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Plate 2.26: East Window of St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 2.26. Commentary by Rachel Ramsey.
Plate: George Vertue’s (1684-1756) notebook records that he saw the window engraved on this plate in 1731 at New Hall in Essex (“Vertue’s Note Book” 1937-38, 100). Six years later, on 17 November 1737, members of the Society of Antiquaries of London balloted and agreed that Vertue should “employ a proper Person to make a drawing & Measure of the painted Window in the Chappel of Newhall [sic] in Essex illuminated with its proper Colours, and also to take the Elevation of the Said house” (SAL Minutes III.67). Vertue went on to hire Daniel Chandler who, the following month, sent to the Society “a Sketch of the picture of Henry VIII & his Queen with Crowns on their heads done with the Same colours as the originals on ye Glass” (III.78). Then, in January of 1738, “Mr. Vertue Shewed an illuminated Draught of the Window of painted Glass in New Hall in Essex,” and he also provided the Society with a brief “account” of the window, which was recorded in the minutes (III.87-88).
No further mention of the window was made, however, until 1761 when Thomas Wilson (1703-1784) sent to the Society a copy of William Hole’s Ornaments of Churches Considered, with a Particular View to the Late Decoration of St. Margaret Westminster (1761)—a pamphlet produced partly as a consequence of a controversy that erupted over the window’s installation at Westminster in 1758—and for which Wilson wrote an appendix that directly addressed the window. In the letter that Wilson sent to the Society along with the Ornaments, he conveyed his conviction “that the Parish of St. Margaret’s owes great Obligations to the Antiquarian Society; as it was from one of their Members, they first heard of the fine stained Window now in their church; a fine Drawing of which was taken by their Orders some years ago, by Mr. Vertue” (SAL Minutes VIII.314). Wilson also “hope[d] to see, one Day,” the window “engraven by the best hands” (VIII.314). On 21 January 1762, Andrew Ducarel (1713-1785) “proposed that the curious painted Window, brought from the Palace of New-Hall in Essex, and lately set up in St. Margaret’s Church Westminster, of which this Society has an elegant Drawing coloured after the Original, by the late Mr. Vertue; be engraved for the use of Use of Members” (VIII.390). The Society finally tasked James Basire (1730-1802) with engraving the window based on Vertue’s drawings in 1765 (SAL Council Minutes I.116). Work on the print was delayed while Basire and the Society disagreed over the costs associated with the engraving, but Basire completed the print early in 1768, for which he was paid £41 4s (Goddard 2016, 135). Plate 2.26 was the last print that Basire completed for the Society before he was briefly fired as its principal engraver on 17 March 1768.
The Great East Window at St Margaret’s Church, Westminster is a stained-glass window produced in Holland and shipped to England around 1526. Its three central lights depict the Crucifixion, and the two outer lights feature a kneeling and praying Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon with full-length portraits of St. George and St. Katherine in panels above them. Six angels, each holding an instrument of the Passion, with a crescent moon and Tudor rose on the left and Spanish Pomegranate and full sun on the right complete the upper tracery lights. The window was first installed in the Church of Waltham Abbey, and then moved to New Hall, Essex during the Dissolution of the Abbeys. The window was installed in St Margaret’s in 1758, provoking some controversy, and it remains above the communion table in the church’s East end.
Publish’d according to Act of Parlament Basire Sculp.
The Great East=Window of the Parish Church of St. Margaret in WESTMINSTER / was made by order of the Magistrates of Dort in Holland, and by them intended as a Present to K. Hen:VII.th for his Chapel at Westminster; but he dying before this window was finished, it was set up in the Church of Waltham Abbey; and there remained till the Dissolution, when it was removed to New Hall in Essex, part of the Estate of Gen.l Monk; and was there by his Vigilance preserved from injury during the Civil Wars. Some years since, John Olmius Esq.r the then possessor of New=Hall sold this Window to Mr. Conyers of Copt Hall in Essex; from whom the Inhabitants of Saint Margaret Westminster purchased it, in the year 1758, for the sum of 500 Guineas. / The figures kneeling at the bottom of the two side Panels represent Henry the VII.th and his Queen, and were taken from Original Pictures sent to Dort for that purpose; Over the King is the figure of St. George, and above him a White Rose within a red one; over the figure of the Queen stands that of St. Catherine of Alexandria, and in a Panel over her Head appears a Pomegranate, Vert in a Field Or, the Arms of the Kingdom of Granada.
Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariorium Londini MDCCLXVIII.
Commentary by Rachel Ramsey: Since the Lower House attended its first official Communion Service there in 1614, St Margaret’s Church in Westminster has served as the informal parish church for Members of Parliament, in part because of its proximity to Westminster Abbey and Parliament (Westlake 1914, 95). In 1758, the Vestry of the Church of St Margaret’s, Westminster appealed to the House of Commons and received a grant of £4,000 to repair the deteriorating eastern end of the church. As part of the repair work, the churchwardens spent 400 guineas purchasing a sixteenth-century Flemish-inspired stained-glass window, and the “The Great East Window” pictured here in Plate 2.26 of Vetusta Monumenta was installed in the newly-rebuilt east end in 1758 above the Communion table.
The stained-glass window depicts the Crucifixion in the three central panels, with Christ and the two thieves cast against a brilliant blue sky. Three angels with chalices are positioned at Christ’s hands, feet, and side to capture the blood from his wounds, while an angel cradling a newborn baby and a devil figure carrying a body linger above the repentant and unrepentant thieves ready to transport their souls to heaven and hell respectively. In the bottom left, the blind Roman centurion Longinus faces upwards toward the crucified Christ watching while another Roman soldier pierces Christ’s side with a spear. The crowd of Roman soldiers and Jewish onlookers are equally distributed on either side of the cross. In the lower portion of the center panel, Mary Magdalene clasps the bottom of the wooden cross; below her two women support a grieving Virgin Mary with St. John standing sentinel behind the trio. The six upper tracery lights feature the six angels with the instruments of the Passion: the cross, the sponge, the crown of thorns, the hammer, the spear, and nails.
The three central lights are bookended by glass panels featuring a kneeling king to the left and kneeling queen to the right, facing each other with hands folded in prayer with open devotionals resting on the alters before them. Draped in robes of blues and reds with gold crowns on their heads—colors which can be seen on the original window—the two figures dominate the lower panels. A fully armored St. George with a slayed dragon at his feet flying the red and white standard occupies the scalloped niches above the kneeling king. St. Catherine of Alexandria, the fourth-century martyred saint, occupies the corresponding panel. At her feet rests a bust of the Emperor Maxentius and a broken spiked wheel. These two items symbolize her defeat of the Emperor’s decree to worship idols and the miraculous destruction of “the Catherine wheel,” the torture device meant to kill her (Jenkins 2003, 5-11). Above the alcoved saints on either side of the six angels, there are small panels with the crescent moon to the left and full sun on the right, signaling the preternatural darkness on the day of the Crucifixion. Two other lights contain heraldic motifs: the Tudor white on red double rose on the left, and the Spanish pomegranate from Granada on the right. These complete the royal sections of the stained-glass window.
Controversy over the East Window
Soon after the window’s installation in 1758, Westminster Abbey’s Registrar, Daniel Gell, accused the St Margaret’s churchwardens, William Rusted and Samuel Peirson, of failing to apply for a faculty, or ecclesiastical permission, for the changes to the church fabric. To obtain a faculty, the St Margaret’s churchwardens would needed to have applied to the “Ordinary,” or the governing ecclesiastical authority. In this case, the churchwardens should have submitted plans for their renovations or any changes to the church to the Dean and Chapter of Westminster Abbey and applied for a license. As Claire Haynes points out, faculties were rarely requested in the eighteenth century, even for major rebuilding works—and when they were, it usually involved changes to church seating or church burials (Haynes 2021).
