The Art of Simplicity: Bonawit’s Grisaille

The clerestory windows designed by G. Owen Bonawit in the nave of Christ Church seem to be one of the least described elements of the church’s artwork. The work was negotiated and subcontracted through architect Oscar H. Murray at Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Associates rather than commissioned directly through George G. Booth. Consequently, there are few documentary vestiges of the artist’s process in our records.

The windows can be studied through other materials held by the Archives, including architectural drawings, photographs, and the records of a window restoration project which commenced in 1993. In 1995, the Thompson Art Glass company made rubbings of the window for the purposes of identifying their care and preservation needs.

There are seventeen grisaille clerestory windows in the nave and chancel at Christ Church, which were analyzed as part of this stained-glass restoration project. They are made of clear antique glass upon which minute floral detail is painted and accentuated by the addition of small amounts of colored glass. In the chancel, there are two lancets and tracery of nine panels supported by T-bars including one ventilator panel. In the nave, they are comprised of three lancets and tracery with eight panels, with ventilator panels making up the bottom row.

Detail from Architectural drawing of Christ Church Cranbrook, North Elevation. April 30, 1925. Drawn by J.E.M./Oscar H. Murray, Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue Architects. [AD.10.33]. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Grisaille, literally meaning ‘to grey,’ is a type of stained glass that is mostly monochromatic, with a silver or grey tone being painted onto the finished glass. The purpose of the plainness of grisaille is twofold: they let more light into the space both literally and metaphorically in that they were intended to limit distraction from meditation.

The grisaille stained glass style is thought to have originated in French Cistercian abbeys after a prohibition on colored glass issued by St. Bernard of Clairvaux in 1134 in accordance with their charism of simplicity. St. Bernard, the master of paradox, also banned the use of figurative decoration according to the First Commandment of no graven images. Under his guidance, the Cistercians seek the face of God, a theological anomaly that produces an exquisite spiritual discipline and religious practice through which the monk contemplates holiness by virtue of continually recognizing the poverty of their thoughts and feelings when weighed down by seeking to satisfy worldly desire. The style often employs natural or geometric patterns, much like a labyrinth.

The windows can best be observed by sitting in the aisle stalls of the nave, which are in themselves an unusual feature otherwise only found in Oxford college chapels. The walls of the nave were originally intended to display memorials and artwork, but the latter idea was revised due to the objection that it would bring a museum feel to a house of worship.

Aisle stalls in left side of sanctuary. June 23, 1946. Photographer, Harvey Croze. Courtesy of Cranbrook Archives.

Added in 1930, the aisle stalls offer a fine perspective from which to observe the grisaille, and Bonawit’s elegant craftmanship brings with it a history of monastic inspired light. Since a life without beauty is only half lived, the artistic eclecticism of Christ Church offers all those who enter the opportunity to embrace the other half both in its resplendency and in its simplicity.

Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

The Actresses, or Three and a half Women

With Laura MacNewman’s Kitchen Sink blog entry of May 2019 serving as an excellent guide to the Women’s Window of Christ Church, Cranbrook, it seems worthwhile to take a more detailed look at the individual panels.

Panel 16, Actresses: Sarah Siddons (English, 1755-1831); Sarah Bernhardt (French, 1845-1923); Mary Anderson (American, 1859-1940); Ellen Terry (English, 1848-1928). Tom Booth, photographer. Copyright Christ Church Cranbrook 2010.

Though the window was the gift of Florence Booth Beresford and her husband James, the choice of women to be included was made by the Reverend Samuel S. Marquis, the first rector of the church. What is intriguing is how or why the Rev. Marquis chose the women who appear.  Since no documentation has yet come to light, we can only look at who the women are as well as how they are depicted. Marquis aimed to cover mostly western culture through the ages up to his present day, the 1920s, and clearly was choosing exemplary members of the categories. Thus, we find that the actresses under study here, except for one, are well-known to this day in the French and English-speaking world.

The profession of actress almost until the present has had a bad reputation. A woman was not supposed to put herself on display or seek approval.  Odd then that the quotation from Proverbs 31:28, 31 enters the window as the dedication to women: Her children rise up and call her blessed … and her works praise her in the gates.  These works would not include appearing on stage or screen.

Shakespeare’s women were played by young men who aged out of the roles into male leads if they were lucky.  The comedic role where the young female lead must disguise herself as a man then becomes an interesting part to watch, especially if the young actor, appearing as a young woman, must pretend to be man playing a woman as in As You Like It.

