Sunday, June 20, 2021

Art Eyewitness Essay: A Visit to Glencairn Museum

Art Eyewitness Essay: 

A Visit to Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania

By Ed Voves

 A few days ago, I made a pilgrimage to the world of the Middle Ages. The journey took about thirty minutes and fifteen miles. No time-machines or "Beam me up, Scotty" transporters were required. Instead, a friend and I visited the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, PA.

Glencairn Museum is one of several remarkable, though little known, museums which were built by wealthy individuals on the outskirts of Philadelphia during the early decades of the twentieth century. The Barnes Foundation, now relocated to center city Philly, is the most well-know of these institutions. But for sheer, awe-inspiring majesty, Glencairn and the adjacent Bryn Athyn Cathedral are worthy of comparison with any of the great public museums of the United States - and of Europe, as well.

Glencairn and Bryn Athyn Cathedral need to be considered together because these stunning edifices were the creation of the same visionary builder, Raymond Pitcairn (1885-1966). Although not a trained architect, Pitcairn brought the passion and work ethic of the cathedral builders of the Middle Ages to his great venture.  

Glencairn Museum and Bryn Athyn Cathedral manifest the religious principles of Raymond Pitcairn. He and his family embraced the teachings of Emanuel Swedenborg, a great Christian mystic and theologian of the eighteenth century. Swedenborg's interpretation of Holy Scripture provides the foundation of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, as this denomination is formally known. 

Disciples of Swedenborg came to Philadelphia following the American Revolution. Originally, their main house of worship was located in a heavily populated section of the city. Following the Civil War, a tract of rural land was purchased, roughly fourteen miles north of the earlier church. This area was known as Bryn Athyn due to the fact that many early settlers of the region had come from Wales. 


Panoramic view of Glencairn Museum (left) and Cairnwoord Estate. Copyright of the Glencairn Museum

Bryn Athyn is still beautiful today. Developed as an enclave of the New Church, an educational campus, a splendid cathedral similar in design to Gloucester Cathedral in England and an imposing museum were built in its sylvan setting.  

If Raymond Pitcairn played the leading role in building Glencairn Museum and Bryn Athyn Cathedral, the role of his father needs to be emphasized as well. A rags-to-riches immigrant from Scotland, John Pitcairn (1841-1916) rose to be director of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. The elder Pitcairn funded the move to Bryn Athyn, Given the singular importance of stained glass in the collection of Glencairn Museum, it is well to remember him when we look at the stunning lancet windows, copied from those of Chartres Cathedral, which his son installed in his medieval-inspired stronghold.


                                       Ed Voves, Photo (2021)                                           Balcony statue & north wall lancet window depicting King Solomon (above) and King Jeroboam, the Great Hall of Glencairn Museum.

John Pitcairn also played an important role in the creation of Glencairn's collection of 8,000 works of art. In 1878, he and William Benade, another leading New Church member, set off on a grand tour of Europe, the Middle East and Egypt. While on their travels, they conceived the idea of collecting art works and antiquities for a museum dedicated to religion. Although it was over a century before Glencairn Museum formally opened, in 1982, this was the moment of its conception. 

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Bryn Athyn Cathedral

Glencairn Museum and Bryn Athyn Cathedral recreate the two great epochs of the medieval world in Western Europe, Romanesque and Gothic. Bryn Athyn Cathedral was the first to be built, during the years, 1913-1928. The basic (Gothic) architectural plan was devised by Ralph Adams Cram (1863-1942) who also designed the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York City. 

Cram was a superb architect, but Raymond Pitcairn was profoundly moved by the spirit of the Middle Ages. Pitcairn was determined to include quirky irregularities such as appear in real medieval buildings.  Not for him the stylistic uniformity of the imagined Middle Ages which we know as Gothic Revival. 

Cram deferred to Pitcairn in the later stages of constructing Bryn Athyn Cathedral. The resulting building contains elements of the Romanesque era and the succeeding Gothic period, just as can be found in many churches from the Middle Ages, which often took decades to complete.

Rather than relying on blue prints, Pitcairn utilized architectural models in wood and plaster, many of them full-scale, to master the construction details of Bryn Athyn Cathedral and Glencairn. It was a very unorthodox and, ultimately, successful way to build a cathedral and a castle.

Raymond Pitcairn examines an early plaster model of Glencairn

Bryn Athyn Cathedral was still in its finishing stages when Pitcairn began work on an equally monumental building. It would be a new family home, built in the Romanesque style which had flourished in Western Europe during the eleventh century, the age of the Norman Conquest of England and the First Crusade.

