Louis Davis

This article first appeared in Oxfordshire Local History Journal, vol  7, no 5 (January 2006).

LOUIS DAVIS, 1860-1941
Watercolourist, book-illustrator and stained-glass artist

by NIGEL HAMMOND

LOUIS DAVIS was born and grew up in the shadow of St Helen’s church at the river end of East St Helen Street in Abingdon. During the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries Davis became known as a talented watercolourist, a playwright, book illustrator and above all a distinguished glass artist, continuing his work in the tradition of the Arts and Crafts movement. When referring to the splendidly translucent, glowing colours Davis loved so much, as evidenced in his windows at Cheltenham College chapel, Nikolaus Pevsner identified him as the last of the Pre-Raphaelites, a title others used. The Oxford Mail, for instance, reviewing a Louis Davis exhibition in London (1935), reminds its readers: ‘Mr Davis, who was born at Abingdon, is one of the last remaining pre-Raphaelites. He knew Burne-Jones, William Morris, Rossetti and others.’

The obituary of Davis in the Abingdon Parish Magazine (November 1941), noted that he often spoke of the beauty of St Helen’s, the Almshouses and the river. ‘His colour and design satisfy the sense of beauty, and the actual craftsmanship will always be a wonder to those who understand the art of glass-making.’

The Times obituary (23 October 1941) dwells on his watercolour painting, noting such works such as Cresswell Farm, Study of Gourds, The Heron Pool at Westwick and October Showers. The newspaper commented: ‘Mr Davis may be said to have inherited the side of the pre-Raphaelite movement which was concerned with medieval glamour and Celtic twilight rather than with the method of fidelity to nature... Davis was so thoroughly imbued with the spirit of his school that he used all its devices and mannerisms with an easy, natural skill, and the sentiment of his pictures never seemed forced or affected...’

Early life

Davis in back row, third from right
Davis in back row, third from right

Louis Davis, 1874

Born in May 1860, Louis was the son of Gabriel Davis, an Abingdon merchant and manufacturer. His mother, Gabriel’s second wife, was Marianne (or Mary Ann), who came from Ewelme in Oxfordshire. Abingdon School entry register records Louis Davis joining the school as a day-boy in May 1870. Clearly recognised by the Revd Edgar Summers (headmaster 1870-83) as artistically talented, Louis was awarded a foundation scholarship in the following year. As a youngster Louis lived at the East St Helen Street family home with his father and three brothers, recorded in the 1871 census as Arthur (19), David (13) and Oliver (6).

Louis’ father was an Abingdon hop, wine and spirits, coal and corn merchant (with a branch of the business at Watlington). The family also became involved in the Davis Engineering and Launch Building Company located in St Helen’s works at the junction of the river Thames and the Wilts & Berks canal. The business built and repaired canal and river barges, steam launches, pleasure boats and manufactured for export, stern-paddle-wheeled vessels used on the Nile.

We know nothing of Davis’s career after he left Abingdon until 1891 when he became one of the earliest pupils of the glass artist, Christopher Whall (1849-1924). It seems certain that in the intervening years he must have undergone some training. It is possible to speculate that he trained with Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98), which would have brought him under the influence of William Morris (1834-96), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828-82) and other Pre-Raphaelites. Their influences are manifest in his subsequent life’s work.

Initially Davis lodging and lived more or less as one of the family, at Whall’s home in Dorking, which was also his studio. Davis worked with Lowndes & Drury (founded in 1897) at their small premises in Park Walk, Chelsea; this was in the late 1890’s and early 1900’s where Mary Lowndes (1857-1927), an enthusiastic disciple of Christopher Whall, later established the Glass House at Lettice Street in Fulham (1906) with A J Drury her foreman. It was a purpose-built workshop for glass artists which enabled independent glass-designers to carry out commissions. At Dorking and Chelsea Louis Davis became a central member of Christopher Whall’s coterie of glass artists and painters that included his daughter Veronica Whall (1887-1970), Karl Parsons (1884-1934), Paul Woodroffe (1875-1954), painter, book designer and illustrator, and possibly Leonard Walker (1877-1964), principal of St John’s Wood School of Art. Whall gave Davis a sound and encouraging start in glasswork. In 1891 and 1893, when Christopher Whall was commissioned to design windows at St Mary’s Church, Stamford, Lincolnshire, Whall and Davis completed the second window jointly.

