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On 8–9 September I attended the Art and Christianity Enquiry (ACE) symposium in Cambridge: ‘In glass thy story‘, a two-day symposium addressing over 70 years of innovation and iconography in the glass art of British and European churches and cathedrals.
On the first day I contributed a paper on the change in direction that prompted the adoption of a more vivid and bold approach to stained glass design in the Llandaf diocese. This enlarged an observation made on pages 268–9 of Stained Glass from Welsh Churches, and presented the opportunity to show the work of Welsh artists Howard Martin, John Edwards, Tim Lewis, John Petts and others to a distinguished gathering of British and continental artists and scholars.
The symposium was held at Robinson College, Cambridge. This presented the opportunity to see works by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens in the chapel of the college, one of which is a small and intimate window, the other a large and ambitious work occupying much of the wall behind the altar. After my lecture, the proceedings continued with a short performance by the pianist Patrick Hemmerlé in the chapel, offering the opportunity to contemplate the work in conjunction with music by Debussy and Ravel.
The opportunity to engage with another recent work in Cambridge was provided by a visit to St Catherine’s College Chapel, where the artist Tom Denny spoke about his work in conversation with Sophie Hacker, and in particular about his window in the chapel.
The final talk of the conference was about the windows designed by the abstract artist John McLean for Norwich Cathedral, installed since I last visited the cathedral. As I came away I couldn’t help thinking about the striking difference between these wholly abstract windows, saturating their aisle with colour, with the window we looked at by Tom Denny. This was also a work which was rich in colour, and might, in combination with two other windows in a similar kind of location, have also created a colourful immersive environment. But the work of Denny was figurative and suggestive, an intelligent interpretation of texts from Ecclesiastes, and also brilliantly painted.
Were the windows by John McLean, with their absence of any apparent message, suggestive of a church that does not know what to say anymore, or at least a church that chooses to say little? In glass no story?
Such things cannot be argued one way or another in a few lines here. I didn’t talk about theology or narrative in my talk and lots of us were perhaps on safer ground with style and form. But the rare opportunity to think about these things at the ACE conference was a welcome one.
It’s not often that new source material for the study of artists in Wales is published. After many years of preparation, this spring sees the launch of A Dictionary of Artists in Wales, prepared by Peter W. Jones and Isobel Hitchman.
There are (mostly) short entries on hundreds of artists who have worked in Wales since 1945 (the end date for information is 2007), and this includes a number of artists who have worked in stained and architectural glass. Many of them are also represented in Stained Glass from Welsh Churches, but some who trained and worked in Wales are not, finding commissions outside of Wales or for public places other than places of worship.
Inevitably there are a couple of notable omissions. In particular I was sorry to find no inclusion of Colwyn Morris, who worked as a cartoonist at Powell’s of Whitefriars in the 1950s and 60s before designing numerous windows made at Tim Lewis’ studio from the 1980s until his death in 2011. Similarly John Edwards, who also taught on the stained glass course in Swansea, is not included. His powerful work for Celtic Studios in the late 1950s and 1960s is something that I tried to highlight in the book, and, like Colwyn Morris, he has made many more recent works with Tim Lewis.
Also missing is Marjorie Walters, briefly married to the painter Evan Walters, who also worked at Powell’s and then returned to Swansea as Howard Martin’s first assistant on the stained glass course at Swansea College of Art. From my conversations with students who were on the course in the 1970s I found that she was remembered very fondly, but firm details about her were difficult to establish, and I was grateful to Marilyn Griffiths and Kirstine Dunthorne for their help. It is thought that she designed as well as cartooned the transept window at the Church of St Mary, Swansea (the east window at the church, also by Powells, was cartooned by Colwyn Morris), but no one that I spoke to could point to any actual evidence for this. It may of course have been the case that the work of interpreting a design by E. Liddall Armitage as a cartoon might have almost amounted to the design of the window.