Piper & Clarke - Stained Glass: Art or Anti-Art

15th November 2013 to 7th April 2014

The Verey Gallery, Eton College, United Kingdom


John Piper and I spoke on several occasions about exhibiting together, but the closest we came was the historical show we co-curated with Martin Harrison for The Festival of The City of London, 'GLASS/LIGHT' in 1978. It was a ground-breaking event that introduced for the first time the work of the post-war German artists working in stained glass alongside Cocteau, Frank Lloyd Wright, Van Doesburg, Thorn Prikker, Chagall and historical works drawn from a thousand years of the medium. The exhibition at Eton is our first real joint show and within the obvious limitations of location modestly seeks to fulfil a decades-old ambition. Piper and I shared a keen interest in architecture art history and humour and though our work might reasonably be described as worlds apart, we were united by an unshakable belief that being an artist carries with it profound responsibilities that impact upon every aspect of daily life. Piper's sensitivity and intelligence as an artist made Piper the man irresistible. Poetry in all its expressions was the authority to which he reported. I share the same allegiances. We were allies in stained glass as we were in so many things that characterise the artistic life.” – Brian Clarke, 2013.

Martin Harrison: “The mutual esteem that existed between Piper and Clarke is interesting, since it crossed generations and aspirations for stained glass. For Clarke, as a young student, Piper’s book Stained Glass: art or anti-art (1968) had been a clarion call and a clear exposition of the medium’s potential; it became a significant stimulus for him to engage with stained glass as a valid form of artistic expression. Clarke, of course, had to pursue his own direction if he were to make his mark, and if there is a fundamental divergence in the two artists’ approaches it is, I would suggest, in Clarke’s grasp of the expressive potential of lead and glass, whereby the deployment of medium’s two basic elements takes precedence over ‘drawing’ with glass-paint. In that context the present exhibition is both a poetic revisiting of a friendship and an eloquent exposition of the achievements of two outstanding artists, an event of which I am confident John would warmly approve.

The effect of stained glass is like nothing else in the visual arts. Coloured glass does not act in its place alone, like a painting or anything static, as it does not have a fixed third dimension. Although a coloured window may be 80 feet high and 50 feet wide its forward dimension is no more defined than a rainbow. Its colour is perceptible in open space. What Clarke and Piper shared as glass makers, and perhaps Clarke was first aware of in his sight of Piper’s new windows, was this extraordinary ability of glass to place colour throughout an interior, creating the presence of living colour like a liquid volume. Because of the freedom of his technique, inspired by new fabrications from Germany, Clarke has been able to create designs that operate at several levels of style, as if they had been accumulated through different times. Sometimes he places with them lightly coloured or transparent glass, so the interior incorporates whatever as well can be seen outside. Piper never had this freedom, but his two grand secular windows, at Sandersons Hotel in London and the non-denominational chapel at Robinson College, Cambridge, both of plant shapes, seem to look forward longingly to such a liberation. Clarke’s parallel systems are bound together by an architectural grid, like graph paper, over which he can use representations of his choice, whether akin to handwriting, or collage, photography, lines delicate or bold, or quotations from old or new. It is a measure of the strength of his work that there is nothing that needs to be excluded, however old or new, difficult or familiar.  The different parts interact like layers of architecture and landscape, or information and comment. The distinction between abstract and figurative is superseded, as has that between art as painting and as stained glass. Often the uppermost shapes float triumphantly with a feeling of joy. Colour must be used instinctively, there is no other way, and is what defines the character of an artist’s work. It may be a fundamental taste for colour which Piper and Clarke share most closely. It was always the blues and reds that counted in old glass, their contrast at a level of intensity capable of acting simply but with great authority. Both artists have produced brilliant schemes in these colours. Time and again Clarke has created for a building a luxuriant and overwhelmingly convincing character of a place within a natural order, that is able to incorporate beliefs, history and a richness of life.” – David Fraser Jenkins

“Eton College has an extraordinarily rich tradition of stained glass, both religious and secular.  To replace glass in Eton College Chapel bombed out during the Second World War, John Piper (1903-1992) and Patrick Reyntiens (b. 1925) created eight windows.  Of 80 full size cartoons, 60 survive in private hands. This was the first opportunity in 50 years to see them reunited. Also on display were two further Piper designs, one for the Baptistery window in Coventry Cathedral, and one for an Annunciation window for a church in Abingdon.  Alongside the works displayed in the Verey Gallery, Eton College was fortunate to be able to display throughout many buildings work by architectural and stained glass artist Brian Clarke.”

This exhibition celebrates Piper and Reyntiens' work by bringing together in the Verey Gallery for the first time the cartoons from which Piper and Reyntiens worked, the watercolours by Piper setting out his ideas (never before exhibited together) and much other material.  But it does more than that. In a real sense, Piper handed on to Brian Clarke the baton of being Britain’s greatest glass artist. Thanks to Brian and his colleagues, the Verey has now spread its wings outside its own confines, and Eton is host throughout our many buildings to a fascinating and moving series of installations of Brian Clarke’s own work. This is a privilege for us at Eton. But it is also a fitting twenty-first century celebration of the part our predecessors played in commissioning some of the finest modern glass in Britain.” – William Waldegrave, Provost.