Early artistic career

At first, Davis turned to watercolour painting and book illustration. From 1886 onwards he was a prolific illustrator, especially for The English Illustrated Magazine. Davis produced stylised birds; topographical work and drawings described as ‘delightful period pieces’, mostly vignettes and chapter headings but sometimes full-page designs and topographical subjects. There are at least three ink sketches of Abingdon by Davis, one showing Thames Street and Abbey mill, the other of the old schoolroom at Abingdon. It appears that the National Gallery never acquired, as had been intended, Louis Davis’s painting Nisi Dominus Frustra, (Psalm 127: ‘without God everything is in vain…’), a painting of that title being sold by Christie’s in 1991.

Abingdon watercolour

It was as a watercolourist that Davis attracted controversy when he showed a design for glass as a watercolour at an exhibition of the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours. His contribution, excellent though it may have been, did not go down well. Glass artistry and water-colour painting, as artistic genres, did not mix and Louis Davis had dared to breach that convention. Davis consequently resigned as a member of the watercolourists (probably around the end of 1910 or early 1911) and concentrated on stained-glass work, which is the field in which he made his distinguished reputation and impact in the world of art.

Davis tried his hand at writing a single fairy play in three acts including his own illustrations. The Goose Girl at the Well (1906) was an adaptation from a version of the stories of the brothers Grimm. Davis had illustrated Good Night (1895), a collection of verses by the radical poet, Dollie Radford (1858-1920). She in turn contributed songs to The Goose Girl at the Well and in her collection, Songs and other Verses (1895), included a poem in two verses entitled, For Windows by L D, describing vividly a pair of stained-glass panels Louis Davis had designed in 1894 for a house in Eltham.

About 1895 Louis Davis was in touch with the Revd Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), rector of Lew Trenchard, Devon, composer of the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’, and a distinguished author and collector of folk songs. While on Humberside Davis had conversed with German sailors and obtained a background to the carol, ‘I saw three ships go sailing by’, which he communicated to Baring-Gould. Might Louis Davis have been visiting his old Abingdon schoolmaster on south Humberside, the Revd Edmund Harper (1825-1923) and his family? Harper taught at Abingdon (1855-71) and was vicar of Luddington near Goole (1871-1923). His wife was an Abingdon solicitor’s daughter, whose family also lived in East St Helen Street.

Home life and later career

Littlemore ChurchLittlemore Church

Christopher Whall and Davis became close friends, so much so that Whall named his youngest son Louis, after Davis, who also may have acted as godfather to the child. Davis’s wife Edith was substantially younger than he – they met whilst Louis was on a countryside sketching expedition in East Anglia. Edith was the daughter of an agriculturist and when Louis called at a cottage asking for water, the young Edith Webster who answered impressed him. It may have been love at first sight. Louis offered to educate the girl and married her in the mid-1890s. Louis and Edith set up home at Pinner, having a house and studio built, naming their new home after his mother’s birthplace, Ewelme Cottage, (now 62 Paine’s Lane at Pinner). It is probable that Davis initially engaged Edith, in true Pre-Raphaelite form, to act as his model: the faces of many of Davis’s figures in glass strongly resemble a surviving photograph of Edith.

Edith Davis was an accomplished embroiderer; among her works, a banner, ‘St George and the Dragon’, signed ‘E D Pinner 1907’, was worked for presentation to Lord Grey, governor-general of Canada (1904-11). The banner is kept at the University of King’s College, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Coincidentally, Grey was nephew of Harriet, Lady Wantage of Lockinge, herself a benefactor of Abingdon School and to whom Davis may have been known.

For some time Louis’ sister-in-law, Ethel Webster lived with them as housekeeper and companion and the two sisters were well known in Pinner for their picturesque appearance. Locals called them ‘the Gainsborough ladies’ because of their large hats. Edith’s childless marriage ended with Louis’ death in 1941; subsequently she sold Ewelme Cottage and returned to her home area. She died near Lowestoft in the late 1970s.

Before the First World War Davis had become a full-time glass artist, with abundant work. He usually completed commissions himself, from design to finished product, having no pupils. He employed one craftsman to help. By 1900, because of the sheer volume of work, his glass was being made up by James Powell & Sons of Whitefriars in the City of London. Louis Davis also found time to teach at the Central School of Arts & Crafts.

