FRATER, William (1890-1974)

William (‘Jock’) Frater arrived in Melbourne on 22 July 1910 aboard the Norseman after serving an apprenticeship in the stained-glass studios of Oscar Patterson In Glasgow, Scotland.[1]  Several of the British stained-glass firms encouraged their promising apprentices to attend art classes at night school and Frater was one who had flourished at the Glasgow School of Art.  It is not clear why he chose to come to Australia, although Dick Wittman, in his book on Frater’s life and career, suggested it may have been a whim to join his emigrating brother after a family argument. It was also a time when ‘the prosperity of Glasgow was in decline and opportunities for advancement were shrinking’ and this may well have influenced his decision.[2]  In an economic downturn, stained glass was often one of the first ‘luxuries’ to be cut from building budgets.

Melbourne was still recovering from its own 1890s economic depression that had seen the number of stained-glass firms cut from around 25 in 1890 to only five operating by 1910.  Frater was twenty-years old, therefore not long finished his indenture, and he immediately found work at one of the city’s largest commercial firms, Brooks, Robinson & Co. in Elizabeth Street.[3]  He is credited with designing the new four-light west window for Wesley Central Mission in Lonsdale Street, Melbourne in 1910,[4] although the left-hand light, The Good Samaritan, was re-worked from a design by John W Brown for a window in St John’s Anglican, Heidelberg (Vic) in 1894.  Frater was probably responsible for Paul Preaching at Athens, that formed the central two-lights of the design.   It was a subject he returned to on other occasions in later years.

Melbourne Wesley Paul Preaching BR&Co 1915

Fig. 1: Brooks, Robinson & Co., Good Samaritan, Paul Preaching at Athens, Charity of Dorcas, 1915, Wesley Uniting Church, Lonsdale Street, Melbourne  Photograph: Bronwyn Hughes

Laurence Course recorded a window believed to have been designed the same year that differed entirely from the Wesley window.  Instead, it reflected his Glasgow Arts and Crafts training, but its location is unknown. Course described it as ‘[m]uch simplified, the special accent and two Raphaelesque figures are nicely locked to the decorative plane by more simple and lucid sweeps of the leaded lights’.[5]   The window was thought by Course to be installed in a Malvern church, but the description has elements in common with the two-light soldiers’ memorial installed in St John’s Uniting Church, Essendon installed some years later (Fig. 4).

 Frater spent only a short period with the firm before returning to Scotland in 1911 to resume his studies at the Glasgow School of Art, enthusiastically extending his artistic abilities under a range of avant-garde views and influential teachers.  But in 1914, he again set sail for Australia, setting up a partnership with Charles Dench, presumably to design and make leadlight and stained glass windows from premises at Bridge Road, Richmond.  One sole example of the short-lived business featured the pre-First World War domestic style favoured by The Studio journal.  The panel of a woman playing her lute was purchased by the National Gallery of Australia in 1988.

Frater Gascoyne 1909 001

Frater Gascoyne Dench 1914

Fig. 2a:  Source design The Studio. Fig 2b: William Frater and Charles Dench, Woman Playing a Lute, collection of the National Gallery of Australia (ACT).

Melbourne Scots Frater BR or Yencken 004

Fig. 3: William Frater/Brooks, Robinson & Co.[?], Treasure Hid in a Field and Seeking Goodly Pearls, 1915, Scots’ Presbyterian Church, Collins Street, Melbourne (Vic)  Photograph: Bronwyn Hughes

It is thought that Frater returned to Brooks, Robinson & Co. for a brief period in 1915, possibly designing the two lights, Treasure Hid in a Field and Seeking Goodly Pearls, but the same year he joined the stained-glass department at EL Yencken & Co, under the senior designer, John Edward Snee (1876-1917), a Novocastrian artist who had emigrated to Australia in 1907.[6]  When Snee enlisted in the Australian army the following year, Frater was promoted as temporary departmental head.  The position was made permanent when Snee was killed at Bullecourt in 1917.

Although the Yencken firm had already advertised its ability to undertake church work and fully-painted stained glass the focus was on domestic installations, but the war brought commissions for many commemorative windows.  Among Frater’s early works in this period were memorials to soldiers at two country Anglican churches, Christ Church at Birregurra and Holy Trinity at Maldon in Victoria.

It was the beginning of a significant body of work that Frater designed and oversaw manufactured at Yencken’s over almost 25 years.  (See selected list of windows below.)

