THE STORY OF ST MARY’S STAINED GLASS WINDOWS
(Article 10 in St Mary's Church Loop)
One of the treasures of this village are the beautiful stained glass windows in St. Mary's Church. Recently, whilst going through old papers, the churchwardens and rector came across all the original letters that dealt with the design and ordering of these windows. In these papers dated from 1858 until 1864, were found the most wonderful drawings and paintings provided by the artists for the approval of the Revd Canon Sparke. One of our French speaking parishioners has studied the papers and the following article gives us insight into the difficulties of the task and the very distinct personalities of those involved. You can view the windows by clicking here.
EDWARD BOWYER SPARKE was born in Bristol in January 1805; he was one of the sons of Dr B E Sparke MA who was Bishop of Chester, later to become Bishop of Ely. The Reverend Canon Edward Bowyer Sparke was Rector of Feltwell from 1831 to 1879 and was very wealthy; he was the benefactor of our windows, and also made many other gifts to St Mary’s. He married Catharine Maria Newcome, daughter of Reverend William Newcome MA; their only daughter Maria Hester was baptised in St Mary’s in 1836.
Canon Sparke travelled a lot, visiting many churches and cathedrals. In 1858, Sparke wished to fill St Mary’s with beautiful stained glass windows of superior glass and rich in colour, similar to those he saw in France, which were being produced in imitation of the 13th century style. He first contacted William Wailes of Newcastle; the Vestry window is the only example of his work depicting Sparke’s coat of arms impaling Newcome. Sparke did not seem to have a rapport with the man. Wailes was extremely busy (he was the 2nd largest installer of stained glass windows in Norfolk), and at the time had troubles with architects and his workforce, and could not say Feltwell windows would have preference over others. His remarks such as "the fickleness of purpose of those ordering windows..." and "your changes at Ely are nothing compared with what I have been getting under..." were just about enough for Sparke who was accustomed to that certain Victorian courtesy which Wailes seemed to lack. Although Wailes’ work might have been very good, their parting was a blessing in disguise; otherwise we would not be looking at our wonderfully distinctive set of windows today.
In August 1858, whilst visiting Beauvais Cathedral in France (north of Paris) Sparke very much admired a window which was done by DIDRON of Paris; he contacted him, thence started a 5-year correspondence between the two men. Didron seemed to be as much a stickler for time and details as Sparke, and was very knowledgeable and an expert in archaeological writings.
Sparke also contacted OUDINOT of Paris, an expert at stained glass painting, but their correspondence only lasted 2 years and ended abruptly, on a rather unfortunate matter. The difference between Didron and Oudinot was that Oudinot did not seem to have the same patience in tolerating Sparke’s constant demands for sketches and plans, measurements and alterations. Sparke seemed to be a perfectionist; he was very demanding workwise, argued very much to the point and in great details, tirelessly explaining the effects he wanted to create by drawings and colour ideas, and which personages he wanted where in a particular window.
As Canon Sparke was anxious to have the big East Window done, he thought it best to entrust a different window each to Oudinot and Didron to decide which artist would please him most. Sparke offered Oudinot the Sanctuary left window representing the parable of the Good Samaritan. Sparke sent measurements of the window and a paper cut-out of the lobes, plus details of the figures he wanted to incorporate; it was agreed the window would be in the 13C style with thick 3½-4mm glass. When Oudinot sent the preliminary sketch, Sparke did not like the general layout, pointing out details like the Apostles who should have been sitting, not standing, and, reiterating his previous instructions asked for another sketch. This surprised Oudinot - with his knowledge of gothic art and being one of the two leading firms of stained glass in Paris, he had given his best effort. But Sparke being by then in his fifties, knew what was to his taste, having studied for 13 years this style of glass from France and England. However, Oudinot complied. When the window arrived, having to alter the border to fit it in the masonry, it was found that the glass was not as thick as guaranteed, barely 3mm; and the ruby colour was too 'hot' and did not resemble the old glass. But Sparke complimented him on his drawing. View the windows.
