Feature: Philip Cole, a man of many talents

One of the beautiful stained glass windows of St Clements church

One of the beautiful stained glass windows of St Clements church

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TOWNS are like history: they record the traces of past inhabitants. For one little-known artist and local resident, who is the subject of a newly published book, this is particularly true.

The influence of Philip Cole, who lived his entire life in Hastings and Fairlight, can be found all over 1066 Country, but particularly in the Old Town.

One of the beautiful stained glass windows in St Clements Church

One of the beautiful stained glass windows in St Clements Church

His beautiful stained glass windows adorn the ancient churches of St Clements and All Saints, as well as being showcased in the Fisherman’s Museum and the Conquest Hospital.

The handsome sign outside the house reputed to belong to the mother of Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell, All Saints Street, is his work, and residents of Philip Cole Close, off High Street, owe him the first line of their address.

Yet despite international acclaim in the art world, Cole has never received the attention he deserves, according to the author of a new book about this most creative of Hastings’s sons.

“He was just so multi-talented. He did everything,” said Diane Denton, 63, from Leicestershire.

Philip Cole with the sign for the house once occupied by Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell's mother, All Saints Street

Philip Cole with the sign for the house once occupied by Admiral Sir Cloudsley Shovell's mother, All Saints Street

“I really think he needs to be known out there. To me, his work, in all its forms, talks about mankind and the human condition. in a way that is worth remembering.”

Diane’s book records that Cole was rooted into the local area. Born in King’s Road in 1884, his grandfather, Thomas Holwell-Cole, was Hastings Librarian, and wrote one of the earliest full histories of the town: The Antiquities of Hastings, in 1867.

Dick Edwards, chairman of the Hastings Old Town Residents Association, acknowledged Cole’s influence on his neighbourhood.

“He’s a perfect example of an artisan who lived in the Old Town and acquired an international reputation.

“He didn’t have just one string to his bow - he left a huge legacy to the town.”

After attending Hastings Grammar School, Cole became a committee member of the Old Hastings Preservation Society, and, in 1914, as war broke out, he was made the second ever headteacher of the Hastings School of Art, the distant precursor of the art department in today’s gleaming Sussex Coast College Hastings.

Hastings Museum and Art Gallery (HMAG) holds seven of his paintings, which are a mixture of portraits and landscapes of classic Hastings scenes.

The paintings are kept in storage, but Alison Hawkins, keeper of local history at the museum, said they were well worth a visit, and are regularly brought out on request.

“Having played such an important role in education in the town, and being such a prolific artist, he became very well-known. His paintings are very accessible, and beautifully done.”

Teaching extended his influence on the town, and after a German bomb destroyed the stained glass windows in St Clements Church during the Second World War, Cole and his students set about replacing them.

Reverend Robert Featherstone, parish priest of St Clements, said Cole’s work regularly attracts admirers.

“A lot of people think it’s wonderful,” he said. “For modern windows, his work is very striking.

“The man was extremely talented and made a huge impact on Hastings, as well as nationally.”

One feature sparked controversy when the window was installed: baby Jesus in one of the east windows has noticeably darker skin than his mother Mary, causing uproar among local traditionalists.

Another window preserves images of several members of the contemporary Old Town, including the Cox of Hastings Lifeboat, and Cole himself, beside his wife and their gardener.

But the windows were not his only contribution to Hastings in wartime.

As a member of the Home Guard, Cole was chosen to control the activation switch for landmines built into the country park. For a time, Cole was the man with the red button. Silversmith, painter and stained glass window worker, he was a craftsman whose work was quickly recognised as exceptional.

The borough council of the time, Hastings Corporation, commissioned his intricately wrought silver ships, of around 12 inches, to present to George VI, and luminaries including Winston Churchill.

Diane hopes that her book will re-ignite interest in his ‘vital and fascinating’ legacy among inhabitants of the town he cherished until his death in 1964.

• Philip William Cole 1884-1964: Master and Artist of Hastings, Sussex is available from the Old Hastings Preservation Society, Courthouse Street, and HMAG, Bohemia Road. To view Cole’s paintings, ring HMAG on 01424 451052.

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