A towering, fortress-like edifice, made largely of granite, Pitcairn's new abode was situated but a short walk from the Bryn Athyn Cathedral and from the Louis XIII-styled mansion which his father had commissioned during the late 1800's. It would be called "Glencairn," fusing the surname of Pitcairn's wife, Glenn, with his own.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, PA.

Glencairn was built during the decade of the Great Depression. Despite the economic calamity which brought non-government building programs to a standstill throughout the U.S., Pitcairn kept as many workmen on his payroll as he could. Construction was finished by 1939. Work on the stained glass windows continued for some years afterward.

Glencairn combines the rugged power of stone battlements with the enlightened spirit of the art of Christendom. There are ninety rooms, one of them a "Great Hall" of jaw-dropping dimensions.


Ed Voves, Photo (2021)
The Great Hall of Glencairn Museum & north wall lancet windows

With a glittering mosaic tableau surrounding its grand archway and nine stained-glass lancet windows, the Great Hall evokes a sense of both temporal and spiritual grandeur.


Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
The grand archway of Glencairn's Great Hall.The detail shows the school seal of the Academy of the New Church.
The three sets of stained glass lancet windows are the most astonishing feature of Glencairn's Great Hall. As mentioned earlier, the Pitcairn family fortune was largely based on the annual profits of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. Window-making was in Raymond Pitcairn's blood and he was determined to create stained glass windows which matched the standards of medieval glass-making. 

It was no easy task. Craftsman and art historians had tried for decades during the 1800's to unlock the secrets of the master glass makers and window painters of the Middle Ages. In 1921, Pitcairn bought 23 panels of medieval stained glass at auction in New York City so that he could study them at close hand. A year later, he established his own stained glass factory, recruiting expert glass makers from the U.S., Canada and Europe to produce stained glass windows for Bryn Athyn Cathedral and then for Glencairn. The factory remained in operation until 1943. 

 Ed Voves, Photo (2020)                
The east wall lancet windows of the Great Hall of Glencairn Museum.

Pitcairn eventually amassed over 260 panels of medieval stained glass. These set the standard for the painstaking research and experimentation which Pitcairn and his team devoted to their efforts. Some of these medieval panels were mounted in the three lancet windows on the east side of Glencairn's Great Hall. These make for an interesting comparison with the other six lancet windows, created at Pitcairn's factory and mounted on the north and west walls of Glencairn. Except for some shades of dark blues and deep violets, Pitcairn's team achieved striking success in matching the color tones and artistry of actual medieval stained glass.

In the case of the other six lancet windows, placed on the north and west walls of the Great Hall, four exactly match the configurations of windows at Chartres Cathedral. However, the central window of each trio mixes other designs from Chartres to create images which Pitcairn believed to be more appropriate for Glencairn. For instance, at Chartres, one of the central windows depicts St. Anne, mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Pitcairn, however, replaced St. Anne with Mary in her familiar role as Madonna, placing this image in the center of the west wall lancets at Glencairn.

          Ed Voves, Photo (2021)                
The west wall lancet windows of the Great Hall of Glencairn Museum.

Most art lovers, examining Pitcairn's reworking of medieval themes and fusing elements of Romanesque with early Gothic, would find nothing at Glencairn to complain about except a "crick" in the neck from constantly looking upward. However, Pitcairn's "mix-and-match" approach is open to criticism. Historians and art scholars expend a great deal of effort establishing chronologies and patterns of stylistic influence. Pitcairn's "re-imagining" of the Middle Ages might be held to undermine legitimate scholarship.  

In fact, I feel that it has the opposite  -and very stimulating - effect. An interesting example of "re-imagining" can be studied in the way that Pitcairn placed wooden sculptures from the Middle Ages on the railings of the balcony directly beneath the lancet windows.

             Ed Voves, Photo (2021)                
      Gallery view of the the balcony & north wall lancet windows                of the Great Hall of Glencairn Museum.

These statues, several of which retain traces of the original paint, were not deployed to  show a time-line progression of the development of medieval sculpture. Instead, they relate to the stained glass narratives above. A gilded carving of a king is placed below the gleaming image of King Solomon and a statue of the Virgin Mary and Christ child directs our attention to a nearby painting of the same subject.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) 
Gothic-era angel sculpture with depiction of the death of King Saul

What struck me was the way that seemingly dissimilar statues and stained glass images could promote thought-provoking dialogue. 

