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An unfulfilled vision: the commission for St Salvator's Chapel

St Salvator's Chapel interior

An essay by Juliette MacDonald MA (Hons).

On 2 June 1933, a note in the University of St Andrews Court minutes reports that it was agreed that Douglas Strachan should be asked to provide new windows for the apse of the chapel. According to Strachan's good friend, Charles Warr, Strachan was delighted to have been commissioned and "looked forward with eager anticipation to pouring out all the riches of his long experience into the University Chapel." (C. Warr, The Glimmering Landscape, p211D).


By 1933 Strachan was a well-known stained-glass designer. Born in Aberdeen on 26 May 1875, his artistic career incorporated three fields of art: painting, mural decoration and stained-glass design. In 1890 he had been apprenticed as a lithographer in the office of the Aberdeen Free Press and worked there until 1893 when he enrolled at Gray's School of Art. Following this, he completed a session at the Life School of the Royal Scottish Academy. In 1895 Strachan went to Manchester and worked as a 'black and white' artist on several newspapers. He was also employed as a political cartoonist by the Manchester Evening Chronicle where he worked until 1897 when ill health forced him to return to Aberdeen. His return to Aberdeen proved to be a turning point in his life. Once there Strachan undertook three mural schemes, and in 1899 received a commission from the architect Dr William Kelly to produce a stained-glass window for a church in Aberdeen. Whilst it is not known where, or even when, Strachan learned the craft of stained-glass production, by 1910 he had abandoned his plans of becoming a portrait painter in order to concentrate on a career as a stained-glass designer.

In 1909 he was appointed head of the crafts section at the Edinburgh College of Art where he taught until May 1911. His success that year in the competition for a stained-glass design for the Peace Palace in the Hague offered him an international platform for his work. He was subsequently offered over three hundred and fifty commissions: including the windows for the National War Memorial in Edinburgh; the much-praised scheme at Winchelsea parish church in Sussex; two windows for Paisley Abbey; and the St Dunstan window for St Paul's Cathedral, London, which was considered his finest work but which was sadly lost in the second world war.

His contribution to the arts was acknowledged in 1920 when the Royal Scottish Academy elected him an honorary member. This accolade was followed in 1923 by the award of an honorary degree of LLD by the University of Aberdeen. On 20 November 1950 Strachan died of a stroke while working in his studio at Pittendriech. His artistic output had been tremendous, not just in the number of churches that he provided with windows but in the quality of design and execution.

In such a long career it was inevitable that some commissions did not proceed smoothly and the commission for St Salvator's Chapel proved to be a most unhappy one, both for Strachan and the University. All began very well; in November 1933 Strachan offered to create a scheme for the entire chapel and was prepared to reduce his fee if the University agreed to him completing the entire scheme. The offer was accepted, and the following October Strachan sent an excited note to Principal Irvine telling him that the chapel had been in his thoughts over the summer, "I want to make the scheme praise St Andrews, that is not works that would look equally fitting in Oxford, Princeton or Aberdeen, but things that have grown naturally out of the life of St Andrews, that belong there and nowhere else." (Strachan, Letter to Principal Irvine, 14/10/34D). This was followed, on 23 June 1935, by a written description of his design which he had based on the idea of "the odyssey of Man's Spirit in its journey through time and events."

It is at this point that one senses the beginnings of a misunderstanding between Strachan and Irvine. A letter from Strachan dated 11 November 1936, comments that he had not heard from Irvine for a long time, which he presumed was due to the Principal being very busy, and that he assumed that the subject matter suggested in his letter of 1935 had been turned down. At some point between June 1935 and November 1936, Irvine must have responded to Strachan's proposed design by suggesting that it was too historically based. (A copy of Irvine's response is not held in the University archives.) However, Strachan's 'assumption' that the design had been rejected suggests that either Strachan had misunderstood the letter or that Irvine's response had not been a definitive rejection of the planned scheme.

