Ervin Bossanyi The Angel Blesses the Women Washing Clothes 1938-43 at Tate Britain - close view
Ervin Bossanyi The Angel Blesses the Women Washing Clothes 1938-43 at Tate Britain

This window is one of only two pieces of stained glass in the Tate collection, and was commissioned as a gift c.1938. It was inspired by a trip Bossanyi made to Chartres in France in 1937, where the Cathedral boast some of the best known stained glass windows of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

In the year that Bossanyi completed the work he explained the subject to Tate Director, Sir John Rothenstein: ‘One morning I watched the washer women in the valley as they were busily washing, rinsing, wringing and shaking their clothes. What wonderful work they achieve, I thought, and yet there is in the cathedral not one window for and from them, but … I will make one for them … And as I looked up to the spires of the church it seemed to me that the Angel descends, descends to those women and girls and brings to them for their toil, purification, a heavenly benediction’ (E. Bossanyi, letter to Sir John Rothenstein, 19 October 1942, Tate Archive).

The window comprises 21 panels filled with coloured glass. Bossanyi depicts an angel resting her hand on the face of the one of the washerwomen who gazes up at her in awe. Two other women below become distracted from their work at the sight of the willowy figure looking down on them. The glowing fire above her head has been interpreted by Tate historian Frances Spalding as the flame of life (Frances Spalding, Tate: A History, London 1998, p.94). The rest of the window is composed of brilliant textures and patterns in pure primary colour.

Bossanyi, Hungarian by birth, trained at the Budapest Academy. He worked as a stained glass designer in Germany during the 1920 and 1930s, but emigrated to Britain as a refugee from Nazi oppression in 1934. He quickly became known in the art world through exhibitions of his work and illustrations in the magazine, The Studio. Sir Evan Charteris, Chairman of the Tate Trustees, introduced him to the Director of the Tate, J. B. Manson. Following this meeting Bossanyi decided to make a window for the Tate Gallery ‘touched by the warmth of his welcome in Britain’ (Ervin Bossanyi: Paintings & Works in Stained Glass, p.11). The estimated cost of the materials for the window was between £600 and £650 which was to be raised through private subscription.

Ervin Bossanyi The Angel Blesses the Women Washing Clothes 1938-43 at Tate Britain
Ervin Bossanyi The Angel Blesses the Women Washing Clothes 1938-43 at Tate Britain

Finding money for the window proved difficult and on 7 December 1938 Bossanyi wrote to the new director, Sir John Rothenstein, lamenting: ‘Our times, so saturated with sorrow and horror sets clearly my aim or leaves me no alternatives. I make an uplifting window or nothing’ (E. Bossanyi, letter to Sir John Rothenstein, 7 December 1938). Bossanyi attached great importance to the survival of the art of making stained glass. In another letter he declared to Rothenstein that by allowing him to ‘realise this work you are furthering that branch of stained-glass art which is so severely threatened with extinction’ (E. Bossanyi, letter to Sir John Rothenstein, no date).

Work on the window was set back in July 1940 when Eastcote in Greater London, where Bossanyi had his studio, was declared a protected area. Bossanyi and his wife were forced to move out within three days and live in a caravan. Rothenstein wrote to the Secretary of State on his behalf: ‘I feel that his [Bossanyi’s] inability to continue this work at his own studio in the conditions which are necessary, will prevent the completion of a work of art which is destined to become the property of the nation’ (Sir John Rothenstein, letter to the Secretary of State, 11 July 1940). It is not clear whether an exemption was made for Bossanyi but two months later he was able to return to his studio. The war, however, continued to cause problems, not least owing to the fact that following bomb damage in London, the glass firing workshop had to close down and Bossanyi had to build his own electric kiln.

Following the completion of the window in 1942 Bossanyi wrote to Rothenstein ‘. I am now on the way to become very poor’ (E. Bossanyi, letter to Sir John Rothenstein, 3 December 1942). The total cost of the window far exceeded expectation and the situation worsened when the Ministry of Works reported in June 1947 ‘We do not much like the window itself, or the alteration in the elevation of the building which its insertion will involve, and we consider it is a pity that we were not consulted when it was commissioned’ (Mr Proctor, letter to Sir John Rothenstein, June 1947). The problem had arisen because the glass window was too large for the existing aperture. The installation of the window was further delayed as, when the Tate re-opened following the war, only a quarter of the galleries was in public use and there was no money available to carry out the structural alterations necessary to accommodate the window.

The stained glass was eventually installed at the top of the staircase leading up from the restaurant to the Rotunda entrance in 1948. The most extensive review appeared in Country Life in October 1948. Alec Clifton-Taylor commented, ‘The colours achieve such depth and richness that one can well understand what the artist means when he says, ‘Chartres confirmed in me all my beliefs.’ Our new window may be hailed as an event of major significance in the field of stained glass. Here at last is a stained-glass artist whose work would be a welcome embellishment to even the loveliest of our Cathedrals’ (quoted in Ervin Bossanyi: Paintings & Works in Stained Glass, p.12). His enthusiasm for the window is less evident in a letter he wrote to the artist shortly after: ‘as I think you may have guessed all along, I do not really like your design greatly. To me it is mannered (I’m so sorry!) and sinuous (curving) in a way which is not congenial to my own nature’ (Ervin Bossanyi: Paintings & Works in Stained Glass, pp.12–13).

The Tate Gallery window was Bossanyi’s first public work in Britain and, although this commission and the installation were fraught with difficulties, he continued to produce stained glass windows for buildings throughout the world. Amongst his most impressive are those made for Canterbury Cathedral, York Minster and Washington National Cathedral in North America. His contribution to the decorative arts did not go unnoticed following his death in 1975. One obituary in the Daily Telegraph noted that he had ‘brought a flood of colour to the world’ (Daily Telegraph, 1 October 1979). The Times critic also remarked on his ‘undiminished intensity, creativity and utterly sincere dedication to visual arts in Britain .’ (The Times, 18 August, 1975).

Further reading

Dagmar Hayes, Ervin Bossanyi: The Splendour of Stained Glass, Canterbury 1965
Ervin Bossanyi: Paintings & Works in Stained Glass, exhibition catalogue, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford 1979, pp.11–13