Charles Eamer Kempe and Old Place

At the top of the village, stands the grandiose and private Old Place that is largely obscured from view.  Perhaps in a strange way, the property goes almost unnoticed when passing by.  The impressive size is difficult to comprehend from the roadways, likewise its relationship with the original Elizabethan house onto which it has been ‘grafted’.  The buildings as we see them today were the vision of Charles Eamer Kempe, the renowned Victorian stained glass artist and church decorator.  The ‘e’ was added to create a grander surname by Kempe on reaching adulthood.

He was born at The Hall, Ovingdean, near Brighton on 29 June 1837, the fifth son and youngest child of Nathaniel Kemp, a wealthy and important member of Brighton society, and his second wife Augusta Caroline.  Her father was Sir john Eamer a former Lord Mayor of London and prominent City wholesale grocer and sugar importer.  It is thought Kempe was christened Charles Eamer in memory of his mother’s younger brother who died aged 18 in India.

The Kemps were a long established Sussex family, originally from good yeoman stock with their wealth having been derived from corn and wool.  This is reflected in the three golden wheat sheaves featured in the coat of arms granted in the 1600s.  Interestingly, it was Charles Eamer Kempe’s uncle Thomas Kemp’s house on the Steine in Brighton that was acquired by the Prince of Wales in 1787, eventually becoming the Royal Pavilion.  Thomas Kemp is noteworthy for having conceived the idea of a fashionable residential estate in east Brighton, Kemp Town, but unfortunately the scheme caused him great financial difficulties.

Returning to Charles Eamer Kempe, as a boy he was a pupil of the Vicar of Henfield before attending Rugby School and entering Pembroke College, Oxford where he obtained a Masters Degree.  Being deeply religious it had been his wish to enter the church as a clergyman but decided a severe speech impediment would restrict his ability to preach and successfully pursue that vocation.  He was a supporter of the Oxford Movement of high church Anglicans promoting the restoration of ritual in worship and aesthetic aspects borrowed heavily from traditions before the English Reformation.

Being interested in art and good at drawing, Kempe chose to use his talents, religious beliefs and aesthetic vision to adorn churches.  After Oxford he studied church architecture and design under the tutelage of George Bodley, who was closely associated with Gothic Revival and High Anglican aesthetics.  This influence together with Kempe’s own beliefs was to be reflected throughout Kempe’s work as an ecclesiastical decorator and stained glass artist.  he increasingly saw the use of glass as the medium for expressing the Christian message and pursued this by joining the glass studio of Clayton & Bell.

About 1866, Kempe set up his own studio with two assistants at his home in London, contracting out the stained glass making.  Dissatisfied with the quality being produced, he set up his own manufacturer at Millbrook Place, London in 1869.  Kempe windows incorporate a small shield containing a wheat sheaf as his mark.  The studio also created designs for church furniture, altars, and altar screens, and Kempe additionally continued to design vestments and altar hangings.  His designs were most sought after and the business thrived, employing 50 men by the end of the century.

Sadly, at the time the studio was continuing to enjoy great success, Kempe died suddenly on 29 April 1907.  The business continued after his death as C E Kempe and Co. Ltd. under the control of Kempe’s cousin, Walter Tower.  To mark this change, windows made after his death have a small black tower above the wheat sheaf in the trademark shield.  Gradually the desire for Gothic revival designs declined and the business hit hard times closing in 1934.  By this time the Kempe studio had produced over 4000 windows, and examples graced churches across the country and many cathedrals including York, Winchester and Gloucester.  Many Sussex churches contain Kempe windows and decorations.  Unfortunately there are no Charles Eamer Kempe designed windows in All Saints’ Church, Lindfield, although there are two by C E Kempe and Co. Ltd. these are in the north transept and south chapel.

Kempe never married and, although said to be a shy man, he enjoyed the company of friends.  Living in central London, in 1874 he decided to establish a country residence, primarily for entertaining, and chose Lindfield for this project.  He purchased the land of Townlands Farm and Old Place (today known as West Wing); the house built by the Chaloners in 1584, which was in disrepair having latterly been the village poor house.  His first task was to renovate the property and have the and have the road that passed directly in front of the house moved, to provide privacy and a garden.  The revised road line is as seen today.  Kempe then set about a 30 year project to create ‘Old Place’, as his dream home, with its grandiose extensions to the original house, secondary buildings, and extensive grounds, at a cost of over £40,000.  Prominent amongst the secondary buildings, in the southern corner of the gardens, is the substantial Pavilion with its tower, built as his studio for when he wished to ‘work from home’.

The main house, built in phases, was resplendently appointed with elaborate plasterwork, much panelling, arts and crafts style door and window fittings and, of course, featured large amounts of exquisite stained glass.  It was richly furnished with much artwork including tapestries displayed  The entirety was a testament to Kempe’s aesthetic vision.  Country Life magazine featured Old Place several times in the first years of the 20th century, and the 1901 article described it as, ‘the highest development of contemporary taste and skill in artistic design’ and judged it to be ‘a Palace of Art’.  To look after Kempe and his large house required some twelve ‘in door’ servants plus a small army of gardeners.

Country Life lavished similar praise on the gardens.  The grounds totalled more than 150 acres and included formal gardens, a kitchen garden with glasshouses, and a wilderness garden. The latter, now the site of The Wilderness, was laid out with wide grass walks and shrubs, and reached from the formal gardens by a footbridge over the public footpath leading from the corner of Francis Road.  The formal gardens around the house featured lawns, herbaceous borders, a fine pleached lime avenue, ornate gates, great yew hedges,  Greek urns and sculptures.  A particular attraction was a large sundial, a copy of the dial standing at Pembroke College, Oxford, topped by a carved pelican feeding her young.  Very occasionally Kempe would open the grounds for a grand fête and villagers would pay the few pence admission charge and flock to see what was normally out of their view.

Kempe does not appear to have been active in village life, although he did serve as a church warden for a time.  To mark Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, he proposed this should be commemorated by adding three new bells to the peal of five bells.  He paid for the bells, and the required strengthened bell frame was funded by public subscription, however the project was surrounded with much acrimony.  It also appears Kempe offered a Chancel Screen to the church but this was rejected and not accepted until several years after his death.

Perhaps not as well respected as he deserves, Charles Eamer Kempe was one of the great Anglican church artists of his time and Lindfield’s most nationally notable resident.

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