Irvine replied to Strachan's note with an agreement for them to meet on 2 December 1936 and prior to their meeting Strachan sent detailed notes of his new proposal. The note set out a scheme whereby the windows in the apse were to represent a Te Deum laudamus and the windows for the south wall were to form a Benedicte. The east window was to be filled with the witnesses who "once mutable in time were now inimitable in eternity" (Strachan, Notes for meeting with J.C. Irvine, 30/11/36J.C), while the south windows were to show Christ in his role as teacher, reformer, healer and sufferer. Small medallions containing historical emblems and symbols relating to the elements were to be incorporated into the base of each window and the cardinal virtues of temperance, fortitude, justice and prudence were to be shown overhead. Strachan also suggested that the central window in this scheme should contain representations of the elements and the zodiac.

Following their meeting, Irvine sent a memorandum to the members of the chapel building committee apprising them of the situation; Irvine commented that Strachan's original proposal had been deemed unsuitable and that a lengthy delay had occurred before Strachan took up the matter again. Irvine then told the committee that Strachan had agreed to abandon the historical emphasis of the designs and was in the process of producing cartoons which retained the original idea of the scheme. Irvine's final comment "there was no alternative but to agree," (Irvine, Memorandum to Chapel Building Committee, 04/12/36D) suggests that he was far from happy with the outcome of their meeting.

It was four years before Strachan produced the new set of cartoons in spring 1940. The cartoons were then circulated to a number of people who were associated with the chapel, so that their comments could be noted. On 11 June 1940, Irvine sent a note to Strachan asking that they meet to discuss the cartoons further and he enclosed a copy of the points made about the cartoons. The points ranged from theological observations to concerns about the colour and tones of the designs. Strachan responded with alacrity and commented that all the dates offered were suitable "so if you will name the one that suits you best I will come then." (Strachan, Letter to J.C. Irvine, 14/06/40) Strachan also commented in his note that, had the points made about his cartoons been questions to be discussed with the Committee, he would have been perfectly happy. He was, however, angry at the comments regarding his technical abilities and felt that the memorandum should have been worded differently or that some of the comments might have been omitted. There appears to have been no response to his letter and on 22 July 1940 Strachan wrote again; distressed by Irvine's delay in responding, he restated his readiness to meet and discuss the cartoons.

It was at this stage that a complete breakdown in communications ensued. Irvine wrote to Strachan indicating that a meeting of the committee would be called and to which Strachan would then be invited to attend. Strachan then waited for Irvine to make contact with a suitable date. According to Warr, Irvine was under the impression that Strachan would write to him and suggest an appropriate date.

A considerable time passed before each began to take serious notice that he had not heard from the other. Then each began to grow increasingly impatient and irritated at what appeared to be the other's unconscionable procrastination. Irvine began to have suspicions that Strachan was just determined not to acquiesce in any of the suggested alterations to the designs. Strachan began to have suspicions that Irvine, for some reason, did not really want him to meet the committee or the University Court.

Four years passed without communication from either party, at which point the University Court regrettably terminated their commission. Strachan was devastated and threatened legal action. However, since there had never been a firm contract from the University it was unlikely that such action would have been successful. Yet despite his anger, Strachan still wanted to produce the windows and, as late as 1945, was prepared to start afresh with a new set of ideas and designs. However, the Court adhered to its decision.

Whilst it is true that Strachan and Irvine were busy men, they both appear to have exhibited a good measure of obstinacy concerning the St Salvator's commission. However, since many years have passed since these misunderstandings arose, it is difficult to apportion blame. The incident was most unfortunate and had Strachan's visionary designs been executed, St Salvator's Chapel would have been a magnificent tribute to the advancement of Scottish stained-glass. Worshippers and visitors to the Chapel are much the poorer as a result.

The author was a student at the University of St Andrews undertaking advanced research on the symbolism and iconography of Strachan's stained-glass designs.