David Evans

The Forgotten Pioneer

Lorna Roberts

 

The bearded figure of Jesse, father of David, eyes closed in sleep  
Detail from the 14th-century Jesse window, St Mary's, Shrewsbury, restored by David Evans in the mid-19th century (Photo: The Churches Conservation Trust)  

In the second quarter of the 19th century, the use of stained glass in the architecture of Great Britain was revolutionised.

At the start of the century those few artists who specialised in stained glass painting used the medium in much the same manner as they would a canvas, typically creating large painterly pictures, often criss-crossed by a grid of neat leadwork which divided the pictures up into square or rectangular panes.

By the late 19th century, a flourishing stained glass industry was in the grip of the Arts and Crafts movement, producing designs strongly influenced by the architecture and stained glass of the Middle Ages: flat, two dimensional decoration predominated, with stylised motifs, and the lines of lead which held the panes together invariably followed the outlines of the figures and features, not a grid.

David Evans is one of a very few artists whose work pioneered this development. His windows, which we mainly created in the second quarter of the 19th century, are important because they illustrate the transition from the painterly to the Gothic, but they are also important in their own right, for their highly distinctive style and use of colour.

Considering his renown as an outstanding stained glass artist and as a pioneer of Victorian stained glass, it is surprising how little is known about Evans’ life. He was born to David and Mary Evans and christened at Llanllwchaiarn, near Newtown, Montgomeryshire in 1793. He came to Shrewsbury sometime in his early youth where he received his education and in 1808 was apprenticed to John Betton, a Shrewsbury glazier, eventually becoming his partner in 1815. Here Evans was fortunate in working on the ‘restoration’ of many important medieval stained glass windows. It was this experience which gave him the grounding he needed for his later work.

The firm of John Betton had been founded in the mid 18th century by John Betton’s father, who was also called John Betton. The younger John Betton proved to be not only a highly successful businessman, but also played a prominent role in the Shrewsbury Glaziers Company and the civic life of the town. The year after making Evans his partner, Betton became mayor of Shrewsbury and in 1817 he was knighted for conveying a loyal address from the town to the throne.

When David Evans began his apprenticeship, John Betton was engaged in the prestigious task of installing 16th-century stained glass in Lichfield Cathedral, a job which took two years to complete. The glass came from the medieval Abbey of Herkenrode, Belgium, reflecting the increasing interest in medieval designs in this country.

Much of the company's work in the early days was probably ordinary domestic glazing work, with the stained glass side of the business gradually growing until the majority of their business was concerned with stained glass commissions. An early example of their work can be seen in Shrewsbury Abbey and was recently restored by Linley Stained Glass Studios, Chester. The heraldic work seems hastily painted, lacking the finesse of their later work, and Ashley Pengelly of Linley Studios commented that the glass was thin and the paint feebly attached to the glass. Much of it had to be repainted.

It would seem that the Rev Hugh Owen and the Rev William G Rowlands, both in their time vicars at St Mary’s, Shrewsbury, played a large part in encouraging both men and promoting the firm, as did local builders and architects such as John H Haycock and Pountney-Smith. The Rev Owen also commissioned Evans to copy the Initial Letter of the Inspeximus of Richard II and two of the knights from St Mary’s Jesse window for his History of Shrewsbury, with a view to aiding Evans in his appreciation of medieval drawing and colouring. The fact that Betton became mayor in 1816 no doubt also helped the business to attract new patrons.

Betton’s and Evans’ most important restoration work was undertaken in 1821-28 when they were entrusted with the restoration of the late 14th-century glass of Winchester College Chapel. Corrosion of the glass is believed to have begun almost as soon as the glass was put in and the Jesse window in particular, in spite of many repairs over the centuries, was in such a serious state by the early 1800s that in July 1821 it had to be removed for restoration.

Depiction of the Transfiguration of Christ Depiction of the Resurrection of Christ Depiction of the Ascension
Christchurch, Trallwng (Welshpool) The three windows in the chancel apse are orginal to the church, c1844, and typify Evans’ bold use of colour. Of these, the north window (on the left) is based on Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’ (below right), a favourite of Evans. The style is painterly, but the leading, as in all Evans’ work, follows the outline of the figures. (The church is closed and is being converted into a house, while retaining the stained glass.)
   
  Raphael’s ‘Transfiguration’

 

‘Betton and Evans’, as the company was now known, undertook ‘to restore the glass to its original brilliancy’. From this we may conclude that it was their intention to preserve as much of the original glass as possible, but they soon discovered that no amount of cleaning would remove the opaque film of corrosion. It was therefore decided that they should make a ‘first class copy’ of the whole window, and they began by making cartoons from the original glass.

