Horace Walpole and John Soane: Stained Glass, Old and New

By Olivia Armandroff, WPAMC Class of 2020

Horace Walpole designed Strawberry Hill as his “little gothic castle;” stepping inside its entrance hall, I was immediately taken by his celebration of stained glass, the ultimate medieval artform. Walpole had fitted old fragments together with clear glass to form composite windows. As I examined the fragments, I was struck by their subjects (figure 1), such as a cheery bird and a bundle of pears. Many were in black and white, defying the color-infused standards of medieval times, and scenes of everyday were more common than biblical subjects. These were not gothic fragments, and were not very ancient when Walpole acquired them in 1750. Instead, Walpole purchased what he called an “immense cargo” of over 450 sixteenth and seventeenth century fragments from Flanders.

Figure 1: Composite stained glass panel. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

I wondered whether Walpole saw the fragments as art and appreciated their subject matter, or whether they were intended merely as decorative devices to approximate a generic gothic aesthetic. My concern heightened when I learned that Walpole permitted William Price, his glazier, to add enamel colors over much older glass. After reading Michael Peover’s analysis of Walpole’s discussion of his fragments’ subjects and his investment in their placement, I was persuaded by his thesis that Walpole treated his stained-glass collection much as he did his art collection. Walpole included glass painters in his book, Anecdotes of Painting in England; while he had once criticized his father’s collection of Netherlandish painting, after he acquired Netherlandish stained glass, he began to acquire Netherlandish art himself.

Visiting John Soane’s Museum, I was surprised to find stained glass in a house not dedicated to the gothic revival. The origins of Soane’s stained glass remain unknown, but he began to purchase examples around 1800, when the suppression of religious institutions during the French Revolution made available large amounts of continental glass. Many of the fragments in Soane’s house capture religious scenes. Because Soane didn’t describe his windows’ subjects when referencing them in the account of his house, the Description, it can be inferred that the old glass served aesthetic rather than didactic purposes. Soane set fragments of old glass alongside contemporary sheets of colored glass in shades such as yellow and purple. He was famously interested in the ways light infused his architectural designs. Helen Dorey linked the optical effects of Soane’s dark yellow glass windows to the hues that appeared in Claude glasses, a spherical mirror used by followers of the picturesque movement (like Soane) to view the landscape. She also noted Soane made several witty selections of subject matter, such as windows dedicated to the prodigal son which may have alluded to Soane’s strained relationship with his own sons (figure 2).

Figure 2: The Prodigal departs, stained glass panel, after Pieter Coecke van Aelst Netherlandish, 1550. Clear glass with brown paint and delicate use of yellow stains. 32 x 19 cm. Sir John Soane’s Museum, SG126.

Stained glass had long been associated with religious institutions, and Walpole and Soane defied this standard by incorporating their fragments into domestic settings. But both houses have designs that mimic spiritual spaces. Dorey noted that Soane’s Monk’s Parlor, adjoined to the Picture Gallery Recess on the floor above, recreates the effects of a nave. And in the heart of the house, Soane’s most prized possession, Pharaoh Seti’s sarcophagus, is set in the center of the Sepulchral Chamber so that it can be circumambulated (figure 3).

Figure 3: The sarcophagus of Seti I in the Sepulchral Chamber in the center of the ‘Museum’ at the back of the house, as shown in the Illustrated London News in 1864. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Likewise, Walpole placed his most prized possessions in a room that he knew as the Tribune, or a basilica’s apse (Figure 4). Both Soane’s atrium and Walpole’s Tribune were illuminated from above with domed skylights. Neither Soane or Walpole incorporated old fragments into these windows. Instead, in the parts of their homes that most strongly appealed to a sense of spirituality, they avoided religious subjects in favor of a pure golden light that evoked the sun.

Figure 4: The tribune at Strawberry Hill, The cabinet, John Carter, c. 1789. Watercolor on laid paper, 59.2 x 49.5 cm. The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University. 789.00.00.73dr++.

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