Revisiting historic unrealised stained glass window designs

At the end of last term, Fine Art students visited the West Dean Archive to see some of the unrealised stained-glass window designs commissioned by College Founder Edward James in the aftermath of the fire that destroyed St Andrew’s church on 26 November 1934.

After the blaze, all that remained of the 300-year-old church were the four walls, the tower and one of the existing windows. At the height of the fire, the bells crashed from the belfry.

James immediately set about making plans for the church’s reconstruction, eventually commissioning Frederick Etchells in 1935-36. Etchells was both a painter associated with the Omega Workshops and the Vorticists, as a modernist architect, and a prominent translator of Le Corbusier.

In the summer of 1935, James commissioned his friend Pavel Tchelitchew to execute full-scale cartoons for three new stained-glass windows (for the east, south and north windows, each in three parts). The artist developed a series of designs based on the nine noble virtues, but ultimately his slowness forced a frustrated James to abort the commission and look elsewhere.

By 1936 he had employed another long-term friend and associate, the German artist Jörg von Reppert-Bismarck, who had illustrated many of James’s publications. Bismarck’s window designs featured grandiose images of many of James’ current enthusiasms – not least the beautiful ballerina Vera Zorina, but also two key figures of Surrealism, André Breton and Salvador Dalí, depicted in heroic guises – perhaps tongue-in-cheek – complete with suits of armour, armies, fanfare and heraldry.

Described as one of the occasions where his taste for lavishness was ultimately thwarted, James (and parish council) ultimately decided not to proceed with the designs. The full-scale pastel designs remain in the Collection and Archives at West Dean.