Across the world this Christmas, angels will alight in houses: wings, trumpets and fair hair transported from the stained glass of great churches via the flapping leaves of Christmas cards to our living rooms. The prospect reminds me of Raymond Chandler’s narrative voice: “It was a blonde ... a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.” (That’s a true femme fatale, in my business.) But I’ve had little time to read his Farewell, My Lovely this year, having been too busy staring at stained-glass blondes in Coventry, in a World Monuments Fund project to clean, repair and catalogue thousands of 15th-century fragments that had been hidden for 70 years. The story of the mysterious yellow characters in the glass is as strange as fiction.
Most figures in late medieval stained glass are light-haired because yellow was the de rigeur stain, the colour made economical for the first time after someone dabbled with washes of silver nitrate and a hot kiln just after 1300. Solid-coloured dark “pot metal” glass was rejected for the brighter effects gained from fusing thin sheets of coloured glass on to clear glass. By 1400, the common method of making images on clear glass was through a simpler palette of brown-black oxide painting of outlines, with silver stain washes for hair, wings, and haloes: thereby, a host of blonde angels filled the land, lending a golden glow to the northern climate. At that time, Coventry was busy filling the windows of the largest of all English parish churches, St Michael, visible from many miles thanks to its tallest church steeple at 303ft.
Coventry’s glass was paid for by merchants dealing in blue cloth and millinery – and sometimes a combination of those, to go by a fragment showing a blue hat with a gold hat-pin. That piece is one of about 8,000 from St Michael’s that miraculously escaped destruction, twice: first, in the 1640s, when Puritan iconoclasts attacked the graven images of the windows; the many surviving pieces were then reassembled in a jumble to fill the clerestory windows above the main arcades. All those panels were taken down for safe storage when war broke out in September 1939, one year before St Michael’s – now promoted to cathedral status – was destroyed by incendiary bombs on November 14 1940.
Coventry wasn’t unusual, as medieval stained glass was removed and stored all across Britain in 1939. By then it had become prized, much more so than the Victorian work that filled churches. The modern world had arrived, but the medieval glazing that had survived the wreckers, time and weather was rare and authentic. As established collectors’ items, old panels of stained glass had become valuable.
The collecting of stained glass began in earnest in 18th-century England, when Horace Walpole built his Gothic revival villa at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. He bought consignments of 16th-century yellow-stained glass from the Netherlands that the Dutch were happy to sell, and re-leaded them in a ground of blue, or sometimes garish red and green, glass. These arrangements were confined to the upper areas of his fancy arched windows so he could admire his gardens through clear panes at eye level. According to Timothy B Husband, curator at the Cloisters Museum in New York, “there was nothing art-historical or archaeological about collecting; glass was collected randomly and eclectically” to be a decorative enhancement, an antiquarian impulse greatly aided by the removal of glass during the French Revolution and Napoleonic wars.
John Pierpont Morgan (1837-1913) was one of the greatest collectors of stained glass for domestic display. He is most famous for his New York mansion with an astonishing library on E36th Street. But his tastes were European, from a Swiss education and a father based in London. In 1890 he inherited 13 Prince’s Gate Kensington; he expanded into next door and used the party wall to present his stained glass. His study at the Pierpont Morgan library features a mosaic of glass, but his greatest legacy was leaving 80 pieces to the Victoria and Albert Museum.
That bequest was made just in time: in 1909 the US passed the Payne-Aldrich Tariff Act, which removed import duties on fine arts, as Britain imposed heavy death duties that encouraged the sale of heirlooms. The combination fostered a one-way transatlantic trade in stained glass, fuelled by complacency in Europe. In 1902 Otto Heinigke saw fine 13th-century glass in Paris for sale “thanks to some restoration somewhere. I dare not ask the name of the place, for one dreads to find a spot where murder has been committed.” A decade later in England, silvery “grisaille” glass of the same period was apparently sold off from some cathedrals by the hundredweight.
As the first world war raged, bringing a further wave of destruction to European churches, Good Furniture magazine cheerfully related that wealthy New York house builders were creating interiors that “are veritable museums of antique furniture, textiles and other enrichments” and that museums “followed suit”. Jane Hayward explains in her 2003 book that many of these trendsetters – the Glass Class – were patrons of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
And so, by the late 1930s, medieval glass was valued by collectors and museums alike, and its removal from buildings to storerooms was prioritised lest more of a finite resource be lost to war. Coventry’s glass went to a vicarage in rural Warwickshire. But it could never go back home to St Michael’s, for when it was hit by firebombs, the centre of the church crumbled, bringing down the masonry of the clerestory. There could be no stained glass windows for a bishop to kick, while the limelight was taken by an uncanny arrangement of two charred timbers that fell as a Latin cross upon the smouldering rubble. In a resurrected city, it’s easy to forget the past.
The shell of St Michael’s survives today, the intact steeple presiding over a Gothic amphitheatre, a still-consecrated place linked to its successor, Sir Basil Spence’s concrete-framed cathedral completed in 1962. This is a phoenix from the ashes, full of powerful modern stained glass. But in a concrete storeroom beneath, forgotten, the medieval glass lay in boxes, covered in decades-old soot and industrial grime. The leading that held its accidental mosaic together gradually came apart, releasing thousands of fragments.
I was invited to see it in 2011, and I thought I knew Coventry reasonably well. But, like most people, I hadn’t known about Britain’s largest collection of loose medieval glass. The quantity and quality of the glass, laid out on 150 sheets of racking by retired surgeon Mike Stansbie, were so impressive that I felt something had to be done, as this was an improbable survival. That it was not swept up by private collectors during the fog of war was really lucky – some of the Victorian windows from St Michael’s found their way to Iceland.
The project to clean the glass was conceived this spring, and from summer until Christmas Crick Smith Conservation from the University of Lincoln set up a studio in the Herbert Gallery so the people of Coventry could watch the faces emerge as they passed along the production line of swabs, bonding agents and catalogue files. One moment a saint, the next a 15th-century lady, a bird, cat, Christ, a heraldic swan, that blue hat. An encyclopedia of medieval life unfolded in a city now eager to reclaim its venerable past.
The action was right, the funding was found, but throughout the project one question really puzzled me. When we put some of the best pieces on display at Sir John Soane’s Museum in London, a valuation was needed for insurance. Value must be commercial – what someone would pay to own them. What would they be worth to a collector who wanted them for their house? The only reasonable answer I could find was – not as much as they’re worth to the people of Coventry. Go and see them – and judge for yourself.
‘Giving our Past a Future: The Work of World Monuments Fund Britain’, until January 26 2013. Sir John Soane’s Museum, 13 Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London WC2A 3BP. Jonathan Foyle is chief executive of the World Monuments Fund Britain