The West Court Stained Glass
The Museum’s collection contains many and varied treasures. Under normal circumstances you can see a broad selection of these across our eight galleries in Lyneham. Some of the rarest and oldest items under or care, however, are to be found in a different Museum altogether. In support of our colleagues at the Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral we are today sharing the story of the West Court glass: eight pieces of extraordinary stained glass, currently on loan to our friends in Ely.
The Stained Glass Museum at Ely Cathedral. Image courtesy of the Stained Glass Museum.
The West Court glass refers to a collection of stained glass panels, listed in the Museum’s catalogue as items A:1991.3512 to .3519. The eight pieces date between the thirteenth and nineteenth centuries and incorporate heraldic details, the martyrdom of St Vincent, John the Baptist, and figurative heads.
The glass got its name from its twentieth century home: West Court Manor at Finchampstead, near Wokingham, better known to this audience as West Court Officers’ Mess. Whilst many will remember the stained glass when it was in place at West Court the significance of the pieces goes well beyond their connection with the Manor and with the Corps.
The Manor was built in the late seventeenth century for Charles Howard, brother of the Duke of Norfolk, perhaps on the site of an earlier dwelling. The house is resplendent with wood panelling and carved fireplaces though much of this was installed in the 1800s when the house was restored by a later owner who also removed a moat and drawbridge – pity!
The glass was probably placed in its West Court setting between the World Wars by one of the building’s private owners. The glass is continental in origin but it was not uncommon for British collectors to bring such pieces home in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Early in World War Two, West Court was requisitioned by the War Department and became a training school for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). The training that went on at West Court during the War included the use of explosives. Reportedly a local farmer had to be appeased because charges used in training blew his windows in on more than one occasion. That the stained glass survived this is miraculous.
After the war and the disbandment of the SOE there were two further changes in ownership of West Court before it was purchased by the War Department in December 1950. After a programme of modernisation the building was opened as Headquarters’ Officers’ Mess of the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers on 8 June 1953. The windows, backdrop to these organisational changes, joined the collection of art, furniture and curios retained for mess members to enjoy.
A view of the exterior of West Court, from the lake. Image from the Museum’s collection, A:1975.1361.097.
The hall (left) and dining area (right) at West Court, October 1965. Images from the Museum’s collection, A:1975.1361.099 and A:1975.1361.100.
The St Vincent roundels
The most significant elements of the West Court glass, in art history terms, are the three St Vincent roundels. These panels can be dated, on stylistic grounds, to the second quarter of the thirteenth century. They represent three episodes from the martyrdom of St Vincent, as described in The Legend Aurea, compiled in the 1260s by Jacobus de Voragine.
The first roundel depicts St Vincent’s torture on the gridiron, an awful medieval torture device for barbequing victims like hotdogs. Image courtesy of the Stained Glass Museum. Their reference: ELYGM:L2003.7.1, REME Museum reference: A:1991.3517.
This roundel shows St Vincent confined to a prison cell, being consoled by angels who sang to him and filled his cell with flowers. The music terrified his two gaolers, shown on the left, who converted to Christianity. Image courtesy of the Stained Glass Museum. Their reference: ELYGM:L2003.7.2, REME Museum reference: A:1991.3518.
In this panel, St Vincent’s body is exposed in the fields to be devoured by beasts. He does not look particularly pleased by this turn of events. Image courtesy of the Stained Glass Museum. Their reference: ELYGM:L2003.7.7, REME Museum reference: A:1991.3516.
It is posited that the roundels formed part of an extensive narrative window. Such narrative, or storytelling, windows were one of the outstanding achievements of Gothic glass painters. Well known examples survive in twelfth and thirteenth century cathedrals such as Chartres and Canterbury. Glass of this type is extremely rare outside of such settings. Roundels like this were originally arranged in complex geometric patterns surrounded by luxuriant foliage.
The facial types, depiction of drapery, colours employed and design of the roundels themselves would suggest that they were originally made for a church in France, likely Burgundy. Specifically, the panels are close in design to windows at Sens, Auxerre and Bourges Cathedrals.
Who designed the roundels? Where were they displayed originally? There are several missing centuries before they found a home at West Court in the early twentieth century. One piece of the puzzle is that they were set into larger panels, made up of medieval fragments, likely in the workshop of Samuel Caldwell, a nineteenth century stonemason and stained glass designer, based in Canterbury.
