I FIRST encountered the work of Brian Clarke at the Swiss Museum of Stained Glass at Romont. I visited the Museum as part of my Sabbatical Art Pilgrimage and discovered that work by Clarke and another stained-glass artist, Yoki — neither of whom was previously known to me — could be seen in the town, as well as at the Museum.
The Cistercian Abbaye de la Fille-Dieu on the edge of Romont commissioned Clarke in 1996 to create windows for its renovated and reordered chapel. Clarke says that stained glass “can transform the way you feel when you enter a building in a way that nothing else can”. I would concur, especially after arriving at l’Abbaye de la Fille Dieu in time for a memorable service of vespers, followed by silent contemplation in the still onset of darkness falling. Clarke’s modern, abstract windows were designed to unify fragments retained from previous phases of the building’s life and offer both nuns and visitors a “warm and vibrant atmosphere”, which is “conducive to meditation and prayer”.
Courtesy Brian Clarke StudioGlass detail from Ardath (2023) by Brian Clarke
In the context of his career — one that is currently being celebrated with “A Great Light” at Newport Street Gallery — this commission was a surprising development. Early on in his career, Clarke realised that he had to “shake off the ecclesiastical image” of stained glass “if he was going to make any impact in the medium”. As a result, he has said, “I looked for opportunities in all kinds of public buildings and declined opportunities in the church. I fought for that and continue to fight for that. It’s a lifelong pilgrimage.”
This approach has paid off, as, through his five-decade-long career, Clarke has, by consistently pushing the boundaries of stained glass as a medium, both in terms of technology and its visual potential, come to be regarded as the most important artist working in stained glass today. His vision for stained glass is fundamentally architectural, as his works result from a dedicated respect for the buildings in which they are installed and the surrounding contexts of his work.
His works include ground-breaking aesthetic, technological, and iconographic changes to how the medium of stained glass is perceived, by the artist and by the viewer. These include triple-layered sheets of dot-matrix glass, which build up translucent and transparent images of battleships or beach boys, as if in a distant haze.
While there are no church commissions included in this exhibition, several such commissions helped to establish Clarke as a stained-glass artist in the early stages of his career, and later works, such as those at Abbaye de la Fille-Dieu and Linköping Cathedral, Sweden, confirm his ability to bring together technical skill, creative vision and sensitivity to place. His engagement with aspects of spirituality and contemplation also appears, however, in his work for secular spaces.
His latest work, Ardath, is a 42-square-metre wall of mouth-blown glass, which bathes the gallery in light and colour as flowering meadow motifs build up a rich and dense tapestry in the etched glass. His vibrantly coloured folding screens, layering a multitude of patterns and colours, also often draw on natural imagery, while his recent Kabinettscheiben are similarly inspired, being based on collages and drawings which are also displayed.
Courtesy Brian Clarke StudioFlowers for Zaha (2016) by Brian Clarke
Natural forms have always been a vital source of inspiration for him, and these are interpreted as spiritual beings, made of subtle lines and explosive colours. As a result, his creation of sensations of motion and vitality in these works conveys both aesthetic and spiritual meanings.
A second key theme is that of reflection on mortality, with another new work, Stroud Ossuary, depicting hundreds of skulls towering some ten metres above visitors. Intended for a 16th-century yeoman’s house in Gloucestershire, each graphically etched skull is carefully placed on traditional but meandering lead lines.
Skulls also feature in a series of large poignant leadworks, which either fully or partially eliminate glass to create a contemplative environment, filled with reflection and mourning. This experimentation coincided with the death of Clarke’s mother, Lilian, and the focus of these works of lead outlines on lead backgrounds effectively mirrors the bleakness of grief.
The leadworks stand at odds with the title of the exhibition. Yet, whether exploring grief, light, colour, or motion, the consistent creative matching of method to mood is the reason that Clarke’s stained glass is so appreciated and lauded.
“Brian Clarke: A Great Light” is at Newport Street Gallery, 1 Newport Street, London SE11, until 24 September. Phone 020 3141 9320. www.newportstreetgallery.com