Consequently, Gell’s objection appeared to be motivated less by the churchwarden’s overlooking a procedural step in the renovations and more by the purchase and installation of the stained-glass window. Along with the missing faculty, Gell accused St Margaret’s of “suffer[ing] to be set up a certain painted Glass in the great Eastern window . . . whereon is represented by Delineation and Colours, one or more superstitious Picture or Pictures, Image or Images; and more particularly the painted Image of Christ upon the Cross” (Wilson 1761, 7). In response to the accusations, Thomas Wilson (a rector of St Margaret’s) edited and contributed an Appendix defending the churchwardens to William Hole’s pamphlet, The Ornaments of Churches Considered, with a Particular View to the Late Decoration of St. Margaret Westminster (1761). While ostensibly published to defend the St Margaret’s churchwardens, the more than two-hundred-page text was an opening salvo in the battle against iconoclasts over what type of paintings, sculpture, and stained glass deserved a place in the Anglican Church.
Stained glass had long been the favored target for the more zealous reformers from the early days of the Protestant Reformation through the English Civil Wars to the Gordon Riots in the 1780s. Margaret Aston documents the long history of targeting pre-Reformation stained-glass in England’s churches, stating: “the tinkle of breaking glass had become [the] sound of religious change” (2016, 619). The eighteenth-century iconoclasts targeting the East Window may have used the Ecclesiastical court system rather than a hammer or the well-aimed rock of their predecessors, but they appeared to have similar goals of ridding England’s churches of so-called superstitious images.
The window’s placement above the communion table would have contributed to the accusations of idolatry, as it occupied one of the most sacred spaces within the church. The depiction of angels with chalices bearing away Christ’s blood further evokes associations with Catholic beliefs in Transubstantiation. Alongside the Crucifixion, the window presented two pre-reformation royal images, whether viewers believed the figures to be portraits of Henry VII and Elizabeth, as Wilson claims in his appendix for the Ornaments, or Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, as Vertue believed and twentieth century scholars have confirmed is the case (Wayment 1981; Marks 1993). Either pairing would raise questions of Catholic sympathies.
Hole’s pamphlet and Wilson’s appendix use the ecclesiastical lawsuit over St Margaret’s window as an opportunity to launch a wide-ranging defense of church ornamentation, countering anti-Catholic sentiment and accusations of “popery” and “idolatry” levied against certain types of decoration in the Church of England. Before even broaching the topic of St Margaret’s East Window in The Ornaments of Churches Considered, the reader must plow through a dense narrative history of church architecture and art that positions Biblical paintings, stained or painted glass, and statuary in churches as representations of “history.” In the appendix, Wilson reduces the charges against the churchwardens to complaints over “a certain painted Glass in the great Eastern Window, over the Communion Table in the said Church, whereon is represented by Delineation and Colours, one or more superstitious Picture of Pictures, Image or Images; and more particularly the painted Picture or Pictures, Image or Images; and more particularly the painted Image of Christ upon the Cross” (Wilson 1761, 7). He then reframes this version of the complaints, replacing the phrases “superstitious pictures” and “images” with “ornament,” the keyword in the pamphlet’s title, suggesting a form of decoration that will not encourage idolatry or elevate the visual over the written word.
In Pictures and Popery: Art and Religion in England, 1660-1760, Clare Haynes argues that here, “the word ‘ornament’ is of importance because . . . it suggests an attempt to carve out a Protestant category of religious imagery, safe from charges of idolatry” (2006, 117). It’s easy to see why eighteenth-century viewers may have found the East Window uncomfortable if not “superstitious.” The Crucifixion was an unusual subject for church decoration, and the focus on a single subject, Christ on the Cross, was controversial. Haynes explains, “history paintings are preferred to portraits” because “they do not let the eye to settle on one figure,” and “representing Christ is slightly more complex because He had the nature of both God and Man” (127-128). Wilson mentions only one other Crucifixion subject—a wooden effigy at Exeter Cathedral—but the pamphlet catalogues other stained-glass windows in English churches since the Restoration; as Michael Archer notes, Wilson and Hole’s defense hinges upon others viewing the window “not [as] an image intended for veneration but a work of art illustrating the Bible story” (Archer 1981, 48).
Along with the theological objections, the decision to spend 400 guineas may have also garnered attention from Westminster Abbey’s authorities, raising their ire at the expenditure on the rebuilt St Margaret’s. Last but certainly not least, the window was a singularly beautiful example of unbroken Flemish stained glass: a rarity in post-Reformation England and likely produced by foreign craftsmen. The gatekeepers of Westminster Abbey with its own stained-glass windows might not have looked kindly on artistic competition from its neighboring church already favored by the House of Commons. Notably, Hole dedicated the Ornaments to Arthur Onslow (1691-1768), speaker of the House of Commons, reminding readers of the special relationship between the Parliament and St Margaret’s. In this context, Wilson’s decision to provide a very particular history and interpretation of the East window seems a calculated move to defuse the lawsuit initiated by those associated with the Abbey.