Cartoon for ColmonellCartoon for Colmonell

Among Louis Davis’s more important work was a scheme for glazing the choir windows at Dunblane Abbey (1913), several windows in the chapel of the Order of the Thistle at St Giles’s Cathedral, Edinburgh (designed by Robert Lorimer 1909-11) and glasswork at Westminster Abbey, Gloucester Cathedral, Colmonell Church in Ayrshire, Wemyss Castle, St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin and Welbeck Abbey. He also decorated the private chapels of the Marquess of Londonderry at Wynyard Park, County Durham and the Duchess of Bedford at Woburn. Davis exhibited with the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Societyand was a member of the Art Workers’ Guild (1891-1906). As a painter he exhibited at the New Gallery, the Royal Society of Painters in Water Colours(Associate, 1898) and elsewhere.

From 1910 Davis worked with Karl Parsons, with thoughts of the two glass artists entering partnership. Karl Parsons had started out in 1899 at the age of fifteen as Christopher Whall’s pupil-apprentice and became his principal assistant. Parsons with Edward Woore (another of Whall’s younger apprentice-pupils) helped illustrate Whall’s book, Stained Glass Work (1905) and photographs of Davis’s stained glass were used as illustrations at the end of the book. But the Parsons-Davis partnership did not come to fruition, possibly as a result of a domestic accident at Pinner in 1915 when Louis and Edith were overcome by fumes from a gas fire. He suffered severe damage that robbed him of the power of speech. Edith Davis recovered completely but oxygen starvation gave Louis all the symptoms of a stroke requiring the occasional need for a wheelchair.

Copyright © St Silas ChurchCopyright © St Silas Church

From 1915 onwards Davis completed less original work, concentrating instead on using copies of previous cartoons and designs. In effect his individual production of fresh work slowed, and after 1917-18 Thomas Cowell (1870-1949) played a significant part in re-working or adapting earlier designs. Cowell was for many years the principal glass-painter for James Powell & Sons who translated Davis’s designs and cartoons into stained glass. Nevertheless Davis produced a number of outstanding designs after 1918, including a distinctive east window in St Mary’s Church at Rockbeare in Devon (1928), showing the Virgin and Child together with two angels treading a delicate carpet of daffodils and snowdrops. At St Silas’s Church, Kentish Town, a single light shows Hope tiptoeing through daffodils: it is likely that Faith and Charity were never made. At Cheltenham College (1924), two superbly detailed, intellectually satisfying, and gloriously colourful First World War memorial windows shed a warm poppy-red glow on the body of the chapel.

Davis also produced a splendid portfolio of ten drawings, mostly cartoons for glasswork (1907). These include a Study of the head of Beryl;Summer and hermonths, a study prepared for Welbeck Abbey; Virgin and child with butterflies; Angel of the Christmas tree and Angel of the Rose, three drawings made for decoration in the oratory of Adeline, Duchess of Bedford; a Study of Drapery - The dream of St Martin; The Island of the Hart, a drawing for decoration in the Marquis of Londonderry’s private chapel at Wynyard Park, County Durham; Child Angel with Dove, a study for a window at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin; The dream of St Anselm and Weeping Angel, the latter desiged for a painting on the decorated panels above the back of the altar, at the former church of All Hallows in Southwark.

Local glass by Louis Davis

There are two examples of Davis’s stained glass in Oxfordshire. At the community church of St Mary & St Nicholas, Littlemore, planned by the Revd John Henry (later Cardinal) Newman, Thomas Willement’s glass installed in the 1840s was removed in 1900. In its place a new east window by Davis was inserted: a particularly uplifting, beautifully crafted and thoroughly imaginative work perhaps seen at its best by the light of a sunlit summer morning.

North Window - cartoon and glass North Window - cartoon and glass

At Abingdon School chapel, as a memorial to her late husband, Edith Davis presented a panel (1952) showing St Nicholas: it is the artist’s copy of his panel, coloured in a cold dark blue, but relieved by some gold, and brown, appropriately called the North Wind. It came from Davis’s series of great choir windows in the Lady Chapel of Dunblane Abbey illustrating the Benedicite. The Abingdon panel is likely to have been Davis’s copy of the Dunblane window which he made for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition at Wembley. Further to remember this local artist, Abingdon School currently awards Louis Davis art exhibitions and scholarships.

