be like a goldsmith's work: even if only a square inch were found years later, it should be recognisable as a work of art. In this we see Ruskin's influence, as with all the Pre-Raphaelite painters: to work at anything less than the best was blasphemy. Look carefully at this window. You cannot find a corner without this loving attention to detail.

Window's origins obscured

You are probably wondering why we have only just discovered the history of our window, after 80 years of obscurity. For years Guernsey has been proud of her five beautiful Morris windows in St Stephen's Church, one of which includes parts by Burne-Jones. But the reasons are simple. Windows are rarely signed by the artist (a notable exception being the Jerseyman Henry Thomas Bosdet, one of the few artists whose local work can be recognised easily without a long search in musty archives). Often the only names shown are those of the deceased or the donor, as in the case of this window. And the dark commemorative plaque was in Latin, so few bothered to decipher it.

The window was installed two years after the church's official opening, so it missed the initial publicity given to other windows. Its only public mention was a brief press cutting of 1894, which had escaped everyone's attention until recently. On 26 January the Jersey Times and British Press wrote:

"St Aubin's Church:
The already beautiful interior of this handsome place of worship has this week been rendered additionally attractive. A stained-glass two-lights window designed by Mr Burne-Jones and executed by Mr Wm Morris has been placed in position .... This handsome memorial is of unique beauty, and well merits close inspection."

And even here we find one more thread for the tapestry. Our local reporter was obviously not up-to-date on the Victorian art world, or he would surely have been more fulsome in his mention of these two giants of their time. Had he written the notice a few days later he might well have used headlines. By a strange coincidence, on the next day, 27 January, Gladstone offered Burne-Jones a baronetcy. The artist disliked all unnecessary pomp, and wrote of the honour: "I half like it and half don't care 2d." He hoped that perhaps he need not be known as "Sir Edward ", since his friend was always known just as "Millais." He even joked wrily that he would give one lady's butler" £5 a year to always announce me as Mr".

The honour was one day too late for our window. It had missed a good press coverage and was soon to rest forgotten among Jersey's hundreds of anonymous Victorian windows. But now interest is reawakening in Pre-Raphaelite art, and we can appreciate the story behind one of the most beautiful small windows in the Channel Islands.

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