Wilson narrates the window’s history from its creation to its installation at St Margaret’s, even including a diagram identifying parts of the window’s panels and its position inside the church. He claims that the Magistrates of Dort in Holland wished to present Henry VII “with something worthy to adorn his chapel then building at Westminster, but arriving too late for inclusion the window “fell into the hands of an Abbot of Waltham” (Wilson 1761, 3). Following the Dissolution of the Abbey under Henry VIII in 1540, the window was moved to New Hall in Essex to “preserve it from being destroyed,” as the caption for Plate 2.26 also explains (see Plates 2.41-2.42). The window was installed in a private chapel in New Hall that was at one time owned by Henry VIII until John Olmius, Esq. begin to demolish the chapel soon after inheriting the estate in 1737 (see also Plates 2.41-2.42). Olmius preserved the window with hopes it may “be purchased for some church” (Wilson 1761, 3). From there, Edward Conyers purchased the window for his chapel at Copt-Hall in Essex, and his son, John Conyers, went on to sell it to St Margaret’s parish in 1758. Hilary Wayment’s research into the East Window confirms the latter part of this account, referencing a letter by John Olmius dated 30 July 1738 offering Wadham College, Oxford “one of the finest large windows of painted glass in England” (1981, 293). In his examination of the case against the churchwardens, Michael Archer provides evidence that Edward Conyers paid William Price, “the best known glass painter of his day,” to move, clean, repair, and install the window sometime between 1739 and 1742 (1982, 49). Price was likely responsible for several repairs and the addition of “most of the angels in the tracery” (50). Documents from the court case confirm the window was purchased from John Conyers, and that James Loton (a glazier) and William Selfe (a mason) transported and installed it in the church above the communion table in 1758 (48).
Wilson labeled the royal figures as “Henry VII at his Devotions” and “Elizabeth his Royal Consort at her Devotions,” but other accounts questioned his identification (Wilson 1761, 5). In 1895, Mrs. J. E. Sinclair published A History and Description of the Windows of the Parish Church of the House of Commons (1895) and described the “great East Window” as portraying “Arthur, Prince of Wales” and “the Princess Katherine of Aragon” (4). She also stated that the window was “ordered in 1499” in Holland as a gift from King Ferdinand to Henry VII “to be erected in the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey” (5). More definitively, Wayment concludes the window was a “Dutch work both in design and execution” because “the mixed Gothic and Renaissance character of both pairs of canopies [in the two panels featuring the royal figures] point to the years 1515-1530” (1981, 298). By combining the stylistic evidence dating the window with details such as the crowns both royal figures wear (Arthur never lived to ascend to the throne) and the image of the pomegranate (a symbol not associated with Henry VII’s wife Elizabeth), contemporary scholars have concluded that the window features Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Stained-glass historian Richard Marks agrees and dates the window more specifically to about 1527, near when Henry VIII began contemplating divorce (1993, 220), and concurs with Wayment that the “window must be recognized as a Dutch work both in design and execution” (1981, 298). This identification undermines claims that the window was destined for Henry VII’s chapel in Westminster Abbey. Although the information in Ornaments may not be completely accurate about the window’s history, it provides valuable insight into eighteenth-century interpretations and reactions to the East Window at St Margaret’s.
