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Essay

Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men;
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude. 

Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.

—Andrew Marvell c. 1650–52

 

THESE TWO STANZAS of Andrew Marvell’s well-known metaphysical poem “The Garden” may seem an unlikely starting point for an article on the renowned contemporary British stained-glass artist and landscape painter Thomas Denny. But they offer an uncanny précis of my friend Denny’s life’s work. Despite the lapse of nearly four centuries, there are striking similarities in their response to nature, understood as God’s sacred creation. Both poet and artist draw us into a realm of reverie in which our perception of the world is transfigured, becoming sacramental, a communion of the senses.

“The Garden” was written during the turbulent Restoration period that followed the English Civil War, and was published posthumously in 1681. Marvell imagines a soul freeing itself from the gravity of its mortal body and rising through the branches of a tree until it can see a complete vista of the natural world. The soul sees in its own color, a heightened, all-encompassing green. Denny also presents us with scenes of the world saturated with rich color. However, his visions of the bucolic sublime are not rarefied fantasies; like Marvell’s garden they are earthed, or rooted, in close observation of natural phenomena. Marvell is not escaping from the world but taking us into God’s very particular, localized sacred space. The metaphysical conceits of the poem lie hidden in plain sight and draw the reader bit by bit into a mystical meditation. As we will see, literature, particularly poetry and biblical sources, is always close to the heart of Denny’s creative inspiration.

Since the 1980s and 1990s, Denny has evolved from a widely exhibited landscape artist who regularly showed in New York, London, Bath, and Regensburg, to an innovative stained-glass artist whose work is also strongly marked by tradition. His windows adorn buildings ranging from Durham Cathedral to the smallest of rural parish churches and are scattered across Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany.

He is best known for the ravishing fields of color in his windows, works that are etched, stained, and painted with a peculiar combination of meticulous care and expressive brio. To experience a Denny window is to enter an installation of symphonic color combined with stunning narrative details, painted with great tenderness. It is hard to take in on a single visit. Josef Albers’s teaching maxim was “to open eyes.” Denny’s art does just that for both our interior and exterior perception.

 

Locale

Denny was born in 1956 into a family with strong links to art and architecture: his father was an architect, his mother a painter, and his uncle Robyn Denny a painter of international repute. Perhaps even more influential was the genius loci, the spirit of place. He was first brought up near Constable’s Hampstead Heath in London. The family then moved to Daneway House in the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, an idyllic fourteenth-century yeoman’s hall remodeled in the seventeenth century as a manor house. Later, as a student at Edinburgh College of Art, Denny lived in the red-soiled rolling Scottish coastal region of East Lothian. His current home and studio are in the Vale of Blackmore, deepest Dorset. These various homes, perhaps unsurprisingly, reflect a deeply romantic aspect of the British landscape. All are situated in areas rich in evocative history, both human and geological. They are also places of precise cultural association, closely identified with specific writers, poets, musicians, artists, and craftspeople.

When we met to discuss this article, it became clear that Denny’s art and daily philosophy of living are deeply grounded in his surroundings. He cited his likes as: the sacredness of landscape, walking slowly, swimming in rivers, poetry, and classical music. (Although he didn’t mention them, I would certainly add good ale and cheese.) “Walking” could be misunderstood as generic brief exercise on a Sunday afternoon, but this is not what Denny means. He clarified the activity as: “walking slowly, almost comatose, in a serene state akin to prayer.” It reminded me of the rural parson George Herbert describing “beating the bounds,” an annual tradition in English country villages. It meant reminding the community of its exact boundaries marked by particular geographical features such as trees, stones, streams, or hedges, which would be beaten to adhere them in the minds of the people. Denny walks in order to connect with nature, but also, like a magpie or bird of prey, he is searching for things to use, things that will help him identify with his experience of the landscape.

British art has a long tradition of tramping across ground to find one’s subject, of searching the elements for a voice that echoes one’s private thoughts. This lineage can be traced beyond J.M.W. Turner and John Constable to Thomas Girtin, John Sell Cotman, Thomas Jones, and Richard Wilson. In the twentieth century, Paul Nash, Graham Sutherland, Prunella Clough, and Howard Hodgkin have rekindled this sense of reflective association with the places that affect us. For these artists, digging into a locale and allowing its different moods to evoke response was their modus operandi. Denny belongs to his landscapes, and when he is commissioned to work in an unfamiliar region, he gets to know it in the same way.

