Patrick Pollen: Artist celebrated for his work in stained glass
Thursday 30 December 2010
Patrick Pollen was a distinctive artist in several media, drawing and mosaic among them, but principally in stained glass, in which he leaves a large corpus of work, some of it in Britain and the United States, but most of it executed for churches in Ireland between the 1950s and the 1980s.
Pollen had moved from London to Dublin in 1952 to study with Evie Hone and to work at Catherine O'Brien's An Túr Gloine (or Tower of Glass) in Upper Pembroke Street. Hone's Last Supper and Resurrection for the East Window of Eton College Chapel, in Berkshire, unveiled in the same year, had created a sensation, firing Pollen, then 24, with a zeal to join the Irish tradition in mosaic and stained glass. This tradition, devloped by the An Túr collective (founded in 1903 to foster a national, Celtic revival style), had been brought to its highest pitch by Wilhelmina Geddes and her pupil Hone, one of the most influential figures in the Irish modernist movement.
In Dublin, Pollen was in safe hands. The high-minded but twinkle-eyed Hone guided his efforts until her death in 1955. Pollen's landlord at An Túr, Kitty O'Brien, was an artist of experience and standing while the technical challenges of firing the glass (ensuring a smooth blend of black iron oxide paint on to the coloured glass) and glazing (joining the pieces of fired glass with lead) were managed by Peter Connolly, who had been in charge of work at the garden studio in the heart of Dublin for more than 30 years.
The first work to bring Pollen public attention was a memorial window to the fifth Earl of Rosslyn, exhibited in Dublin before being installed in the crypt, of Rosslyn Chapel, near Edinburgh, in 1954.
A critic of one of Pollen's works of early maturity – three windows for Milford, Donegal, unveiled in 1960 – seized on what set him apart from Hone's other followers: "drawing with a rugged masculinity which, though modern in general conception, would more readily accord with traditional windows" than the work of his contemporaries.
This "rugged" directness, the mosaic-like clarity, of Pollen's best work was of a part with the directness of his nature. His views, on art, religion and politics, were strongly held, and strongly argued. With his bold profile, imposing teeth, sparkling eyes and expressive hands, he was a compelling presence and fluent speaker, often ending his best stories (inspired by his great powers of observation) with vivid sound effects and an explosive burst of laughter.
Pollen was born at home in London in 1928, and grew up in a houseof artists, the second son and second of six children of the sculptor Arthur Pollen and his wife Daphne Baring,a star pupil at the Slade School who had become known as a sensitive portraitist and bold practitioner of murals on a grand scale. Patrick was educated first at home, then at St Philip's preparatory school in South Kensington. With the fresh-air craze of the 1930s he was sent to Avisford, near Arundel, and then to Ampleforth College, in Yorkshire.
Until the outbreak of war in 1939, London was the base of the Pollen children's education and cultural edification, while they spent as much of the year as they could in Ireland, at Lambay, the island north of Dublin where Daphne Pollen's parents, Cecil Baring and Maude Lorillard, had employed the architect Edwin Lutyens to remodel the 15th-century castle. Here the family enjoyed periods of heady escape, painting, swimming and botanising. It remained a lifelong place of respite for Patrick Pollen, his siblings, and their children.
The Pollens kept a devout, hospitable household, frequented by intellectual priests and lay people. Both Arthur and Daphne Pollen produced meditative, serious-minded art for churches and religious orders. Their work of the 1930s can be seen together in the Urquhart Memorial chapel at Campion Hall, Oxford.
After the Second World War, Patrick and his siblings were sometimes taken by their father to visit his admired friend Henry Moore at this studio in Hertfordshire. On one visit, Francis and Patrick were shown The Three Women which Moore was working on outside under a polythene canopy, and then taken to view a set of pieces placed on low tables and covered in sheeting. They were made to crouch down in one corner to get the full effect before Moore whisked away the sheeting. Confronted with a rear view of a gigantic reclining female figure, the Pollen brothers broke into an involuntary grin, while not a flicker of emotion crossed the great man's face.