St Johns Uniting David and Jonathan

Fig. 4: William Frater, David and Jonathan, 1920s, St John’s Uniting Church, Essendon (Vic)  Photograph: Bronwyn Hughes

A significant Frater/Yencken commission was for the Church of the Holy Rosary, Kensington in 1928. The Reverend Father O’Farrell was building a new church and ordered a staggering seventy-two windows from EL Yencken & Co. that featured saints of the church. The Advocate report of the opening noted Frater’s role as the responsible designer and his Glasgow training ‘under Maurice Greiffenhagen R.A., and Robert Anning Bell, A.R.A., R.S.A.’[7]

While some work remains anonymous, when Frater was pleased with the results he signed his windows ‘W.F.’ or ‘W. Frater’, unobtrusively in the decorative foliage or borders.

Camberwell Uniting Church Christ and the Children detail Frater 1942

Fig. 5: William Frater, detail of Christ and the Children, 1942, Camberwell Uniting (formerly Methodist) Church (Vic).  No longer an employee at Yencken’s, it is rare instance of Frater signing his full name. Photograph: Bronwyn Hughes

Yencken’s domestic windows were widely installed in Victoria but few can be positively identified as Frater’s work. One was installed on the stair landing of the Balwyn home of Oliver J Gilpin, one of few large homes built in Melbourne during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and now re-purposed as ‘The Connaught’ apartments.  Although less grandiose than staircase windows of 1880’s Melbourne, it added to the outstanding interior features of the home that included skylights, imported French light fittings, a mural, and decorative painted ceilings.

Balwyn Gilpin House c1934 004

Fig. 6: William Frater, Stairwell window, 1934, Oliver J Gilpin residence, Yarrbat Avenue, Balwyn (Vic)  Photograph: Bronwyn Hughes

In 1927, 15-year old Alan Sumner became Frater’s ‘improver’, or unofficial apprentice, gradually learning all aspects of the stained-glass process and undertaking much of the glass-painting.  The window of St Luke for the porch at Wesley Central Mission in Lonsdale Street was painted by Sumner and he added the initials ‘A.S.’ and ‘W.F.’ without Frater’s knowledge, only to incur his oss’s significant wrath.[8] 

Despite Frater’s somewhat fiery temperament, Sumner worked alongside him until 1940 when the stained-glass department was closed for the duration of the Second World War.  Frater retired and from that time was able to concentrate fully on his painting and his interests in contemporary art groups, and the more conservative Victorian Artists’ Society, which he returned to in later life. He became President from 1964 until 1972, a period that encompassed the Society’s centenary in 1970.  Shortly before he died in 1974, Frater was honoured with the O.B.E. for services to art.

North Essendon Christ Church Anglican Good Shepherd.JPG

Fig. 7: William Frater, Christ the Good Shepherd, c1920, Christ Church Anglican, Essendon North (Vic)  Photograph: Bronwyn Hughes

For Frater, his ‘day job’ as a stained-glass designer was always secondary to his ambitions to make his reputation as a Modernist painter.  Possibly, he would have felt more positively about his significant contributions to stained glass had he not been constrained by a conservative clientele and traditional commercial firm that was organised on hierarchical lines and committed to a house style.

Selected installations

1918-20 St Mark and St George, Christ Church Anglican, Birregurra (Vic)

1918-1925 David and Jonathan, St John’s Presbyterian (now Uniting) Church, Essendon (Vic)

1920-25 St George, Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Maldon (Vic)

1920s St George, Angels and other windows, St Stephen’s Anglican Church, Wynyard (Tas)

1920s Soldiers’ Memorial, Ivanhoe Methodist (now Uniting Church, Ivanhoe (Vic) 1927 St George, St John’s Presbyterian (now Uniting) Church, Essendon (Vic)

1927 Ascension, Last Supper, Christ Blessing the Children, Light of the World, Good Shepherd, Christ Stilling the Storm, Presbyterian Church, Canterbury (Vic)

1927-28 Cycle of 72 windows, Church of the Holy Rosary, Kensington (Vic)

1927-30 Cycle of windows for Methodist (now Wesley Evangelical Uniting) Church, Kyabram (Vic)

n.d. Supper at Emmaus, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, Ashby (Geelong West)

