Lovers of church stained-glass in this country always come up against one constant bugbear – the kind of light that we get in England. Light in our northern clime is, during most periods of the year, harsh and white. This sheer climatic fact means there is something cold and indifferent about a lot of English stained glass, even if it can be magnificent.
Once the secret of how to achieve the ‘flaming’ appearance of medieval glass was lost 500 years ago, it seems that artists also stopped thinking about how to achieve the ‘drama of light & colour’ in stained glass. Whether it is Flemish glass (as in Shrewsbury St Mary’s), enamelled eighteenth century glass, or the early neo-Gothic with its brash and hard colours – fascinating and awe-inspiring as they can often be – none of them seem to want to accept that the daylight is anything more than a backlight for their work.
‘Traditional’ Victorian glass almost gives up on colour altogether. In his book, ‘Arts and Crafts Stained Glass’, Peter Cormack writes dismissively of the nineteenth-century’s “formulaic colouring of windows by CE Kempe – with their sage greens and dull reds” (p309). So true!
Things do start to change with Morris & Co windows from the 1860s onwards – which do have the startling colours that allow them to pick up and re-use sunlight so well, but they still struggle in weak winter light.
Meanwhile, in 1905, Christopher Whall, the doyen of the Arts & Crafts Movement in stained-glass, tried to express a slightly different issue: “… windows should dream; and should be so treated as to be like what they are, the apertures to admit the light”. His solution was to make his windows give specific routes to the light that was coming in.
But Marga seems to me to be someone who has seized a real issue of stained-glass – to make it work with natural light, thus producing the ‘drama of light & colour’ in which both elements support each other.
Am I alone in thinking how Marga’s colouring seems ‘warm’? Her orange tones are the most luminous and sunniest of all. It is as though somehow she has cracked the puzzle of trying to transmute our English light, as it comes in from outside, into a more intense, more radiant luminosity.
I could be very mistaken, but orange (except at the red end of its range) doesn’t seem to me to be a colour much generally favoured in the glass of the 1900s, yet Marga uses it liberally. We see her using it for cloaks, scarves, haloes, flowers, etc. She even throws in indiscriminate tangerine ‘droplets’ – as she does at Holy Name Church in Oxton – even when that particular colour is not specifically demanded!
She uses orange extensively in Lanark Church, and it figures much in her later Shrewsbury cathedral windows.
In the painters’ palette, Marga’s particular tone of oranage is often described as the ‘bittersweet’ shade.
Was she party to a method for producing this particular shade of orange glass that was perhaps only known to a select few?
The interesting thing is that this sun-orange is not a colour best suited to our English pearly daylight – but she seems to be able to get away with using it.
In the slideshow here, one can see how orange was used, not just by Marga, but by a others just before Marga’s time.
Included here is Hardman’s thick application of the colour, though more at the red end of orange (Ashbourne Church 1870); Christopher Whall’s darker use of it in angel-wings (Ashbourne Church 1890); and Burne-Jones’ battering ram (!) of colourisation.
There is an emotional content to Marga’s best work that is very much enhanced by this use of sensuous colouring. (One can argue about what percentage of her work can be described as her ‘best’ work’ – not enough sadly – but when it’s good, it’s very good).
In such work – though the actual subjects in her pictures are often static -, her disposition of the colouring makes the scenes appear excitingly fluid.
Thus Marga’s best work is a combination of pure spectacle and viewer-experience.
Her use of colouring may need a more technical understanding than I can provide, but it is an aspect of her best work that is so rewarding!