The other panels in the collection from West Court also have a connection with Canterbury. Some are copies of the marvellous windows of the Cathedral there and were also, likely, assembled from figurative and heraldic scraps and copies available in Samuel Caldwell’s workshop.
A lancet window depicting a woman in late medieval dress. The main figure was made in the nineteenth century but set in medieval fragments. Image courtesy of the Stained Glass Museum. Their reference: ELYGM:L2003.7.3, REME Museum reference: A:1991. 3512.
Another lancet window where the upper panel depicts three figures, one of whom, a man identified as Moses, paints the Greek letter ‘tau’ on the lintel of a stylised building. This window is a copy of ‘The Tau on the Lintel’, a panel in one of the East windows of Canterbury Cathedral. It was made in the later nineteenth century. Image courtesy of the Stained Glass Museum. Their reference: ELYGM:L2003.7.4, REME Museum reference: A:1991.3513.
A panel depicting John the Baptist, made from a mixture of medieval and nineteenth century glass. Image courtesy of the Stained Glass Museum. Their reference: ELYGM:L2003.7.8, REME Museum reference: A:1991.3519.
A lancet window featuring a collection of heads. The heads are a mix of thirteenth and fifteenth century and the surround is a nineteenth century assemblage. REME Museum reference: A:1991.3515, image from an internal report.
Another lancet window. The top triangle is a copy of ‘The Gentiles Listen’, a panel in the second Bible window at Canterbury Cathedral. The inscription reads ‘Solicite Gentes Stant Verba Dei Sitientes’. Carefully … nations … I do not remember that much Latin! REME Museum reference: A:1991.3514, image from an internal report.
In the 1980s, during a period when much new art and décor was being purchased to improve the Officers’ Mess, the stained glass was removed from the Manor. Like many old, not useful but clearly valuable items of Corps property, they were sent to the REME Museum and placed in store.
In 1985 the glass was sent to the Victoria and Albert Museum for evaluation, returning to the Museum around 1988.
The V&A were reportedly keen to acquire some of the medieval panels so that they could be ‘appreciated by scholars of stained glass’. On 20 August 1991 Colonel Dorward – who had been involved with the Museum for many years – wrote to the V&A, offering the ‘five oldest windows’ on indefinite loan. The V&A declined this offer, owing to the cost of necessary conservation work which they could only fund for items they owned.
Close up images of the windows show the damage done by tobacco smoke, metal corrosion and dodgy repair jobs and general weathering. Tackling these challenges would have been a big job for conservators at the V&A. Image from an internal report.
After their trip to the V&A, the glass panels retuned to the Museum’s storerooms in Arborfield. The glass was not displayed again for many years, either in the Museum or elsewhere.
A new home
Since 2003 the West Court glass has resided at the Stained Glass Museum (SGM), located at Ely Cathedral. The SGM, founded in 1972 to rescue stained glass under threat from destruction, is the only museum dedicated to the subject in the UK. They care for and display examples of stained glass from the 13th century to the 21st century, primarily from the UK, but also from Ireland, France, Germany, Switzerland and the USA.
Since the glass has only a tangential REME connection it had never been displayed while stored at the REME Museum. In the early 2000s it was decided that the panels would be better housed at the SGM where they would benefit from conservation by acknowledged experts. Further, by being stored at the SGM, the glass would be displayed in the context of the history and development of stained glass, making the most its education and interpretative potential.
For now the glass still belongs to the REME Museum but has now been on long term loan to the SGM for seventeen years. Several of the pieces, notably the St Vincent roundels, are exhibited in the SGM’s permanent display while others can be viewed by appointment.
Supporting the Stained Glass Museum
The global coronavirus pandemic has brought tough times to many small museums. The SGM have a page on their website explaining how you can support them in these unprecedented times: https://stainedglassmuseum.com/impact_of_coronavirus.html. We urge all our supporters to consider donating or buying a book from their excellent gift shop to learn more about stained glass. When travel restrictions are lifted and they open their doors again we hope you will pay them a visit.
Get in touch
If you remember the glass at West Court or know anything more about it please do get in touch, we would love to hear from you. You can email Ms Kimberly Day at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts or why not comment on our social media pages? We are looking forward to hearing from you.