That was readily apparent when I looked at a youthful Gothic-style angel, gazing out over the Great Hall, while, behind him, the wicked King Saul falls on his own sword. The stained glass image directly above Saul on this lancet window is King David, a powerful, mature figure. To me the pensive angel recalls the young David, singer of Psalms who had aroused the envy of King Saul, placing them on a collision course which would lead to Saul's death and David's elevation to kingship.

That is how this brilliant juxtaposition struck me and, I am guessing, Raymond Pitcairn thought so too. But, even if my speculation is incorrect in this instance, the unconventional way that Pitcairn displayed his works of art certainly provides much "food for thought."

                                      Ed Voves, Photo (2021)                                        Detail of Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man"), Late 15th/16th century

Medieval works of art were Pitcairn's favorite, but he collected widely in order that the range of world religion could be represented at Glencairn. Art from Ancient Egypt, Asian religions, the Classical world of Greece and Rome and Native American cultures are core areas of the Glencairn collection..

Like most museums, Glencairn has faced challenges due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Much of the collection remains closed to general, self-guided viewing. Currently, there are a limited number of guided tours and, hopefully as Covid-19 restrictions are eased, more access to this remarkable institution will be made available.

                 Ed Voves, Photo (2021)                
      Stained glass depiction of the "Woman Clothed with the Sun" from the Book of Revelations, appearing above the west wall windows 

But, in truth, the art works now on view in the Great Hall and several adjacent first-floor galleries are more that sufficient for making a visit to Glencairn a truly memorable occasion. The "dialogue" between these treasures from the Middle Ages and the radiant stained glass windows above opens a portal to this Age of Faith - and to spiritual grace within our own hearts and souls.

                      Ed Voves, Photo (2021)                
      Detail of William Blake's engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims
To say that I was profoundly moved by sharing in Raymond Pitcairn's vision of the Middle Ages is an understatement. Like the protagonists in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, my journey to Glencairn gained a special resonance. What began as a day trip took on the character of a pilgrimage.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Panoramic view of Glencairn Museum and the Cairnwoord estate, copyright of the Glencairn Museum.
Introductory Image:                                                  
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, PA.

Panoramic view of Glencairn Museum and the Cairnwoord estate, copyright of the Glencairn Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Balcony statue & north wall lancet window depicting King Solomon (above) and King Jeroboam, the Great Hall of Glencairn Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Bryn Athyn Cathedral.

Unknown photographer. Raymond Pitcairn examines an early plaster model of Glencairn, c. 1930. The Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn Papers, Glencairn Museum,  RMP_GLEN_0001. Copyright Glencairn Museum

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, PA.
Ed Voves, Photo (2021) The Great Hall of Glencairn Museum and the lancet windows on the north wall. From left: King David, Angel with Censer, King Solomon.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) The grand archway of Glencairn's Great Hall. The detail shows the school seal of the Academy of the New Church.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) The east wall lancet windows of the Great Hall of Glencairn Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) The west wall lancet windows of the Great Hall of Glencairn Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gallery view of the the balcony & north wall lancet windows of the Great Hall of Glencairn Museum.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Gothic-era angel sculpture with depiction of the death of King Saul on a north wall lancet window at the Glencairn Museum's Great Hall.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Detail of Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man"), Late 15th/16th century, France, Champagne (?) Stone with polychromy: H. 36 1/4, W. 11, D. 8 1/2 in. (92.1 x 27.9 x 21.5 cm) Glencairn Museum collection. # 09.SP.86

Ed Voves, Photo (2021) Stained glass depiction of the "Woman Clothed with the Sun" from the Book of Revelations, appearing above the west wall lancet windows.

Ed Voves, Photo (2021)  Detail of William Blake's engraving of the Canterbury Pilgrims. Copper engraving, third state, 1810–20.


Saturday, June 12, 2021

Art Eyewitness Essay: William Morris and Strawberry Thief


Art Eyewitness Essay: 
William Morris and Strawberry Thief

By Ed Voves

Original photos by Anne Lloyd

One June morning, nearly a century and a half ago, William Morris (1834-1896) walked out to the fruit and vegetable garden of his country home, Kelmscott Manor. Morris was greeted by a scene that would have enraged most Victorian property owners. "Rascally thrushes" had managed to get through protective netting and were greedily devouring his crop of strawberries.

Instead of anger, Morris was bemused by the winged marauders. When his gardener exclaimed in exasperation, "I'd like to wring their necks!", Morris told him not to harm the birds. 

