The Baptistery


Carl Benn

The baptistery at St. Thomas's is graced with beautiful windows created in 1922 by Archibald John Davies (b. 1877) of the Bromsgrove Guild. Forming a central element of our Great War memorial, they consist of five twin-light windows depicting knights, saints, angels, a wounded soldier, and the Crucifixion. To some degree, their design, with its strong resonance to the pre-Raphaelite movement and the ideas articulated by Sir Edward Burne-Jones, appears somewhat old-fashioned for the 1920s. Yet the tone of these windows seems particularly appropriate for affirming the worthiness of the deaths suffered by the parish's sons (and one daughter) in 1914-18 in a manner that would have comforted the parents and siblings of the lost loved ones. While we can learn more about these windows in our 1993 parish history, Household of God (pp. 142-3), a logical question is: what was the Bromsgrove Guild where A.J. Davies produced these fine examples of English stained-glass (the only non-Canadian-made windows in the church).

The 'Bromsgrove Guild of Applied Arts' came into existence in 1898 under the leadership of Walter Gilbert, the headmaster of the Bromsgrove School of Art and Science in the English West Midlands. Much of his inspiration came from the values inherent to the Arts and Crafts Movement, such as developing the creative skills of working people so that they could support themselves through meaningful labour outside of the dehumanizing environment of much of the period's industrial enterprise. At first, the men and women of the guild worked from their own studios in different parts of Britain, but cooperated on projects and in running the business under Gilbert's leadership. They worked in a variety in materials, including wood, glass, plaster, textiles, metals, enamel, pottery, mosaic, and stone.

The guild promoted itself through advertising, setting up sales offices (including one in Montreal, opened in 1911), exhibiting in galleries, and competing at fairs, such as the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris, where it presented an Art Nouveau bedroom setting, won nine medals, and sold part of the display to Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum. The guild received many of its commissions through architects who wanted it to create decorative and functional furnishings and fixtures on building projects. Its members also produced furniture, jewellery, presentation pieces and medallions, garden statuary, mundane things like brass plaques for professional offices, and other objects that they sold directly to clients or through retailers.

Gradually, much of the guild's operations came to be concentrated in the town of Bromsgrove itself. For example, A.J. Davies, the creator of our windows (who had studied glass under Henry Payne at Birmingham Art College), moved his studio to Bromsgrove from Birmingham in 1906. There, he and the other glass workers and their apprentices produced glorious, skilfully designed windows in what was quite an ugly corrugated iron building. At the time of Davies' arrival in Bromsgrove, the guild employed 150 people, including a significant number of craft workers who had moved to England from continental Europe.

The guild fulfilled commissions for an enormous range of private and commercial clients, including the owners of the ocean liner Lusitania, the British Museum, the Canadian Battlefield War Memorial Commission, and American industrialists. Two of its well-known creations were a large statue of 'Mr. Punch' for the offices of Punch Magazine and the bronze subway entrances to the Piccadilly Circus underground station. Perhaps the most famous of the Bromsgrove Guild's productions were the great ceremonial gates at Buckingham Palace - including the Canada Gate - that were crafted during the Edwardian era.

Naturally, much of the guild's work was done for churches, including the production of windows, lecterns, statues, and other furnishings, along with such items as bishops' crosiers. For example, the guild made the choir stalls, altar rails, plaster panels, a statue, and other ornaments for the well-known English Arts and Crafts parish church in Dodford (consecrated in 1908). It also fashioned silver statues of the four apostles for the altar at Brompton Oratory in London, crafted the chancel gates and reredos for Liverpool Cathedral in the 1920s, and cast impressive bronze doors for Guildford Cathedral after the Second World War.

One of the first projects the guild undertook in Canada was the manufacture of stained-glass windows for the Unitarian Church of the Messiah in Montreal, installed between 1907 and about 1917 (all but one sadly were lost in a fire in 1987). Davies made those windows, as well as others for churches outside of Britain, such as a set for Johannesburg Cathedral. There is no complete catalogue of Bromsgrove windows for Canada, but there is one window at St Michael's and All Angels Anglican Church in Toronto, two at St Andrew and St Paul's United Church in Montreal, and several in the library of the University of British Columbia. There was enough business in this country that the guild set up Bromsgrove Guild (Canada) in Montreal in the 1920s, although most of the craft workers it employed here were British. The Canadian branch turned out furniture and ornamental work in wood, iron, bronze, plaster, and stone. Their efforts appear in numerous famous buildings, such as the Château Frontenac Hotel in Quebec City and the Musée des beaux-arts in Montreal.

Walter Gilbert left the guild just after the end of the Great War, although he retained an affiliation with it for a few years afterwards. The guild itself became a limited company in 1922, and produced an astonishing variety of craft products over subsequent decades (with a switch to war work between 1939 and 1945). However, the guild gradually shrank in size, faced numerous financial challenges, and found it increasingly difficult to find workers with sufficient talent to meet its needs. Finally, in 1966, the Bromsgrove Guild wound up its operations. Our Mr. Davies passed away in 1953, and his ugly iron building fell to the wrecker in 1996, but his windows, here at St. Thomas's and elsewhere in the world, live on to inspire those fortunate enough to see them.

Carl Benn is chair of the Department of History at Ryerson University and a parishioner at St. Thomas's.