Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, May 08, 2015

More About William Jay Bolton of Pelham: Creator of First Figured Stained Glass Windows in America

William Jay Bolton was a son of the Reverend Robert Bolton, founder of Christ Church and owner of the Priory, built beginning in 1838.  The Priory, in Pelham Manor, has been known as The Priory, Bolton Priory, Pelham Priory, the Priory School for Girls, and Pelham Priory for Girls.  It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. 

William Jay Bolton was an exceptional artist eventually admitted to the National Academy of Design.  He taught himself the art of stained glass by creating a few small panels for the windows of the Priory.  He later created for Christ Church a monumental stained glass masterwork entitled "Adoration of the Magi."  It was the first figural stained glass window created in America.

"Adoration of the Magi," America's First Figural
Stained Glass Window. Created by William Jay Bolton
for Christ Church, Pelham Manor, NY.

In 1935, the Pelham Sun reprinted an article published in the journal of the Westchester County Historical Society on the life of William Jay Bolton.  The article, prepared by Reginald Pelham Bolton, is transcribed in its entirety below, followed by a citation and link to its source.


The most talented member of the gifted Bolton Family
(Reprinted through the courtesy of the Westchester County Historical Society)

The annals of the County of Westchester would be incomplete without some record of the artistic work, originated and developed within its borders by William Jay Bolton, the most talented member of the gifted family of 'The Priory' at Pelham.

Some of his work is still in evidence, notably the remarkable series of stained-glass windows which adorn the Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn, and the alter window of Christ Church, Pelham.  The bold cartoons for these fine windows were made by him, and the patient labor and enthusiasm of the artist resulted in his rediscovery of methods of staining, burning and fixing the colors in glass, which had been lost to the world of art since the fourteenth century.  He also acquired by his own ingenuity the method of lead-framing for the glass, and he fitted the glass into the tracery of the windows with his own hand.

William Jay Bolton (so named for his mother's father William Jay, the well known minister and author, of Bath in England) was the second son of the Reverend Robert Bolton of Savannah and of Pelham, and of Anne Jay, his wife, and the boy was decidedly the genius of their large family.

In his characteristics we may find exemplified the definition of genius as a whole-souled devotion to a given subject, and his life accomplishments demonstrate the versatility of the artistic termperament.  On whatever form of creative effort his talents were concentrated, he achieved conspicuous success.

He was born in the old city of Bath, on August 31, 1816, and was brought up in the home of his parents at Liverpool.  When only five years of age he was taken by his father and mother to New York, where they remained nearly two years, during which visit they made a temporary home at a farm dwelling in Flatbush.  Robert Bolton was at the time adjusting his affairs with the firm of cotton shippers and ship owners in Savannah and the sale of his large inherited property in that city.  The parents returned with the child to England in 1823, and settled the following year at Henley-on-Thames, from which place they sent their boys, Robert (the historian), William Jay and Cornelius Winter, to the school for the sons of non-conformist parents which had been established at Mill Hill near London.

While he was still a school boy, William Jay began to exhibit unusual ability in drawing, and his parents were led to assume that he might adopt the career of an engineer.  So at sixteen years of age he was placed in the office at Bath of Henry Stothert, an engineer of wide reputation.  

But the intricacies of mechanical  engineering did not offer to his abilities a sufficient field.  His interest in pictorial art increased.  While employed in Bath, he occupied himself with the preparation of a large perspective map of the city, which was so accurate and yet so artistic in character, that it has been exhibited in public and is now preserved in the Art Gallery of Bath.

During his stay in Bath he was often in the company of his reverend grandfather, with whom he was a great favorite, and accompanied him upon his vacations, exercising his talent in sketching the scenery in many picturesque places.  He had already begun the painting of portraits, laboring over the difficulties of that form of art, and particularly occupied upon a portrait of his grandfather.

His parents removed to New York in 1836, and he followed them the succeeding year.  On arrival in America, he joined the family circle at the Pondfield farm, and entered with zest into the life of the group of young farmers at Bronxville.

His literary instinct inspired the whole family, which he organized as an amateur literary association.  It was he who edited the domestic newspaper, known as the 'Pelham Chronicle,' which was issued about every other week, and constituted a source of interest to the family at the Priory and their numerous friends, deprived as they were in that then rural locality, of the usual forms of amusement of the period.

From the many poetic effusions of the volunteer contributors to this publication, he selected seventy verses, including a number of his own, which he arranged in a book entitled 'The Harp of Pelham,' published in 1844, the proceeds of the sale of which were designed to provide a school house in that 'destitute neighborhood.'  The contents ranged from versified renderings of scripture, to humorous lines such as those which describe the midnight chase of a mosquito.

