Last edited 28 Jan 2024

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Ordinary people in stained glass

Since the first world war, Scotland has had a particularly strong tradition of depicting the common man and, less frequently, woman in stained glass windows in churches.

St John Cupar.jpg
Two soldiers carry a wounded comrade: St John, Cupar, 1921.

When you look at stained glass in a church, you expect to see depictions of the major elements of the Christian faith, the Nativity, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of Jesus. You will find stories from the Old Testament and the New and saints aplenty. However, around 100 years ago, ordinary people started to find their way into stained glass. The great and the good appear in memorial windows from Victorian times, but it was the first world war that saw depictions of the common man and, less frequently, woman in churches. They can be found across England and Wales, but there was a particularly strong tradition in Scotland.

Every community in Britain wanted to mark the end of the Great War and to remember the fallen, and a number chose stained glass as the appropriate medium. Usually the main figures in such windows are of Christ, frequently of his Crucifixion, or St George as patron saint of England, sometimes with scenes of warfare relegated to smaller vignettes. In a few windows, however, it is the latter that take precedence.

In St John, Cupar, Fife, is a pair of lancet windows attributed to the Stephen Adam Studio, dedicated in November 1921. In the apex of one window is the Crucified Christ and in the other, Christ in Majesty. However, the focus of the left light is a group of Scots soldiers wearing kilts, two resting in their trench, while a third stands guard. In the right light, two soldiers carry their wounded colleague to a waiting ambulance. In the lower part of the left light is a smaller scene of a nurse tending a wounded soldier and, in the right, a man kneels at a grave, presumably in Flanders, while his wife stands, head bowed.

A later window, of 1926, is in Laurieston Parish Church, Falkirk. Here the figure of Christ takes centre stage. He is flanked by four men at work: a docker, an agricultural labourer, a foundryman and a miner, all of whom also played a part in the war effort. The church has retained the original design of the window by Margaret Chilton and Marjorie Kemp. This shows both the miner and the foundryman naked to the waist. In the finished window, both have been given blue shirts to wear. Their labour could be celebrated and give glory to God, but their bodies had to remain within the bounds of decency.

Also of 1926 is a large window in St Mary, Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire, by the Stephen Adam Studio, of which Douglas Hamilton was the foreman at the time. The overall theme is of the Te Deum. What concerns us most in this context is the bottom tier, illustrating the phrase ‘all the earth doth worship thee’. Here may be seen a judge in ceremonial splendour, a man symbolising theology and holding a globe representing the world-wide mission of the church, and another man holding a book, symbolising literature. Behind them is Glasgow University. In the next light are the Arts; a musician with his cello and an artist in his smock. The building in the background is the Glasgow Art Gallery.

In the centre right light is a farmworker holding a sheaf of corn and a miner with his pickaxe. Behind them is a factory and pithead. On the far right stand a shipworker with his sledgehammer, a soldier and another workman in blue overalls, holding a shovel. The scaffolding in the background represents a shipyard. In the middle tier, as part of the worshipping church, is a small image of the church in which the window is installed, St Mary, Kirkintilloch. The people are representative of mankind in general (sadly, no women among them), but some of the industries are specific to the locality, likewise the buildings, all of which serves to keep faith grounded in real life.

Douglas Hamilton set up his own studio in 1938 and one of his early designs owes a considerable debt to the Kirkintilloch window. It is in Hyndland Church, Glasgow, and dates from 1939. The centre light shows a family of four, kneeling; the man is a farm worker, accompanied by his wife, holding their baby in her arms and, beside her, their young son. In the left light is a lawyer, and with him, a factory worker and a kneeling woman, hands clasped in prayer. In the right light stand a nurse and a minister, while a civic dignitary and an artist kneel as they gaze upwards towards Christ in Majesty.

The window by Hamilton now in Arbroath West Kirk, Angus, is based on another ancient Christian hymn of praise, the Benedicite. Once again, the focus is on Christ in Majesty but the people represented are all very much working class. In the lower part of the left light a fisherman kneels with his nets and catch, as does a shepherd holding a lamb, with his dog nearby, and a farmhand with a rake. Close at hand is a flock of sheep and, further away, a ploughman is at work behind his pair of draught-horses. In the lower part of the right light are three men at a texile loom and a sketch of Arbroath Abbey, both of which anchor the imagery to the town and its people, even though by this time the linen and jute weaving industries were in terminal decline.

The second world war gave rise to a second wave of stained glass. Hamilton represents soldiers on two of his war memorial windows, both of 1948, at Uddingston Old Parish Church, South Lanarkshire, and at Blackridge Parish Church, West Lothian. The windows at the latter serve as a reminder that it was not just the fighting men who contributed to the war effort. There are also figures of a quarryman and a bare-backed miner, together with smaller figures of others on the home front: a ploughman with his team, an engineer and a housewife.

In the huge windows at Wellpark Mid Kirk, Greenock, Inverclyde, Hamilton introduced more of these vignettes than anywhere else, with six small panels of men at work and six of the arts. The industries shown were significant to the economy of the town at the time. There are small scenes of a carpenter, a cooper, an engineer and a worker in a sugar refinery. Larger areas of glass show two fishermen in a boat, hauling their net, with a trawler in the background and two foundrymen working at a furnace, representing shipbuilding. Poetry is a kneeling woman admiring a rose, and a man writing at a table, surrounded by piles of discarded paper, stands for Literature; there is a sculptor whose unfinished work would not look out of place on Easter Island and a clean-shaven artist, wearing a bow tie, stares at his canvas. Music is represented by two violinists, a cellist and a woman playing the harp, and Drama by a scene from a nativity play.

Hamilton included two workers in the pair of windows at Benarty St Serf, Fife: a miner and a reaper, since the coal industry and agriculture made a major contribution to the economy of the area. Also in the windows are four diamond panes painted with views of the village and local scenery. Two more workmen are seen in a window at Gargunnock Parish Church, Stirling. One plants a tree and another is operating a circular saw in the local timberyard, founded by the family which presented the window to the church.

As well as Hamilton’s Benedicite window in Arbroath West Kirk there is a pair of windows celebrating the youth organisations. While the main scenes are of the boy David, there are two smaller vignettes of Boy Scouts and Girl Guides at camp.

Hamilton was by no means the only Scottish artist to depict industry and everyday life in their windows. In particular, there is some exceptional glass for a pair of three-light windows with tracery in Balshagray Victoria Park Church, Glasgow, signed and dated ‘Sadie F McLellan, 1945’. Each light has the large figure of a saint, below which is a scene of people at work and the arms of a particular incorporation or institution. For the university there is a man and a woman in a science laboratory; for the masons, a man and a woman building a church; for the weavers, two women, one at a spinning wheel, the other at a loom; for the hammermen, two men welding; for the merchants, a male shop assistant selling fabric to a woman; and for the maltmen, a cooper and a woman in blue dungarees with a rake in her hands, and a sheaf of barley on her shoulder.

The trend has continued, and although stained glass windows are not often commissioned these days, many have designs with strong links to local people and places.

This article originally appeared as ‘Celebrating the everyday in stained glass’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC’s) Context 177, published in September 2023. It was written by Canon Jeff Hopewell, a retired priest in the Church of England and author of Orchestrations of Colour: the stained glass of Douglas Hamilton. To buy a copy, contact [email protected]

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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