The first woman to appear on the English stage in her own right was reputedly Margaret Hughes in the role of Desdemona in 1660 after the restoration of Charles II. Our window’s first actress (from the left) is the Welsh actress Sarah Siddons, born 1755, older sister of the great John Kemble and aunt of also great Fanny Kemble.  Siddons was a tragic actress, scorning comedy as buffoonery beneath her talents. Her great roles were Lady Macbeth and Volumnia from Coriolanus. These are two of Shakespeare’s nastiest ladies, beloved of actresses everywhere.  As critic William Hazlitt said of Siddons, “Passion emanated from her breast.”

Stuart, Gilbert; Sarah Siddons, nee Kemble; National Portrait Gallery, London.

She was possibly the first actress superstar of the modern world, so famous she was painted by all the great portraitists including Gainsborough and our own Gilbert Stuart. All the paintings, even the stained-glass version, show off her famous Kemble nose.

The next actress is Sarah Bernhardt born in 1844 in Paris to the Dutch mistress of an aristocratic lover who sent young Sarah off to the Paris Conservatoire, then a partly government-sponsored school of acting. Bernhardt graduated into becoming a member of the Comédie-Française, where she found the techniques old-fashioned. Always a tearaway, she was dismissed for slapping a senior actress.

Bernhardt did not need the national theater to become one of the most famous actresses of all time.  She was an exceptional self-promoter and entertained all the society men of her age, numbering the future Edward VII of England and Victor Hugo amongst her lovers. She had a mass of wild hair, big blue eyes, perfect teeth, and with her good looks and purity of diction and a voice variously described as silvery or golden she attracted enormous crowds to any theater. She made Victor Hugo cry in a performance of one of his own plays.

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet, June 1899, by James Lafayette, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

Her roles were again mostly tragic playing Cordelia in Le Roi Lear, Hamlet, Desdemona, Joan of Arc, Racine’s Phèdre. Her offstage behavior was just as spirited; she slept in a coffin to prepare for roles and abandoned the corset.

She founded her own theaters, toured the United States nine times, toured the world, built and worked in a hospital in World War I, played a young man of twenty when she was fifty-five, took on all the great tragic roles, faced, fought and surmounted anti-Semitic slurs all her life, appeared in silent films and melodramas. She lost a lung, a kidney, a leg but still trod the boards.

Bernhardt incarnated the French wife of an English artist in Detroit in the play The False Model on November 25, 1916, but there is no record of any Booths attending.

Next is English actress Ellen Terry, born in 1847, contemporaneous with Sarah Bernhardt, but not the quite the world player. Beautiful Terry, teenage actress and the artist’s model, married pre-Raphaelite painter G.F. Watts but went off to live with architect-designer Edward William Godwin where she caught the eye of renowned actor Henry Irving. Irving sought luxurious stage settings and a beautiful actress to complement his own great talent.  In addition to appearing in all the great female roles of Shakespeare and more humble parts, Terry entered into a lively correspondence with George Bernard Shaw who cast her in roles he had written for her.

Ellen Terry as Portia in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ by Window & Grove, 1879. {NPG x16988) © National Portrait Gallery, London

The unrivaled team of Irving and Terry lasted 24 years. Even today, to be able to say that your great-great grand relatives had seen them onstage together is still impressive. Terry and Irving appeared in Detroit 25 through 27 January 1900. We find in Ellen Scripps Booth’s diary for Friday, January 26: “I went to see Irving and Terry tonight in Robespierre.” Mrs. Booth makes no comment on Terry’s performance of loving wife Clarisse, but the Detroit Free Press of the next day praised Terry for her “characteristic grace” and “personal charm” in a not very demanding role. There were many curtain calls.

The “half” actress who owns the little face inserted between Bernhardt and Terry is Mary Anderson, born 1859, the American tragedian here, who also took on comedic roles. Her claim to fame was playing two parts (Perdita and Hermione) in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale which bought her great acclaim. Audiences raved over her, while critics appreciated her beauty but found her lacking in feeling. By contrast with the others her star burned for a much shorter time. She toured extensively but withdrew from the public eye in 1889 due to exhaustion and the offer of marriage and a home in England.

Mary Anderson (Mrs de Navarro) by Herbert Rose Barraud, 1880s (NPG x67) © National Portrait Gallery, London

Stained-glass artist James Hogan’s pre-Raphaelite influence can be seen in the depictions in the window, but he is not copying from any standard image. Siddons appears in one of her classical roles, Bernhardt as Phèdre, and Terry in her signature red lawyer’s robes as Portia from the Merchant of Venice playing a man.

