Stained Glass Windows at Brancepeth Castle
William Collins at Brancepeth Castle
As the Georgian period drew to a close there was an increasing interest in Gothic architecture which was felt to symbolise England’s romantic past. Stained glass, seen as one of the crowning glories of the medieval period, came back into fashion and one of the most important producers of stained glass was William Collins (1773 – 1845). Rather than the ‘mosaic style’ of piecing together different coloured pieces of glass, Collins employed a number of highly skilled artists who re-introduced and further developed a style of painting on glass with enamels. His leading artist, Charles Muss, incorporated techniques used by the Romans and not seen since the middle ages. This style flourished for a relatively short period, and with the death of Collins and the closure of his workshop it fell out of favour.
One of the biggest and most important of Collins commissions, which makes up most of his surviving work, was at Brancepeth Castle. The medieval castle had been bought, in a dilapidated state, by William Russell in 1796. The Russells had become fabulously wealthy through coal mining, and William’s son Matthew set in place a huge rebuilding and renovation project. The aim was to recreate its medieval splendour while incorporating all the modern conveniences of the time. One of the key elements of the medieval aspect was stained glass. Huge widows were installed with people and scenes that emphasised the castle’s history. The largest of these, depicting the 1346 Battle of Neville’s Cross which was fought from the castle, was in the Barons’ Hall; six life-size portrayals of members of the Neville family and their blood relations were installed in the Drawing Room. Alongside these, and scattered around other principal rooms, were many smaller panels.
The Battle of Neville’s Cross, in particular, was much admired. ‘Visitors who viewed [it] in Collins’ workshop marvelled at the window, describing it as “a fine historical illusion” that “unites the beauties of the old and the new style.” It was such a success that, once installed, the castle was opened to the public for people to admire.’ (Mylene Vigneron, Vidimus Issue 95).
The Russells moved out of the castle in the 1920s, and the castle first became the headquarters of the Durham Light Infantry and then a research station for Pyrex. The largest glass installations were removed and relocated on more than one occasion, suffering increasing damage each time. The Battle of Neville’s Cross window was damaged, probably beyond repair. The Neville figures are gradually being restored and four of them are currently displayed in the Durham Museum and Heritage Centre.