Although Denny frequently employs recognizable topographical elements in his designs, it is through the grain and atmosphere of a landscape that he conveys specific sense of place. A good example is the tall narrow composition for Shurdington Church, Gloucestershire, a memorial for David Davis, a past churchwarden, who also loved donkeys [see Plate 11]. The composition is divided into four spaces: the foreground path strewn with stones, the grazing meadows with donkey and cattle leading to a steep U-shaped valley vista, the distant planes of receding horizontal fields, and, lastly, a vast, almost palpable sky. Initially there seems little to provoke a symbolic reading; the basic elements are quotidian. What lifts the scene to a transcendent level is the resonance of the deep lapis lazuli and turquoise blues cut with muted amber oranges. The strangely glowing middle distance seems to beckon, like one’s name being called from a hidden quarter. It contains that feeling any hill walker knows, of late afternoon dusk, the intense heat diminishing at the end of the day into violet pinks. It is as if we halt, arrested by a fine view, but torn, conscious that we are still far from our destination. As Robert Frost put it:

The woods are lovely dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

The window is an invitation to turn away, tarry, or else tread the stony path down to cross the stile and keep going into the distance. It is a gentle and profoundly beautiful contemplation, which might also suggest an eschatological allegory of pilgrimage. The limitless path beyond the stile could be our journey after death, but it may also be a glorious memory or even a reminder of the immediate beauty outside the church, too familiar to be noticed till conjured in color.

I am particularly taken by the relationship between flatness and recession in Denny’s work. The two antitheses of Renaissance and modernist idioms are mingled in an older, almost medieval manner. At Shurdington the complimentary amber and blue of the foreground detail draw your eye to the path, while the dark tones of the wall and donkey throw your eyes to the top register where clouds tumble like meteors in a lava-hued sky. We are suspended between the immediate, compelling fragments at our feet and the distant future of the celestial sphere, a temporal parable of an observant rambler’s mortal journey.

Much is made of the currently vogueish “mindfulness” movement, often as if being mindful were a new concept. Denny’s art is a reminder of the biblical tradition of meditating on nature as a means recalibrating our sense of proportion and seeing our purpose within the grandeur and intricacy of divine creation—a theme found in Proverbs, Psalms, and Revelation. The ten windows Denny made at Saint Christopher’s, Warden Hill, from 1985 to 1995 had their origins in Gospel parables set in specific landscapes: the parable of the fruitful tree and the thorns from Matthew 7 is linked to Sapperton; the fig tree of Luke 13 is set in Herefordshire; the parable of the ravens from Luke 12 is set in Skellig Isles off County Kerry. His memories of landscapes are summoned to offer vehicles for theological allusion, and the theology in turn transforms specific locales into timeless places.

Denny’s early landscape paintings from 1980 to the late 1990s have a strong flavor of Pierre Bonnard’s Cannes landscapes or Emil Nolde’s “unpainted pictures” of the war years. As a painter Denny employed saturated, almost fluorescent hues, mixing pigment with gum arabic. His typical use of dark tones surrounding patches of brilliance is seen in a 1989 painting, Valley of the Stones, which anticipates the way he now describes glass painting: “black paint is used to control the light, to make the color shine.” His shift from paper and pigment to glass and stain was already technically in place. The landscape of these genre paintings was highly lyrical. Often, as in Raven, Elder, Gorse (2003), the combination of three elements could have come straight out of a Seamus Heaney or John Clare poem. These paintings are almost the record of a trace memory, a dream conjured in burnt orange and high sienna browns. In the late 1990s, his opportunities to show paintings diminished just as his glass commissions increased. This was the point at which in Europe the Transavantgarde’s new figuration lost steam and galleries saw the return of neo-conceptualism in the shape of Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin. So Denny’s slippage from one medium to another was a natural career decision, but also advantageous.

 

Encapsulation

PLATE 7. Thomas Denny. Wisdom Window (detail), 2012. Saint Catharine’s College Chapel, Cambridge. Stained glass. Two lights of 150 x 37 inches. All photos: James O. Davies and Rebecca Lane.

