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‘An aid to prayer and contemplation’ Magnificent stained glass is being created in Thomas Denny’s studio at Belchalwell. John Newth has been to meet him.

Thomas Denny at work on his representation of Benedict Biscop in one of the three windows for Sunderland Minster

Thomas Denny was born in London and educated at King Alfred’s School, Hampstead, which he calls ‘mildly progressive’. Fortunately, that mild progressiveness meant that art was taken seriously and that his evident artistic gifts were nurtured. He chose to go to art college in Edinburgh partly because there was an emphasis there on the drawing and painting traditions, which was unusual in the 1970s. ‘In fact,’ he says with regret, ‘it’s extraordinary what a stranglehold conceptual art still has on art education.’

There was a stained glass department at Edinburgh, but he did not do much work with it. After leaving college, he was establishing a reputation as a coming painter when the grandmother of a friend of a friend commissioned him to create a stained glass window for a church near Stirling in Scotland. Other jobs followed, including a church in Cheltenham for which he did ten windows over ten years, and today he is not only fascinated by stained glass but has a reputation which puts him among the country’s leading exponents of the medium. His work can be seen all over the country, in sites ranging from Gloucester Cathedral to tiny village churches. In Dorset it is in the churches of Hinton St Mary, Tarrant Hinton and Powerstock, as well as Bridport Hospital.

Although Thomas has less time for painting now, he still sees himself primarily as a painter. ‘The thinking that goes into making a painting is better training for doing stained glass than the technicalities of cutting and leading,’ he told me. ‘The decisions you take about ideas, treatment and so on are the same decisions as go into a painting – it’s just that the ways of bringing them about are different. It is also different because stained glass has the huge extra element of the constraints of the place where it is to be installed. You have to like those constraints, work with them and use them as an impetus, not an intrusion.’ He goes on, without bitterness, ‘Yet stained glass is not always recognised as part of the art world, although stained glass windows are some of our most ambitious public works of art. Not many artists (John Piper is an exception) have bridged the gap between painting and stained glass in the public’s mind.’

A millennium window created by Thomas Denny at Bolton Percy, Yorkshire, on the theme of Isaiah chapter 43

Stained glass art also differs from painting in the degree to which the glass can be prepared before the paint is applied. Acid etching, for example, can be used. ‘Flashed’ glass (clear glass with a thin layer, or ‘flash’, of colour on the surface) is modified by the partial or complete removal of the colour by acid; by applying wax to areas of the surface, Thomas can prevent the acid from eating into those areas of colour. Two pieces of acid-etched flashed glass can be leaded up together, one on top of the other – this is known as plating. It is a technique which makes possible an almost infinite palette of colour, as well as giving vibrancy and depth. Flashed glass was first used in the 14th century. Another technique is to apply silver nitrate to the glass as a paste which is then fired in the kiln. When it is scraped off, it has stained the glass in a rich variety of yellows and golds, depending on the thickness of the paste and how long it is left on the glass.

When the preparation has been done, Thomas sticks the window up against the light, holding it in position with beeswax. Now he starts to apply paint, using a special material which contains ground glass. Next, the glass is fired in a special kiln to bond the paint to it. Although the result is predictable, there is still time for refinements and adjustments as each piece of glass is likely to be fired two or three times.

A new Denny window usually starts with a brief from whoever is commissioning the work, typically a Parochial Church Council. This can be quite short: the brief for three windows for Sunderland Minster, on which Thomas is working at the moment, ran to only half a dozen sentences. He then produces a painting for approval, putting his own interpretation on the brief he has been given. In the case of the Sunderland window, for example, it had to include Benedict Biscop, patron of the city, and the Venerable Bede, but it was Thomas who added references to the city’s industries and a representation of the mouth of the River Wear.

The next stage is a cut-line drawing on which the technical requirements of each piece of glass are noted, but there is still plenty of scope for the ideas to be developed further once Thomas actually starts painting onto the glass. When the work is complete – and the Sunderland windows will take about eight months – it is carefully transported to the site and installed under Thomas’s supervision.

Asked about his inspirations, Thomas replies, ‘I get my inspiration from looking at art but not necessarily art which might be seen as close to what I do,’ Pressed, he quotes Pierre Bonnard and Samuel Palmer, but says that the greatest influence on him is the close-to landscape and the imagery it suggests. ‘In this part of Dorset the landscape is very beautiful scenically,’ he says, ‘but also every square yard is full of richness. In my windows I get very engrossed in the minutiae of surfaces and the inter-connection of forms in the landscape. I feel angry that this close-quarter richness has become blander due to changes in farming and land management.’

One of a series of panels in each of the four windows of the nave at Hinton St Mary

This aspect of Thomas Denny’s work can be seen in a small window that he recently completed for a grotto in the garden created in memory of the late Queen Mother in the Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh. It shows a landscape of a loch and a hill but they are viewed between two rocks in the foreground which are covered in lichen, moss and ferns – the sort of landscape in miniature which so inspires Thomas and for whose future he fears.

While Thomas was at art college, his brother did a course in stone conservation at Weymouth College. He and some others rented the gatehouse at Wolfeton House, near Charminster, and one of his house-mates, Benita, was to become Thomas’s wife. Thomas himself lived in the Wolfeton gatehouse for a while, then took over the lease on half of the house in Gloucestershire to which his parents had moved. Benita having been born in Lytchett Minster, they decided to move to Dorset when the lease expired and bought a tumbledown cottage in Hinton St Mary. Having restored it, they lived there for ten years before moving to their present home at Belchalwell. Again, it badly needed restoration and the Dennys also built on extension using traditional cob to match the rest of the house. They moved, says Thomas, ‘because they wanted somewhere where they could contemplate the landscape from the windows.’

While talking about influences on him, I asked Thomas if it would be possible to do what he does if he were a convinced atheist. ‘That’s a complicated and un-straightforward question,’ he replied. ‘I certainly feel that what I’m doing is worthwhile. One must approach it with sympathy and reverence, but those qualities can also be found in non-religious art; better a still life by Braque, say, than a piece by someone who is perhaps a wonderful Christian but a poor artist.’ It may be this hint of objectivity which makes Thomas Denny’s work so powerful; non-Christians admire and relate to it, while Christians find it (to quote the brief for the Sunderland Minster window) ‘an aid to prayer and contemplation’.

Thomas Denny’s window at Tarrant Hinton is based on Joel chapter 2, verses 21-27, and explores the ‘gladness’ of the land through images that derive from the chalk landscape surrounding the village

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