‘A New Spirit in Stained Glass’
All four of the stained glass panels acquired by The Stained Glass Museum represent Clarke’s early work in stained glass, and demonstrate the strong abstract sculptural nature of his designs, in the years before he was commissioned to design and make stained glass for the new Cathedral at Coventry. The stained glass panels reveal Clarke’s experimental techniques, and demonstrate how he combined the skill of blacksmith, welder, stained glass artist and pattern maker to produce unique artworks in glass. In her seminal book, The Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century (1999), Tanya Harrod acknowledged that Geoffrey Clarke and Keith New ‘represented a new spirit in stained glass’ (Harrod, 1999: 324). Clarke was one of the main innovators of the period; he made his own dabbing tools for painting glass, and experimented with painting techniques, as well as a variety of materials. All four of the pieces we wish to acquire reveal Clarke’s experimentation with techniques, form and symbolism, and draw attention to the relationship between stained glass and other artistic media, thus transforming our perceptions of stained glass as an art form. They are unique examples of a modern movement in stained glass, from which evolved not only new styles and techniques, but a new visual language.Find out more about them here!
Saint Anthony (1949)
This panel was made by Clarke while he was still a student in the stained glass department at the Royal College of Art (hereafter RCA). Saint Anthony is the largest surviving example of stained glass from Clarke’s student years, and was exhibited together with Priest (1949) at the RCA Exhibition of 1950, held in the galleries of the Royal Society of British Artists, where it attracted the attention of both critics and the public. Lawrence Lee, an established stained glass artist who was Clarke’s teacher at the RCA, drew attention to this innovative panel in an article published in Architectural Design (May 1951) following the exhibition:
A hint of the future may be seen in [Clarke’s] panel. Shape and content are unusual; the rhythmic pattern of smallish pieces of deeply coloured, stained and enamelled glass (mostly in blues) must be unique in modern decorative art.
The figure of Saint Anthony lying horizontally in the desert landscape, surrounded by birds and animals, is a fine example of Clarke’s slender abstracted figures. The deep blue and purple glasses show Clarke’s preference for these colours, which would later be used on a monumental scale at Coventry.
Priest demonstrates how Clarke combined stained glass, mosaic and sculptural techniques to produce unique artworks. Clarke referred to such artworks, created by building up layers of plaster and pieces of glass, as ‘relief sculpture’. Like Saint Anthony, Priest was exhibited together at the RCA Exhibition of 1950, where it was described by Lawrence Lee, as
a form of glass mosaic with many decorative possibilities […] being small, deeply coloured pieces of glass set in a fretted pattern of plaster.
This ‘relief sculpture’, mosaic or stucco panel was also shown at Clarke’s first solo exhibition at the London gallery Gimpel Fils in 1952, together with a number of his glass mosaics, monotypes, etchings, and sculptures in iron.
Saint Sebastian (1949)
Saint Sebastian demonstrates both Clarke’s semi-abstract approach to figurative work and his interest in experimenting with materials. Saint Sebastian (d.288) was an early Christian martyr who is thought to have been killed during the Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. As common in art and literature, Saint Sebastian is depicted in this panel tied to a post or tree and shot with arrows. The small glass panel is set within a wooden frame with apex, and appears like a Byzantine icon. Clarke had much interest in subjects engaging with issues of faith and religion. The contorted figure of Saint Sebastian represents an existential anxiety around the human figure present in much of Clarke’s sculpture and stained glass, as also seen in Saint Anthony. Saint Sebastian also demonstrates Clarke’s glass-painting techniques. The glass panel is heavily painted with layers of matt paint to impart a dark, aged effect, through which colour glows in the polished areas. Clarke has plated the traditional leaded and painted stained glass panel with sheets of glass on either side. This layering effect contributes to the appearance of the panel as an icon or relic.
Fragment (circa 1956-59)
Fragment’ (c.1956-59) is a sculptural piece in glass and lead sheet, which experiments with surface texture and three-dimensional abstract form. Together with a companion panel entitled Embryo (now lost), Fragment was included in the highly publicised ‘British Artist Craftsmen’ exhibition organised by the Smithsonian Institution that toured the USA in 1959–60. In the upper part of the panel, a cylindrical form of lead sheet penetrates the panel, projecting into both the space in front and behind the panel. Fragment represents one of the earliest appearances of Clarke’s swirling symbolic form, which held both a spiritual and symbolic importance for the artist. The sculptural panel is also contemporary with Clarke’s designs for the multicoloured window Man in Maturity for the nave of Coventry Cathedral. In the context of the development of Clarke’s glass, ‘Fragment’ represents an important stage between his mosaics (1949–55) and the fully three-dimensional works in aluminium and glass for Ipswich Civic College (1961), Crownhill Parish Church (1961), Taunton Crematorium (1963) and Manchester College of Art (1969). Following damage to ‘Embryo’ and its subsequent disappearance, Fragment now constitutes the sole surviving example of Clarke’s early, sculptural work in lead and glass.