He was actively interested in the planning of the Priory building, in the design of which he aided with plans and sketches.  During the construction he undertook the preparation of a painting depicting an animated battle scene, showing 'The Defeat and Capture of Caractacus by the Romans,' which he executed in the difficult medium of 'fresco,' in a wide plaster panel about the fireplace where it may still be seen in the library of that delightful residence.  This is a rare form of pictorial art, of which at that time there was no example in this country.

His evident artistic ability attracted the attention of Washington Irving, with whom the Bolton family was on terms of friendship.  Irving had taken personal interest in the construction of the Priory to which he contributed the Dutch bricks which record in the figures 1838, the date of its construction.  Irving was at that time an honorary member of the National Academy of Design, of which Samuel F. B. Morse was the founder and president, and it was doubtless by his introduction that young Bolton was entered as a student at that institution.  He made remarkable progress under the skilled guidance of Morse.  In the first yearly exhibition after his admission he exhibited a rather painful painting of 'The Massacre of the Innocents,' and in the following season he contributed a painting of 'Canonicus and the Governor of Plymouth,' which evidenced so much artistic ability that it was awarded a prize.  He was also awarded a silver palette for a notable drawing.

He next concentrated his attention upon the subject of the design of leaded-glass in church windows.  He began this form of art by producing some heraldic subjects in which he was inspired by the skill of heraldry of his elder brother, Robert Bolton.  Small glass panels bearing the arms of the Pell family and those of his father's forbears are preserved in the windows of the Priory.  He established a little workshop at Pelham, in which he painted and fused glass, finding for himself some long-lost methods of producing and fixing the glowing colors which he had admired and studied in Europe.

At this period there had begun a widespread interest in the subject of church architecture, probably traceable to the revival of appreciation of Gothic designs, and public discussion of the controversial publications of the 'Oxford movement.'  In New York the construction of church buildings was attracting public attention.  The present edifice of Trinity Church was begun in 1839, that of Grace Church in 1843, and buildings for St. George in Stuyvesant Square, and for the Church of the Pilgrims were at that time under construction.

The subject inspired the youthful artist at Pelham, whose bold designs, and zeal, were recognized by Minard Lafever, architect and teacher of art, who had been engaged by Edgar John Bartow to design the splendid edifice of Holy Trinity, Brooklyn Heights.

The donor of that building was a member of the Bartow (or Bertaut) family, of Huguenot descent, long settled in the vicinity of Pelham, members of which family had for many year taken an interested part in the affairs of St. Paul's Church, Eastchester, of which the father of William Jay Bolton was Rector.

By this chain of circumstances, the young artist was brought into favorable relations with the distinguished architect of the new building, and to him was commited the felicitous task of filling the tracery of the windows designed by Lafever, with the glowing colors of the pictures which he set out in cartoons drawn upon the floor and walls of an attic space in the Priory.

The work on these forty windows occupied his attention about five years.  His patient labor and growing ability in design were productive of the remarkable results appreciatively desscribed in the book published in 1922, by R. C. E. Brown, entitled, 'Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn Heights,' and in a highly commendatory article which appeared in the 'Architectural Review,' January, 1906.

The little building is now standing in which this remarkable work was conducted.  It is a small frame cottage on the east side of Pelham (or 'Shore') Road, about 400 feet north of its intersection with Pelhamdale avenue, within easy walking distance of the Priory.  It is built of materials which were in use about the beginning of the nineteenth century, and originally comprised only a living room, an attic bedroom, and a cellar.  At some early period of its existence another room was added at the rear of the building, provided with four windows and a side door, and connected by a doorway into the cottage cellar.  This room was the studio-workshop of William Jay Bolton.  The base of the chimney of the cottage is conveniently located in this room, and there is a space in front of the chimney where the footing or base of the 'muffle,' or melting furnace, can be traced on the floor.  In the soil of the garden space around the workship one may find fragments of the colored glass produced in the building.

During his connection with the National Academy of Design, he exhibited several paintings, and contributed to its collection his own portrait, in accordance with a rule of the Academy, when he was advanced to the grade of an Associate.  There are two portraits of himself, painted by William Jay Bolton, in the possession of the Academy, one of which has been reproduced by the courtesy of the Academy, as an illustration of this biographical sketch.

He enlisted the services of his younger brother Johhn, in the production of stained glass, and together they designed and executed the colored window which may be seen over the original chancel of Christ Church, Pelham.

After completing these interesting productions, William Jay Bolton again crossed the Atlantic and opened in Cambridge a studio for the production of stained glass.  His work was interrupted by the dangerous illness of his younger brother James, who contracted smallpox while serving as a curate in the town of Walden in Essex.

