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New book explores stained-glass window artist and his connection to Cambridge

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Espying Heaven explores the work of the Victorian church artist Charles Eamer Kempe and the team he led and inspired.

Written by Adrian Barlow, a fellow and former president of the English Association – and with photography by Alastair Carew-Cox – Espying Heaven is the first full-scale account of the achievements of East Sussex-born Charles Eamer Kempe (1837–1907), the outstanding stained-glass designer of his era.

Espying Heaven by Adrian Barlow
Espying Heaven by Adrian Barlow

The Oxford-educated Kempe and his close-knit team of artists and craftsmen developed his vision of a distinctive aesthetic setting for worship based on late medieval art, especially the stained glass of northern Europe.

This book illustrates the evolution of the ‘Kempe style’ and explores the work undertaken by CE Kempe & Co, which was set up by Kempe himself.

Adrian’s previous book was a biographical study on the artist, entitled Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe.

Espying Heaven documents and celebrates a style of church art and decoration that has had a defining influence upon the Anglican Church worldwide.

Espying Heaven by Adrian Barlow
Espying Heaven by Adrian Barlow

Adrian said: “The biography is a study of, if you like, the career of Kempe and the evolution of the Kempe studio – the impact that it had and its reputation and legacy.

Espying Heaven is aimed at a slightly wider readership and it’s 150 pages with 150 full-colour, high-definition images and commentary, designed to show in pictorial terms how to ‘read’ a Kempe window and how the different aspects of Kempe’s style and the style of his artists evolved between the start of the studio in 1868 to when the firm closed in 1934.”

Adrian, whose father was a country parson, continued: “Stained glass is a collaborative medium, that’s the important thing to say. No stained glass is ever made by just one person and the Kempe studios at their height had about 60 people working there.”

Author Adrian Barlow
Author Adrian Barlow

Adrian initially became interested in Kempe through the architect George Frederick Bodley, who was Kempe’s mentor.

“That’s where Cambridge comes in, because the All Saints’ Church on Jesus Lane was designed by Bodley in the 1860s,” he says, “and that is really where Kempe started his career as a decorator of churches, working with a very important Cambridge church artworker called Frederick Leach.

“Leach had his workshops in the Kite area of town, but they had an office and sales room in St Mary’s Passage, right opposite Great St Mary’s Church. So Kempe learned his craft really in Cambridge.

"He was at Oxford University, but in a way his work in Cambridge is more fundamental to his career.”

Kempe’s stained glass can be found throughout Cambridge. It is perhaps most spectacularly seen in the east and west windows of Little St Mary’s, but is also prominent in Queens’ College Chapel and All Saints’ Church.

“Selwyn College Chapel has very important Kempe glass, and the stained glass of King’s College Chapel – which of course is world famous – was conserved and restored by Kempe in the 1890s,” reveals Adrian.

“There is Kempe glass in villages around Cambridge, such as Boxworth, and going towards Newmarket, there’s very early Kempe glass in Cheveley.

“You will find Kempe glass well spread across East Anglia.”

Espying Heaven, published by The Lutterworth Press, is out now.


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