The Window and The Society of Antiquaries
Richard Goddard finds that the “idea of engraving” the window “was first floated” at a meeting of the Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) on 12 March 1761, although the minutes record that the official ballot to produce the engraving was voted on in a meeting held on 21 January 1762 (2016, 135; SAL Minutes VIII.390). The decision was undoubtedly linked to the unresolved court case against the St Margaret’s churchwardens; however, the Society’s interest in the window also pre-dates that controversy. In 1731, the Society’s engraver, George Vertue, saw the window at New Hall before its subsequent removal to St Margaret’s (“Vertue’s Note Book” 1937-38, 100). Six years later, on 17 November 1737, the Society asked “whether Mr. Vertue shall be directed to employ a proper Person to make a drawing & Measure of the painted Window”; they agreed that he should (SAL Minutes III.68). At a meeting the following month, Vertue read “[p]art of a letter” from his “Brother giving an account of the present State of New-hall in Essex, wherein particularly he mentions that the painted Glass, proposed to be Engraved at the Expense of this Society, is very entire, and he only waits for an order from the proprietor thereof, to begin drawing & measuring the Same” (SAL Minutes III.75). Then, the very next week, “[a] Letter was read from Mr. Daniel Chandler who was employed by Mr. Vertue to take the measures and make drawings of the painted Glass windows [sic] in New-Hall in Essex,” and “with this letter, Mr. Chandler Sent a Sketch of the picture of Henry VIII & his Queen with Crowns on their heads done with the Same Colours as the originals on ye Glass, the King and queen here are represented in an attitude of praying” (SAL Minutes III.77).
The minutes from 19 January 1737 record that Vertue “[s]hewed an “illuminated Draught of the Window of painted Glass in New Hall in Essex,” and he also gave an account of the object that was recorded in the Society’s minutes (SAL Minutes III.87). As Vertue explained, “[t]he Window is divided into five parts in the first is represented K. Henry VIII in his young days kneeling at prayers, and opposite to him on the other side, is his Queen, Katherine, of Spain, kneeling at her divotions [sic]” (III.87). Vertue’s observations on the New Hall window are much more accurate than the history offered in Ornaments (Wayment 1981, 293). Moreover, Chandler’s watercolors, which are still held by the SAL today, identify the kneeling royal figures as Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon (SAL Prints and Drawings Before 1750, fol. 21).
Even though the Society’s interest in the window at New Hall faded, the lawsuit against St Margaret’s appears to have revived it. On 12 March 1761, the Society’s Secretary William Norris (1719-1791) “presented” the SAL with The Ornaments of Churches Considered on behalf of Thomas Wilson (SAL Minutes VIII.314). Likewise, Norris read a letter that Wilson had sent, expressing the “respectful Compliments” that the volume’s “Editor” wished to pay to the Society (VIII.314). In his letter to the SAL, Wilson also insisted “that the Parish of St. Margaret’s owes great Obligations to the Antiquarian Society; as it was from of their Members, they first heard of the fine stained Window now in their Church; a fine drawing of which was taken by their Orders some years ago, by Mr. Vertue, and which they hope to see, One Day, engraven by the best hands” (VIII.314). A motion was made nine months later by Andrew Ducarel that “the curious painted Window, brought from the Palace of New-Hall in Essex, and lately set up in St. Margaret’s Church Westminster, of which this Society has an elegant Drawing coloured after the Original, by the late Mr. Vertue; be engraved for the Use of Members” (SAL Minutes VIII.390).
James Basire was appointed engraver to the Society of Antiquaries in 8 March 1759 and was given the commission to engrave St Margaret’s East Window. The decision reflects Vertue’s prior interest in the window and Wilson’s more recent presentation of the Ornaments but also dovetails with the Society’s ongoing commitment to preserving rare examples of stained or painted glass. Rosemary Sweet documents how stained glass “assumed the status of a niche interest amongst antiquaries by the end of the [eighteenth] century” (2004, 272-273). The antiquaries’ impulse was primarily preservationist, and “few if any antiquaries, regardless of their churchmanship, could find it in themselves to condone the blindly indiscriminate destruction of the Puritan iconoclasts” (286). William Stukeley (1687-1765), for example, was a dedicated preserver of stained glass, recording his dismay in 1741 at the destruction of St. George’s stained-glass and how he “hunted it out from one glazier to another” and “found the founder’s window” (quoted in Marks 1993, 241). An engraving of a beautiful sixteenth-century stained-glass window in the newly rebuilt section of St Margaret’s, in the Gothic-style, would place the Society’s thumb firmly on the scale weighing preservation of a piece of history and rare artistic achievement against accusations of “superstitious” imagery, what Ornaments describes as the “ridiculous rage of the puritans” (1761, “Table of Contents”).