The old glass from Winchester was disposed of to other church windows as well as to collectors, and during the 1930s and 1940s numerous newspaper articles pleaded for the return of the glass to its rightful place. (For the full story of the Winchester glass, and in particular a list of some of the retrieved glass, see John Harvey and Dennis King’s 'Winchester College Stained Glass', Archaeologia, 1971.) The experience gained by Evans of handling the old glass and copying it was doubtless invaluable, as well as a major factor in the attempts of the time to revive medieval techniques and designs.

While the firm’s early attempts to imitate old glass were crude and unsatisfactory, they made rapid advances and their later work is generally considered to be very good for the period. They had begun making facsimiles of medieval glass in enamels and crude pot-metal during the 1820s – often quite successfully, as in Winchester College. However, Betton and Evans were very much in the minority with only a few people engaged in the stained glass business at that time, and no one then really knew how medieval glass had been made.

Most of the work of Betton and Evans tends to be found in Shropshire and North Wales, but examples of their work can be found over a much wider region, from Leeds in the north to Winchester in the south. Although their work was now of the highest quality, they were not always spoken of in complimentary terms (they were dubbed ‘fakers’ by some), mainly because they removed medieval glass and replaced it with their own copies, with the original medieval glass disappearing completely or turning up at other churches at later dates. Their reputation, however, seems not to have been harmed by these accusations, as they continued to play a very active part in the stained glass industry of the early 19th century and they became known all over England for their work.

Betton does not always seem to have taken an active part in the later work, for windows in which the firm was involved are nearly always described as having been done by Evans, and in 1824 John Betton finally hung up his cap and retired, leaving the firm in the capable hands of his partner. Nevertheless, his role in the development was significant, as Duncan Cole, a later partner in the firm, stated in a newspaper article: 'the glass staining industry of Shrewsbury was conducted under the leadership of two master craftsmen, both Betton and Evans'.

Evans’ own and later themes for new windows stayed quite painterly, with designs adapted from favourite original Renaissance paintings by Raphael and Rubens for example, but often with medieval borders and frames. Much of Evans’ work was also for the gentry and their fine stately homes. Gareth Williams in his thesis ‘Domestic Stained Glass Works by John Betton and David Evans: a study of 19th century patronage and historicism’ details some of both Betton’s and Evans’ domestic work at places such as Netley Hall, Lutwyche Hall, and Sundorne Castle, all in Shropshire; and others at Stanage Park in Powys and Ettington Park in Warwickshire.

Heraldic stained glass in striking shades of red, blue and gold and incorporating lions rampant, chevrons, mullets and cross crosslets  
Meifod, Montgomeryshire A fine example of Evans’ heraldic work in 1838. The panes have been remounted behind the main plane of glazing, hence the strange shadows.  

It is interesting to note that at the height of his career, Evans had no feelings of superiority and continued to accept ordinary glazing work as can be seen on a bill prepared for Millington’s Hospital in 1843 detailing the various areas of the building requiring glass repairs.

A UNIQUE AND DISTINCTIVE STYLE

Although Evans has been described as an outstanding glass artist by many writers, it has also been said that his drawings were not particularly good, in that his large figures tend to be ‘ponderous’ and his smaller figures ‘weak’. Nikolaus Pevsner in particular was not overly impressed with the artist’s work, commenting that 'when he [Evans] did more than individual figures he copied the compositions of famous altar-pieces, [such as] Raphael’s "Transfiguration" or Ruben’s "Deposition", indiscriminately, and that is not what a stained glass window calls for' – a view shared by Morris.

However, the strength of these large figurative pieces lies in Evans’ highly distinctive use of colour, and when Mostyn Lewis describes Evans as a fine colourist, many would agree. Pevsner too goes as far as to say 'his glass has the advantage over most Victorian glass that its colours glow, even if they are strident'. Evans' use of ruby red, emerald green, midnight blue and an amethyst purple give his pictorial windows a very rich feeling, which can seem dark and moody.

This effect can be extremely powerful. In St Chad’s, Shrewsbury, for example, the three-light window behind the altar adds a wonderful richness to the cool classical detailing of Stuart’s circular nave. The bright focal points contrast dramatically with the dark, richly coloured areas of glass which surround them, commanding the viewer's attention.

In some designs, as at West Felton, Evans’ Biblical compositions are simply outlined on small medallions of white glass, arranged vertically and surrounded by geometric compositions of brightly coloured glass. The importance of these windows and of his heraldic work is easily overlooked, overshadowed by the larger and more dramatic compositions. However, closer inspection immediately reveals that these too are of enormous value and importance, particularly for his use of flat, stylised motifs in the Gothic manner.

Evans excelled in heraldic work which is characterised by his use of a distinctive ‘fern’ diaper pattern (left), but he also sometimes used a wandering line and other diapers, such as his famous ‘seaweed’ effect. Another characteristic of his heraldic work was a pink enamel motto ribbon, painted to look crinkly, with the lettering almost always in Roman capitals. Both his decorative and figurative windows usually contain one of the symbols already mentioned and often the tracery lights include red or blue roses with leaves of a strong vivid green.

