John Hardman and Company: Pugin's glasspainters

A paddle wheeler may seem an unlikely location for a stained-glass window, but in 1912 the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company built the City of Detroit III, a large side-wheeled steamboat for cruising on the Great Lakes that included a lounge known as the Gothic Room furnished with medieval style columns and traceried arches. A prominent feature of the room was a large five-light window commissioned from Hardman’s depicting the French explorer Robert Cavelier, sieur de La Salle (1643–1687) landing at the site of the present-day city of Detroit (Fig. 11). When the boat was scrapped in 1956, the entire Gothic Room, including the Hardman window, was salvaged and is preserved in the Dossin Great Lakes Museum in Detroit.

Orders for Hardman glass slackened during World War I, a notable exception being a large commission for the Holy Name Cathedral in Chicago. A set of twenty-two clerestory windows was shipped out in July 1918 at a cost of $13,346, Hardman’s largest single commission for an American church. The subject matter of these windows embraced the complete panorama of the Christian faith, from the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary to her Coronation, with most of the significant events in the Life of Christ depicted in between. By this time the Church Glass and Decorating Company had gone into liquidation (in 1913), and Montague Castle-London Company of New York were Hardman’s Amer---ican importers. Montague Castle (1867–1939) was the president of the company, F. M. London the secretary, and Coleman was the director. Set out in ornamented Gothic letters, the new firm’s letterhead announced that it dealt in “English stained glass from the Studios of John Hardman & Co., Birmingham.”

In the 1930s the number of American stained-glass window commissions from Hardman’s declined rapidly, and in 1935 they ceased altogether. The United States now had competent stained-glass designers and manufacturers of its own, notably the Boston studio of Charles J. Connick (1875–1945), much favored by Ralph Adams Cram. The Great Depression and the onset of World War II also took their toll. In the postwar Catholic Church, the liturgical revolution fueled by the Second Vatican Council accorded ill with the medieval aesthetic of Pugin and Hardman. The last of the Hardmans to be directly involved with the company, the founder’s grandson John Tarleton Hardman, died in 1959, by which time the metalwork production that had provided the firm’s initial impetus had already ceased.

Hardman’s nevertheless held to their traditions and methods of making and restoring stained glass, determined not to allow these skills to disappear and hoping for an eventual revival. That revival is now well under way, due in no small measure to the exhibitions Pugin: A Gothic Passion at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 1994 and A. W. N. Pugin: Master of Gothic Revival at the Bard Graduate Center in New York in 1995. These exhibitions and the publications that accompanied them renewed interest in the creation and preservation of Gothic art and architecture on both sides of the Atlantic (see Fig. 2).7 Having survived the lean years of the 1970s and 1980s, Hardman’s highly skilled workforce was well positioned to meet growing demands for figure-painted windows using hand-blown glass. Now based on Frederick Street in the heart of Birmingham’s jewelry quarter, the company operates under the name of Pugin, Hardman and Powell, thus perpetuating the three names most closely linked to the formation and development of the Mediaeval Art Manufactory in the 1830s. Among the firm’s recent projects are collaborations with the foremost American practitioners of the Gothic revival, such as the architect Ethan Anthony of HDB/Cram and Ferguson of Boston.8 In 2000 he began his design for Syon Abbey in Copper Hill, Virginia, a Benedictine monastery built wholly in the medieval style and adorned with new Hardman glass. The large new Saint Peter Chanel Catholic Church in Roswell, Georgia, near Atlanta, is also being progressively filled with Hardman windows painted in traditional style.

Built firmly upon the standards of design and manufacture established in the 1830s, Pugin, Hardman and Powell is the only one of the firms associated with Pugin to have continued in business to the present day. Along with their valuable archive, they also have a collection of architectural antiques and metalwork dating back to the 1830s. The collection is constantly being enlarged through the purchase of items that appear from time to time in the salerooms. In 2006 the singer Cher sold the contents of her Malibu, California, mansion, including Gothic revival items such as Hardman brass chandeliers of about 1840 that had formerly been in the Bishop’s house in Birmingham (demolished in the 1960s).9 These, together with a pair of tall candlesticks that she had converted into electric lamps, were bought by Hardman’s to add to the collection, which is used for the instruction of artists and craftsmen in the principles of Gothic design. Though the chandeliers and candlesticks were made of polished brass and, in the case of the candlesticks, set with brilliant crystals, Cher had overpainted them in matte black, in accordance with the late twentieth-century misconception that Gothic is somehow dark, sinister, and nightmarish. The subsequent removal of the paint in the Hardman workshop demonstrates that the opposite is true and that Gothic, whether of the Middle Ages or of the nineteenth century, has always been about beauty and truth, light and color, brilliance and sparkle, and the uplifting of the human spirit.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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