Decorated initial M

harles Eamer Kempe (1837-1907) had an enviable background. He was born at the gracious and beautifully situated Ovingdean Hall in Sussex (now the premises of an international language school), in a valley of the South Downs near Brighton. The youngest of the seven children of Nathaniel Kempe, JP., he was born to Nathaniel's second wife Augusta, who was herself the daughter of a former Lord Mayor of London. He was educated at Rugby and then Pembroke College, Oxford, receiving his MA in 1862. A devout Anglo-Catholic with a bad stammer which precluded a career in the church, he devoted himself instead to the cause of beautifying church buildings. First he entered the office of G. F. Bodley, who was the son of the family doctor (see Harrison), then he spent some time with the stained-glass firm of Clayton and Bell in London. Then eventually he set up his own highly successful firm in 1866. This firm continued after his death as C. E. Kempe & Co., under the chairmanship of Kempe's much younger distant cousin William Earnest Tower (1873-1955), and from this time Kempe's wheatsheaf "signature" on stained glass had a small tower superimposed upon it. The firm survived until 1934. There is an English Heritage plaque on Kempe's former London home and studio at 37, Nottingham Place, Marylebone, W1.

Kempe also designed church fittings and interior decorations, and did some architectural work. For example, he extended and decorated Old Place, the fine late sixteenth-century house that he bought for himself in the pretty village of Lindfield, Sussex, where he kept his collection of antique furniture and artworks, and entertained his friends and colleagues.

Kempe liked to work in late medieval/early Renaissance style and his work is also distinguished by its detailed face-drawing, eye-catching "pearl" decorations, and shimmering greens. "He gave England some of the most glowing windows in our churches," says Arthur Mee (275). The Kempe Studios supplied many cathedrals, too, and Kempe's fame spread far beyond Britain, particularly to North America (see Stavridi 9). He employed as many as a hundred men, one of his pupils being Ninian Comper. Perhaps his most prestigious commission was for the royal mausoleum in Darmstadt, where he was asked to commemorate Princess Alice's little son.

Kempe's work is not always praised, though some of the criticisms seem strangely contradictory — for instance, that the early, brighter glass was too bright (see Stavridi 91), and that the more subdued later glass too "muddy" ("Architects"). Other criticisms are that he overdid the detail, or that the later work looked mass-produced (see Harrison). Simon Bradley seems to take into account some of these views: "Kempe's studios worked on a large scale, producing over 4,000 windows. The mature style is easily recognizable, with its combination of muted, dusty blue colouration, mild-featured figures, and repetitive canopy-work" (153).

What seems clear, however, is that despite having had Arthur Hughes as a designer in his early days, by turning to late Gothic and northern Renaissance styles for his inspiration Kempe offered a real alternative to Pre-Raphaelitism in stained glass design. He was certainly one of the acknowledged leaders in the field. Now perhaps he is the only stained glass artist, not including such figures as Pugin and Morris who are famous for their work in other areas too, to have a society devoted to him. Kempe is buried in the family vault at Ovingdean. — Jacqueline Banerjee.

Works in stained glass

Other work


"Architects and Artists 1-J-K." Sussex Parish Churches. Web. 14 July 2014.

Bradley, Simon. Churches: An Architectural Guide. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2016.

Harrison, Martin. "Kempe, Charles Eamer (1837-1907)." Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Online ed. Web. 14 July 2014.

The Kempe Society. Web. 14 July 2014.

Mee, Arthur. Sussex. The King's England series. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1937.

Stavridi, Margaret. Master of Glass: Charles Eamer Kempe 1837-1907 and the work of his firm in stained glass and church decoration. Hatfield, Herts.: Kempe Society/John Taylor Book Ventures, 1988.

Sumeray, Derek, & John Sheppard. London Plaques. Botley, Oxford: Shire, 2010.

Updated 6 April 2018