What unites these women is their ability to stand up and be counted as women of talent at a time when they were more regarded as curiosities. Of the three greats, not one of them had a happy love life.  Two of them famously had children out of wedlock and all three were regarded as unworthy by the men who should have revered them. All three nineteenth-century actresses played the roles of men. Considering their unconventional lives, it is surprising perhaps that Rector Marquis chose them, but then all the women in the window were unusual because they stood out as pioneers in some way. Who was the most famous? From the 1870s on there were two well-known women: Queen Victoria and Sarah Bernhardt, in no particular order. 

Lynette Mayman, Collections Interpreter, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

To See a World in a Grain of Sand…

A recent research inquiry made me curious about the Great West Window, also known as the Women’s Window, at Christ Church Cranbrook.

Bloomfield Hills was sparsely settled when the church was built and, reporting on his visit to Cranbrook in July 1924, the architect Oscar H. Murray speaks of George Gough Booth’s intention to build a community church and school “to form the core around which this new district shall develop”.

The church was a gift to the Bloomfield Hills community from George and Ellen Booth, their five children and their families, all of whom donated to its construction and fabric. The local history of settlement in Bloomfield extends some hundred years before the building of Christ Church Cranbrook; yet its flourishing as a community for families and as a center of cultural activity begins with the church, the first of the original group of Cranbrook institutions. All the artworks at the church are beautiful and unique, but to me, none more so than the Women’s Window.

View of the Great West Window, Christ Church Cranbrook.

View of the Great West Window, Christ Church Cranbrook. Jack Kausch, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives

The Women’s Window is the gift of James Alfred Beresford and Florence Booth Beresford. It was designed by James H. Hogan and fabricated by James Powell and Sons, (Whitefriars) Ltd, then based in Wealdstone, London, England. Established in 1680, their insignia is a whitefriar monk wearing a white cowl. Their original location on Fleet Street was in the Whitefriar district where a Carmelite order had once resided. The insignia is included in the Women’s Window, but at just a few inches high, it is impossible to see from the church floor.

Whitefriar close up

The whitefriar insignia of James Powell and Sons (Whitefriars), Ltd on Panel 16 of the Women’s Window of Christ Church Cranbrook. Kevin Adkisson, photographer. Copyright Cranbrook Archives.

The key component of stained glass is silica from river sand. Modern stained glass is made of sand, lime, and soda and is more durable than the stained glass of the middle ages, which used ash instead of lime, making it more susceptible to the elements.

“The coloured glasses used in the making of the window are all the product of the Whitefriars works, in fact what comes to us in the form of sand, leaves us as a work of art in the form of a Stained Glass Window.” Adrian A. Buck, October 31st, 1927 (1981-01 20:9)

The glass pieces are fitted into cames—H or I shaped lead fixtures—which are then soldered together at the ends to form the design, and the whole window is supported by larger T bars and saddle bars. The Women’s Window stands 19 ½  feet tall and 8 feet wide.

As with most of the windows at Christ Church Cranbrook, the Women’s Window is made of antique glass—this does not refer to the age of the glass, but rather to its method of manufacture. It is hand-made glass using the traditional medieval method of glass blowing, giving it an irregular surface that adds to the effect of jewel tones. Other types of stained glass (cathedral and opalescent) are machine made and do not convey the same vibrancy of antique glass.

The Window’s aesthetic style is Gothic Revival and its coloring is thought to suggest the pre-Raphaelite influence of William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, with whom Powell was acquainted and with whom George Booth found deep inspiration and kinship.

It features 60 women within 16 panels arranged in 4 tiers. Each panel depicts an area of contribution to sacred and secular life, including motherhood, Christ’s associates, early missionaries, early saints, religious orders, American church missionaries, educators, nurses, musicians, artists, poets, novelists, sovereigns, liberators, suffrage workers, and actresses. These panels are mediated by 6 smaller panels, each depicting two angels with shields portraying the fiery cross, the word of God, the mirror of truth, the flame of inspiration, the regal crown, and tragedy/comedy.

The women were selected from across history, from biblical times to 1920s, by the Rev. Samuel S. Marquis, the first rector of the church. Inscribed at the base of the window is the verse, “Her children rise up and call her blessed, and her works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31:28, 31).

The window has long been beloved by members and visitors to Christ Church. It was also the featured window of the Michigan Stained Glass Census in June 1998. The Women’s Window underwent restoration in 2004-2005 by Thompson Art Glass to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the church. Speaking at the time of its completed restoration, the Rev. Edward L. Mullins remarked that, “when the light shines through it, we see a wonderful picture of the world”.

– Laura MacNewman, Associate Archivist

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