The Painted Glass Window in the Wren Library

This blog, the next in our series describing the architecture and decoration of the Wren Library, focuses on the painted window.

There are 28 arched windows in the Wren Library all the same size, 5.03 x 2.44m. The 13 that run the length of the east and west sides are in plain leaded clear and green glass.  In Wren’s designs for the building the two windows at the north and south ends were left plain, to maximise light for readers. As early 1682 before the building was completed the coat of arms of Charles II was added to the north window, which was later altered to the arms of Queen Anne.

The entrance to The Wren Library is at the north end of the building so that on entering the room the perspective of the long space leads the eye past the busts, over the black and white marble floor to the south window.  Within a few years of the library opening portraits began to be added to the interior along with the carvings and busts and already there were ideas about decorating the south window. When Dr Robert Smith, Master of Trinity 1742-1768 died he bequeathed a fund to the college:

to the master and seniors for such publick uses or Ornaments in the College as they think proper, Only desiring that the window in the south end of the College library be glazed with the best painted glass.’

It is not known who the concept for the window came from but Robert Smith was a keen Newtonian known to encourage the reverence of Trinity’s famous scientist. During his life time he had commissioned the Roubiliac busts of Isaac Newton and Francis Bacon which stand under the south window. College records show that Giovanni Battista Cipriani (1727-1785) was commissioned to design the window.  It was completed in 1775, 80 years after the library building was opened.

Cipriani had come to England from Italy and quickly established himself as a leading artist and teacher of drawing and painting in London. He was a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts and, among other prestigious commissions, contributed painted panels for the Gold State Coach which was designed for the coronation of George III (although not used until later) and which has been used for coronations and state occasions ever since.

Cartoon for the Cipriani Window

The original full-size cartoon for the window is kept in the Wren Library and a smaller sketch for the design is housed at the Fitzwilliam museum. Cipriani designed the window but it was William Peckitt of York (1731-1793) who realised it. Little is known about Peckitt’s training and methods. He made his own experiments to achieve the depth and range of colour present in his designs and later kept detailed notes on his method which he planned to publish. The craft of painting and staining glass had been in decline in the 16th and 17th centuries and Peckitt has been credited with reviving an art form in England which had all but died out elsewhere.  His work can be found in many churches and other public and private buildings throughout the country: these include restoration of the famous rose window at York Minster, windows for Lincoln Cathedral, New College Oxford and Audley End House in Essex.

The window shows Sir Isaac Newton, in blue robes, being presented to King George III by Fame or the muse of the college, in yellow robes. The figure of Britannia stands behind the King with Francis Bacon, in black, seated with paper and pen as if to record the occasion at the bottom right. At the top two cherubs and a bare-breasted woman herald this event with a trumpet.

Detail of the Cipriani Window

The imaginary scene shows the gathering of three influential figures who each embody the wisdom and learning of the college. Newton (1642-1727), Lucasian Professor of Mathematics, physicist, astronomer and theologian and Bacon (1561-1626), Lord Chancellor, statesman and philosopher were both Trinity alumni and George III, the sovereign at the time of the window’s creation, was a patron of science and learning. His personal library was left to the nation. Known as The King’s Library his books are now housed in a dedicated building at the British Library. His collection of scientific instruments are held at the Science museum. In 1768 he gave Royal status to the Royal Academy of Arts.

The Wren Library with the curtained window.

The brightly painted window divided opinion and in the 19th century it was covered with thick curtains as it was felt to be a distraction to the scholars. By the 20th century it was uncovered and remains a striking feature of the library today.

Added 17th December 2019

York University have acquired a manuscript notebook written by William Peckitt of York. You can read about it here.

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