Stained glass is an art form which has been around for well over a thousand years. Initially brought to public attention through its use in religious buildings (when such institutions were practically the only bodies with the resources to commission work of this complexity and expense), it has since has spread well beyond its early uses, into domestic interiors and all kinds of public buildings.
As public buildings, it’s little surprise to find that many railway stations host decorative stained glass features. In the golden age of the railways, these spoke of the wealth and power of the railways in their prime. Even as the railways faced increasing competition from road and air transport, stained glass panels have still been installed. Sometimes they are commemorative of the local area in which the railway operates. Sometimes they celebrate the railway itself, and sometimes they are there simply as art, with no purpose other than to bring a brief moment of beauty to the lives of passing travellers.
Last week’s entry was a bit of a London epic, and a bit monochrome, so this week there are more pictures, more colour and a quick blast around the world. Prepare to be dazzled by the world’s railways’ glasses of many colours…
At the end of last week’s blog, stained glass windows (showing the coats of arms of Middlesex County Council, the local Bassett family and the county of Buckinghamshire) had improbably arrived in London Underground’s ultra-modern Uxbridge station of 1937, where they make an anachronistic juxtaposition. But it’s impossible to deny the intrinsic artistry of the windows themselves, even if the Mediaevalism of their design doesn’t entirely suit their Modernist surroundings:
Commemorating local links is a frequent use of stained glass at railway stations, and the next two vast panels represent some of the largest stained glass artworks at railway stations. The first is this whopper of a window at Bilbao Abando, in Spain.
According to the “Looking at Glass” blog, the window was installed in 1948 and shows the economic activities in the Basque region of Vizcaya, where Bilbao is located.
Next up, finally making it into this blog, is the tiny European country of Luxembourg, proving that size doesn’t matter. Luxembourg Station is the location of this dramatic window:
In a Modernist style, it shows the “classic” silhouette of Luxembourg City itself (though it doesn’t look quite like that now). According to this German stained glass research centre, the window was installed in 1950, and is the work of Linster Mondorf (more here).
Sometimes, the railway companies which built the stations liked to commemorate not their connections to the local area, but themselves. This stained glass panel at Waterloo Station in London, UK, takes a heraldic approach similar to that seen at Uxbridge. But in this case, the design is the coat of arms for the station’s builder, the London & South Western Railway.
It’s early twentieth century triumphalism, deliberately harking back to the earliest uses of stained glass. The L&SWR was demonstrating its power and importance by commissioning a large, detailed window. It is, after all, of no practical use whatsoever. It is there just because it can be. The L&SWR was telling its passengers that it had the resources and desire to spare on such ornamentation. Today, of course, it’s simply a delightful relic of railway history.
Similarly, at Sydney Central Station in Australia, these Art Nouveau windows can be found commemorating station builder New South Wales Government Railways (NSWGR).
The red flowers, according to the photographer, are Waratahs, the state symbol of New South Wales.
Beauty for Beauty’s Sake
Self promotional efforts like the ones above are, however, completely overshadowed by stained glass installations by American railroad companies in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These were used to demonstrate the overwhelming power and resources of the railroad companies involved. There was no need for them to directly promote the companies as such, being part of overall station designs of such distinction that the sum of the parts did the same job of impressing their passengers.
This is the stained glass skylight at Baltimore Penn Station (Maryland, USA), the work of architect Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison. It’s a gorgeous version of a popular beaux-arts feature, like the (much larger) dome at the Galleries Lafayette in Paris, France (a picture of which you can see here).
And here is perhaps the most beautiful window in this entry, an Art Nouveau tour de force at Theodore Link‘s St Louis Union Station, Missouri, USA (sadly no longer in use as a station, but still open to the public as a shopping mall and hotel).
From the West to the East then. Under the streets of the Russian capital, the Moscow Metro is world-famous for its decorative elements. It practically drips with chandeliers, marble, gold leaf and, of course, stained glass. The inter-platform concourse at Novoslobodskaya (which dates from the 1950s) has several stained glass panels, mounted on its columns.
Meanwhile, at Shabalovskaya station, you can see this Modernist stained glass panel on the theme of the exploration of the cosmos, and radio/TV broadcasting (according to the Moscow Metro’s official website here). It dates from the 1980s, the station opening later than others on the same line.
Modern Art Programmes
Stained glass continues to be installed at railway stations up to the modern day. Many of the stations on the New York City Subway’s J Line have stained glass decorative elements, installed over the last couple of decades as part of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s “Arts for Transit and Urban Design” programme. This one “Brooklyn, New Morning” by Al Loving (more details here) is at Broadway Junction, and was installed in 2001:
Another art programme, this time in Japan, has seen this panel installed at Shinjuku station. It’s an interesting and very apposite take on commuters transformed into the punctuality-obsessed White Rabbit from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”.
And if you think that’s a bit of an eye-opener, there’s another piece of glass art at the same station which verges on the terrifying, especially for film-goers familiar with director Peter Jackson’s realisation of the evil eye of Sauron:
Magazine Out of Order explains (here) that it was installed in 1969, and was the work of artist Yoshiko Miyashita.
Come On In
Many of these examples of stained glass look inwards: they were designed to be seen by passengers on the inside of stations, who were already committed to using the railway. On occasion though, stained glass has been used to appeal to prospective passengers. Some of the best examples can be found in the work of Charles Holden at his stations on the London Underground, especially those on the Northern Line’s southern extension to Morden. Here is Morden itself, opened in 1926. In the grimy London of the 1920s (pea-soupers et al), the huge stained glass Underground roundel invited passengers in to the clean, warm, modern electric underground railway.
Sometimes, but surprisingly infrequently, trains themselves are the subject of railway stained glass. Up on the balcony at Dunedin Station, New Zealand, you can find this window:
Finally, to bring the story of railway stained glass full circle by returning to the type of building where stained glass could first be found, this example is located in St Cuthbert’s Church, Kildale (Yorkshire, UK). Installed in 1992 by Goddard and Gibbs, it shows a steam train on the Esk Valley railway line, which runs practically at the bottom of the churchyard.
This is only a sample of the variety of stained glass features which can be found on railways around the world. This entry could easily have been double the length and still only scratched the surface of what’s out there. And we haven’t even started on stained glass in the bus sector. Perhaps another time…
This entry was the result of a suggestion
Thanks to reader DH this week for his suggestion of looking at railway stained glass. Good ideas for future topics are always welcome from anyone who wants put one forward…