The Stained Glass of Great Witley Church Introduction



The Windows


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In the summer of 1935 two of the windows were in a rather unstable state and bending in the wind. As a stained glass artist my advice was sought and as a result my interest in the Witley Church and nearby Court was aroused and has remained an absorbing preoccupation ever since.

The two windows in question were: The Adoration of the Shepherds and The Annunciation, which were removed, re-leaded and made safe for over 40 years, until the firm of Hardman did considerable restoration work on the enamel painting of the windows which had deteriorated owing to damp conditions during the war and after.

Some 35 years after they had come from Canons, Dr. Nash in his History of Worcestershire stated that the windows "fitted the church so well as if they had originally been designed for it". In actual fact when they were inserted into the openings at Canons, they would have been fitted directly into grooves in the stonework, but when they came to Witley they were some four inches too narrow. This difference in size was made up by fixing wooden frames into the Witley openings and glazing the windows into the wood. A difference of nine inches in height was put right by inserting a somewhat incongruous golden stained border at the base of each window, which detracts from the "trompe l'oeil" three-dimensional effect for which these windows were designed, and which makes them so extraordinarily different from traditional forms of stained glass. The explanation partly clears up what it was that puzzled Dr. Nash and also shows the connection of James Gibbs with both buildings, for the openings of both churches have unusual deep sloping sills on the inside. The Canons plan shows the ten stained glass windows ranged along either side of the building, the two smaller ones being upon the gallery sides, whereas at Witley these two are now upon the west front, at the rear of the gallery. The window depicting the Ascension is now installed in the chancel recess above the altar, but the two ornamental lights at the sides of this window do not appear to have any connection with it. The Canons plan does show an opening at either side of the organ and it is an interesting possibility that the two lights may have come from there.

The transporting of the windows which Lord Foley purchased at the 1747 auction would not have presented much difficulty, especially when compared with the organ pipes and case. The thirty-eight sections of the windows would have been easy to pack into five crates, and the journey by cart would have taken about a week from Edgware to Witley.

Next to the great gilded splendour of the Witley ceiling, in order of importance comes the windows. So full of beauty and colour they are unique, for nowhere else can one see a complete series of enamel painted windows and in so perfect a condition, thanks to considerable help in recent years from generous grants and subscriptions. Enamel painting is a process of fusing coloured pigments on the surface of panes of clear glass, but not all of the glass in these windows is clear. Some parts of them are made up with blue, ruby and green coloured glasses, some of which may be coloured right through (pot metal) or some with a fine skin of colour on the surface (flashed). Nearly all of the rich brown, amber and golden colours are produced by staining the outer surface of the glass with a dye pigment made from chlorate of silver. When heated to a dull red heat in a kiln it penetrates the glass giving it a translucent golden colour. When all of the pieces of glass which go to make up a window have been drawn and painted with various coloured pigments they are placed on a flat bed kiln and heated to a bright red heat which gives them a glossy surface, and renders the design permanent.

For some two-hundred and fifty years it has always been said that these famous windows were designed by Sebastiano Ricci, the well known Venetian painter, and they were so described in the Canons sale catalogue by George Vertue. He was the engraver and art historian of the period and was notable for painstaking accuracy and attention to detail. Since the publication of a book in 1949 on "James Brydges, First Duke of Chandos" opinion has changed and they are now stated to have been made according to the designs of one Fransicoe Sleter, who painted scenes upon the walls and ceilings for the Duke at Canons. The book, a scholarly work was compiled from records in the Huntington Library at California which describes how "The oil sketches for the Chapel windows once hung in the Duke's house at St James Square, London". Even if Fransiscoe or Franscescoe Sleter, Sleker, or Slater as he is variously described was responsible for the oil sketches, it is by no means certain that the cartoons from which the windows were made were not the work of Sebastiano Ricci. I have read and re-read the book and still consider the evidence somewhat flimsy, have studied many comparisons of the figures on the Witley windows with illustrations of Ricci's works in the Royal collection, which are numerous, and am still convinced that it was Ricci who made the cartoons for the Witley windows. The discovery of those oil sketches or designs, if they are still in existence, would help to elucidate a great mystery as to why the Witley windows, both in composition and detail, so closely resemble the work of Sebastiano Ricci.
The ten windows, in the order in which they are now placed at Witley church, follow the life of Christ in a chronological series, and it can be assumed that they were in this order when first installed at the Canons chapel. In viewing the windows one must always keep in mind the fact that being made for the Duke of Chandos they had to be filled with much grandeur and magnificence, in order to satisfy his luxurious style of living. Anything less, or showing humble dwellings, or poverty, would have offended the great patron's taste. Even the Dean when preaching in the chapel, according to Pope, "Never mentions Hell to ears polite."