Still undecided between Oudinot and Didron, Sparke gave them each another window; he gave Oudinot the West Tower window representing the Adam and Eve story. Many alterations were made by Sparke over colours and drawings, e.g. suggesting that the introduction of partial clothing of skins for Adam & Eve would be an improvement, since they were clothed by the Lord God in Genesis 3 v.21 but not expelled from Eden till v.23. When the window came and was installed, Sparke was not too happy with the full effect, which turned out differently to what might have been expected from the sketch. The colouring did not look like that of an old window, and only being viewable at a distance, the figure of our Saviour should have been larger. Because the window faced West, Sparke had wanted very rich colours to exploit the light.
Because Canon Sparke liked Oudinot’s drawings and his competitor’s colours, he offered both men a third window. He gave Oudinot the Chancel 1st right window representing the Life of the Virgin Mary. Again, Sparke pointed out he wanted a very rich window, and the Apostles needed to be bigger. When he received the overall plan, Sparke expressed his disappointment at the design being ugly. There was no architecture introduced in any of the groups. He mentioned details like the number of horses’ legs not being correct - the window being near the ground it would be noticeable; and the colours were not in right proportions. He asked Oudinot for a full size paper sketch of one of the Apostles to judge the effect. This request put Oudinot on the spot, for he had to admit to Sparke that he was unable to do any more sketches because the glass was already cut and it was impossible to alter the horses’ legs. By now, Oudinot was getting upset at Sparke’s reproaches (he was much younger and probably had not come across anyone like Sparke before!). Sparke felt he was at liberty to make comments and find fault with what did not please him, as he was to pay for it and look at it Sunday after Sunday. Anyway, Oudinot agreed to do the colour changes. Finally the window arrived. Alterations being necessary for the workmen to fix it, it was found that not one piece of glass was of the same thickness. Sparke’s confidence was completely shattered. He doubted if there was any glass of the proper thickness in any of Oudinot’s three windows, and if it were found so after examination he would have to send all the glass back.
What a blow this was for Oudinot, who was profoundly wounded that Sparke suspected his good faith. (Sparke seemed to be obsessed with the thickness of the glass). Oudinot explained that in the making of 13C reproduction glass, the thickness of a sheet of glass is irregular and since the whole sheet is used for different pieces, they can vary in thickness from 4-2½mm. He could not believe Sparke would send all his windows back just for that. Excuses from Oudinot just had no effect - the contract being broken (a guarantee of 3½-4mm thick glass) the only course of action was to return ALL the windows. A very close friend of Sparke at Ely wrote to him saying, "Are you really going to send the poor man’s glass all back? He seems more touched about his honour than his glass".
From then on, things deteriorated rapidly. Oudinot admitted he did not use all 4mm glass because by doing so one is deprived of many shades of colours. Oudinot gave other reasons for his actions, but Sparke was not budging, and did not want to pay the man at all. Realising this would impose the entire cost of the windows upon Oudinot; Sparke suggested a lower price. Oudinot found these disputes very painful but reluctantly agreed. Still annoyed about the thickness of the glass (the thicker the glass the deeper the colour) Sparke made sure to let Oudinot know that to reduce the cost would not offer any compensation for the disappointment. Since he would have to incur some expense in putting the ruby fillet round the upper part that Oudinot omitted in the last window and that the English ruby would not harmonise, Sparke asked for another reduction in the price! All Oudinot could do by then was to accept. View the windows.
All this wrangling was very distressing for Oudinot who, in his own way, tried to please Sparke but with so little success. Of the 3 windows he made, not one received Sparke’s blessing. And here ended this unfortunate affair when, in his last letter, Sparke informed Oudinot that he was giving the great East Window to Didron.
Canon Sparke wanted to combine in our windows some of the ideas that he came across in his research of many churches here and abroad. Didron was very accommodating and took great pains to incorporate most of Sparke’s ideas, at the same time maintaining his own expertise. Didron was considered 'a top celebrity' in the field of stained glass manufacture. He wrote eloquent letters, and even the smallest of accompanying sketches was done meticulously. Much to Sparke’s satisfaction, Didron only used thick glass and round lead in his workshops.
