The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Earner Kempe

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Adrian Barlow
  • Cambridge, England: 
    Lutterworth Press
    , August
     323 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


If you have spent any time visiting Anglican churches and cathedrals in England, you have likely viewed stained glass windows designed and fabricated by the Kempe studio. 

For more than 40 years, Charles Eamer Kempe was one of the most influential figures in the English ecclesial art world. His was an historicist vision inspired by 15th and 16th century Northern European and English glass, and the early Italian Renaissance. Though his characteristic neo-medieval style quickly fell out of favor in the face of the Arts and Crafts movement, for the latter half of the 19th century Kempe was among the premiere decorators of ecclesial spaces. 

Adrian Barlow’s Kempe: The Life, Art and Legacy of Charles Eamer Kempe, is a thoroughly researched and meticulously detailed account of the life, success, and decline of the influence of Kempe and his closest associates, particularly Alfred Tombleson, Wyndham Hughes, John Carter, and John Lisle. This text details Kempe’s relationships with other artisans of the day, such as architect George Frederick Bodley and artist William Morris. Newly discovered collections of materials, such as drawings and diaries, allows Barlow to shed new light on the life of Kempe, and the artistic development of the Kempe studio. 

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1 takes up the first half of the book, and is focused on the life of Kempe himself—his early years, family connections and early training, the development of the Kempe style, its peak in the 1890s, and Kempe’s death in 1907. The key insight into the rise of the Kempe style that I found fascinating from this section is the critical importance of Kempe’s networking ability and business acumen. Kempe’s influence did not result necessarily from his artistic skill—which was not outstanding—but rather, from his incredible ability to establish and maintain broad networks of influential supporters, patrons, and skilled artists. He was not sleazy about it—he genuinely made his patrons and artists into close, lifelong friends. Kempe also had a talent for discovering and then supporting and employing many young artists—including William Tate, Carter, and Tombleson—a move that earned him their life-long loyalty. Barlow identifies this reciprocal loyalty between Kempe and his artisans, and the complete loyalty of a few early patrons, as one of the most critical factors of Kempe’s entire enterprise (41).

Part 2 looks at some of the major artistic themes in Kempe windows—such as the virtues—and part 3 closes the book with a consideration of Kempe’s legacy. After Kempe’s death, responsibility for the studio transitioned to his younger relative—architect and artist Walter Tower. Barlow shows how the decline and closure of the Kempe studio in 1934 was due to, among other factors, a decline in commissions overall after World War I and, perhaps more critically, a decline in desire for the “Kempe style.” By the early 1900s, there was growing criticism of the Kempe studio by proponents of the Arts and Crafts movement. These critics rejected the model of the “little army of craftsmen and artisans” on the argument that they were not independent artists who “think, feel and act” for themselves, but were instead caught up in a capitalist structure in which they were merely cogs (229). Throughout the book, Barlow anticipates this criticism and skillfully shows how this is an anemic and unfair characterization of the work of the Kempe studio. Nevertheless, the winds of public favor had shifted, and within just a few years Kempe himself was nearly forgotten. 

Barlow’s presentation of the life, art, and influence of Kempe is compelling; though I do not personally like the Kempe style—I realized through reading this book that I have seen a handful of Kempe windows and paid them no mind—Barlow’s book is an important and well-rendered account of a major figure in the British ecclesial art world. It offers glimpses not only into the inner-workings of a 19th century art studio, but also into the Anglican High Church movement.

As presented by Barlow, the story of Kempe’s success firmly rejects the idea of the artist as a “solitary genius,” and instead presents a realistic picture of the relationships necessary to get works of art on this scale completed—relationships between artist and patron, master and apprentice, draughtsman and glazer, studio and ecclesial community. Unfortunately for Kempe, it also reveals the divided and sometimes fickle opinions of those who commission and evaluate ecclesial art. Public evaluation in some sectors has not been kind to the late-Victorian style of Kempe; yet there is no denying its historical significance and continuing presence in the English landscape.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Joelle A. Hathaway teaches at Duke Divinity School.

Date of Review: 
May 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Adrian Barlow is Fellow and former President of the English Association, his books include World and Time: Teaching Literature in Context and Extramural: Literature and Lifelong Learning (also published by the Lutterworth Press).


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