Artist/Studio: Michael O’Connor, London, c.1848
Location: Buckland, Tasmania, Australia.
Building: St John the Baptist.
Memorial: Not Applicable.
Photos dated: 9th Oct 2010.
There have probably been no other historical Australian stained glass windows more talked of, argued about, or written of in the last 160 years, than those in the Chancel of St John the Baptist Church at Buckland, Tasmania.
Over the course of more than a century and a half, the legendary history of these windows at Buckland have been embellished into such an extraordinary myth, that they have now become more famous for the stories concocted about them, than the artistry and beauty of the windows themselves. The stories have become more and more outlandish as time has progressed and many are now so old it is probably useless to try and refute them as they are now ‘ingrained’ as part of their history. Most of the fables were written and published in the historical newspapers of the time and have been kept alive for more than 160 years and so, despite the sometimes extraordinary claims by the authors, the stories are now so old that they are referred to as fact.
The period from about 1926 until now probably accounts for the most number of stories published about the origin of the windows with years 1933 to 1935 containing some of the most interesting debates in the newspapers which include amusing claims about their origins.
In 1926 an article was published claiming that the window dated back to pre-Reformation days and was “presented by the late Marquis of Salisbury”. In 1930 another story circulated that they were from an English Monastery supposedly hidden from the Tudors in the home of a nearby family.
In 1933 the debate turned to more derogatory remarks about the artistic ability of the artist by saying “No painter would be permitted to show in any modern exhibition such distorted, angular, cramped, ridiculous figures, as our newest stained glass windows present to the eyes of wondering congregations. And why should the only contributions, with which pictorial art is permitted to adorn our English churches be caricatures rather than resemblances of the human form?”
The debate about the windows origins comes under question again in 1934 when a reader tries to dispel some untruths about a claim made in a ladies journal that stated “It is a household story on the East Coast of Tasmania that these stained-glass windows were hidden from Cromwell’s soldiers to preserve them from destruction; that they came into the possession of the Marquis of Salisbury”.
In 1935 an ‘A.L. Wayn’ of Lower Sandy Bay seems to have almost succeeded in revealing what I believe to be the truth of the windows origin. In an attempt to dispel a myth that the windows were donated by “Lord Robert Cecil,” he makes the most logical reference to the maker of the stained glass as “O’Connor, of Berners Street, London”. Not only was ‘Wayn’s’ claim that ‘O’Connor’ had created the window being historically correct, it was also clearly stated in an article about the church consecration published in the Hobart Courier in January 1850; “…a large eastern window of three lights, and a smaller one of two lights in the northern side. These are filled with stained glass, the work of Mr. O’Connor, a London artist…”
Like all good fables, once they start they are seemingly impossible to stop, and just over a week later, in January 1935 a “J. Moore-Robinson” pens an article to the editor of the Mercury asserting that truth of the windows origins would not diminish it’s beauty and that; “My R.A. correspondent, who refused the courtesy of identification, pleaded that it was unkind to “rob” Buckland of sundry small revenues derived from visitors who had swallowed the various “pre-Reformation” yarns”.
Not content to let the most logical answer of “O’Connor” as the maker of the window end the debate, another reader under the pen name of “ADHERENT” replies a fortnight later to deride the claims of Mr. Moore-Robinson that the window was made by the London artist O’Connor and makes an extraordinary statement “…how is it that a portion of the light depicting Herod handing the head of St. John to Salome, and which was irreparably broken, could not be replaced by stained glass of exactly the same shade as the original? A cursory glance will show that the substituted part is of a different age and make from the original, which is semi-transparent, whilst the substitution is opaque. The light referred to is supposed to have been broken by a pick when the windows (this and others) were discovered in a churchyard in England. Repairs were effected by O’Connor’s before the window was shipped…”
Little does the ‘ADHERENT” know that the repairs to the window he refers to were actually done in 1904 by the Tasmanian Stained Glass firm of Trowbridge Bros. His additional comment that the window was broken by a pick when they were “discovered in a church yard” adds more fanciful fuel to the previous myths and includes a new one by claiming that O’Connor did the repairs before the window was shipped!
The trail of articles about the legend probably goes on for many years more and becomes more flamboyant as it’s discussed around Tasmania’s old pubs, clubs, and churches as well as the tabloids until April 1949 when the Hobart Mercury takes a turn for the ridiculous and published “One story told about this window is that it was dug up in England after it had been buried by pirates many years before.”  The use of the word “Pirates” was sure to create a new wave of hilarious responses from the readers but was somehow extraordinarily ignored.
