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Travel isn’t always necessary to see great art. In Wellington, the magnificent stained glass windows in Karori Cemetery’s heritage chapel are world-renowned and free to visit. Nicola Young peers into their fascinating history.
Karori Cemetery is New Zealand’s second-largest burial ground, established in 1891 when the Bolton Street Cemetery had become overcrowded. By the 1950s, it too had nearly reached capacity, so a new cemetery was created at Mākara in 1965. Now, only pre-purchased or long-established burial or ash plots, and those for children, are available at Karori.
Karori’s crematorium was New Zealand’s first. The practice wasn’t common in 1888, when William Ferguson, an engineer and secretary of the Wellington Harbour Board, suggested adding an extra furnace to the Destructor – the city’s rubbish disposal facility on Chaffers St, now the site of New World supermarket’s car park.
Ferguson’s wife was the daughter of William Sefton Moorhouse, Wellington’s mayor in 1875 (local body elections were held annually until World War I) and his wife Jane Anne Moorhouse. Their names endure in Wadestown’s Moorhouse, Sefton, and Anne streets.
Ferguson’s proposal was controversial, but cremation was increasingly accepted in Europe. When the Karori Cemetery was opened, one acre was put aside for a crematorium and adjoining chapel. Ratepayers weren’t prepared to borrow money for the project until 1906, when a campaign advocated cremation for public health reasons; a Cremation Fund was established, and the City Council agreed to contribute to the costs.
In 1907, John Sydney Swan, the architect who designed St Gerard’s church and monastery and the Wellington Harbour Board building (now the Wellington Museum), drew up plans for a timber building in the current Romanesque-revival style. The City Engineer, William Hobbard Morton, wasn’t happy about a wooden building housing a high-temperature furnace, and redesigned the plans, replacing the timber with bricks. The crematorium and chapel were finally constructed in 1909, once the furnace arrived from England.
The crematorium and small chapel are now listed as Category 1 Heritage items, particularly noted for the chapel’s Irish-made stained glass windows. It’s been claimed that, outside of Ireland, they are the most significant group of windows produced by the Dublin co-operative glass-making studio An Túr Gloine (Tower of Glass).
The studio was established in 1903 in Dublin, with a mission to make stained glass windows locally rather than importing them from England and Germany. Its founder, Sarah Purser, was an expert on medieval glass. Studio artists were infused with the spirit of the Celtic revival, and drew on traditional Celtic manuscript illumination. Commissions flowed in from Anglican, Presbyterian, and Catholic churches across Ireland, England, Canada, and the United States, especially for memorial windows following World War I.
Stained glass windows have been described as “painting with light”. They are a difficult art form, requiring the artistic skill to conceive an appropriate and workable design, with the engineering skills to assemble the piece. The technique hasn’t changed much over the centuries since stained glass windows became a feature of Christian churches and Islamic architecture. Plain glass is coloured with metallic oxides while it’s molten: copper for ruby, cobalt for blue, manganese for purple, antimony for yellow, iron for green. Windows must fit snugly into the spaces for which they are made; they must resist wind and rain; and, especially the larger windows, they must be constructed carefully to support their own weight. Many large windows in European churches have remained substantially intact since the Late Middle Ages (1250–1500).
Ferguson commissioned five of the chapel’s six stained glass windows between 1914 and 1939, commemorating members of his own family. It’s thought he had met one of the founders of An Túr Gloine while studying at Trinity College Dublin.
The first pair of windows were designed and made in 1914 by Wilhelmina Geddes (1887–1955) of An Túr Gloine, a leading figure in the Irish Arts and Crafts movement and 20th Century British stained glass revival. Geddes has been described as the greatest stained glass artist of her era, but by the time she died little was known of her. She remained largely obscure until 2010, when the International Astronomical Union named a crater on Mercury in her honour.
Geddes’s interest in drawing developed from the age of four. She was introduced to stained glass at Ulster University’s Belfast School of Art, then joined the An Túr Gloine workshop, where her originality shone, and her most important works were created. Her work rejected the sentimental late Victorian aesthetic, for a more rugged and vigorous style. In 1925, she moved to London, enduring the hardships of World War II, poverty, and ill health before her death in 1955.
Mourners at Karori Cemetery’s small, heritage-listed chapel probably pay scant attention to the glorious windows. The two executed by Geddes, Faith and Hope, are the only examples of her work in Australasia and sit either side of the chapel’s front door.
Faith (1914) commemorates William Ferguson’s mother-in-law Jane Ann Moorhouse, who died in 1901. It depicts a sword-bearing angel leading a woman through a forest inhabited by wild beasts and ominous symbols of death and temptation. At the top are vignettes of Moses.
Hope (1914) commemorates Ferguson’s daughter, Louisa Sefton Ferguson, who died at the age of eight. The window depicts an angel awaiting a child (possibly Louisa) who is crossing the water in a boat, surrounded by doves.
The other three Ferguson family windows were created by another An Túr Gloine artist, Michael Healy (1873–1941). He was born into a Dublin slum, studied in Florence, and eventually became a leading specialist in memorial windows. Healy was noted for his command of suspended animation, but his work was considered uneven. He worked at the Dublin studio until his death.
Healy’s reputation was international. In addition to numerous commissions for churches in the United States, Healy created stained glass windows for a businessman in Singapore, a Swedish architect, and the Karori Cemetery chapel.
Charity (1930) commemorates William Harold Sefton Moorhouse, Ferguson’s brother-in-law who had died the year before. Ferguson’s wife, Mary, who died in the same year, is commemorated by Love (1930). Wisdom (1937) commemorates Ferguson himself – it was one of Healy’s last windows and the only one of the Karori series to be signed by the artist with the studio name.
The sixth window, Gethsemane (1939), was created by Hubert McGoldrick (1897–1967) who worked at An Túr Gloine until its dissolution in 1947. Gethsemane was his last overseas commission.
In 2016 the crematorium and small chapel were earthquake strengthened, the cremator unit replaced, and the windows renovated by specialists in Rangiora. The small chapel is usually open during weekdays between 8.30am and 4pm unless a service is being held.