1929 Sacred Heart of Jesus and Immaculate Conception, Presentation Convent, Elsternwick (Vic)

1930 Light of the World, Mansfield Uniting Church (Vic)

1930s Ruth, Chapel of Queen’s College, University of Melbourne (Vic)

1930s Stairwell window, Oliver J Gilpin home, Yarrbat Avenue, Balwyn

1933-35 Light of the World and I am the Way, Trinity Anglican Church, Oakleigh (Vic)

1935 Three-light St Michael, Christ the King, St George, St George’s Anglican Church, Burnie (Tas)

1936 St Luke the Physician, Wesley Central Mission, (Now Uniting Church), Melbourne (Vic)

1938 Cast Your Nets on the Other Side and Jesus, the Good Shepherd, St James’ Anglican Church, Dandenong (Vic)

Pre-1939 Ascension of Jesus, St James Anglican Church, Dandenong (Vic)

1939 Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, St James’ Anglican Church, Dandenong (Vic)

1940 Six sacristy windows, St Mary’s Catholic Church, Bairnsdale (Vic)

1940 Suffer the Little Children, Wesley Mission, now installed in Uniting Church of Paul the Apostle, South Melbourne (Vic)

1942 Christ and the Children, Uniting Church, Camberwell, (Vic)

The author acknowledges the research of Patrick Ferry (Kensington) and Jill Stone (Dandenong) in preparation of this selection.

North Essendon Christ Church Anglican Ascension detail 1

Fig. 8: William Frater, Detail of a three-light window, The Ascension, n.d. Christ Church Anglican, North Essendon (Vic)  Photograph: Bronwyn Hughes

The influence of Frater’s painting on his stained glass is evident in this unusual representation of the figure which bears a strong resemblance to an early Frater oil painting, Head Study 1912 (Private Collection).

[1] For details of William Frater’s life and career see Dick Wittman, William Frater: A life with colour, The Miegunyah Press, Carlton South, 2000; Laurence J Course, ‘Tradition and New Accents The Art of William Frater’, CB Christeson (ed), The Gallery of Eastern Hill: The Victorian Artists’ Society centenary, VAS, Melbourne, 1970.

[2] Wittman, pp. 5-6.  Although mention is made of Frater’s stained-glass apprenticeship in Scotland and employment in Australia, the focus is on Frater’s career as a painter and his contribution to the arts.

[3] Wittman credited him with the position of ‘designer’, probably one of several under William Wheildon, who was both manager of the department and the senior stained-glass artist. Wittman, p. 8.

[4] Course, p. 84; Wittman, p. 14.

[5] It was rejected by the commissioner and Laurence Course believe it was sold to a Presbyterian church, possibly in Malvern. Course, p. 84.

[6] It is possible that Frater did not return to Brooks, Robinson & Co. at all, as the painting style of this window more closely resembles the looser, more painterly approach that he used at Yencken & Co.  See separate entry for information on Snee.

[7] Advocate, 15 November 1928, p. 24.

[8] Bronwyn Hughes, ‘Alan Sumner and Joseph Stansfield: A comparative study of twentieth century stained glass’, 2 Vols, MA (Prelim) thesis, Department of Fine Arts, University of Melbourne, 1992, Vol I, p. 10.


4 thoughts on “FRATER, William (1890-1974)

  1. Hi Nick. I am pleased that the article is of interest and some value to your own research. Sadly, Dick Wittman died in 2009 and I am unable to immediately recall any shcolars working since Dick Wittman’s biography was published in 2000. Possibly the Victorian Artists’ Society may be able to put you in touch with descendants or scholars, as Frater was a Councillor, President of Council and exhibiting member for so many years. It is great to hear of your work on his paintings, which seem to have been forgotten in the years since Dick’s book was published.

  2. Hi Bronwyn, great article. I am doing some research into Frater’s paintings. Do you know of any scholars who specialise in his painted works? Is Dick Wittman still around and if so, how could I get in contact with him?

  3. Very interesting Bronwyn. I particularly like the line that several stained glass practices encouraged their apprentices to attend art school at night. Great idea. MH

    1. Glad you liked it Martin. William Wailes in Newcastle upon Tyne was one of the masters who sent aspiring artists/glass-painters to Newcastle School of Art. When they completed their indentures and started their own studios, they likewise tended to offer (or demand?) a similar commitment. It must have been tough for the apprentices who worked 5 long days and a half-day Saturday.

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