A Christmas Story.
In the spring of 1892, my grandfather, William Southerly Brown of Nottingham in England, completed his apprenticeship as a glass engraver and maker of stained-glass windows. For his trade certificate he created a large oval widow in the centre of which he set the head of Shakespeare, seen in profile. Surrounding this he engraved twelve scenes from Hamlet on alternating circles of red and blue glass: the whole design held together by an open filigree of entwined lilies.
This exhibit, still extant at Odd Fellows Hall in Bramble Lane, Sheffield won first prize at an exhibition in London, judged by no less a celebrity than the aged but still sharply perceptive, William Morris. It was the lilies which captured his attention, methinks, and perhaps a sense that in Southerly Brown he had found a kindred, creative spirit.
Thus, at the age of 22, Southerly, seemed destined for an illustrious and lucrative career as a master glazier to the wealthy, creating christening bowls, wedding cups, funeral urns and such. But Southerly’s mind was set on other horizons. Growing up in Nottingham, Southerly was a child of the Working Class. He had known poverty: had heard the hacking cough of his father who was a coal miner and died spitting blood; had seen his mother age prematurely her arms mottled from immersion in washing water and her knees arthritic from kneeling to scrub. Southerly wanted to create a better world.
I have read his diaries – have them before me now – and know that he saw himself as a man of the new era: a socialist, inspired by a vision of a world where,- and here I quote, “Poverty and hunger can be eradicated and human dignity assured; where men and women can unite in equality; a world in which lowly or impoverished birth need be no impediment.”
He wrote those words in 1893, the year he set sail for New Zealand.
New Zealand was booming when Southerly stepped ashore in Wellington. Everywhere there was building – banks, warehouses, hotels, churches.
Southerly quickly found employment engraving monograms on the windows of the Puketai Import and Export Company of Dunedin. Within Two years, as a result of hard work and thrifty living, he has amassed enough capital to set up his own small company, which he called simply Southerly Ornamental and Stained Glass. In the shop window he displayed example of his work including a picture of his celebrated Shakespeare sequence.
Even so… his beginnings in business were shaky, but the turning point came when he secured a large contract in Wellington, designing and installing glass panels in the doors of Government buildings. This gave him important contacts which led to other opportunities. Southerly Glass prospered.
But while he discussed business and worked as a craftsman by day, Southerly studied by night. He pored over the works of J. S. Mill and the anarchist Kropotkin. He read Tolstoy, Shaw and Ibsen. He worked his way through a battered and much thumbed copy of Karl Marx writings.
Avid for conversation, he joined a political reading group called the Freedom Through Literacy Society and, at their monthly gatherings, he encountered men and women, who, like himself, wanted to see New Zealand become a society based on equality and justice – a Brave New World. It was at one of these meetings that he met Dominique Volet, the daughter of one of the leaders of the Paris Commune of 1871 who had escaped to New Zealand with her mother in the 1880s.
Dominique was guest speaker and her topic was “Women and the Future”. She and Southerly spent the whole night talking and two months later, after a whirlwind romance, they were married. Through Dominique, Southerly came to know some of the French poets, painters and radical thinkers of that age. Diverse in their life-style they might have been, nevertheless they all agreed upon one fundamental principle: that Art, in whatever manifestation, if it were to be at the forefront of social change, needed to speak with the common tongue.
1904 was an important year for Southerly Brown. In January my father Sebastian Brown was born. And in that same month the firm, Southerly O and S Glass, won the valuable contract to design, make and install all the stained glass windows for the new church of St Corinthian being built in Wellington. The subject of the windows was the responsibility of the church but the designs were left to Southerly.
The ink on the contract was scarcely dry before Southerly set to work. While not a religious man, he knew he could pour his turbulent feelings about life and society into whatever moments from the Bible the church wanted illustrating. Equally, the contract was big enough to allow him to establish the kind of workshop he had always dreamed of.
He took on new workers: a woman to help with the draughting and several apprentices including two Maori brothers. From the beginning he encouraged his workers to think of themselves as artist-craftsmen. He shared his skills lavishly, explained his designs and encouraged discussion and debate. In his enthusiasm he even organized evening lectures for his workers on literature, philosophy, art and politics. Dominique attended, and sat at his side, suckling her baby.
By and large, the church council liked Southerly’s designs. They chuckled over the sequence illustrating “Miracles from the Gospels”, appreciating the look of astonishment on the disciples’ faces as the corpse of Lazarus opened its eyes and reached up. They nodded in appreciation at the way Jesus, broad shouldered and muscular as befits the son of a carpenter, strode over the waves of the sea of Galilee to join the small boat where the disciples were bucked and tossed. But their favourite by far was the large Nativity window, which blended into one brilliant image the cosmic star, the human birth, the Wise Men, the Shepherds and the whole world of Nature, from a thoughtful donkey, yea right down to a humble spider spinning its web in the eaves of the cattle shed. “We are one family,” commented Southerly, winking to the apprentices behind the retreating backs of the church committee. And if he had been speaking some ten years later he might have added the word “Comrades”.
Meanwhile, the building of the church of St Corinthian was proceeding apace, and all might have been well except for the arrival of Dr Montague Pollitt. This worthy had been brought out from England to oversee the artistic work – the candelabra, vestments etc. – associated with the church.