William Jay Bolton fearlessly permitted himself to be isolated with his sick brother in a small building on a back street, where for many weeks he was his brother's only attendant and nurse, and it was by his devotion and self sacrifice that the life of the sufferer was saved.  William Jay fortunately escaped the contagion and renewed his art work in Cambridge, where he took part in the difficult undertaking of restoring the ancient windows of King's College Chapel.

The interest and associations of university life brought to a close his career as an artist.  The fervent piety of his mother and the influence of his learned grandfather, together with the example of his youngest brother, were doubtless factors in his decision to exchange his artistic career for a course of study at the University.  He entered Saius College in 1849, as a student, and his extraordinary ability advanced him rapidly.  He obtained the degree of Master of Arts in 1853.  He was awarded the Hulsean prize for an essay on the subject of 'Evidences of Christianity from the Early Fathers,' a work which demonstrated his powers of intense concentration and studious analysis.  It was published in book form in 1852, and an American edition appeared in 1853.  It is a remarkable illustration of the versatility of genius.

In 1849, while thus engaged in study at the University, he had married Susannah, sister of William Welch, the college chum of his brother James Bolton, and of himself.  Susannah in 1850, gave birth to a child, but succumbed to the ordeal and passed away.

The sad event seems to have had a very depressing effect upon William Jay Bolton.  He turned his attention towards a career as a minister, transferred to an associate his studio and the work he was carrying on, and devoted himself to the ministry, taking orders as a deacon in the Anglican Church, in which service the rest of his life was spent.

By his decision the world of art lost the promise of an unusual genius.  His productions in Westchester County, and his progress at the National Academy of Design had indicated a future of still greater achievements.  These he exchanged for a life of humble service to his fellow men, and his productive ability was diverted to literature.  When his young sister Abby died, he wrote a biography of her innocent life entitled, 'The Lighted Valley,' illustrated by an engraving of his own charming portrait of her.

Upon the decease of his mother, he composed from her diary, 'Footsteps of the Flock,' in which he recorded much information regarding his father's career.  On religious subjects he published, 'Fire Side Preaching,' and a number of pamphlets and articles on art and archaeology.

In 1857 he married Margaretta Wilkinson, a union which lasted throughout his lifetime.  Their children included three sons, William, Edward and Robert, and a daughter, Margaretta Grace, now the sole survivor of the family, to whom the writer is indebted for much detailed information regarding her accomplished father.

His ministerial career included a curacy in the parish of St. James, Brighton, followed by his appointment as Incumbent of the Parish of St. John's, Stratford, a densely populated and most unattractive district of the poorer class in the east of the metropolis, in which he spent sixteen years of assiduous labor.

He found time to study and edit two volumes of the sermons composed by his younger brother Jaems, who died prematurely in 1863.  He became interested in the history of his parish and planned and carried to completion a monumental memorial to those unfortunate but stubborn individuals whose lives were sacrificed at the stake in that locality during the religious controversies of the Marian period.  On this subject he published a booklet entitled 'The Stratford Martyrs.'

From this difficult sphere he was transferred in later life to the relatively desirable parish of St. James in the old city of Bath, wherein he had been born.  Here he anticipated sufficient leisure to enable him to renew some extent his artistic career, but such was not to be the result.  He found a congenial atmosphere and a devoted congregation at Bath, but the moral condition of the district was deplorable and he set for himself the task of clearing up the situation.  The undertaking deprived him of an opportunity of renewing his art work.

For several years he was occupied upon his self-imposed duty, involving excessively hard work and imposing a severe strain upon his powers of endurance, while approaching the age of seventy years. But with his characteristic determination, he continued to labor upon this service, by which his useful life was shortened.

Very early one May morning in 1884, while engaged in writing, he suddenly became unconscious and passed away, an unfinished manuscript before him, leaving the world the poorer for the loss of a devoted minister, an accomplished author, and an unusually talented artist.

His work lives after him."

Source:  Bolton, Reginald Pelham, WILLIAM JAY BOLTON - The Most Talented Member of the Gifted Bolton Family, The Pelham Sun, Apr. 12, 1935, p. 10, cols. 1-5 (reprinted through the courtesy of the Westchester County Historical Society).

Bolton Cottage Used by William Jay Bolton as a
Stained Glass Studio During the Mid-19th Century,
Since Razed.  Source: Courtesy of the Office of the 
Historian of the Town of Pelham.

"Miriam and Jubal," Painted and Stained Glass
Window by William Jay Bolton with Assistance of
His Brother, John Bolton, Installed in Holy Trinity
Church, Brooklyn, New York.  Source:  Wikipedia,
The Free Encyclopedia, William Jay Bolton.

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