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The Stained Glass Attitude

West window of Liverpool Cathedral
West window of Liverpool Cathedral

It may seem surprising that there should be any link between Barnes and Liverpool at all. In the mid 1860s there was talk of a Liverpool publisher or printer bringing out Barnes's translations of the Psalms. This was Barnes's thanks-offering for his presentation to the living of Winterborne Came with Whitcombe in 1862. Liverpool libraries have been systematically approached over many years, but there has been no outcome. In the 1860s Barnes's translation of the Psalms” into plain English, not dialect ” was turned down so often that he had to ask friends to stop trying to get them published for him.

Later, however, Barnes was to fare better in Liverpool. In the vast Cathedral, a Gothic Dream after Barnes's own heart, dreamed up by the 21 years old Giles Scott, and realised by him and many others, Barnes is given a place in a window devoted to notable 'parsons.' Among fellow parsons are Bernard Gilpin, the 16th Century Apostle of the North, John Donne, Charles Simeon, Thomas Arnold, Charles Kingsley, and George Herbert with Nicholas Ferrar of Little Gidding. Other poets and writers are portrayed in other windows. Barnes said he hoped that his poetry breathed the spirit of Milton's Allegro and Gilbert White. Milton is with 'hymnologists,' and White with 'clerical gardeners.' Robert Herrick, who shares many poetic qualities with Barnes, was turned down when put forward for the 'parsons' window.

This string of names prompts the question: how did Barnes find his way into such company 'in a strange land*?

A possible answer may be twofold. From the 1940s to the 1960s, Barnes had an Indian summer. Even in the 1930s, the BBC marked the 50th anniversary of his death with a programme on the National Service. There were still many who had seen and even spoken with him. Many well-known writers, too, had come to know of Barnes through friendship with Thomas Hardy, and they praised his poetry without stint. In the 1940s, Geoffrey Grigson did excellent work on Barnes, and this was followed in 1953 by Giles Dugdale's enthusiastic William Barnes of Dorset. In spite of shortcomings in the region fact, the biography was named as among 'the best of the year' by Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose setting of 'My Orcha'd in Linden Lea' in 1901 has made Barnes known to many who do not know that they know his poetry. The piece has been announced on the BBC as 'a folk song by Vaughan Williams.' I recall a moving performance by Paul Robeson — there was no 'culture barrier.' At last, in 1962 the collected edition of Barnes's Poems was published, 76 years after the poet's death, and this was followed in 1966 by Trevor Hearl's William Barnes 1801-1886 The Schoolmaster, a work that goes beyond the brief of its title. From the 1940s to the 1960s, therefore, Barnes was often referred to in the world of poets and poetry.

That is the general literary consideration. The other part of the attempted answer is, if true, much more detailed.

Liverpool's is perhaps the last of traditional cathedral buildings. It was consecrated in 1924, and Vere E Cotton wrote a book about it in that year. He was then in his mid thirties, and worked for the well-known Rathbone firm of Liverpool. A year before, he had been elected to the City Council, and was appointed Honorary Secretary to the Executives of the Cathedral Committee. He was to have a distinguished civic career as Alderman, JP, Chairman of the Libraries, Music and Arts Committee, and President to the Council of the University, which made him an Honorary LL D. He was Liverpool's Lord Mayor in 1951, Festival of Britain year, and from 1954 he served on the Arts Council for five years.

Like others of his generation, Cotton's life had been broken into by the war, in which, between 1914 and 1919, he served in France and Italy. However, he had read history at Magdalene College, Cambridge, where the Master was A. C. Benson, and in 1919 he was already trained for a part in public affairs. In the personal sphere, he married in 1922.

This is a rather rude sketch of the man to whom was entrusted the iconography of the glass for the Nave Windows of Liverpool Cathedral. It was his business to put plans and ideas before the Stained Glass Committee for approval. Meetings were informal and there were no minutes. Carl Edwards, who was asked to make, among others, the 'parsons' window, stayed with the Cottons some eight times between 1958 and 1969. Barnes was 'approved' before 1964, when the Cathedral brought out a revised and enlarged version of Cotton's book under the new title The Book of Liverpool Cathedral in which Barnes in named.

Perhaps we seem to be getting no nearer to any reason for Barnes's appearance in stained glass, so we may as well pause here to note that Carl Edwards's design for Barnes is mostly drawn from the statue of him outside St. Peter's Church, Dorchester, and the portrait by George Stuckey now in the National Portrait Gallery. Any other help he had very likely came from Cotton as will be shown. For it is to Cotton's early life that one must look for an understanding of Barnes's realisation in stained glass in Liverpool in the middle of the 20th century.

Cotton was born in Hertfordshire in 1888, so he cannot have set eyes on the poet. Near the end of the century, however, he was sent off for Prep (from about 1897) at a boarding school opened by a Welsh couple, Thomas and Eleanor Pellatt, in 1893 at Durnford House, Langton Matravers (Maltravers as maps will spell it) in Dorset. This small estate of the Manor of Langton Matravers had been alienated from the Manor in the 14th century, and passed into the hands of the de Derneford family. The house became known as Durnford House, and, from 1893 till 1940, Durnford School.

The Pellatts, in the good sense, 'prepared' boys for the public schools. There was a second master, Arther Worsley, and when the Pellatts retired in the mid 1930s a Wykehamist, Mr. Lee-Elliott, took over. Langton Matravers is near the Channel, and when war broke out in 1939 it was in the danger zone. Like many other South Country schools,
it closed in 1940.

