Trena Cox

Emergence of a Stained Glass Artist

Peter Jones

 

  Depiction of the richly robed magi, two kneeling with gifts in the foreground, the third standing behind with censer
 
The Adoration of the Magi: part of the 1947 window at St
Oswald, Bidston, Wirral

Whereas much has been written about Victorian Gothic Revival stained glass and its makers, much less information is available about the stained glass artists of the early 20th century. This is especially true of regional artists away from London and the south east. Trena Cox is one such artist, living and working in Chester for nearly 50 years. The following article concentrates on her early, inter-war career.

Trena Mary Cox was born Emma Trina Cox on 3 March 1895 in the Lower Bebington Urban District on the Wirral. Her father, Philip, was at that time a general produce broker, working for the sugar broker Czarnikow & Co. However, he moved into insurance in 1901, first as local secretary of the Western Assurance Co, then as branch manager for the Union Assurance Society. Trena Cox’s mother was Hulda Maude Olsen, daughter of a Norwegian ship’s stores merchant in Liverpool.

By 1901 the family had moved to Birkenhead and Cox grew up in a succession of homes in and around the town. From 1910 until she left home in 1924, she lived with her family at 46 Poplar Road, a semidetached house in the Oxton district, the family being affluent enough to employ two live-in servants, a cook and a housemaid.[1]

At the age of 22 Cox started to train at the Laird School of Art, attending courses on drawing, design and painting between 1917 and 1924.[2] In 1923 she started to exhibit designs for stained glass in the Liverpool Autumn Exhibitions.[3] In that year it was ‘The Resurrection’, in 1924 it was ‘Rebekah’ and ‘S Bede’. She also exhibited in the Royal Academy.[4] In 1923 the subject was the St Peter and St Lucy memorial windows and in 1924 a design for St Hugh of Lincoln. If these designs were ever realised, their locations are unknown.

Cox’s art training took place in the inter-war years when the British people were expressing their grief over those who had died in the Great War. Towns and villages were building memorials to their dead and individuals were also often commemorated in stained glass. This provided work for the existing stained glass companies but also created openings for new companies and artists, perhaps less encumbered by traditional Victorian Gothic styles.

Even without the war, this was a time of transition in the stained glass industry. The influential Victorian stained glass designer and manufacturer CE Kempe had died in 1907. His company continued under the leadership of Walter Tower, but the style did not evolve and the company closed in 1934. The great Arts & Crafts innovators William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones had died in 1896 and 1898 respectively. The firm of Morris & Company also continued, in this case with John Henry Dearle at the helm, largely using the existing cartoons (working drawings, typically the same size as the window they represent). However, the firm closed in 1940.

Three-light window with the ascension of Christ depicted in the central light and angels looking on from the outer lights  
Christ Ascending: part of the 1939 east window at St
Matthew, Stretton, Cheshire
 

Although the reign of the pre-Raphaelites waned at the turn of the century, the Arts & Crafts ideals gained a new champion in Christopher Whall. He believed that a stained glass artist should be proficient in all the stages of production, from design through to the finished window, recognising that artists would gravitate to their natural place in the window-making process. He also believed that there was a duty ‘to train all assistants towards mastership also: to give them the whole ladder to climb’.[5]

As a result of this philosophy, at the end of the first world war many of Christopher Whall’s assistants and pupils were ready to meet the increased demand for stained glass. These included his daughter Veronica, as well as Paul Woodroffe, Karl Parsons and Edward Woore. Another of Whall’s pupils, Henry Payne, was himself teaching in the Birmingham School of Art and bringing on the next generation of artists, including AJ Davies.

It is at this time, soon after the first world war, that Cox started her career. By 1923, she was practising at stained glass design. In 1924 she moved to Chester and, by the end of that year, her first designs had been realised in glass and installed in Chester College Chapel. At least one of the windows, of King David and St Theodore, was actually contracted to Williams, Gamon & Co (Kaleyards) Ltd.[6] However, the window includes a monogram of two cockerels (or ‘cocks’) above an intertwined T and M, strongly suggesting Cox’s involvement. The design style is more traditional than any of her later windows, but can be related to two of her known windows. One of these, of Mary and the infant Jesus at St Mary Without-the-Walls, Chester, is also known to be a Williams, Gamon & Co contract, but is clearly designed by Cox.

  The St Christopher window: detail depicting the infant Christ standing at the river's edge
  Details from two windows at Chester Cathedral: above, the St Christopher window (1927), an early experiment with simulated wooden canopy and frame as often used by Christopher Whall; below,
St Ermengild: part of an early (1926) window with very little background
  St Ermengild depicted with golden halo and surrounded by largely undecorated clear glass quarries

Cox’s early involvement with Williams, Gamon & Co went far beyond being subcontracted for designs. Evidence from business directories and Cox’s headed notepaper shows that by 1927 she had a studio next door to the Kaleyards works of Williams, Gamon & Co. In fact, the studio may actually have been on their premises. Furthermore, her headed notepaper lists Geoffrey P Gamon, one of the directors of Williams, Gamon & Co, as the other director of TM Cox & Co.[7] Cox had therefore come to some business arrangement with the larger company: perhaps they had the contacts, the kilns, the manufacturing capacity and Cox had the design expertise.