A little further away, at St Giles’ Church, Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, are two windows designed by Davis (1899) and produced by James Powell & Sons. Just north of Bicester, Barton Hartshorn church, Buckinghamshire, holds a two-light window of excellent detail and intricacy. It stands as a memorial to Archibald Trotter (1892-1914), Coldstream Guards. He was the son of Colonel Trotter, owner of neighbouring Barton Hartshorn manor which Sir Robert Lorimer (1864-1929), Scottish architect and garden designer, had earlier been engaged to restore. Lorimer and Davis had previously worked on several joint projects in Scotland, particularly the Thistle Chapel at St Giles’ cathedral in Edinburgh. It is likely that Davis obtained the commission for this window through Lorimer.

St Giles' Church, Stoke Poges   St Giles' Church, Stoke Poges
St Giles' Church, Stoke Poges

 

Virgin and ChildVirgin and Child
Copyright © D & M Ball

In the church at West Lavington, Wiltshire, hangs a much under-valued ‘Virgin and Child’ (1910), a tall, oblong, ill-lit, narrow painting. At Foxley, near Malmesbury, Wiltshire, a memorial window to Walter Cecil Luce (1873-1901) has meticulous designs in green, purple and silver, illustrating the local landscape.

Glass at Pinner and Hatch End

In the church of St John the Baptist at Pinner, two windows show the bold, impressionistic, Pre-Raphaelite figures of ‘Faith’ and ‘Hope’ (1900). But close by at St Anselm’s church, Hatch End, where Louis and Ethel Davis were members of the congregation, the windows are filled with a kaleidoscope of imaginative, symbolistic, theologically imbued and colourful glass (1903-32). Davis was perhaps best admired because of a desire to move away from the crude colouring of the Victorian period and for his insistence that any window coloured or otherwise should admit light. The Hatch End windows show Davis’s talent as a glass artist in all its distinctive glory. If Louis Davis needs a memorial to his work: circumspice.

The east window illustrates the ‘Nativity’(1903). The principal light of the ‘Virgin and Child’ shows the star of Bethlehem shining down. The light then changes to a shaft of lightning as it strikes the serpent of evil coiled at their feet. The further eight lights show scenes from the life of St Anselm. The other Davis windows date from 1905, 1910, 1915, 1927 and 1932.

The three lights of the baptistry window show the young Christ as a warrior. The poignant centre light holding a fragment of clear ruby glass brought from the shattered windows of Ypres Cathedral by Michael Hill, a chorister and cross-bearer at St Anselm’s who had been baptised at the church and whom Davis had known. Davis inserted the fragment, later inscribing it, Michael Hill, Ypres 1915 - Hill having been killed in France ten days before the window was dedicated.

Sources

  • The English Illustrated Magazine, ed. J Comyns Carr, 1886-92.
  • Stained Glass Work, Christopher Whall, London 1905.
  • The Goose Girl at the Well, Louis Davis, London 1906.
  • A Portfolio of Ten Drawings, Louis Davis, Pinner 1907.
  • The Parish Church of St Anselm, Hatch End, Pamela Davies, Hatch End 1998.
  • Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914 and Dictionary of British Artists, working 1900-50 , both by Grant Walters.
  • Newspaper articles: Manchester Guardian 18 November 1901, Sunday Times 12 April 1908, Nottingham Guardian 25 January 1911, Carlisle Journal 2 October 1928, Glasgow Herald, Oxford Mail 3 April 1935, The Times 6 April 1935 and 2 March 1941.
  • Local publications: The Abingdonian, Abingdon School magazine 1941 and 1952; Abingdon Parish Magazine (1941).
  • Also conversation and correspondence with Peter Cormack, FSA, Keeper of the William Morris Gallery, Walthamstow, an expert on Whall and Davis. Remaining detail in this article comes from personal research and viewing Davis’s work. There is as yet no published record of Louis Davis’s achievements as illustrator, watercolourist or glass-artist. Like most of his contemporaries in stained glass, he is now only beginning to receive the recognition his work merits.

With thanks to Duncan and Mandy Ball and to St Silas Church for permission to use their photographs.

     
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