One of Denny’s favorite descriptors of his habitual observation and expression of place is “encapsulation.” Walking, he often finds what he calls “small nuggets”: fossils, leaves, the individual angle of a tree’s trunk or canopy, or a corner of a garden. These fragments are worked into his compositions as rewards for the assiduous viewer, metaphors of particularity or a means to pin the picture plane down:

I like the idea that landscape is just as particular and individual and revealing in miniature as in a patch of scenery. I love exploring things such as anthills or pebbles or fossils or particular plants: something that is particular to a place. It’s part of the idea of valuing things, which I think should be at the heart of everyone’s life, because it gives one joy. If you value things properly then you can experience your surroundings more richly.

In 2012 he completed a large piece for Saint Catharine’s College Chapel, Cambridge University, on the theme of Wisdom [see Plate 7]. The window fills an awkward opening, divided by a cruciform mullion into two squares and two longer rectangles. The book of Proverbs provides the text for various personifications of Wisdom. Sometimes we need to work at a Denny window, because, as in Marvell’s “The Garden,” there is a playful, layered aspect to the allegoric imagery. We need our wits and senses about us to unscramble the encapsulations—and this is a wise strategy for a permanent public commission. For how many decades or centuries will the brightest of student minds sit and stare at his design? If it were too easy to decipher it would be dismissed; too cryptic and it would not engage them.

The Wisdom window is bursting with lush descriptive passages, much like the novels of Thomas Hardy and James Fenimore Cooper, two of Denny’s favorite writers. The scene is set amid the gateway to the college, complete with knobbly cobblestones and vistas onto paths that meander to the familiar willow trees of Cambridge’s water meadows. Denny encapsulates both the experience of the physical location and the responsibility of any student commencing so privileged a metaphoric journey. It also challenges us as noncollegiate viewers to seek Wisdom afresh while she may be found.

A different form of encapsulation is seen in the artifacts at the foot of the design. The items strewn on the ground are actually taken from a collection of natural objects left to the college by Dr. John Addenbrooke in the eighteenth century. Denny described the collection in his inaugural speech:

Addenbrooke’s cabinet at Saint Catharine’s has drawers of stones, fossils minerals, seeds—these foundations of curiosity and knowledge, pointers to the idea of searching and finding, may be found enmeshed in the color and imagery of the window, in the surfaces of the paths, in the leaves of the tree. I was glad, incidentally, to find that Dr. Addenbrooke had picked up, in walking on the chalk hills of Cambridgeshire, the same fossil sea urchins that I like to discover walking on the chalk hills of Dorset.

The window’s dramatis personae is a cast of rather shabby-chic individuals, fond of damp tweed and Old Testament haircuts. They are Dennyesque, well worn, well read, and possessing a determined manner. There is a seriousness of intention about their body language, and kinetic sense of restlessness. At the ivy-covered college gateway, beside a forgotten bicycle and stray dog (whom Denny ascribes to Veronese), Wisdom accosts a freshman. She leans into him, vehemently inviting or warning him of the choices that lie ahead through the illuminated gate. There is a purposefulness in their dialogue quite unlike any pre-Raphaelite figuration. Underneath Denny’s lyricism, his imaginative world holds an urgent plea for us to attend to the voice calling in the desert.

In his words, “My people are turned towards something revelatory. But the earth itself is revelatory.”

 

Function and Context

PLATE 8. Thomas Denny. Transfiguration Window, 2010. Durham Cathedral. Stained glass. Four lights of 205 x 27 inches, plus tracery,

When Denny embraced his transition from painter to stained-glass artist, he did more than exchange the commercial gallery for ecclesiastical spaces. The contrasting function of art in the two spheres brings wildly divergent responsibilities, rewards, and constraints. Self-directed projects allow maximum agency for creative experimentation, and can be dropped or changed when the inspiration goes. To work in a church, particularly one replete with history and hallowed by years of devotion, puts very different demands on an artist. He must triangulate between three elements with integrity and discernment: the architectural envelope, the theology of the piece, and the people (both the commissioners and congregation). Making art for churches is a long and arduous business, involving committees made up of clergy, patrons, congregations, and members of statutory bodies like the chancellor of the diocese. The first task is to understand the building one is going to work with. Denny appreciates the very specialized problems that splicing a contemporary artwork into a historic building can entail. He also feels the honor of being chosen to shape future generations’ worship:

It is very rewarding to make work that is expected to be meaningful and deserving of long consideration. I love that it’s something that lives on, that people come to visit and will even write to me about how it affected them. It’s a lovely feeling of sharing with people.

