The Brigham Windows
In Shelter Island’s Union Chapel
The large Marine Mosaic windows flanking the chancel are outstanding examples of the unusual craftsmanship of Walter Cole Brigham, a local artist, whose rich effects were achieved by the adroit use of natural shells, stones and chunks of broken glass. Stained glass was rarely used. After sketching his design on paper, the artist placed it under heavy plate glass on which the pieces of mosaic were then painstakingly assembled and cemented together with a special lead compound.
The memorial to Frederick A. Schroeder, a prominent Brooklyn banker and longtime president of the S.I. Heights Association, commemorates “a good and faithful servant.” The mosaic vividly illustrates Jesus’ parable of the talents. Pure white shells at the top of the window, symbolize in groups of five, two and one, the coins entrusted by a master to his three servants. Golden shells at the bottom of the window represent the talents returned, namely, ten and four … as well as the one which was buried in the earth by the unfaithful servant.
The theme of the second window, a memorial to the Schroeder children, is the everlasting goodness of God. It is a study of water lilies “as seen through a depth of a clear pool of water in which is reflected in soft tones the bordering land.” Oyster shells are strikingly employed to give the lily blossoms their bold form and their soft, mellow whiteness. A cross in the peak of the window contains the letters S P E S; the Latin word for hope. The Greek letters Alpha and Omega on either side signify hope from beginning to end.
Close-up of the use of shells.
Close-up of the use of shells.
THE ARTIST Walter Cole Brigham was born in Baltimore on January 11, 1870. After studying at Johns Hopkins University and the Maryland Institute of Art, he spent four years (1894-1898) at the Art Student’s League in New York and a year in Florence, Italy.
Then he came to Shelter Island where his parents had a cottage on Winthrop Road and set up his studio, which also became both an informal art school and an impromptu tea room. It was here on the shores of Dering Harbor that his interest in painting and architecture succumbed to a fascination for seashells and textured stones.
His first marine mosaics took the form of decorative lampshades, firescreens and jewelry, but by 1901, he fashioned mosaic portholes for a yacht belonging to a famous actor, William Gillette. More ambitious projects followed.
During the next fifteen years, he made the two windows for Union Chapel (installed 1903), four somewhat smaller windows for St. Mary’s Episcopal Church (1903-1911), of which three were subsequently damaged by storm in 1938 and discarded, and two windows for a chapel in Brooklyn (1912-1915), of which one is now mounted in the Brooklyn Museum.
He also made in 1914 a staircase window for a summer cottage near Sag Harbor. Two of his “ecclesiastical tablets”, circa 1906, consisting of Scriptures verses embellished by shells and wood stems mounted on quartered oak panels, hang in St. Mary’s Church.
In 1928 his work began to appear in pulp magazines. He painted covers for The Dragnet, The Underworld, Rangeland Love, Clues Detective, and Popular Engineering Stories.
His pen and ink line drawings illustrated stories in pulp magazines, such as Eagles of the Air, Complete Flying Novel. Five Novels Monthly, Clues Detective, New York Stories, and Gangster Stories.
From 1935 to 1939 his drawings also appeared in comic books produced by Chesler Studio, Dell Publications, Centaur Comics, and DC Comics. He worked on Sandra of the Secret Service, Brad Hardy, and Professor McScrewy.
His last project was a stained glass window in the chapel of the Brooklyn Home For The Aged. Walter Cole Brigham died at home on Shelter Island at the age of seventy-one, when he suffered a dizzy spell and fell down a flight of stairs on August 7, 1941.