When this enquiry started, I hoped I might find that one or more of the Durnford School teachers had been boys at Barnes's school. This hope of making the story neat and tidy is thwarted by what is so far known. At the same time, there are reasons for believing that Cotton breathed the air of Barnes's poetry during his years at Durnford School.

In days before even silent films and the motor car, people turned out in their own time to hear lectures and recitals. At the lowliest level, one thinks of the village 'penny reading.' Barnes himself had been a travelling lecturer, and wherever he lectured he was asked to recite a few poems before leaving. He also gave straightforward recitals. Others were not slow to see that they too could be performers. Some of the neighbouring clergy had been among the first to give recitals of Barnes's poems. During Cotton's years at Durnford School, another writer of the first rank lived nearby. One cannot easily measure the sensibility of Prep School boys to such writers as Barnes and Hardy. One can, however, guess the esteem in which they were held far and wide because in 1908 the Clarendon Press published Hardy's Select Poems of William Barnes. In his preface, Hardy makes it clear that Barnes's recitals were very impressive. Cotton was too late for Barnes, of course. But Barnes was only one wandering lecturer, and the tradition, indeed, lives on. At the end of the 19th century, however, there were more of them and many more people to listen to them. Such performances might well take place in a school. On the other hand, schools might well take their pupils to them. One highly gifted performer at the end of the century was the novelist Walter Raymond. A delightful bookseller years ago assured me that Raymond was a better novelist than Hardy. The world has not agreed. But Raymond was that rare being, a dialect novelist (and dramatist and poet), which Hardy was not, and this may have been behind my old friend's remark. Hardy, for his part, thought Raymond's dialect recitals of Barnes's poems the best since Barnes's own. That Cotton heard Raymond is not proved. That he heard some recital or recitals of Barnes's poems in the years he spent at Durnford School is at least likely enough in the light of his later life. The School certainly did not 'turn him against' poetry and literature. For his taste in literature one must make some allowance for his time at Repton under Lionel Ford and at Magdalene College, Cambridge. And in Liverpool, Cotton always had a set of Hardy's books in the house. He had probably been aware of Hardy from about the age of 9 or 10 years. The continuing thread is worth teazing out. It has already been noted that Arthur Benson was Master of Magdalene. He was on friendly terms with Hardy, who became an Honorary graduate of the University and Fellow of Magdalene in 1913. In 1924, Cotton went to Dorchester to see the first English stage version (Hardy's) of Tess of the D'Urbervilles (another version had been staged in the USA in 1897), and reported it for the Courier. It seems unlikely that Cotton knew, when he was appointed Secretary to the Cathedral Committee, that when Hardy studied architecture in London he had been taken, along with other students and draughtsmen, on a guided tour of Westminster Abbey by the first Sir Gilbert Scott.

The ground seems here to have shifted from Barnes to Hardy” but only if one loses sight of the fact that it was Barnes who was to go into the stained glass at Liverpool. Hundreds of people who had read Hardy had never even heard of Barnes. It is because Cotton is such a worshipper of Hardy that one feels reasonably sure that he fell for Barnes in some way when he was at Durnford School. The likelihood that he heard of Barnes at that time is strong indeed. And it is not unlikely that he saw Roscoe Mullins's statue of Barnes in St. Peter's Churchyard in Dorchester. That now weatherworn statue (I wish that either Church or Museum would afford it shelter before it is too late) has bound its spell on countless people who perhaps read little of Barnes's poetry. But that Cotton should keep Barnes in mind over some 60 years hints at a much closer knowledge of the poetry and life” or legend ” of the poet than is carried away by any casual visitor to Dorchester. This does not mean that Cotton learnt all he ever knew of Barnes and his work at Durnford School, either. Barnes's appearance in stained glass in the middle of the 20th century must mean that Cotton took away with him from his Wessex years much more than a fleeting glimpse of a statue. He must have matured his thoughts through year after year. Still, one can fairly say that Durnford School was the seed time. Of what Cotton himself thought of Durnford School there is conclusive proof: the Cottons sent all their three boys to the School between the wars. That tells more than any merely verbal testimonial.

It is interesting, too, that Cotton proposed Barnes for the 'parsons" window. During Barnes's later years, he was often called 'Parson Barnes,' and this 'hwomely' custom lasted among older people into the 1950s. It may seem to some that to put Barnes into a window as a parson rather than as a poet is to under-rate his poetry. However, as George Herbert and John Donne are in the same window, the point does not seriously arise.

It would, of course, add definition to the lines of this brief sketch if the names of teachers or lecturers who were known to Cotton
belonged to those who are known to have praised Barnes. As yet names have not yielded themselves. At the same time, it is hoped that enough has been recovered from the close of the 19th century to make Barnes's monument in Liverpool a 'mystery' in the old meaning of the word.

Perhaps it makes one feel that in some things 6ne can be a little more sure than was Philip Larkin ”a very fond Barnes lover” that 'What will survive of us is love.'

One must not become too fanciful. But perhaps there is some thing awesome, something of pathos, in following the thread of a school boy's inner feelings of the 1890s ” inexpressible at the time ” growing through 60 years until they flower in this tribute in
Liverpool. It is rather frightening to think that but for a few prying questions, the thread could have been lost. But it is heartening and moving to learn how much can be achieved by the quietly held affection and imagination of one person. The outcome is something in which not only Barnes lovers may rejoice.

Article first published in the William Barnes Society Festival Handbook 1986

See also
Dorset Dialect
An interjectional exclamation
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