A former member of the British Academy, a specialist in Renaissance art, with, as he never failed to mention, a doctorate in Classics and Theology from Magdalen College at Oxford University, Dr Pollitt soon made his critical presence felt. For whatever reason – a clash of artistic vision perhaps, or just simple snobbery – Dr Pollitt detested Southerly’s work. And Pollitt was a formidable enemy with his erudition, sarcastic manner and high domed forehead.
At the meeting called to give final approval to the designs before the engraving of the glass, Dr Pollitt casually observed that he thought the image of the Virgin in the Nativity was a bit “fleshy”.
Southerly knew to which part of the Virgin Dr Pollitt was referring. “The woman is lactating like any young mother,” he said.
“But this is not any young mother. This is the mother of God,” answered Pollitt.
Later he complained that the disciples gathered around Jesus at Gethsemene looked “like common working men – not the elect of Our Saviour.”
“They were common working men” retorted my grandfather. “Plain men, with calloused hands.” He paused and then added with relish “Men who smelled of fish and goats.”
“But the church should ennoble, not demean, else how shall we better ourselves?’ Dr Pollitt answered smoothly. “I don’t know much about modem art’s pre-occupation with sordid scenes, but I suggest you take a look at the works of Giotto.”
My grandfather’s diary does not record his reply. At the end of the evening, the church fathers voted on the designs and Southerly’s work was approved – but only by a narrow margin.
Thereafter, antagonism between Southerly and Dr Pollitt grew. Not content with sniping at the artistic work, Pollitt involved himself with the accounts and even claimed that there were discrepancies between the materials ordered and those used. Once he arrived at the workshop unannounced with members of the church council to make a spot check. Nothing incriminating was found of course, but the working atmosphere was irredeemably poisoned, and this led my grandfather to commit a singular act of folly.
One night, shortly before the finished windows were due to be transported to the church, he engraved the face of Dr Pollitt into one of the windows. The window showed Herod ordering the slaughter of the innocents. Dr Pollitt’s face was undeniably the model for the angry king.
The likeness was noticed only when the windows were unveiled. Some men might have taken this as a backhanded compliment. Others might have laughed. But Dr Pollitt was enraged. He insisted that the offending pane of glass be removed immediately. He accused my grandfather of bringing him and the church into disrepute, of making a mockery of a most serious occasion. Then, in a series of articles in the newspapers, he launched a full-scale attack on all the windows, claiming they were poorly executed and even that some of the images bordered on blasphemy. “Jesus evicting the moneylenders from the Temple could in Mr Southerly Brown’s rendering be mistaken for a country lout fighting in a tavern,” said Pollitt, and he called for the windows to be removed.
The church fathers, embarrassed by the publicity, ordered Southerly to redesign some of the windows. He refused and told them that if there were any faults in the windows they were in the eye of the beholder. This, of course, angered the church council who promptly had all the windows removed and replaced them with panes of frosted glass.
As a final insult, Dr Pollitt secretly arranged for all the windows to be sold at auction. Which done, he returned to England.
The windows were sold before my grandfather found out. They disappeared to places as varied as a sheep station in Canterbury and a lampshade maker in Timaru. The effect on my grandfather was devastating. It broke his spirit. For a while he tried to repurchase some of the windows. But it was impossible. Gradually he changed from a man of good humour to what now might be called an “angry radical” One who saw the Establishment, in all its manifestations, as the enemy. In 1914, on the eve of war, he sold Southerly’s Glass and bought a large comfortable house in Mt Victoria for Dominique and young Sebastian: it this house where I now live and have my architect’s studio. Then he departed for Europe. He traveled to Russia and, so the story goes, was killed in the fighting at St Petersburg.
But, to return to the stained glass windows. Just a few years ago the magnificent Nativity window which had disappeared without trace, turned up at an auction in Wellington and I was able to buy it – for an exorbitant sum, let me say. I have it now, installed in my studio overlooking Wellington harbour. The evening sun makes the colours glow exactly as old Southerly Brown intended. It is magnificent.
I have had ample opportunity to study the window and believe that I have discovered things which Dr Pollitt missed, things which would have enraged him further, but which undoubtedly my grandfather intended. They make the work unique and priceless.
The realism of the faces is remarkable. Am I wrong in seeing among the swarthy skinned shepherds gathered at the back of the stable, a likeness to a Maori chief – a Hone Heke perhaps with just the hint of a moko and a taiaha for a crook? And those splendid wise men, surely the expansive one offering gold is William Morris, and the one behind him with the shining eyes could well be Percy Shelley, my grandfather’s favourite poet. And consider Joseph with his mane of hair and tangled beard. An excited, vital man this – not the dotard of tradition. Karl Marx methinks.
And the Virgin? What of her? For a while I thought she was my grandmother Dominique. But a recent publication has made me believe that Southerly was actually depicting Dominique’s friend, Kate Sheppard. Yes!
And finally, what was Southerly trying to tell us in the figure of the Christ child, looking straight at us, laughing in friendship and holding his unblemished hand, open-palmed towards us with such joyous confidence? Surely he is saying, “Come on, you people. Workers of the world. Rouse yourselves! – We have a world to win and nothing to lose but our chains.”
And a Merry Christmas to you all.