Stained Glass from Welsh Churches

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In Glass Thy Story

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.

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John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens, Robinson College Chapel window, 1979

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.

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Tom Denny and Sophie Hacker discussing his work in St Catherine’s College Chapel, Cambridge, with his recent window above.

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.

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Twentieth Century Society Review

I am grateful to Robert Drake at the Twentieth Century Society for his review of Stained Glass from Welsh Churches, published in the last number of their magazine (October 2015, 3).

stained glass window depicting three knights with Thomas Becket kneeling at the altar.

Celtic Studios, The Martyrdom of St Thomas Becket, 1957, Church of St Thomas, Overmonnow

The review naturally pays attention to the twenteth century material, which actually occupies almost half of the book, and is illustrated with a panel by John Petts from Briton Ferry. The mid-twentieth century material proved quite difficult to write about, as there have been hardly any overviews of stained glass of the period, except in those books that attempt a history of all stained glass in Europe and North America, in which the British material leaps nervously from Henry Holiday or Christopher Whall to John Piper, maybe via Evie Hone or Veronica Whall.

It is suggested that the most interesting section of the book is perhaps in chapter ten, and the eventual emergence of modernism in stained glass in Wales in the later 1950s and 60s. This is something that I am going to talk about in a lecture in Swansea next Friday (27th) in the Glass Department. To my mind the chapter does emerge from the very long preceding chapter with a bit of colour and vigour.

The review is available online on the Twentieth Century Society website. To the readers of the review I might add that there is a misunderstanding about the funding for the book, which was (unfortunately!) not at all funded by the AHRC.