Burlison & Grylls

I have only a few weeks left at the Prince’s Drawing School and it is dawning on me that the summer is going to bring with it the daunting process of working out where to go next. It’s not as simple as sitting around playing with paint and prints, as I’m the kind of person who needs vision, projects, deadlines, and dare I say it, a brief. I need purpose, and I often wonder how much scope there is for ‘jobbing’ artists today, in a world which seems very divided into ‘fine’ artists, illustrators, designers and their numerous sub-divisions. I wish I’d been born a century earlier, so that I could have never fretted about a career, but gone straight into the family business designing stained glass windows with my ancestors Thomas John Grylls (1845-1913)  and his son Harry Grylls (1873-1953). Of course, being a woman I wouldn’t have had the right to vote or probably own property in my own name. But I like to think that I could have been apprenticed at 16 and worked my way up, visiting churches and cathedrals that were being ‘restored’ or newly designed, spent mornings researching fifteenth-century imagery in the British Museum and afternoons sketching and scaling drawings into Gothic Tracey before bringing out my watercolours. I doubt many clients would have wanted to deal with a woman, but all the better for spending more time in the studio getting on with the creative side of business.

In 1868, the Gothic Revival Architect G.F. Bodley was getting a bit bored with Morris & Co’s stained glass designs. Their lead artist, Edward Burne-Jones, was heavily into his Italian Renaissance-inspired style, which just didn’t suit Bodley’s own north-European Medieval style architecture. So Bodley encouraged the 23-year-old Thomas Grylls (the main designer) and John Burlison (the business man of the firm), to set up on their own firm. Thomas was well-trained in churches, his father having worked for Walkers, the organ-makers, and was apprenticed to the well-known firm Clayton & Bell from an early age. Burlison & Grylls went on to designed thousands of windows all over the country in the next century, and even shipped designs to America, South Africa and New Zealand.

It’s an opportune time to find out more about the most note-worthy jobbing artists in my family history, the prolific, though not widely known Burlison & Grylls. My father has been compiling his own database and photographing windows for years and has built up an impressive collection, some of which you can see here. Last week we visited the Victoria & Albert Museum, accompanied by the lovely Dr Ayla Lepine, a passionate academic and self-confessed nerd on all things Gothic-revival, to see some of Thomas and Harry’s designs. As what might have been any kind of archive was destroyed by the Blitz (the firm’s offices were around the corner from Oxford Street) this is the best surviving selection of drawings we know of (if any churches just happen to dig some out, let us know!).It was extremely exciting to gently lift out each picture, illustrated in pen, ink, watercolour, from their archive boxes. With each new picture came a new round of ‘oohs’ and ‘ahhhhs’ from the three of us. The colours looked as fresh as if they had been painted yesterday (on a personal note reassuring to me as I use watercolour so much). Virtually all save the last two were made at a small-scale, and so are schematic designs for client approval. The end designs sometimes changed, if a client developed a clearer idea of the iconography they desired, or the artist was able to refine and improve his design as the manufacture of the window progressed.

Here’s a selection of photographs reproduced by kind permission of my Dad.

Cartoon for East window, St Matthew, Walsall.

Crucifixion tableau. Side and lower lights: Seven Corporal Works of Mercy. Upper tracery: four archangels, flanked by the four evangelists and symbols, and lower row of Apostles.
Burlison & Grylls, c. 1880.

Cartoon for St Paul’s Cathedral.

A seraphim, set within renaissance frame, with swags and cherubs.
Burlison & Grylls, 1890.

Cartoon with varied designs for SS Philip and James, Oxford.

The Adoration of the Lamb, after van Eyck
Burlison & Grylls, 1912.

The finished window (as photographed by Eric Hardy)

Interestingly, the completed window presents a multitude of figures, angelic hosts, saints and fathers of the Church, in attitudes of adoration in the subsidiary roundels, thereby giving considerably greater emphasis to the central theme of the window.

Cartoon for St Matthias, Malvern Link.
Burlison & Grylls, 1906.

Left: St Peter’s vision of ‘the great sheet’ at the house of Simon the Tanner, Joppa (Acts 9:43ff), where the soldier, messenger from the centurion Cornelius, finds him. Right: Peter comes and preaches salvation to Roman centurion Cornelius, the first Gentile convert, and his family (Acts 11:14).

On top of the dramatic and theatrical perspective, we especially liked the blanket of animals on the left panel which looked like they could have been lifted straight from a late medieval illumination.

Cartoon for St Mary, Greenham, Berkshire.

War Memorial window. The soldier knight, beneath angels bearing a crown, keeps vigil before the altar
Burlison & Grylls, 1924.

The completed window set within a memorial chapel.

I have an enthusiasm for war memorials from the days I gave tours of them at the Twentieth Century Society. This was exciting to see, the design a concept of a chapel within a window within a chapel. I was also interested to see how the finished soldier had a later style of armour that is more decorative, elegant and with a streamlined helmet.

Section of full scale painted pattern for an unidentified window.

Lower section of a Crucifixion tableau: Mary Magdalen embraces the foot of the cross (her jar of ointment is out of view below)
Burlison & Grylls, n.d.

We were bowled over when this was carefully rolled out by the V&A staff. So sad that bits were literally falling off at the edges. But after a morning looking at small-designs, to see this design made at 1:1 was stunning, reminding us of the impressive draftsmanship and ability to plan the leading of windows so carefully.

Full size and painted pattern for an unidentified window, depicting St Augustine.
Burlison & Grylls, n.d.

A great finish to a great day. Thankfully this picture was in great condition and huge, so we could really enjoy looking closely at the details that both Grylls men so enjoyed drawing themselves and the firm were known for. As with most of their windows, the face and hands receive the most careful attention. Sometimes this sensitivity can feel lost when completed in a finished leaded window set high in a wall, which has the sun’s bleaching rays coming through and a host of competing colours, architectural details and patterns around the figures. But it is deliberate, for it is the nature of their work across thousands of windows and I think that it’s a very interesting way of working. The viewer has to look a little harder, work through all the decoration and graphic contrasts, and somewhere in the middle focus on the faces. It is stimulating artistically, and importantly, devotionally. And they’re incredibly human and rarely idealised, sitting somewhere between the realistic animated characters of Northern Renaissance art (inspired by Albrecht Dürer and his contemporaries) and real Victorian and Edwardian people, that we know both Grylls men used, as models.

Thank you so much to the staff at the V&A for putting up with our gushing in the otherwise silent study room, to Dr Ayla for her encouragement and insight, and to Dad for making me feel part of a family tradition of drawing (and for the yummy lunch).

After the adrenaline of the day’s visit subsided, I couldn’t help but feel rather emotional about it all. As an artist starting out it makes me so excited to think that such ability runs through my genes. I am so encouraged by the sheer beauty of some of their designs (for the completed windows in all their glory, browse here) and prolific output as artists and designers that it makes me want to aim higher for myself. But, I also balance some blues and intimidation when I consider what a high standard of design, and professional success, is embedded in the tread of the footsteps I follow. After being brought up with trips to see windows (no family holiday was complete without ducking into a church) it means so much to see the original designs on paper. All the more moving to see that the Grylls father and son were, like me, driven by draughtsmanship and delight in detail and light. So even though I never knew them, I feel I can still converse with them and learn from them every time I see a window.