One of the most striking features of the church is the variety of glass used, which contributes to the sense of light in the building. The first impression for the newcomer (as intended) is nearly always Eginton’s great East window, but explore a little and you will find that there is old glass, new glass, Victorian glass, stained glass, painted glass and engraved glass too!
Francis Eginton was a most able worker in enamelled glass, and his showroom in Birmingham was a ‘must-see’ for visitors in the late 18th century – Lord Nelson and Sir William and Lady Hamilton were just a few of the eminent people who passed through its doors. Eginton supplied painted glass for buildings including Salisbury Cathedral, St George’s Chapel, Windsor, Tewkesbury Abbey and Merton as well as Magdalen College in Oxford. In the last of these, he painted the great Last Judgement depicted in the West Window there: that window was restored in the 1990s.
The impact of the East window at St Alkmund’s is impressive: the picture is based on Guido Reni’s “Assumption of the Virgin Mary” (1642), now in the Alte Pinakothek, Munich, of which Eginton had an engraving. The brown colours highlight Mary’s girdle of blue: her eyes are raised to the Crown of Life, symbolising Hope in the life hereafter.
As is typical of his work, Eginton uses several layers of enamelled paint – there are two thicknesses of glass, with paint on the inside and outside, creating a luminescent quality much more like a painting than traditional stained glass.
The picture is painted without regard for the positioning of the frame, unlike a stained glass window, and the one-time visitor is advised not to expect the window at its best on a brightly-lit cloudless morning when the sun can cast shadows from the frame.
The window cost 215 guineas (a large sum in today’s money), and, although it cost more than originally agreed, the parishioners were reportedly so struck with its magnificence that they paid up readily! The restoration much more recently cost £150,000, but I am sure you will agree that it was more than worth the price. During this work, the experts discovered evidence of gilding on the cast iron frame, so it is that finish has been applied to the restored window. The window remains the great treasure of St Alkmund’s.
The armorial glass in the West window is Tudor, dating from around the time of Edward VI; one of the coats of arms shown is that of the then Bishop of Lichfield. In the evening, the golden tint lends an entirely different light to the church.
I find it hard to agree with the visitor who preferred the Victorian stained glass to the Eginton window, but it certain merits more than a casual glance. The North window, shown here, includes the Saints Peter, James and John.
One window in the South commemorates the dead of the First World War, and shows Christ appearing to a soldier in the trenches. this forms the backdrop to a simple War Memorial in a church which has in recent years had a regular connection with local Cadet Forces.
It may seem that there is little more to remark upon, but the actual frames of the windows have a story to tell. When the church was rebuilt in the 1790s, Carline used cast iron from Coalbrookdale for all thirteen windows in the new section of the church. This was an exciting new material in those days, and connects us to the very beginnings of the Industrial Revolution just twelve miles away from Shrewsbury (the Iron Bridge was only completed in 1779). The Victorian restoration of the windows, with scant regard for history, removed all but three of the frames in North and South and rebuilt the windows a little smaller, using stone tracery. You may compare the two styles in the picture below!
The three cast iron framed windows (one in the North-East. one in the Vestry and one in the Kitchen) and one of the windows with stone tracery in the North have a further surprise. When the church was restored, the slightly opaque glass was replaced by beautiful hand-blown clear glass which admits more light and makes the trees outside the church seem to shimmer as you move slightly. Engraved simply but beautifully in these are verses from poet George Herbert, taken from “Teach me, my God and King, in all things Thee to see”. One engraving, now in the Vestry, is an apt thought to end this page: “A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye; Or, if he pleaseth, through it pass And then the heav’n espy”.