Back to the light
Words Mark Hooper
Photographs Christopher Sturman
The stained glass window artist Tom Denny is inspired by life’s tonality: so it’s only natural that his latest project focuses on the work of one of the greatest war poets…
Terrible pun or not, it’s impossible to avoid the word ‘enlightening’ when describing the work of Tom Denny. As one of the finest stained-glass artists working in Britain, his creations are literally transformed by light. Even his most figurative designs produce an ever-changing abstract of colour throughout the day because his constant consideration is the manipulation of sunlight through glass.
‘It’s extremely volatile,’ explains Denny. ‘It is uncontrollable in some ways, and when a new window first goes into its actual site, it is often quite shocking; surprising things happen.’
Given the settings that eventually house Denny’s work – from the grandest of cathedrals to the humblest of parish churches – it is enlightening in other ways too; both metaphorically and allegorically.
For Denny, who speaks with the same quiet calm of a member of the clergy, his face often lighting up as he recites the passages of poetry and scripture that inspire his art, it is clearly a hugely satisfying line of work.
‘It is very rewarding to be making work that is expected to be meaningful and deserving of long consideration,’ he says. ‘I love that it’s something that lives on, that people come to visit and will even write to me about how it affected them. It’s a lovely feeling of sharing with people.’
‘I love exploring things like pebbles or anthills, something that is particular to a place.’
Denny lives and works amid the beguiling landscape of the Vale of Blackmore in Dorset; a softly rolling backdrop (particularly when viewed through the mizzle on the day of our visit), but not without its dramatic moments – its outcrops, its sharp silhouettes and its strange, ancient constructions. It’s clear that this environment informs and shapes much of his work.
But that’s not all: a portion of Denny’s home is built with his bare hands, using clay excavated from his pond to create what appears to be the oldest part of the building (but is, in fact, the newest); a traditional Cobb house construction that wouldn’t look out of place in Hobbiton.
An avid walker, Denny often gathers material for his artwork while exploring his Dorset surroundings. ‘Sometimes it’s quite fun – the things I collect on walks can be very particular to something I need that goes into a window,’ he says. ‘I like the idea that landscape is just as particular and individual and revealing in miniature as in a patch of scenery. I love exploring things like anthills or pebbles or fossils or particular plants: something that is particular to a place.’
This meticulous appreciation of the local environment separates Denny’s work from other stained glass art. ‘It’s part of the idea of valuing things, which I think should be at the heart of everyone’s life, because it gives one joy. If you value things properly, then you can experience your surroundings more richly.’
This same sense of place was something that appealed to Denny in researching his latest project: a series of windows for Gloucester Cathedral, devoted to the war poet and musician Ivor Gurney.
‘I had actually read Gurney before and knew his music,’ he says, ‘but it’s wonderful to need to get to know someone very intimately, and I loved the way that everything he did was associated with landscape; it comes bubbling up. It’s a theme of my work; I like to think of landscape as… as much a sacred subject matter as biblical figure groups – and Gurney obviously felt the same.’
The Gurney project is a particularly fascinating one, ripe with the subject matter that Denny thrives on. The son of a Gloucester tailor, Gurney was a hugely gifted musician – and chorister at Gloucester Cathedral – who won an Open Scholarship to the Royal College of Music in 1900. There he left an indelible mark on his tutor, Sir Charles Stafford, who had also taught Ralph Vaughn Williams and John Ireland but proclaimed that Gurney was destined to become ‘the biggest of them all’. But his career was marked by periods of mental anguish and interrupted by the Great War: episodes that inform much of his poetry, particularly his collection, Severn and Somme, released in 1917.
‘From the beginning I felt very attuned to Gurney’s way of thinking and his approach to things,’ says Denny. ‘There’s a combination of anguish and beauty that his poems and music incorporates; a swinging between exaltation and harrowing depression.’
The idea for the project came from Sarah Connolly, a mezzo-soprano opera singer from Gloucestershire who wanted to celebrate Gurney’s life and work in the town of his birth. She had seen some of Denny’s stained glass art for Hereford Cathedral and commissioned him to produce eight panels for Gloucester.