Approval for the engraving came easily, but matters of the pocketbook were more complicated. Basire gave the Society’s Council cost estimates to etch the outline and to engrave the details of the East Window in the meeting of 21 May 1765, but the Council wavered and only decided on a final format on 4 June 1767 (Goddard 2016,135). The final engraved print was finished in 1768, six years after the lawsuit against the churchwardens was settled in May of 1762 (Archer 1982, 48). Basire was paid £41 4s “for (re-)drawing, engraving, printing, paper and the letter engraving…provid[ing] a potentially profitable complete, vertically integrated service to the society” (Goddard 2016, 135). After he completed only four engravings for them in the 1760s, the Society fired Basire in March of 1768. Plate 2.26 of “The Great East Window of St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster” was published in Volume 2 of Vetusta Monumenta in 1768. In the spring of the same year, Basire displayed his engraving to the public at the Free Society of Artists (143). He was later reinstated as the Society’s engraver in 1770 and “became the all but exclusive engraver of the plates for Archaeologia from 1773 and the revived Vetusta Monumenta from 1780” (164).
James Basire’s Engraving of the East Window
The text accompanying Basire’s engraving closely on Plate 2.26 follows the information in Ornaments, explaining that the window “was made by the order of the Magistrates at Dort” and “intended as a present to K. Hen: VIIth for his chapel at Westminster.” The text goes on to give the same history as that found in Ornaments of the window’s travels from New Hall to Copt Hall to St Margaret’s. It appears likely that the text on the print derives directly from Ornaments, and that neither Vertue’s earlier account nor Chandler’s watercolors factored into the selection of text that was presented along with the engraving. Plate 2.26, for example, identifies the royal figures as Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, effectively erasing Vertue’s and Chandler’s more accurate assessment. With the public dissemination of Vestuta Monumenta, Plate 2.26’s version of events proved influential and long-lasting. The story of St Margaret’s East Window was not challenged until Charles Winston’s An Inquiry into the Difference of Style. . . Hints on Glass Painting (1867) suggested the later production date of 1526 (Wayment 1981, 293).
In his engraving, Basire eliminates the horizontal leaded bars in the window and removes the leaded sections holding the individual pieces of glass together, smoothing away the jigsaw puzzle elements that are so much a part of stained-glass artistry. He does include the stone mullions separating the three central panels of the Crucifixion and distinguishing the portraits of the royal figures and their saints. The mullions are presented as a series of dotted lines, but these do not detract from the overall impression of a biblical and historical scene (rather than an isolated image focused solely on Christ on the cross). Basire’s engraving departs most notably from the original window by including recognizable buildings, trees, and mountains behind the crucifixion scene; in the original, there are merely hints of a landscape and no noticeable built structures. Less obvious but significant are the changes to the expressions and facial features of the major figures in the window. While Wayment attributes the gaunt faces, sharp noses and full lips to Dutch and German influences, especially that of Cornelius Englebrecht (c.1462-1527), the faces in Basire’s engraving are all softer with more rounded eyes, fuller cheeks, and an almost dewy youthfulness (1981, 297). Once the vibrant reds and blues and other colors of the window are reduced to black and white etchings, the window undoubtedly appears less dramatic, less threatening, less Catholic, and, by default, more Protestant, making it a better fit for an Anglican parish church.
The window Basire viewed in the 1760s has changed little in the ensuing years. In 1905-1906, the chancel was remodeled and the window re-installed, damaging the already cracked glass of Catherine of Aragon’s head. It was replaced with new painted glass and the older glass is now preserved in the Westminster Abbey library (Wayment 1981, 296). Like other valuable artifacts in London, the window was removed for safekeeping during both World War I and World War II. Otherwise, the East Window remains much as it was after its initial installation in St Margaret’s and at the time of Basire’s engraving.
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Haynes, Claire. 2006. Pictures and Popery: Art and rReligion in England, 1660-1760. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing.
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Wilson, Thomas. 1761. “Appendix” in The Ornaments of Churches Considered, with a Particular View to the Late Decoration of St. Margaret Westminster. Oxford.
Winston, Charles. 1867. An Inquiry into the Difference of Style. . . Hints on Glass Painting. 2nd ed. Oxford and London: James Parker & Co.