In 1853 William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones met as undergraduates at Exeter College, Oxford. Discovering a mutual passion for literature and Arthurian legend, they read everything from Plato to Tennyson, Ruskin and Poe and made frequent visits to the Bodleian Library to pore over medieval illuminated manuscripts. They sought out performances of early music, held intense theological discussions, visited historic buildings together and went on rambles through the English countryside. These mutual interests forged a lifelong friendship, guiding their vocations in the world of art and allowing for numerous collaborative artistic endeavours over the years, despite their differences in temperament and attitudes to political activism.
In 1856, having met the painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, Burne-Jones left Oxford for London to study painting, his degree unfinished. From the start, however, he enjoyed success with patrons, his strong sense of design immediately apparent. During the late 1850s he was associated with a number of Gothic Revival architects and developed a particular interest in stained glass, producing his first designs for James Powell & Sons in 1857.
Four years later Burne-Jones went into partnership with Rosetti and Morris, founding the design firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co. (from 1875 known as Morris & Co.). The firm produced stained glass, furniture, wallpaper and fabrics; the stained glass and tapestries were designed by Burne-Jones.
This window depicts the New Testament figure of Saint Paul standing in the landscape with a halo of brilliant blue around his head. The refined, Michelangelo-inspired rendering of the facial features is superb and typical of the best of Burne-Jones’s designs. The colour palette is rich and glowing, deliberately emphasised by the heavy leading, a medieval technique intended to create a jewel-like, mosaic effect.
The window comes from the chapel of the Cheadle Royal Hospital, Manchester, built in 1904 with the stained-glass windows commissioned in the same year and installed between 1906 and 1915. The glazing scheme consisted of a series of full-length figures from both the Old Testament and New Testament; the overall concept was developed by John Henry Dearle, art director of Morris & Co. and manager of its Merton Abbey workshops. Dearle was very sympathetic to the stylistic ethos of the workshops and revered the later collaborative work of Morris and Burne-Jones. It is apparent that, under his direction, the Merton Abbey stained-glass workshop remained closely aligned to the technical methods of the windows produced during their lifetime. Dearle’s approach represented an acknowledgement that, in its last stylistic phase of the 1880s and 1890s, Morris & Co.’s stained glass had reached its highest point, and that this would therefore be the aesthetic employed for all subsequent work. Thus, the Cheadle windows share in all their essentials the same character and medieval inspiration as those previously made, often by the same craftsmen at Merton during the latter days of Morris and Burne-Jones.
Amanda Dunsmore, Curator, Decorative Arts & Antiquities, National Gallery of Victoria (in 2011).