‘That worked terribly well,’ smiles Denny, ‘because normally the cathedral chapter feels a responsibility to allow an important commission to be a competition, or to be thrown open to a number of different artists. But in this case, the cathedral said there’s no way we can fund this, and so it was agreed that she could decide on the artist.’
Instead, Connolly organised a concert at the Cathedral as a fundraiser, featuring music either by Gurney himself or that had first been performed at Gloucester Cathedral, with Gurney in attendance – such as the Ralph Vaughn Williams piece, Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. Denny talks with enthusiasm about the ‘weavings of past and present, between one person – Ivor Gurney – and me, and then there are the musicians involved in the project as well. I think it could be quite a meaningful thing for many people. It’s a rather lovely project because it’s drawing together different art forms and celebrating someone who himself had at least two very equal aspects of his work; music and poetry.’
It also affords Denny the opportunity to explore the themes of anguish and turmoil, of horror and eventual hope, that Gurney’s story inspires.
‘One of the extraordinary things about Ivor Gurney,’ explains Denny, ‘is that, because he was such a fragile man, and suffered such anguish in day-to-day life, the First World War was a time when he felt less of an outsider. Everyone was going through the same horrific experiences; everyone was right on the edge of sanity, so he was no longer the outsider, suffering in a way that others didn’t suffer. He knew a kind of companionship that he just didn’t have in day-to-day life.’
The Gloucester Cathedral project consists of eight panels that together tell Gurney’s tale of anguish, despair and the final hint of redemption.
‘The eight sections work as a whole,’ says Denny, ‘but each is based on a particular poem and they represent a kind of journey or movement from discovery and joy in nature to the appallingness of the war and then his incarceration and then a glimmer of the hope of redemption at the end. In one of his late poems, ‘Song and Pain’, he says;
Out of my sorrow
Have I made these songs
Out of my sorrow;
of the making’s eager pain
From Joy did borrow.
Someday, I trust,
God’s purpose of Pain for me
Shall be complete
And then –
To enter the House of Joy
Prepare, my feet.
‘That very much sums up that hope and yearning and suffering that’s in his work. So it would be lovely to feel that what I have done might lead people into thinking about him and his life.’
Denny’s commitment to his art is compelling. The fact that he can recite passages of Gurney’s poetry perfectly (he didn’t get a word wrong – I looked it up afterwards) shows how dedicated he is to his art and its subject matter. Leading me to the penultimate panel in the series, depicting Gurney’s mental anguish, when he is in the throes of despair, he again quotes the passage that inspired it. ‘There’s a poem called “Kettle-song” in which there’s a very powerful image of mental suffering and a brain twisting itself into knots: “Such tangled and evil-skeined fibres / Of living so matted are grown” – that’s thought; fibres of thought, “so matted are grown”. It’s a wonderfully horrible and vivid image of the actual idea of one’s mind twisting and turning.’
Denny’s unusually detailed, painterly style captures this intensity as he scours the surface of the glass with a matted, fibrous mass that sits over the head of a twisted figure like an oppressive cloud. It’s a perfect example of the incredible detail with which he fills his windows. ‘Glass painting is really glass drawing, refining and developing the colour work that’s already been done,’ he explains.
The process is a highly technical one: clear glass is first ‘flashed’ with a thin layer of colour on the surface. By using wax or other materials as a resist, the coloured glass is then etched away to varying degrees, creating a range of tones from solid colour to clear glass. A ceramic glaze can also be added, using silver nitrate to create an intense burst of transparent yellow. Next comes the painting, as Denny adds ‘the little lines and tones that make up detail and surface texture’.
‘It would be lovely to feel that what I have done might lead people into thinking about Gurney and his life.’
