Glass of Haig
Published in March ’13
Few artists have managed to make a living from stained glass work; it is time-consuming, labour-intensive and expensive – for both the artist and the patron. Henry Haig was one of those few, and his windows can be seen in buildings which range from the Norman church of St Michael and All Angels in Alsop en le Dale in Derbyshire to the 1960s concrete of Clifton Cathedral in Bristol. But how many people who see his remarkable work realise that most of it was created in a converted racquets court in a tiny village in Dorset?
Fifehead Magdalen was the home of Henry Haig for more than forty years, as well as being the location of the workshop from which all that glass emerged. In 1969, Home Farm provided exactly what Henry and Joan Haig had been looking for to house them and their five young children – not to mention the potential of its old racquets court as a space big enough for Henry to work at his stained glass. They moved to Dorset – a county Henry had been introduced to as a boy when at a scout camp on Golden Cap – as it had the advantage of being a mid-point between the Pembrokeshire coast, their favourite holiday venue, and London, with all its artistic contacts – as well as the proximity of a good comprehensive school in Gillingham.
Henry Haig was actually a Londoner, born in 1930 in Hampstead, educated at the Richmond and East Sheen County School for Boys and his art teacher there, Jack Fairhurst, was a man who recognised the talent of an emerging artist. At the invitation of a friend, Henry went to visit the Wimbledon School of Art: when he saw the students at work, he was amazed. As he later said: ‘It was full of people busy doing the one thing I really loved. I couldn’t believe it. Fancy having this every day!’ His mother arranged for him to have an interview with the Principal, who went through his folder, then asked him to start the following Monday, even though he was only fifteen and had expected to stay on for another year at school.
He studied painting and sculpture there for five years, at which point, in 1949, his studies were interrupted by National Service. He was so anxious to continue his artistic path that he turned down an officer commission at the end of his service and applied for admission to the Royal College of Art painting school. But this was not to be: instead he was invited to take up a place in the stained glass department under Lawrence Lee.
It was at this time that he met Joan Salmon, a fellow RCA student, who was at the painting school. She sheds some light on Henry’s change of direction: ‘Henry had done some big murals while he was a student at Wimbledon – he was attracted to large spaces and was always interested in design and structure rather than in literal, figurative representation. And the RCA saw something special in his work.’ Joan and Henry saw something special in each other, too: they were married on New Year’s Day, 1956.
They became a formidable artistic team, they discussed every commission at length and frequently went on site visits together to draw up templates or to install work. Moreover, Joan was in demand as a gifted teacher, and this income helped them to cope when the already precarious nature of an artist’s life was magnified by the presence of five hungry children.
The commissions gradually increased, and Henry was eventually able to give up his own teaching. Many commissions were for completely new buildings, such as St Richard’s Church in Ham (near Richmond), built in 1964-5, and Clifton Cathedral (half a mile from Brunel’s suspension bridge), built in 1972-3. These two buildings are similar in shape, being six-pointed stars with a hexagonal interior space: a design driven by the wish to bring congregation and clergy closer together, as encouraged by the Second Vatican Council. The buildings also share the love of concrete so frequently evinced by 1960s architects, but in each case its unremitting severity is mollified by the joyful exuberance of Henry’s windows – the Clifton window is made from 8000 pieces of glass.
There was no doubt in Henry’s mind that the purpose of stained glass in a church was to make eternal truths visible through the energy of transmitted light. Light itself, he held, was a constant reminder of the power of God, the light of the universe: after all, the first words of God in the Bible are ‘Let there be light!’ The stained glass artist’s role was to explore and open pathways through and beyond earthly existence towards a deeper comprehension.
Henry’s art was symbolic and abstract (or, more correctly, non-figurative); he felt that if he depicted a literal interpretation of biblical texts he would be guilty of underestimating the intelligence of those who came into contact with his work.
One of his best-known works is the window he created as a memorial for WPC Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot while on duty during the Libyan Embassy siege in 1984, at St Leonard’s Church in Semley, where she grew up, just north of the Dorset border. Henry’s Dorset work includes a circular west window for St Mark’s Church in Highcliffe, the north rose window in St Mary’s Church in Swanage, the ‘Journey from Stourhead’ screen and chapel windows in Shaftesbury Hospital, and Michael James memorial window in Wimborne Minster. A much newer building, the Joseph Weld Hospice in Dorchester, needed a small chapel suitable for bedridden patients to be able to visit on mobile beds. With no side lighting available, Henry designed a glass dome easily visible from a prone position. He also designed the cross and the cabinet which can enclose it when the chapel is used by those of other faiths.
Henry Haig died in December 2007. He is much missed by his family and all who knew him, but his work lives on to be admired by future generations.