Morris' instructions must have seemed an act of lunacy to a bon-a-fide cultivator of the earth like his gardener. Many people did believe that Morris was a bit mad.  But we know today that this was the moment of inspiration for one of his most celebrated fabric designs, Strawberry Thief.

A few days ago, I experienced a "strawberry thief" incident which set my mind to thinking about William Morris. 

Anne Lloyd, "Strawberry Thief, 2021" Photo (2021)

This time it was a "rascally" squirrel who supplied the dramatic effect. I had been rinsing a carton of strawberries and a few popped out of the strainer onto the floor. Without giving much thought to the matter, I placed the fugitive strawberries on the rail of our back deck.  

There is a small grove of trees directly behind our house, which acts as a mini-nature preserve. This is home to American cousins of Morris' "rascally thrushes." they were sure to be interested in the strawberries. But a squirrel beat them to it.

My wife Anne spotted the squirrel as he tried to figure out how to devour all of the fruit. For him, the strawberries must have seemed "from heaven" as it was a dry spell and luscious berries provide liquid refreshment when water is scarce. Birds and animals often suffer acutely during drought.

The squirrel seemed unable to make up his mind which strawberry to eat first. His hesitation gave Anne the opportunity to grab a digital camera for a completely unplanned "decisive moment" of photography. The resulting sequence of quick snaps shows the squirrel reaching the sensible conclusion of eating a couple of berries now and saving one for latter. 

There are local hawks who soar over the trees, occasionally landing on a branch for closer investigation - and the squirrels know it. No strawberry tastes that good to risk being caught in the open. 

These photos, humorous and charming, set my mind to thinking. Little things shape our awareness. A brief moment's experience can, through reflection, heighten our appreciation of  larger themes and issues.

"Fine art," John Ruskin wrote in 1870, "is that in which the hand, the head, and the heart of man go together."

That is exactly what occurred in the garden of Kelmscott Manor. 

 Elliott & Fry, photographers. William Morris, 1877

During the late 1870's, Morris was engaged in a determined, indeed quixotic, effort to preserve traditional hand crafts in the face of massed industrialism. His good intentions were costing him money. In 1861, Morris had entered into a partnership with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Ford Maddox Brown, and Edward Burne-Jones. His partners were brilliant Pre-Raphaelite artists but not a very inspiring board of directors. With the firm floundering and his own capital draining away, Morris bought out the others and reorganized it under his sole direction in 1875.

One of the initiatives which preoccupied Morris was reviving the use of hand printing blocks for creating the designs on fabrics and wall-paper. Naturally, Morris wanted to use organic, plant-based dyes. He was especially enthusiastic about using indigo rather than the chemical dye, Prussian blue. 

Walter Crane, the celebrated illustrator of children's books, recalled visiting Morris one day, while he was experimenting with indigo. When he asked an assistant for Morris' whereabouts, he head Morris shout from a back room, "I'm dyeing! I'm dyeing!" 

Morris' words were much less alarming than they initially sounded. Crane found Morris, sleeves rolled, up to his elbows in dark blue dye.

Morris was experimenting on a dyeing process known as the indigo discharge method. Cotton fabric, usually chintz, was dipped into vats of indigo dye, dried and then bleached to allow for different shades of blue. A metallic substance called a mordant was applied which would allow a design image, made by a hand-held printing block, to adhere to the surface of the blue cloth. 


                                       William Morris, designer                                      Sample of Brother Rabbit textile, also known as Brer Rabbit
Victoria and Albert Museum collection

Earlier efforts had produced the Brother Rabbit design. The name is a reference to the recently published Brer Rabbit stories, African-American folk tales recounted by Joel Chandler Harris.  The recurrent motif, printed by hand is very similar to Strawberry Thief. There is one obvious difference - besides the rabbits. The printed design is only one color. 

    William Morris, designer  
Sample of Strawberry Thief furnishing textile. 
Victoria and Albert Museum collection

Morris was determined that Strawberry Thief would be multi-colored. This would require multiple printings to produce a color range worthy of the subtle hues of an English garden. 

The effort involved was truly epic. Nothing was left to chance nor to slip-shod methods. Morris compiled detailed records that matched his indefatigable experimentation. His sketches, notes, dye recipe books and other memorandum, carefully preserved at the Huntingdon Library and Museum in California, testify to a work ethic that truly matched the grand scale of his vision.

William Morris, designer  
Sample of Strawberry Thief furnishing textile. 
Huntingdon Library and Museum collection

Strawberry Thief was successfully printed after arduous efforts and patented in 1883. It was an amazing artistic triumph, but there was a catch. Strawberry Thief fabrics and, eventually, wall paper required several days to print by hand. This made then so expensive to produce that they were priced beyond the range of all but wealthy patrons, who readily bought them. 

