6 Jun 2020

Volunteer Views:
Arts and Crafts and Modernism in Glass by Florence Camm

One of the stars of the Industrial Gallery and especially popular with Pre-Raphaelite fans visiting Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, is the trio of Dante and Beatrice stained-glass windows by Florence Camm (1911), this exemplar of her beautifully detailed figure painting received international recognition. But for myself, it is the Pebble Window on the opposite side of the gallery that I always find myself drawn to, with its strikingly modernist feel and unusual construction. In place of traditional lead the hundreds of individually unique glass ‘pebbles’ are suspended mosaic-like in black-leaded stained-glass cement.

Stained Glass combined.jpg
Dante and Beatrice stained-glass windows by Florence Camm, 1911 (left). Pebble Window (right). 

Florence and her brothers Walter and Robert carried on the family stained-glass making business in Smethwick after the death of their father Thomas William Camm in 1912. The window was designed c.1920 for the staircase of the Camm Studio - a position where I imagine it channelled a cascade of sunlight and caught the eye of visiting customers. It is far more abstract than the usual work of the Camm studio, one of the reasons I believe Florence was very likely the designer, as she often introduced little contemporary details in her more traditional designs for church windows and she created the original one-of-a-kind designs for the firm’s domestic, industrial and commemorative commissions in the 1920s.

The window is delineated into three distinct sections by the use of colour, the blues and reds in the bottom section suggest to me sea and red earth, the deep blue at the top, a night sky. Most striking is the centre of the window dominated by an abstract and highly stylized version of the sunburst motif, both a recurring emblem in contemporary art deco design and a traditional design element in church metalwork and architecture. Lemon-yellow sunrays extend throughout the middle section and beyond, surrounded by golds, such ‘ripe-corn coloured golden-yellows’ - my well-thumbed copy of Cristopher Whitworth Whall’s influential 1905 technical handbook - Stained Glass Work informs ‘are so hard to attain in stained-glass (impossible indeed by means of yellow-stain) and yet so much to be desired and sought after’.

Close up details in the Pebble window including the sun rays

All the glass used is likely ‘cullet’ (off-cuts/recycled), including a larger piece (it is intriguing to imagine the original window this might once have been part of) with painted trees with what look like oak leaves, which traditionally symbolise longevity, lineage and faith and were also a common motif in the Arts and Crafts movement. The bold leading and primary colours into which the glass ‘pebbles’ are carefully grouped is inline with the Arts and Crafts style too - Camm had studied for a long period at the progressive Birmingham School of Art, where Henry Payne, a former student of CW Whall, was an influential tutor for her. At the same time the design is also pretty avant-garde and I believe Florence’s own experience of teaching art classes at the local Technical School is likely to have encouraged her to stay innovative.

Walter Camm did some designs for the firm too, but these tended to reuse the firms ‘stock’ design elements and to stick to figure-work that was more strongly Pre-Raphaelite, whilst Florence’s had a more modern realism, for example, a nativity sketch at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery features children with 1920’s style bobbed haircuts. And certainly later (as a newspaper article from 1954 reveals) Florence was doing all the designs, cartoons and painting, while her brothers Walter and Robert were responsible for the cutting and firing and the administration side respectively. Significantly Walter’s design experience had been interrupted by war service during the First World War.

I feel it is significant that this window was made not long after the First World War and that the pebbles that the small pieces of glass suggest are significant too. Pebbles were an inspiration for artists after the war, ‘found’ pebbles have a very sculptural quality and a simplicity of form and the little pieces of opalescent, streaky and painted glass are as beautiful and individual as pebbles here. After the horror of war people were looking to getting back to nature and its simplicity and making the world anew. Artists were looking to make things that could speak to people about a new era. This brings to my mind the extraordinary times that we find ourselves living in currently and I wonder when the world eventually emerges from the pandemic might we see a new modernism, a new creative era in art?