KEVIN GORDON - Illuminating our churches for centuries

Kevin Gordon 03-04-13
Kevin Gordon 03-04-13

I do enjoy visiting churches. There is no more peaceful way to spend an hour than on a Sussex country church pew with the sunshine pouring through the stained glass. I like to contemplate how the church would have been used.

A few coins will usually buy you a church guide but I am always disappointed many church histories concentrate on the architecture and hardly cover other interesting features such as gravestones and stained glass.

Kevin Gordon 03-04-13

Kevin Gordon 03-04-13

Prior to the reformation, our churches would have been a palette of colour with not only colourful windows but vibrant wall paintings and statues of saints occupying every niche.

Today, thanks to the official vandalism of the Reformation, churches look a lot different.

Over the past century, some painting has now been uncovered but apart from a few ‘high’ churches there is no statuary. Stained glass however has made a welcome return to our churches. Surely there was never a period when so much stained glass was installed than in the latter half of the reign of Victoria.

The Great War saw another increase in colourful memorial windows being installed. Modern glass is delightful and takes on a number of different guises from abstract designs to rural scenes.

But what about the ancient glass? It is unlikely there were ever large areas of stained glass in our rural churches.

The windows would have been too small for anything too fancy and stained glass was usually confined to cathedrals and larger town churches. Early stained glass was imported from the continent as were the skilled glaziers. Any ancient glass did not survive the Reformation, when churches were stripped by the puritans of anything that could be considered ‘Papist’.

This was particularly the case during the reign of Henry VIII’s son, Edward VI.

At St Nicholas Church, Lewes, local glazier John Harman was paid to destroy windows he had probably installed a few years earlier.

Churchwardens however probably did all they could to hide and retain the broken glass and in one or two places it was re-installed many years later. Small amounts of medieval glass can be seen in about 30 East Sussex churches.

At Alfriston a small stained glass depiction of St Alphage can be seen right at the top of the north transept window.

Alphage was an Archbishop of Canterbury who was killed by an axe in the year 1012. It is possible that the church was originally dedicated to him – is this why the window survived?

Just across the A27 at Chalvington, at the small church of St Bartholomew, there are also fragments of ancient glass. A tiny window is dedicated to John Dillwyt, who was the rector here from 1388 to 1409. Nearby is a similar window that dates from a century before.

It shows a bishop making a blessing and carrying a crozier. A few letters of text shows this to be St Thomas Becket (1118-1170). This window dates from about 1300 and is probably the oldest stained glass in Sussex. Ripe church is just a few fields away, but also has

medieval glass.

This 15th century glass however has been gathered and added into the plain glass of a much later window.

As I mentioned, many churches were ‘restored’ by the Victorians and lots of windows were installed. One of the most prolific installers of windows was a local man Charles Eamer Kemp (1837-1907). Kemp was from good stock - his uncle was Thomas Kemp who laid down Kemp Town at Brighton.

He was born in Ovingdean, just this side of Brighton and was destined for the clergy, however his severe stammer caused him to look for an alternative calling. While studying architecture he found he had a talent for stained glass and went on to design glass for churches across the country.

Many Sussex churches are graced with Kempe windows (he seems to have added the extra ‘e’ to sound posher) and his signed his work by placing his trade-mark, a small wheatsheaf, in the bottom left of his windows. The Anne of Cleaves House museum has some good examples of his work.

There is some beautiful stained glass installed as memorials for soldiers killed in the World Wars. I particularly like the window at St Leonard’s Church, Seaford. It shows a soldier sleeping in front of the burning ruins of a French town.

It is a memorial to a teenager from Seaford killed in 1915. The illustration however, depicts a soldier, sailor and air-man from the Second World War. This window is from the often overlooked church at Willingdon.

Guided Tours

I am resuming my historic guided tours this weekend. The Seaford Town tour departs from the Tourist Office in Church Street at 10.30am tomorrow. The Alfriston tour starts from the Market Cross at 2pm.

I will also be providing a guided tour around Seaford Cemetery (Alfriston Road) on Sunday afternoon which departs from the Cemetery Gates at 2pm. The cost of the tours is £5.