09 October 2022

The Victorian glass maker
in York who transformed
his arts and crafts shop

‘The Sign of the Bible’ at No 35 Stonegate, York, was the family home and worshop of John Ward Knowles (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

John Ward Knowles (1838-1931) was a talented York-based stained-glass manufacturer and glazier at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century, and a commentator on local art and music.

Knowles is particularly known for his restoration of ‘The ‘Pricke of Conscience’ window in All Saints’ Church, North Street, in 1861 at the start of his long career, and he re-leaded the window in 1877. I am looking at the story of this window in my reflections in my prayer diary each morning for three days – today, tomorrow and Tuesday.

Knowles – appropriately, it seems to me – worked from a house known ‘The Sign of the Bible’ at No 35 Stonegate, York.

John Ward Knowles was born in York in 1838, and after his training moved in 1869 to premises at The Star Inn, No 41 Stonegate, previously the house of a hosier named Robinson.

The Olde Starre Inn, in one of the alleys off Stonegate, claims to be the oldest public house in York and dates back to 1644, the year of the Parliamentarian siege of York. The ‘old star’ is said to be King Charles I. The Cromwellians used the tenth century cellar as a hospital and a mortuary during the Civil War.

Knowles moved into No 35 Stonegate after he and Jane Annakind were married in 1874, and this remained the Knowles family home for the 120 years.

The chained printer’s devil at No 33 Stonegate is a traditional symbol of a printer (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Stonegate runs north east from Saint Helen’s Square to Petergate, and is one of the most architecturally varied streets in York. The name Stonegate first appears on records in 1118. Around 2 metres below the street’s pavement lies the Roman Via Praetoria, which connected the basilica at the centre of the fortress to the bridge over the River Ouse and the civilian settlement on the other side of the river.

From mediaeval times, the top of the street was under the jurisdiction of York Minster and was home to trades and crafts such as goldsmiths, printers and glass painters.

The chained red devil high up on the wall outside No 33 Stonegate is a traditional symbol of a printer. The printer’s devils were boys who used to fetch and carry type.

Mulberry Hall at 17-19 Stonegate dates from 1434 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Another curious house on the street, Mulberry Hall at 17-19 Stonegate, dates from 1434. Almost 600 years old, this timber framed building has been a shop since the 18th century and until 2016 was a prominent china and porcelain shop. Since then it has been occupied by a year-round Christmas shop.

A sign on the street indicates the way to Coffee Yard, next to Mulberry Hall. There the writer and publisher Thomas Gent had his premises in the 18th century. Gent wrote one of the first histories of York and married into a printing family, but ruined the business after repeatedly arguing with many of his customers, including the Dean and Chapter of York.

The York Archaeological Society examined the buildings in Coffee Yard in the 1980s prior to development, and discovered the remains of a 14th century building beneath the relatively modern façade of a derelict office block.

This was first built as a hostel for the monks of Nostell Priory, near Wakefield, ca 1360. The building was rebuilt as it might have appeared in 1483, and was named Barley Hall after the chair of York Civic Trust, Professor Maurice Barley.

The Golden Bible at No 35, dated 1682 … a traditional sign for a bookshop (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The home JW Knowles acquired at No 35 Stonegate had been a bookshop since 1682. The earliest part of the house facing onto Stonegate is a three-storey, timber-framed range built in the 15th century.

The Golden Bible, dated 1682, hangs above the doorway of No 35. This is a traditional sign for a bookshop. In the 17th century, a two-storey, timber-framed building, was built at the rear, possibly as a workshop. The courtyard that separated the two ranges was filled in ca 1700 with a brick-built link block.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the shop was said to be York’s premier bookshop. The ‘Sign of the Bible’ also had a printing press and in 1759 John Hinxman published the first two volumes of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy.

The young Princess Victoria of Kent, visited No 35 Stonegate in September 1835, and it is said the future Queen Victoria took tea in the back parlour.

After Knowles moved into No 35 in 1874, he began to renovate the building that became a hub of artistic endeavour with workshops producing stained glass and other kinds of church decoration, including beautiful embroideries and tapestry work produced by his daughters.

Knowles created a confection of Victorian Tudor detailing on the façade of No 35. But, apart from the jettying and the gable on to Stonegate, his creation bore little relation to the original 15th century building. Every surface is covered with ornament and the date of 1682 has been added, the year that Francis Hildyard opened his bookshop, ‘The Sign of the Bible.’

Although much of the original 17th and 18th century interior remains, including a number of panelled rooms and a fine staircase, the blend of historic fabric and 19th century interventions are distinctly Victorian.

The house has a large collection of stained glass, some of it in the upper panels in the ground-floor shopfront and in the oriel window on the first floor.

Three women saints – Saint Barbara, Saint Cecilia and Saint Agnes – in a window by JW Knowles (1891) in Saint Olave’s Church, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Knowles’s major works include the restoration of the Saint Cuthbert Window in York Minster in 1887, when he created 10 of the 75 episodes from the life of the saint. His other important commissions can be seen in many York churches, including Saint Olave’s, Saint Lawrence’s, and Saint Margaret’s.

The mediaeval Saint Lawrence was demolished leaving only its tower now stands in the church yard. JG Hall of Canterbury designed an ambitious new church, built in 1881-1883. The church contains a large collection of late 19th and early 20th century stained glass, much of it by Knowles, including three windows in the apse (1895) and the north transept window (1906). His windows in Saint Margaret, Walmgate, date from 1926 and 1930.

Knowles continued to live at No 35 Stonegate and to work in stained glass until he died at the age of 93 in 1931. No 35 retains much of Knowles’s work, including a collection of priceless late Victorian and Edwardian stained glass.

His sons continued the business until 1953. In the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, JW Knowles & Sons carried out all forms of decorative work for churches, including embroidery and tapestries created by his daughters. It became York’s leading firm of glass painters, stained glass restorers and church decorators.

John Ward’s son, John Alder Knowles (1881-1961), continued the family business in the 1930s. Before the outbreak of World War I, he researched glass-manufacturing methods in North America, including the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, who made Art Nouveau stained glass windows and electric lamps with multi-coloured stained-glass shades. Back in York, he joined the family firm in 1912. He produced some prototype Tiffany-style lamps but they were never a commercial success.

JA Knowles was active in the British Society of Master Glass-Painters and edited the Journal of Stained Glass (1926-1939) and Essays in the History of the York School of Glass-painting. The stained-glass workshop closed in 1953, although the property remained in the family until 1999.

The archives of JW Knowles & Son have been the Borthwick Institute at the University of York since 1977, with further additions in 1991, 1999 and 2008. The archives also contain the research papers of John Alder Knowles.

‘The Pricke of Conscience’ window, depicting the 15 signs of the End of the World – the most important mediaeval stained glass in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York – was restored by JW Knowles and is the subject of my prayer diary these mornings (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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