In London, Patrick Pollen was sociable and popular. In the summer of 1948, he, his great schoolfriend Jock Hamilton-Dalrymple (who later became a Catholic priest) and Angus Ogilvy – all three still on National Service – formed a trio of men about town. After two years' National Service, Pollen attended the Slade School and the Académie Julian in Paris, where he first saw the stained glass in Notre Dame that so impressed him and set him on his path as an artist.
Other than Hone, the main influences on Pollen's work were his parents and the artist-poet David Jones, a beloved figure for the whole family. The Pollens relished not just the quality of Jones' drawing and writing but the "many-splendoured" spirituality of his work in both media. Jones and Arthur Pollen had given long thought to the role of the Christian artist in the 20th century, in giving expression to a revealed religion as an act of conscious devotion.
After allowing Patrick use of his studio in childhood, Arthur Pollen remained at once his son's most astute critic and his warmest support; Patrick sought his father's counsel throughout his life. Pollen père had been invited into the "golden circle" by Henry Moore in the 1930s but had consciously taken a different path, one that favoured doing work for the Catholic church. If Patrick were to do something similar, his father urged him, the commitment had to be clearly and willingly arrived at.
Patrick Pollen's largest work was to make 32 windows, covering 5,500 square feet, for the new Catholic Cathedral in Johannesburg, completed in 1959 for the opening of the cathedral in the following year. Pollen's panels of scenes from the Gospels – Pentecost, the Assumption, Christ the King among them, with the miraculous Draught of Fishes particularly worthy of note – are set around the sanctuary and high on the nave walls in concrete frames surrounded by smaller panels of coloured glass.
His mosaic work at Galway Cathedral in 1965 – the crucifixion behind the high altar and the depiction of St Joseph the Worker – is perhaps his boldest work in that medium (accompanied by stained glass in the mortuary, Blessed Sacrament and St Colman chapels).
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Pollen executed a number of commissions for the Jesuit fathers in London, including a three-light window of the English martyrs at the church in Farm Street, Mayfair, where Evie Hone had previously worked. At Worth Abbey, in Sussex, his brother Francis's masterpiece in church architecture, Patrick Pollen's bronze tabernacle doors, of 1975, for the Blessed Sacrament sit in close proximity to two of Arthur Pollen's works – a crucifix over the high altar, and a limestone Madonna and Child.
One of Pollen's grandest, most abstracted, works, dating from the early 1980s, is his memorial in St Anne's Cathedral, Belfast, to soldiers of Irish regiments killed in the First and Second World Wars. One of his most dramatically sited pieces is the grand four-panel Epiphany (1968), which soars up in front of the visitor to the tiny late medieval Foster's Almshouse in Bristol. One of his happiest creations, one where the colour values of his glass tell most impressively, is the St Luke memorial window (1964) to his old friend and mentor Catherine O'Brien, in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin.
Pollen's life was transformed by his marriage in 1963 to the calm, beautiful Nell Murphy, a distinguishedsculptor in her own right. In themid-Sixties they moved from the centre of Dublin to the leafy suburb of Dundrum, building a large studio, where they welcomed friends and fellow artists. In the early 1980s they moved again to Winston-Salem in North Carolina, where their five children completed their education before Patrick and Nell returned to live in Ireland in the late 1990s.
Patrick spent some time living at his beloved Lambay before settling in Wexford, Nell's home county. In the past two years, husband and wife toured much of Ireland, revisiting their works from the Sixties and Seventies. It was a time of happy recollection, fuelled by Patrick's superb memory, and a time of tranquility, gladdened as he was by the renewed permission to hear his beloved Tridentine Latin mass, the ancient rite whose simple grandeur lay behind, and chimed with, so much of his finest work.
Patrick La Primaudaye Pollen, artist: born London 12 January 1928; married 1963 Nell Murphy (four sons, one daughter); died Wexford, Ireland 30 November 2010.
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