Unfortunately, it is not known who taught Cox the art of stained glass. It could be that she obtained at least some of her training from Williams, Gamon & Co. That firm of ‘lead light and casement makers’ indeed had contacts with Geoffrey Gamon’s half-brother Gilbert Percival Gamon, a stained glass artist who trained with Shrigley & Hunt in London and then produced much of his work in conjunction with Godfrey Humphry from their office in Grafton Street, London.

However, Gilbert Gamon was in the army until 1921, then joined his family in London until at least 1922. In 1924/25 Gilbert’s address was in Buxton, Derbyshire and the first reference to his being in the Chester area is 1926. It therefore does not seem likely that he could have been available to train Trena Cox. However, there may have been other artists within the company who could have. In fact, David Walter Heathcote Williams, director of Williams, Gamon & Co, described himself as an ‘artist in stained glass’ in the 1911 census, so may himself have trained her.

It is interesting to speculate on the influences on Cox and to wonder what she knew of the burgeoning Arts & Crafts style. In 1920 she exhibited a drawing, based on a quote by William Morris: ‘There was a knight came riding by…’ , suggesting an early interest in the Arts & Crafts. She certainly knew of Christopher Whall’s work. In 1927 Cox designed a window of St Christopher and the child Jesus for the Slype (a covered passage leading off the cloister) in Chester Cathedral. What makes this window unique is that the design is framed by a simulated wooden canopy in the style of Christopher Whall.

Cox must also, later, have known of the work of Veronica Whall. In 1930, Cox’s three designs in the Liverpool Autumn Exhibition at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool were bracketed in the exhibition catalogue by two Veronica Whall designs, for the Herbert Brewer memorial window in Gloucester cathedral and a window in Grasse in France.

The Wirral also provided a varied selection of stained glass within reach of Cox’s home in Birkenhead. These ranged from the more traditional collection of CE Kempe windows in St Bridget, West Kirby and the Shrigley & Hunt collection in St Nicholas, Wallasey (with its remarkable war memorial window, which includes a WWI soldier lying dead, with one of his hands touching the foot of Christ on the cross), to the pre-Raphaelite Morris & Company windows in St Mary’s and St Helen’s Church, Neston and the Burne-Jones and Henry Holiday windows in St Mark, New Ferry. The Neston church also provided an interesting Williams, Gamon & Co WWI memorial window (1920), designed by Bernard Rice.

Wallasey, just to the north of Birkenhead, also provided excellent stained glass of this time, including two windows by AJ Davies in St Mary, Liscard and the remarkable collection of windows at the Egremont Presbyterian by artists such as William Aikman, Gustave Hiller and Edward Woore. Even closer to home, in St Mark, Claughton, on the outskirts of Birkenhead, was a wonderful Christopher Whall seven-light east window of Christ in Majesty (1906).

Intensely decorated and richly coloured three-light window with King Arthur occupying the central light; he holds his sword point downwards in front of him  
King Arthur, St George and St Nicholas (1928): an early experiment with rich and complex backgrounds at St Mary, Whalley, Lancashire  

Although Cox’s early career was clearly linked to Williams, Gamon & Co, she was accepting independent contracts from at least as early as 1927 and probably earlier. Her early windows show her experimenting with different styles of composition. The six-light window in the Rydal School library in Colwyn Bay is packed full of Arthurian elements: the grail, Sir Percival, Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and the killing of a dragon, all set in a rich wooded landscape with castles. However, at about the same time, in 1925 and 1926, she designed two windows for Chester Cathedral’s cloisters. These comprise eight famous characters, including Archbishop Plegmund, the chronicler Ranulph Higden, Hugh Lupus (1st Earl of Chester) and St Thomas of Canterbury. These are much more sparse designs, each figure standing on grass with little or no scenery behind them.

Detail of the blue window depicting haloed figure with hand raised in benediction  
‘The Word Was Made Flesh’: part of the 1932 ‘blue’ window at St Michael, Blundellsands, Lancashire  

Cox continued to experiment with figures set in a rich landscape at St Peter, Stratton, Gloucestershire and particularly successfully at St Mary, Whalley in Lancashire (this latter church already containing a c1913 window by Christopher Whall). However, the 1929 window at St James the Great, Ince was the earliest window where Cox developed the style that would dominate her work through the 1930s and 1940s. Here, each of the two lights is dominated by a saint (St Francis and St Werburgh), each with a large, brightly coloured and decorated halo. Other elements of the picture are kept to the lower part of the picture, with birds and flowers on the grass and cathedrals in the distance. The background is otherwise made up of a pattern of quarries (individual panes or pieces of glass). The larger pieces are generally of clear glass, but abundantly decorated with patterns and symbols, with tiny, diamond-shaped pieces of coloured glass inserted at the corners of the larger pieces.