Hand printing block, used to produce Strawberry Thief fabrics.            
Victoria and Albert Museum collection

Strawberry Thief became the most popular of Morris' fabric designs and a money-maker for his firm. But Morris, a great-hearted humanitarian, aimed to produce objects of beauty and utility for all - especially the working class. Yet, the "deserving poor" of Victorian Britain could not afford the creations of Morris and Co. It was a dilemma Morris never resolved.

How did these reflections get started by watching a squirrel eating a couple of strawberries on my back deck? I wondered that myself.

Well, firstly, I've been thinking a lot about William Morris lately. This year marks the 125th anniversary of his death in 1896. Thames and Hudson is set to publish a lavishly illustrated book about his life and art in October. In anticipation of this new volume, I reached to my book shelf for Fiona MacCarthy's 1994 biography, William Morris, a Life for Our Times. This is one of the best "lives of the artists" I have ever read, a book which truly does justice to its protagonist.

Re-reading MacCarthy's bio, I realized that Morris spent much of his life trying to recapture the joys of his childhood, which for him had indeed been a basically happy experience. Most people hearken back to a real or imagined time of youthful bliss. However, Morris was too sensitive, too much a man of conscience, to limit his efforts to following his own, personal bliss.

Illustration showing Kelmscott Manor
 from News from Nowhere by William Morris, 1892            

The hopes of Morris for an English garden available toall never came close to fulfillment during his lifetime. Given the events of the last few years, such a Utopia is unlikely to be realized any time soon. Even in the terms that Morris envisioned it, an Epoch of Rest, such a state of widespread harmony will be difficult, almost impossible, to achieve.

Morris surely realized the challenges entailed in establishing an "Epoch of Rest." Yet he never stopped believing, dreaming, trying to bring a more equitable society into being, a world where there are enough strawberries for everyone, even for rascally thrushes and squirrels.


Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved. Original photos by Anne Lloyd, all rights reserved.

Introductory Image: William Morris (British, 1834-1896) Strawberry Thief, printed, ca. 1936 (detail).Plain weave cotton, discharge printed: Overall: 88.3 x 99.1 cm (34 3/4 x 39 in.). Cleveland Museum of Art. Gift of Mrs. Henry Chisholm # 1937.696

Anne Lloyd, Photo (2021) "Strawberry Thief, 2021" photo sequence. 

Elliott & Fry, British photographers. William Morris, 1877. Albumen cabinet card, 21 March 1877: 5 3/4 in. x 4 1/8 in. (146 mm x 104 mm) image size. Given by Wilfrid Jasper Walter Blunt, 1972 to the National Portrait Gallery, London, UK. Photographs Collection NPG x3724

William Morris (British, 1834-1896)   Sample of Brother Rabbit textile, also known as Brer Rabbit, 1880-81. Furnishing fabric, block-printed cotton, designed by William Morris, Merton Abbey. Block printed cotton: Height: 64.7 cm; Width: 93.9cm.  Victoria & Albert Museum collection (T.648-1919)

William Morris (British, 1834-1896) Sample of Strawberry Thief furnishing textile, 1883. Furnishing fabric, block-printed cotton, designed by William Morris for Morris & Co. Strawberry Thief pattern with birds, strawberries and flowers: Height: 60.5 cm; Width: 95.2 cm. Given by Morris & Co. Victoria & Albert Museum collection (T.125 to W-1980)

William Morris (British, 1834-1896)  Sample of Strawberry Thief furnishing textile. (Designed by William Morris) Block printed cotton: 18 5/8 x 38 1/2 in. (47.3 x 97.8 cm.)  Collection of the Huntingdon Library, Art Museum, and Botanical Gardens, San Marino, California.

Hand printing block, used to produce Strawberry Thief fabrics. This block was possibly designed by William Morris and was used to print red dye. Pearwood and metal, with felt inlay: Length: 30 cm; Width: 23.5 cm; Height: 5.3 cm; Weight: 1.54kg. Given by Stead McAlpin & Co. to the Victoria and Albert Museum. # T.125-1980

Illustration showing a woodcut of Kelmscott Manor from News from Nowhere by William Morris, 1892. Kelmscott Press edition of News from Nowhere, published by Kelmscott Press, Hammersmith, London. Collection of the British Library, London, Shelfmark: C.43.e.9.