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From ashes to light

To be marked with ashes on Ash Wednesday is to be reminded that life is short – ‘Remember, woman, thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return’ - and that now, not later, would be a good time to change your ways. It struck me that procrastination was one of the things that might get in the way of my useful personal reforms.

The words of the Ash Wednesday service in the Book of Common Prayer also promise the light of eternal life. Perhaps that is the light that Charles Kempe was trying to evoke. His somewhat unusual career choice had been motivated by his faith.


Born in 1837, afflicted with a stammer, Charles Kempe attended Rugby, which toughened him up, and Oxford. He loved Gothic art, and when he was 29 he set up a stained glass window business. It took him three years to obtain his first major commission, but he was not a procrastinator and for the rest of the century he had 100 men blowing glass and creating windows and church furnishings from his sketches. Toward the end of his life (he died in 1907) he was dashing round the country in a motor car to check on projects.


You can see Kempe stained glass in churches and cathedrals all over Britain - delicate and detailed painted figures and settings inspired by romantic, medieval images. They do not seem to be well documented in books or on line. However, the Churches Conservation Trust has a file. A little sheaf of wheat in a corner of the glass is the Kempe studio signature.