There was, however, one serious dispute between Sparke and Didron over prices when Didron’s first window was finished (the Prodigal Son window: North Chapel North side). When Didron sent the itemised bill, on reading the account for the amount of glass used, Sparke was dismayed to find he was charged for what he deemed was an excess quantity of glass; he was also charged for packing which was never demanded of him before. This window being the same size as the Good Samaritan window, Sparke expected the price to be more or less equivalent. Didron was adamant that wastage of glass used in the manufacture of a window must also be paid for, including packing costs, and Didron refuted Sparke’s use of the words 'unjust' and 'veracious' in respect of these demands. Didron was more concerned about quality than money alone and in a spirit of compromise agreed to reduce the overall cost, but still insisted on packing charges. Likewise, to pacify Didron, Sparke wrote that he "regretted the misunderstanding". Didron had his own way of doing things and a reputation to match his workmanship. Nevertheless, the Prodigal Son window was the best Didron had designed so far, having new shades at his disposal. The subjects were copied from a similar window in Chartres Cathedral in France. In spite of their differences, Sparke liked the arrangement and combination of colours. This window is acknowledged by experts as a good example of the French strict archaeological style.
Didron was also asked to do the other two windows on the south side representing the Life of Our Lord (Sanctuary right window and Chancel 2nd window). For the Sanctuary window Sparke praised Didron for his choice of figures and complimented him on his colours; Sparke suggested a few changes but left it to Didron’s better judgement. In the Chancel 2nd window, Sparke found the ornamentation too fussy, the lines were confusing so that the appearance was like a number of snakes twisting about! But he praised him for his superior work. View the windows.
As a result of his work, Didron was allocated the remaining two windows, including the prized East Window; Sparke felt confident that Didron would produce a window worthy of his reputation, and that he would approach nearer to Sparke’s objectives of matching the excellent quality and style of the stained glass windows of Canterbury Cathedral. [But read on...!]
The East Window (called the Passion Window) done by Didron certainly had its fair share of problems. A lot of planning went into the choice of subjects. One thing had to be agreed upon, that the subjects should read from Left to Right as in the Middle Ages. This was not what Sparke had in mind: he wanted the whole meaning of the windows to be in sequence, starting with the Nativity on the south side, carrying on towards the East Window, and ending with the entombment on the north side with the Resurrection window. It was Sparke who suggested the shape of the centre panel of principal events as it is today. In 1862 the Universal Exhibition was held in London and Didron wanted to exhibit this window, as it was so beautiful, as well as some of his other works - with the idea that, after the Exhibition, the window would be dispatched direct to Feltwell. The window was so large that it could not be exhibited in its entirety, so Didron was forced to take the head off (the glass from the tympanum) and keep it in his workshop. Therefore only the square shape was exhibited. This window was very much admired at the Exhibition; the Appointed Stained Glass Painters to Queen Victoria & Prince Consort admired Didron’s work as "quite perfect and very wonderful to see". After the Exhibition, the 2 double cases in which the window was packed somehow got separated when removed from the 1st floor of the Exhibition building to the basement. Being mixed up with some of Didron’s other works, one case was sent back to Didron in Paris, and the other went missing for weeks, eventually ending up in Pickfords warehouse in Docklands. This case was also sent back to Didron by the Exhibition’s French agent as the card with Sparke’s address that should have been on it went missing. "Une erreur incomprehensible" wrote Didron, absolutely baffled. After checking for damages, the cases were repacked and sent directly to Sparke. Meanwhile, Didron had dispatched the glass of the top part to Sparke. When it arrived in London, through the fault of the English agent, the glass was not sent directly to Feltwell by railway but went all the way to Yarmouth and back again by a different route, therefore causing considerable delay. So, un faux pas all around, it seems...! One can imagine the anxiety both men must have gone through during this difficult time.
