Craigdarroch Castle’s Pre-Raphaelite Mystery Window

This stained glass window at Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria BC is a bit of a mystery. It's based on a well-known painting, The Odalisque, by Sir Frederic Leighton. | Jill Browne photo

This stained glass window at Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria BC is a bit of a mystery. It’s based on a well-known painting, The Odalisque, by Sir Frederic Leighton. | Jill Browne photo

Craigdarroch Castle is one of Victoria, BC’s most popular attractions, and the stained glass windows are definitely a highlight. There’s an artistic mystery to be solved, if you’re up for it.

A Pre-Raphaelite surprise

When I walked in to Craigdarroch for the first time, the first thing that caught my eye was this window, showing a young woman with a headscarf and a billowing blouse, leaning languidly on a fence. A white swan gazes up at her, and in her hand she has a cluster of peacock feathers.

I was pretty excited to see what looked like a Pre-Raphaelite window here, and wondered what the story was. That led to a mystery.

What is Pre-Raphaelite?

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood were a group of artists in England who created their own movement in 1848, rebelling against the direction in which art was developing.

What they started grew into a broader movement with a distinctive style, often very romantic and including medieval themes and images.

Art historians, which I am not, can better discuss the ebbs and flows of the Pre-Raphaelites. One thing that interests me is how the artistic style expressed in paintings found its way into decoration, especially stained glass. One of the very best examples of this is at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England, in the rooms of the cafe.

The Odalisque by Sir Frederic Leighton

This pre-Raphaelite painting from 1862 by Sir Frederic Leighton is called The Odalisque. Credit: Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This pre-Raphaelite painting from 1862 by Sir Frederic Leighton is called The Odalisque. Credit: Frederic Leighton, 1st Baron Leighton [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The window at Craigdarroch is based on this painting by Sir Frederic Leighton, called The Odalisque, or often just Odalisque.

Leighton (1830 to 1896) was a leader of the UK artistic establishment. He was a long-time President of the Royal Academy, from 1878 until 1896. Today, Lord Leighton’s house in Holland Park, London, is preserved as the Leighton House Museum and displays some of his art, in a setting unlike any other London house. He was fascinated with the Middle East, and when he built his studio-house, he designed and decorated it to reflect that love.

The politics of art were as lively in the Victorian period as now. In 1882, Leighton was one of the witnesses called against the sculptor Richard Belt in a fight over whether Belt was the creator of his own works. (I blogged about this in Richard Belt, the Jailbird Sculptor.)

Although he wasn’t a core member of the Pre-Raphaelites, Leighton was influenced by their style, as Odalisque, from 1862, shows.

The mystery

The mystery of the window is: Who was the artist?

Looking for the answer has made me wonder about the whole stained glass industry of the 19th century. My quest started with a bit of background about the castle.

Craigdarroch Castle

Craigdarroch isn’t a royal castle (we don’t have those in Canada) – it’s the former home of one of the wealthiest private citizens of the late 1800s.

Robert Dunsmuir (1825 to 1889) came from Scotland with his young family and made an immense fortune from the railroad and coal on Vancouver Island. Late in life, he commissioned the building of a grand mansion in extensive grounds on top of a hill in Victoria.

Robert died before the castle was finished, and never lived in it. His wife Joan and some of their daughters did move in. Today, visitors see the opulence that 19th-century money could buy: a vast house with many high-quality features including wood panelling, painted ceilings, and many radiant stained glass windows.

Most of the windows show patterns and pictures of flowers. The two where people are prominent are Odalisque and another with a 15th-century man smoking a pipe.

Where did the stained glass windows come from?

The Craigdarroch Castle website says:

“Thirty two of the forty-seven original art glass windows are still in place. The studio responsible for them remains a mystery. An 1890 newspaper account states that the order for interior woodwork from A.H. Andrews & Co. of Chicago included ‘windows.'”

This link back to Chicago in the 1880s puts us in the middle of a stained glass frenzy. After Chicago burned in 1871, there was much rebuilding to be done. All that construction activity, the availability of artists immigrating from Europe, materials, fuel, money, all led to Chicago becoming a leading place for stained glass, right up until the Great Depression of the 1930s. Even Louis Comfort Tiffany, one of the most enduring names in the art of glass, had a studio there.

Here’s an interesting article about Chicago’s stained glass history by June Sawyers from 1994 in the Chicago Tribune, “Light Fantastic“. I soon learned that there were many firms, and in theory Craigdarroch’s windows could have come from any of several places. However, I wonder whether the archives of the A.H. Andrews & Co. company survive, and whether in the late 1880s the firm had a favourite glass studio. I’m not the first to wonder about this. There’s been a lot of research done on Craigdarroch over the years, and it’s ongoing.

Perhaps the Odalisque window came from a different studio than most of the rest, given its unique subject matter. Maybe there was an artist who specialized in making stained glass versions of favourite paintings.

Will we ever know who created Craigdarroch’s Odalisque? It seems there are a lot of possible choices.


Craigdarroch Castle is open year-round. Please check their website for visiting information and let me know if you solve the mystery.

Link: TheCastle.ca

 

Disclosure

This is my standard form of disclosure that I am retroactively adding to all blog posts done before April 1, 2018, and will add to all new posts.

1. Is this experience open to the public? 

Yes. I had more opportunity to talk to the Curator and Executive Director than a public visitor normally gets, but there are other staff and volunteers at Craigdarroch who will answer questions to visitors.

2. Who paid the cost of me doing this?

I did, indirectly. I went to Craigdarroch Castle as part of a class trip for a course I was taking at the University of Victoria. We didn’t pay our own admission fee at the door.

3. Did I get any compensation or special consideration for writing this blog post?

No. In fact, I would like to think Craigdarroch will get some benefit from the class visit. One of our projects was to offer our views as heritage professionals.

4. Would I be as positive about this place if I had gone as a regular visitor?

Yes! No one asked me to blog about it. I did that because I wanted to share what I saw, because it’s beautiful and interesting.

 

Stained glass window at Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, BC. Based on a famous pre-Raphaelite painting, this window has a mystery. | Jill Browne photo

Stained glass window at Craigdarroch Castle in Victoria, BC. Based on a famous pre-Raphaelite painting, this window has a mystery. | Jill Browne photo

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Susan Wright
    March 21, 2018 at 10:01 pm

    Fascinating. I’ve visited the castle many times but now I’ll have to return to take a closer look at this beautiful mysterious stained glass window.

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