07 March 2022
A Pre-Raphaelite window
in Birmingham was almost
lost during World War II
Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery holds the world’s largest collection of Pre-Raphaelite works, with a significant collection of works by Edward Burne-Jones, William Morris and other members of the pre-Raphaelite Movement, so that the museum and gallery hold.
Sir Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898) was born on Bennett’s Hill in Birmingham in 1833. As an undergraduate at Exeter College, Oxford, he became a friend of William Morris through their mutual interest in poetry.
The two, with a group of Burne-Jones’s friends from Birmingham, formed a society they called ‘The Brotherhood’ and they became known as the Birmingham Set. They were keenly interested in Anglo-Catholicism, and included William Fulford, Richard Watson Dixon, Charles Faulkner and Cormell Price.
The works of Burne-Jones include windows in Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, Saint Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth, All Saints’ Church, Jesus Lane, Cambridge. There is also a Burne-Jones window also in Saint Carthages’s Cathedral, Lismore, Co Waterford.
In his early paintings, Burne-Jones was inspired by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, but by the 1860s he was discovering his own artistic voice. His The Star of Bethlehem was commissioned in 1887 for the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. This large watercolour depicting the arrival of the magi at the stable in Bethlehem is so large that Burne-Jones used a ladder to reach the upper areas as he worked on it, and he complained that the painting was physically tiring: ‘Up my steps and down, and from right to left. I have journeyed as many miles already as ever the kings travelled.’
When he was asked by a young girl whether he believed in the scene in The Star of Bethlehem, Burne-Jones replied: ‘It is too beautiful not to be true.’
William Morris (1834-1896), his friend from their days as Oxford undergraduates, is one of the most significant cultural figures in Victorian Britain. He was a textile designer, poet, artist, novelist, architectural conservationist, printer, translator and socialist activist, and a founding figure in the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Morris founded the decorative arts firm Morris, Marshall, Faulkner & Co in 1861 with Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Philip Webb, and others.
I am familiar with the windows by Burne-Jones in Saint Philip’s Cathedral, Birmingham, and I have written about these windows and about his windows in All Saints’ Church, Cambridge.
Recently, I returned to Saint Martin in the Bull Ring, Birmingham, to see a window in the South Transept of the church by Burne-Jones and Morris that barely survived the Blitz during World War II.
This window is a glorious masterpiece and a double treasure as it combines the work of these two Pre-Raphaelite artists, Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. The window was installed in 1875-1877. This is one of the earliest examples of the work of their work, and contains some unique features.
In the top row, the window depicts Christ between the four evangelists (from left): Saint Matthew; Saint Mark; Christ; Saint Luke; Saint John
In the bottom row is a collection of five Biblical figures (from left): Moses, Elijah, Melchizedek, King David and King Solomon.
The five lower panes depict the Annunciation, the Incarnation, the Visit of the Magi, the Crucifixion and the Burial of Christ.
The window in Birmingham bears comparison with the East Window in Saint George’s Chapel in Saint Editha’s Collegiate Church, Tamworth. That window, designed by Sir Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris, is in memory of John Peel (1804-1872), Liberal MP for Tamworth in 1863-1868 and again in 1871-1872. The four four-light windows on the north wall of Saint George’s Chapel are also the work of Burne-Jones, Morris and the Camm family.
The window by Burne-Jones and Morris in Saint Martin in the Bullring, Birmingham, was almost lost during World War II, and survived the Blitz by only a matter of hours. In an extraordinary lapse, the church council had decided in April 1941 that if the window were destroyed it could be replaced.
But the Bishop of Birmingham, Dr Ernest William Barnes, was annoyed that the church had not taken action to safeguard and preserve its items of historic importance. He ordered that the window be removed and placed in safe keeping for preservation.
The window was promptly removed, carefully packed in boxes and put in the south porch ready to take to storage, waiting to be taken to the cellars of the College of Arts and Crafts in Margaret Street. That very night the bombs fell, destroying every other window in the church.
This was the only window in Saint Martin in the Field to survive the Blitz, and it remains a treasure of the Pre-Raphaelite movement that survives in its original location in Birmingham.