The picture is surrounded by a border of coloured and clear glass, the latter being richly decorated with black painted patterns. Cox did not adopt slab glass for her work, as was used by Christopher Whall and his pupils. Rather, she chose to enhance her windows by richly decorating the quarries with patterns and pictures.

Through the 1930s and 1940s Cox produced a number of exquisite windows, generally of saints. However, she was not afraid to experiment when the opportunity arose, especially with the larger commissions. Examples of these include the three-light nativity at St James, Latchford (1933) and the three-light Christ Ascending at St Matthew, Stretton (1939). Notable too are a number of striking ‘blue’ windows in which the background glass is in shades of blue. These include windows at St Winefride, Holywell (1931), St Michael, Blundellsands (1933) and the Annunciation window at the Anglican Shrine of Our Lady, Walsingham (1933). Her many saints windows can be seen throughout the north west, but particularly successful groups of saintly figures are to be seen at St Stephen, Prenton (1930-32 and 1934) and All Saints, Caldy (1933), as well as eight lights in the porch of St Werburgh in Chester (1937).

  St Aidan with mitre and crosier, hands clasped in prayer
  St Aidan: part of a 1934 two-light window of St Aidan and St Oswald at St Stephen’s, Prenton, Wirral, showing
typical black on white background decoration which acts as a foil for areas of rich colour. Note too the ornate haloes Cox was then using.

Trena Cox's output was steady throughout her career: generally between one and three windows per year. In 1932 and 1933 she produced four and five windows respectively, although one of the windows in 1933 was a very small one in the Hermit’s Chapel at Llandrillo-yn-Rhos. However, most of Cox’s major commissions were in the 1930s. These include a four-light transept window at St Paul, Tranmere (1931, unfortunately destroyed in the second world war) and 18 heraldic lights at St Michael, Blundellsands (1932-38), as well as the windows already mentioned at St James, Latchford, St Werburgh, Chester and St Matthew, Stretton. Possibly the only later windows to rival these in scale are the west windows at All Saints, Bubwith (1951) and St Stephen, Moulton (1953).

Through the 1920s and 1930s Cox lived in a succession of rented rooms in Chester. Her business address continued to be The Studio, Victoria Road, next to or within the Williams, Gamon & Co works. There is a hiatus of information during the period of the second world war, but by May 1945 Cox had moved into a house at 96 Watergate Street. This address is also given as her business address and, in 1965, the parochial church council minutes of St Aidan, Billinge, refer to her address as ‘The Studio’, implying that, at least by then, her workshop was also in the house. This suggests a break from Williams, Gamon & Co at about the time of the second world war.

It may be no coincidence that Geoffrey Gamon, her previous partner and co-director at Williams, Gamon & Co, died in 1947, aged 70. His leaving the business may have cut her ties to that company. However, one can only speculate as to whether Cox set up her independent business on her own, or whether she may have acquired some of the materials and equipment from Williams, Gamon & Co.

After the second world war, and especially in the early 1950s, her style began to change. Perhaps most obvious was the change in 1953 to the use of larger rectangular background quarries with more tinted glass, as opposed to patterned or shaded surfaces. However, there were other more subtle changes as well. Her figures become less naturalistic and more stylised, especially in the folds of the clothing. Detailed shading also became less common on the faces.

Trena Cox continued to design and make windows until 1972, by which time she was 77 years old. She remained at her Watergate Street address until her death on 11  February 1980. She left a wonderful legacy of stained glass, mainly in the old counties of Cheshire and Lancashire, but with a few as far afield as Yorkshire, Sussex and Norfolk.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank Tony Benyon and Peter Cormack for their help and advice in researching Trena Cox over the last few years. I also wish to thank the Dean and Chapter of Chester Cathedral and the incumbents and wardens at the various churches illustrated for permission to include photographs of their windows.

~~~

Notes

1 1911 Census

2 Laird School of Art registers, Williamson Art Gallery & Museum, Birkenhead, Wirral Museums Service

3 Liverpool Autumn Exhibition catalogues, 1916-1930, Liverpool Central Library

4 Information provided by the Royal Academy Library

5 CW Whall, Stained Glass Work, 1905, Morris & Juliet Venables, Bristol, 1999

6 The Collegian, Vol 38, No 1, 1925

7 Letter to Canon Child concerning the window at Stratton, Gloucestershire, Gloucestershire Archives reference GDR/F1/1/1927/26

 

Historic Churches, 2012

Author

PETER JONES is a stained glass enthusiast with a special interest in the Arts & Crafts movement. His interest in Trena Cox stems from finding her windows in Cheshire churches, only to discover that very little was known about her.

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