The relationship between artist and viewer is collaborative. It will only function if it combines sufficient theological grist to provoke reflection. If the message is obvious, the art will tire and become as disregarded as wallpaper. The individual character of a church can be read, and reading its personality matters deeply to Denny. Each building has a unique quality of space, weathered stone surfaces and shifting qualities of light. He will sit in a space for hours before commencing a window, just looking at the sun’s movement on the interior, light playing over volume. For Denny, the legacy he leaves behind is crucial. He has a keen, appreciative eye for those who have set the standard, and cites Marc Chagall and Harry Clarke as two glass artists he admires and feels a kinship with—Clarke for his use of color and Chagall for his whimsy, particularly in his cycle of windows at Tudeley in Kent.

PLATES 9 and 10. Thomas Denny. Transfiguration Window (two details).

Denny’s largest window is set into one of England’s most famous cathedrals, the great Norman interior of Durham [see Plates 8 to 10]. Originally built on the site of a Benedictine monastery, the cathedral’s eleventh and twelfth-century nave offers a stupendous architectural vista, a daunting interior to work in. The theme of the commission was the Transfiguration, a subject Denny chose to interpret in a variety of ways, with some unexpected vignettes. Initially he was struck by the change his work would make to the building. In truth, some of the later twentieth-century windows had not been positive additions, and already looked dated and woefully unable to measure up to the grandeur of the architecture. In order to prepare, Denny roved the building, noticing surfaces, hues, and dynamics that could inform his choice of colors, scale, and paint. Describing this process, he sounds like a doctor treating a patient for an unknown condition, carefully examining the whole body before making a diagnosis:

I was always preoccupied with buildings, and love exploring them, contemplating them. [A contemporary window] must become part of an existing harmony. I decided to use color that reiterated the warmth of the stone, an intensification of the color already there. Glass is quite a brash material, and big slabs of color in a place like Durham would be intrusive. [My glass has] a slightly damaged look, a patinated appearance on the surface, which is in tune with other surfaces.

It is in this rare sensitivity to the architectural envelope and other preexisting artifacts that Denny has shown himself particularly adept. Now, with over sixty ecclesiological commissions behind him, his respect for the visual ecology of buildings has only deepened.

 

Narrative

PLATE 11. Thomas Denny. David Davis Memorial Window (detail), 2013. Saint Paul’s Church, Shurdington, Gloucestershire. Stained glass. 68 x 12 inches.

Denny has not mentioned many contemporary artists in our conversations. Those whose names crop up share a seriousness of purpose and rigorous practice: Mark Rothko, Frank Auerbach, and Anselm Kiefer. When we stood in front of Bill Viola’s newly installed Four Martyrs at Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Denny was thoughtfully appreciative. He has a horror of art becoming a trite process or, as he puts it, “something you get, an idea, a game of elite references.” It is one of the principal reasons that working with buildings and for people satisfies his vocational sense like no other occupation or success in the art world could. Denny’s work never merely illustrates Christian iconography or scriptural passages. Instead, through the marvelously metaphoric, fickle, ever-changing medium of light, they are illuminated. Sometimes the connection to narrative is lucid, but more often it is like a word on the tip of the tongue: one has to feel for the meaning. And always the visual experience takes precedence. In the Durham Transfiguration window amid the mighty vertical thrust of white light is a humble garden scene of cabbages being planted out. Here is a quiet narrative of vegetable transfiguration, so easy to miss when set against the timeless divine drama of the incarnation.

Denny is in the truest sense what was once dismissively called a narrative artist, and even worse (to his modish detractors) he hails from the English literary tradition. Art history is full of vicissitudes of fashion, and just at this moment Denny’s art rests on deeply unfashionable virtues. There is no cynicism, irony, or self-referential sniggering. Everything he makes, he believes, and the integrity shows. Two recent projects have drawn on this symbiotic relationship of word and image with enormous success.

The Gloucestershire mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly commissioned Denny to produce eight panels for Gloucester Cathedral on the county composer Ivor Gurney [see Plates 12 to 14], a prodigiously talented young musician with a profound streak of clinical depression, who fought as a soldier in the Flemish trenches of the First World War. As Denny says:

One of the extraordinary things about Ivor Gurney is that because he was such a fragile man, and suffered such anguish in day-to-day life, the First World War was a time when he felt less of an outsider. Everyone was going through the same horrific experiences; everyone was right on the edge of sanity, so he was no longer the outsider, suffering in a way that others didn’t suffer. He knew a kind of companionship that he just didn’t have in day-to-day life.