Finally, the glass is leaded – which is partly a structural technique to add strength to the panes of glass, and partly a crucial element of the design. Whereas stained glass historically uses the lead to describe the outlines of figures – like black marker pen in graphic art – Denny uses his lead in a more subtle way. Describing a work he made for Worcestershire Cathedral – tapering column of light intended to show the transfiguration of Christ – he explains, ‘There’s a lot of figurative imagery, but the first thing you see is a movement of colour and light. If you look at the leads, they make their own rhythm. I like to use leads as part of the design – but they don’t absolutely have to be the drawing.’
Many of the objects that he has collected on his walks appear in the finer details of Denny’s painting; while the Gurney panels also include parts of the landscape that the poet himself would have explored.
‘When he was a young man he walked all over Gloucestershire,’ says Denny. ‘Night walks, day walks; he was an absolutely astonishing walker. He walked across to Dymock one day to see the poet Edward Thomas who was living there and spoke to his wife Helen.’
Indicating one of the panels, he continues; ‘Later, when Gurney was incarcerated, Helen Thomas came to visit him and she brought the Ordnance maps of Gloucestershire, and Gurney suddenly lit up as together they explored the landscape through the maps. He was re-animated through those maps, so that’s what those are referring to.’
That enlightenment again. Denny reels off another line of poetry that refers to Breedon Hill – one of the outlying, freestanding hills coming off from the Cotswolds, near Tewkesbury, which is depicted in the panel: ‘Sudden with new beauty, day after unlooked for day.’
‘I don’t know why that line is so moving,’ Denny says. ‘There’s something about rejoicing in the unexpected glory of what’s on offer. Different bits of the windows involve different bits of the landscape of Gloucester, which is very varied in character.’
‘It’s a daunting responsibility to make something that’s going to last so long.’
Of course, the surface detail is just one element of Denny’s art. Stained glass work extends into extra planes that other mediums don’t touch. It is a flat surface that works in three dimensions, creating ever-changing sculptural forms with the differing light: both by highlighting different areas, so that ‘passages that one thought were not particularly significant become very prominent’ and also by throwing patterns of colour across the building and its congregation. ‘There is that element of wildness,’ says Denny. ‘The way in which times of day and light affect a window is exciting. It’s not that a window is more beautiful when sun is passing through it. Maybe on a dark day in winter it becomes very restrained and mysterious; that’s equally interesting. All of that change is at the heart of stained glass.’
Furthermore, it has to sit within a unique and peculiar context: juxtaposed with the art of countless periods. Besides the need to be both aware of and sensitive to the tonal qualities of the glass and stone that surrounds his art, there is also the challenge of working on what Denny describes as ‘public art at the highest level.’
‘It’s a daunting responsibility to make something that’s going to last so long – and also be in a place that means so much to people,’ he says. ‘Whether it’s a place of pilgrimage like Durham Cathedral or a very modest, ancient parish church that’s only known to a few people – they’re excited about a new piece coming into it, but anxious that it’s not going to spoil what they already love.’
While Denny’s style may seem modern when compared to say a 15th-century window, he is acutely aware of creating work that fits within its environment. Discordant art is all very well, he says, but ‘discordance is something that doesn’t want to go on decade after decade’.
Indeed, he’s something of a traditionalist, having studied painting at Edinburgh College of Art for two reasons – ‘I wanted to live somewhere interesting and visually exciting; but the other reason was that in the 1970s, most of the art schools in London involved thinking about your art rather than working within a visual language – about ideas rather than thinking of colour as a medium in its own right – and Edinburgh still had a painting school.’
Denny’s work seems to effortlessly straddle the worlds of craft and art, while having to fit – literally and physically – within a clear historical context. ‘There is a long established thread running through English painting of using nature and landscape; and of it being a vehicle for the expression of ideas, the romantic thread I suppose,’ says Denny. ‘I like very much being a part of a sequence of things and relating to the past as much as the present’.
Turning again to his Gurney windows, fixed by wax to glass panels in his studio, he admits, ‘It’s a little bit stubborn to insist on using these materials, but I think the awkwardness of the medium is quite interesting; the painting marks are less important than removing them. One works back to light, because the light is more visible than the dark. You’re plucking the light out of the dark.’