Obituary: John Piper

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The Independent Online
WHEN some time in the early Fifties I was asked by John Betjeman to repair a small piece of pink glass in a robe of St John the Divine at Wantage parish church, I little thought that 35 years of my life would be devoted in part to realising the whole oeuvre of John Piper's stained-glass windows, writes Patrick Reyntiens (further to the obituaries by David Fraser Jenkins, Frances Spalding and Richard Ingrams, 30 June). Betjeman said to me, 'Oh you ought to go over to John Piper, he lives near you, and he has designed glass for Oundle chapel and he is scratching his head to know who is to carry the work out.' And with that word, Betjeman swivelled round to me and said, 'Why don't you have a try?'

Piper had at that time been asked to undertake his designs for Oundle School chapel by the Grocers' Company, a City livery company, and his designs struck me as combining the utmost originality with a strict discipline of colour and line, not unlike the medieval stained-glass figures in the clerestory of Bourges Cathedral in mid-France. The making of he windows at Oundle took some three years and, as soon as they were consecrated, Basil Spence, the architect of Coventry Cathedral, came up to look at them and decided that John's designs and my craft were just what was needed for his large baptistery window at Coventry. This was some 52ft wide and 84ft high and seemed a formidable undertaking, both for designer and interpreter.

We were not very sure of ourselves at that time, although we were quite sure of what effect we wanted in the great window, and we took Spence quite by surprise by demanding that we start making the window at the top and work down to the bottom, the reason being that our mistakes would then be less visible, lost in the distance, swallowed up in the blue light of the tympanum of the baptistery. Architects usually work from the bottom to the top, and our suggestion struck Spence as bizarre.

Three years later, about five tons of stained glass had gathered in my garage. The window was installed from top to bottom of the embrasures and not one piece was a quarter of an inch out in measurement. I owed this most to my then glazier Derek White, who has been for many years since head of conservation at Canterbury Cathedral. The blaze of glory surrounding the opening of Coventry is still remembered by those who were there. We later had an approach from John Heenan, Archbishop of Liverpool, to undertake the glazing of Liverpool Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral, whose plans were then in a state of flux, having been put out to competition. When Frederick Gibberd finally won the competition with a round cathedral topped with a lantern, Archbishop Heenan approached us once again, and three years later, in 1967, the work was complete, at immense labour and cost.

However, giganticism was not on Piper's agenda. His preference was for smaller windows in parish churches, modest designs of demotic interest and, after the great windows of Coventry and Liverpool, we went on together to make windows at Wellingborough, Babraham (outside Cambridge), Nettlebed and many other windows for parish churches. Our collaboration over 35 years culminated in first the stained-glass windows for Churchill College, Cambridge, and then one very large and one very small window for Robinson College (1979).

It was above all John Piper's interest in stained glass, following on from the remarkable achievement of Evie Hone, at Eton College Chapel in 1948-49, that started the medium towards the sensibility of the painter, as it had been some 75 years previously with the new interest of Edward Burne-Jones and Henry Holiday. The incursion of a painter into a highly specialised craft such as stained glass is fraught with difficulty. Solecisms resulting from changes of emphasis, faults in design, overemphatic emotion are very easily introduced into stained glass if it is designed by one who does not understand it. Piper, who had been copying stained-glass panels since his early twenties, understood the medium to a tee. He managed to expand its possibilities, largely through technical means, such as using acided glass and paint and enamel on the glass, but at the same time respecting its integral craft.

Working with John Piper was like seeing a craft whose ambitions up till then had been akin to those of chamber music being transformed by full-blooded orchestration. We were conscious of bringing stained-glass into the modern movement of painting and design and in so doing bringing the eye of the painter to the medium. Hitherto the craft had been dominated by line rather than by blocks of colour.

Parallel to our achievements in England there were achievements by Chagall in France and Johannes Schreiter and Ludwig Schaffrath in Germany which were distinctly linear in design. This new pioneering work in colour and in the use of light was diffused throughout the world through the medium of the school outside High Wycombe called Burleighfield which I ran with my wife Anne Bruce in the years 1963 to 1976. It took its cue from the encouragement of John Piper.

(Photograph omitted)

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