This great window was finally installed, and guess what - Canon Sparke was greatly disappointed: to his eyes, the colouring and figures in the top part did not harmonize with the bottom part. Sparke did not know what to do to remedy this defect - "I’ve not seen so painful a contrast in any window" he wrote. Didron was absolutely shocked, and remained silent for months! He was terribly upset that the window did not please Sparke. But he was a professional man, and patiently advised Sparke on various modifications that could be done; the lobes in the upper part are of an unusual shape and the personages are larger than those in the lower part, because Sparke insisted they should be as big as possible, therefore it was not till the window was fixed that the contrast was evident. Didron sent more coloured pieces of glass to match in order to help with the corrections that Sparke felt necessary to improve the overall appearance of the window. Work was still ongoing even after the last window had been installed in the church. View the windows.
During the 1862 Exhibition, Didron started working on the last window called The Resurrection Window (North Chapel east side). The measurements were carefully calculated; the narrow shape of the 3 lights (panels) would not bear reducing in the borders if alterations were subsequently necessary, as was previously the case. It was Didron who recommended the circles for the side panels, as it would harmonize better with the lozenges. Didron was pleased to note that Canon Sparke’s daughter, Maria Hester Sparke, who married Henry Morris Upcher of Sheringham Hall in 1869, was presenting this window to our church. It seems this window was the least troublesome of all the windows. It arrived, got fixed up without too much ado, and Sparke seemed to be satisfied with it, which pleased Didron enormously!
Sparke was still asking for pieces of coloured glass to rectify the defects of the Passion Window; Didron asked him to carefully work out how many pieces he needed, to save him having to send yet another shipment of glass to Feltwell. By now, even Didron was getting a bit tired of Sparke. Didron begged him to finish his project, yet still ending his last letter with "Your most devoted servant - Didron".
In summary, we have nine interesting windows each one with a story to tell. Despite Canon Sparke’s disappointment at the time, the village has acquired, as experts acknowledge, a remarkable group of 19C stained glass windows, being a valuable possession of St Mary’s Church.
The three talented artists chosen by Sparke each had their merit. Didron’s excellent imitation of 13C stained glass was very much admired by connoisseurs - his very rich ruby colour of the thick 4mm glass is unique in England, and was only to be found in two other Cathedrals in France. Didron had put all his archaeological knowledge and best efforts into making our windows - so he must have been rather downhearted when Sparke did not entirely appreciate the East Window.
Oudinot was most unfortunate. As talented as he was in his designing, Oudinot could not please Sparke who was rich and ready to pay for good workmanship but thought he was being misled about the thickness of glass used. View the windows.
As for William Wailes of Newcastle, he was well known for his High Victorian style and for being the first person to make glass for Pugin. He has made numerous windows for churches all over England; some 76 windows were installed in Norfolk alone. He had a huge workforce of over 100 men, and in view of his familial afflictions (it appears all his children were born deaf and dumb) one feels he really did not have the time to put up with Sparke’s "fickleness of purpose..."
For those interested in costs, Canon Sparke spent £692 on our windows between 1859 and 1863. He claimed in the correspondence to have spent about 10 times that amount on other similar projects.
The Feltwell windows are the only ones in Norfolk made by Didron and Oudinot. It appears that none of the three artists employed ever came to Feltwell to see their own windows. Canon Sparke was only 26 when he came to Feltwell as Rector in 1831, so spent most of his adult life here, and remained Rector until he died in 1879. Through the years he developed a taste for grand cathedral-type windows, which was probably a bit too ambitious for a parish church. The end product might not have been to Sparke’s expectation of very rich windows, but the disappointment was only his – perfectionists are rarely happy…!
Monique B Newman January 2002
Birkin HAWARD 1984 19th C Norfolk Stained Glass Gazetteer
(An Account of Norfolk Stained Glass Painters)
Alfred James ORANGE 1981 Part 1 & Part 2 of Stained Glass Windows of St Mary’s Feltwell
Walter RYE 1913 Norfolk Families
William WHITE 1845 History, Gazetteer & Directory of Norfolk(In 1845 Sparke was listed as a magistrate)
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