Obituary: Leonard Evetts

John Ruscoe
Monday 06 October 1997 23:02
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Leonard Charles Evetts, artist and conservationist: born Newport, Monmouthshire 12 January 1909; married 1937 Jo Macdonald (died 1983), 1987 Phyl Dobson; died Woolsington, Tyne and Wear 21 September 1997.

Leonard Evetts first came to be noticed when in 1938 he published his book Roman Lettering, based on his study of the letters of the inscription at the base of the Trajan column. This went through eight reprints and established Evetts as an authority in historic calligraphy.

He was the son of a painting contractor who taught him signwriting and stimulated a lifelong interest. At the age of 18 he won a short scholarship to the Royal College of Art. This was followed by a three-year scholarship, in 1930-33, where he studied calligraphy under Edward Johnston and stained glass under Martin Travers. He lectured at the College of Art in Edinburgh from 1933 to 1937, after which he joined the department of Fine Art at King's College, Newcastle upon Tyne, ultimately becoming head of the department.

During the Second World War he advised the War Office in camouflage techniques. After retirement from academic work, he continued to work from his home, where a full-sized billiard table was rapidly converted into a cutting table for his work in glass. He completed his last commission - a window for Craster Parish Church - just 10 days before he died.

His private commissions were many and various, but it was in stained glass that Len Evetts was most successful, completing over 300 windows for clients throughout Britain and as far away as New Zealand. Evetts combined a mature knowledge of Christian liturgy and iconography with a fine sense of colour and design. He was helped by a commanding physical presence. When he presented his designs to his clients he did so with such conviction and gravitas that any doubts clients may have had at the outset were quickly transformed into the belief that they were about to acquire a unique masterpiece.

His early glass was in delicate tints, angular, ascetic and restrained, but as the years went by the glass became more colourful, the composition stronger and more curvilinear. Perhaps his greatest achievement - unparalleled in modern times - was his glass for the church of St Nicholas, Bishopwearmouth, where the entire chancel and nave was all his work. Few artists have that opportunity, and he took full advantage of it.

Equally important to him was his plain leaded glass, using handmade reamy glass of various types. He often lectured in the art of grisaille, and developed the distinctive Northumbrian style of F.R. Wilson, most handsomely at Blanchland Abbey and in the great east window at Sedgefield. Less well known was his work in recognising and conserving fragments of medieval glass as at Lanchester.

Evetts was a man of many talents. His watercolours, of which his Bamburgh Castle in the Laing Art Gallery is a good example, had that same awareness of the infinite variety of atmospheric colour that typified much of his glass, but there was a greater sense of the numinous. For a church in a dreary council estate in Sunderland he made a Majestas in cast aluminium. For Gloucester Cathedral he designed a cope. At Bede's church in Jarrow he produced an altar cover, cross and candlesticks. For Darlington he painted on wood a royal coat of arms. Heraldic shields featured in much of his glass, but this commission gave him an opportunity to produce his own design.

Out of the public eye Evetts was more influential than we shall ever know. He was often used as a consultant to help settle disputes. He was Vice-Chairman of the Council for the Care of Churches, 1972-81, and a member of Newcastle Diocesan Advisory Committee (on new installations and additions) for more than half a century.

He disliked aggressive architecture. The square boxes with giant concrete fins of the 1960s were anathema to him. In the field of conservation he would very much have preferred the classical buildings of Dobson and Grainger in Newcastle to have been left with their patina of carbon black. That, he said, would be their best protection from the acidic pollutants of modern city centres.

His services to the Church were recognised in a Lambeth doctorate awarded in 1995. He was immensely proud of this. All his life he had fought battles against Philistinism and ugliness. Now someone at last had said an official "Thank you". As his life drew to its close, it left him feeling it had all been worthwhile.

- John Ruscoe

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