EVANS’ ACHIEVEMENT

The use of medieval motifs and leading techniques by the firm of Betton and Evans and by David Evans in particular clearly reflects the emerging taste for Gothic architecture long before Pugin’s seminal work on the subject in 1841. However, it is unclear how much these two artists influenced the growth of the movement and the adoption of medieval techniques for making stained glass. William Warrington in his book of 1848 on the history of stained glass ascribes ‘the revival of the art’ to Joseph Hale Miller (1777-1842). However, there was one other contender to the title, and arguably the most accomplished of the four: Thomas Willement (1786-1871). (David Evans, 1793-1861, was thus the youngest of the four.)

While Thomas Willement is generally credited as being the foremost stained glass artist of the early 19th century, Evans was undoubtedly ahead of his time. This is confirmed to some extent by the fact that the work carried out by Betton and Evans on Winchester College had provided Willement with useful knowledge of early stained glass, and also the fact that it wasn’t until the mid-19th century that the stained glass techniques Evans had used came into common usage.

 
  West Felton, Shropshire The east window in the north aisle is typical of David Evans’ composite windows, with several small medallions in each light, each depicting Biblical scenes. His use of rich Gothic ornamentation to interconnect the medallions heralds the designs of the Arts and Crafts movement, while the scenes themselves remain firmly rooted in the Renaissance.

If the firm’s business books had survived we might know a great deal more about this illustrious gentleman, but as with so many glazing businesses, no records (or very few) survived, making it very difficult for researchers to reach any reliable conclusions. Nevertheless, both men were clearly important in the history of stained glass, with Betton perhaps instigating the experimentation and Evans completing and concluding it. They certainly seemed to be on the same wavelength and were probably of similar character – meticulous, patient, enthusiastic.

Evans’ long and prosperous career ended on 17 November 1861 when he died at home at the age of 68. He was buried at the then newly opened Shrewsbury Cemetery. The firm continued in existence for many years and by a series of successions and new partnerships the business passed through many hands, including those of his son, Charles Evans. It was finally acquired by the father of Mr Duncan Cole who established the business at his premises at No 38 Wyle Cop at the beginning of the 20th century.

Samuel Bagshaw in his 1851 directory sums up: ‘Glass staining has been brought to the highest state of perfection by David Evans, whose ingenious talents and consummate skill have raised the art to a degree of perfection unequalled in modern times…’. Evans was indeed a remarkable gentleman and master of his trade. There can be no doubt that Evans played a very significant role in the stained glass industry of the early 19th century and should be honourably remembered and his works accordingly recorded.

 

ST MARY'S, SHREWSBURY

This church, which is in the care of The Churches Conservation Trust, is renowned for its stained glass, much of which is medieval. The Jesse window above the altar is arguably the most famous. It contains the glass from a magnificent 14th-century window, probably rescued from Grey Friars Priory, Shrewsbury during the Dissolution. The window was installed in old St Chad’s, Shrewsbury (a seven-light window) before being moved to St Mary's in 1792 by John Betton. Here the window has eight lights and includes excellent additions in the style of the original by David Evans who restored the window in 1859.

Jesse windows present the genealogy of Jesus back to David and David’s father, Jesse, who is lying across the bottom of three centre lights in a deep sleep (see the first illustration on this page). From him rises a twisting vine, the ‘Tree of Jesse’, connecting him with figures representing the kings of Israel: Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus, St Mathew and St Luke, and scenes depicting the nativity, baptism and crucifixion. The window was re-leaded by Chapel Studios in 1998 as it had buckled badly, saving it from more serious damage.

Most of the Victorian windows in St Mary’s are by David Evans. The east window of the south chapel lost its original 14th-century window in a storm in 1579. This was replaced by two round-headed panels with the centre filled with stone. Both panels were made by Evans in 1847, but the much darker centre light and the rose window above date from 1897 following the removal of the stone infill panel, and are by James Powell of Whitefriars, London.

The Jesse window, St Mary’s Shrewsbury incorporating 14th century glass and the work of David Evans who restored the window in 1859.
Kneeling knight with lance and raised hand, castle behind and rose motif border King David seated on throne and holding a harp
Above left: detail from the Jesse window, the castle and the donor knight are medieval but the borders are by Evans. Above right: detail of King David from the Jesse window: one of the best medieval figures from the Jesse tree, all of which is original.
(The illustrations in this panel are reproduced by courtesy of The Churches Conservation Trust.)
 

 

 

 

Historic Churches, 2003

Author

LORNA ROBERTS is an archivist at Shropshire County Council. This article was adapted by the editor from a thesis prepared by Lorna Roberts.

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