In July 1950 the Adelaide Advertiser ran an article which eludes that one of their South Australian readers may help solve the puzzle; “She writes that when she made a trip to Tasmania many years ago she was told that at the time of Cromwell the window was taken from York Cathedral and buried in a spot known only to members of a noble English family…” and “The glass is supposed to have been made of crushed gems giving the window its beautiful coloring”. The idea of it being made of crushed gems is a bit fanciful but not an entirely incorrect concept as it is fairly close to how stained glass is actually created in which ground glass, various minerals, such as cobalt, and even silver and gold are amongst the many materials that are sometimes used in small amounts to create certain colours and effects during the painting and firing process of the glass. .
A week later, The Advertiser wrote that the Chancellor and Librarian (the Rev. Canon Harrison), entered the debate by saying that the story of the window made of crushed gems from Cromwell’s time is “Another pretty story” with no substance in it.
The myths continued unabated with the Australian Women’s Weekly keeping the legend alive in 1965 by writing that it was “said to have been smuggled from Battle Abbey during the Cromwellian era, buried, disinterred, and packed off to Tasmania early last century…” and again in 1979 with “that it once belonged to Battle Abbey, the memorial to William the Conqueror’s victory at Hastings”.
Even as recently as 2009, nearly 160 years since the first written account of the window in the newspapers, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article resurrecting various parts of the legendary stories of the windows origins with Battle Abbey, Battle of Hastings and William the Conqueror.
The legendary tales will no doubt continue for many more centuries but the simplest explanation of the windows origins is, as it was originally stated in “The Mercury” in 1850, made by the Irish born artist Michael O’Connor in London in the late 1840’s. The perpetuation of the pre-Reformation legend probably started because of the windows unique design showing more “medieval” depictions of the figures yet still having Gothic Grisaille patterns in the surrounding decorative work.
So who was the stained glass artist Michael O’Connor?
The Irish born artist Michael O’Connor began his career as a Heraldic painter in Dublin and later studied stained glass under Thomas Wilament in London. He had returned to Ireland between 1833-1842 and the Dublin Post Office Annual Directory for 1839 describes him as ‘professor of heraldry, stained glass enameller, and ornamental painter, print & bookseller, and fancy stationer’. With little success in Ireland he returned England where he collaborated with A. W. N. Pugin and William Butterfield. By 1845 he had established his own studio in London, advertising from Berners Square from 1845 to his death in 1867. His son Arthur joined the business circa 1852 and second son Henry in the 1860’s. Many stained glass windows by the firm exist all over England.
St Luke’s Church in Richmond, Tasmania, also has a Gothic three light east window by O’Connor circa 1864, which probably exhibits most of the design and artwork of his son Arthur and possibly Henry.
The windows of St John’s at Buckland are located in the chancel and comprise the main triple light east window depicting the life of St John and the crucifixion of Jesus and the two light window to the left of it with depictions of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John as their alter egos of; the winged man (Matthew), the winged Lion (Mark), the winged bull (Luke) and the Eagle (John). The entire east window is made up of ten individual panels of varying sizes and shapes to form a lancet shape overall. Not counting the four smaller decorative panels in the upper area, the window is described as:
At the very top is a quatrefoil shaped window showing Christ on the Cross with the words “INRI”. (“Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews.”)
Two quatrefoils below show, on the left, the text and depiction of “S Maria” (St Mary) holding her hands clasped facing heaven with the text “Dei Para” (“Prepare The”), the right with depiction and text “SATS IOHANNES” (St John).
The left light shows St John holding his staff with the shape of the cross at the top.
The centre light depicts the Paschal Lamb with Latin text “Agnus Dei” (Lamb of God) and the banner of St George (Victory cross of red on white). Below that is the Holly Dove and further down is the scene of St John Baptising Jesus in the Jordan River. The Latin text below it is written “hic est Filius meus dilectus” (This is my beloved son).
The right light is probably considered the most controversial scene ever depicted in a stained glass window anywhere in Australia of its time. The gory graphical detail of St John’s beheading is quite unique. Herods’ daughter, Salome, had asked her father for the head of St John the Baptist which was duly obliged and so the scene in the window depicts Salome receiving St John’s head on the platter by a soldier and the body of St John lying below with his headless neck spurting blood. It’s probably not the most solemn or inspiring religious scene you would expect to see in the chancel of a church anywhere.
For a full set of photos of all the stained glass see my Flickr photo stream for St John’s, Buckland.
 Cheshire, J. (2004). Stained Glass And The Victorian Gothic Revival. UK: Manchester University Press. P.46-47.
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