For many “church art” cannot be contemporary because it is fettered not only by arcane liturgy, theology, and supernatural narratives, but also due to the restrictions of the commissioned subject matter. The Ivor Gurney windows refute the prejudice that ecclesiastical art is necessarily disconnected from real issues. They go right to the heart of the present-day illness of all first-world cultures, namely depression. Taking eight poems by Gurney and setting them to the music of color, light, and his haunting feel for place, Denny has deftly explored a universal taboo. Two episodes in particular stand out: the stars seen between tall pines at night and the lonely figure walking along a path through a puddle strewn with black holes, “the glimmering dusk some consolation for a heart sunk in lethargy,” in the words of one of the poems. Denny depicts not the face of the sufferer but an analogy of his anguish. He walks in a liminal zone suspended between the iridescent tangerine and raspberry hues of the sun’s last rays and the dark craters at his feet. By day the puddles are easy enough to miss, but in the dark they become shell holes of malady.

PLATES 12 to 14. Thomas Denny. Ivor Gurney Windows (easterly lights and two details), 2014. Gloucester Cathedral. Stained glass with medieval fragments (not shown). Eight lights of 52 x 8 inches.

Each window veers from desolation to ecstasy, yet as a whole the work preserves a frieze-like visual rhythm. Underpinning Denny’s interplay of tone and color are such forebears as Cecil Collins, Samuel Palmer, and William Blake. There is a sense of epiphany, a sudden unexpected revelation of joy. What strikes me about Denny’s narrative subject matter is not its specifically biblical allusions, but rather its universal appeal to the divine within each of us. The phenomena he articulates possess that quality the English Civil War priest and poet Thomas Traherne expressed as “felicity,” or rightness.

Prior to the Gurney windows, Denny made an extraordinary set of glass lights for Hereford Cathedral, the city of Traherne’s birth, where he is celebrated as a holy man. Traherne fervently believed that God’s will for us, his beloved creation, is simply to be fulfilled; that we should experience the revelation of God’s loving purpose for us as individuals and in community; that beauty lies all around us; and that nature is a powerhouse of radiant healing. Denny made four windows inspired by Traherne’s faith. Although smaller than many of his previous works, they are exquisite miniatures. The contrasting red and green color combination exudes an ancient sense of festal celebration, the holly and the ivy, the blood and the spring.

 

Process

PLATE 13.

In discussing an artist’s work, we often put the message first and spend too little time with the medium. Denny is delighted by the propensity of glass to visually overwhelm the senses of the viewer. Accessibility is not an issue, he assures me, and the medium itself is so entrancing that people respond to it as a matter of course. Denny first chooses the color, then the lead lines that divide and hold the glass pieces together emerge as a separate rhythm, and then he starts the long process of etching the areas of flash glass (removing a veneer of one color laid over another), staining, painting, and enameling. His surfaces are heavily worked—often he resorts to plating a second layer of glass behind the first, multiplying the permutations of color and mark.

It’s a little bit stubborn to insist on using these materials, but I think the awkwardness of the medium is quite interesting; the painting marks are less important than removing them. One works back to light, because light is more visible than the dark. You’re plucking light out of the dark.

The true subject of stained glass will always be light, and its controlled filtering through the colors and tones through which it reaches our eyes. Denny talks of the constraints of the medium with the humble manner of a junior partner in an enterprise. The artist cannot control what the environment does with the work. At any given moment, conditions may shift:

The way in which times of day and light affect a window is exciting. It’s not that a window is more beautiful when the sun is passing through it. Maybe on a dark day in winter it becomes very restrained and mysterious: that’s equally interesting. All of that change is at the heart of stained glass.

PLATE 14.

I have always been mesmerized by Denny’s use of lead lines. In older stained-glass work, these separated the different colors within a design, running like contours around distinct color shapes. But in Denny’s hands they are, as he says, “riverine.” They flow across the surface like a jazz instrumentalist improvising in counterpoint to the other players.

I think of my lead lines as the quiet movement of B-roads [country lanes] on a map; they catch the eye in a different way from the main roads. They have a sense of rhythm, and they can reassert what the color and the light are already doing.

These three elements that constitute Denny’s process—the color, plucking light out of darkness, and the lead rhythms—make an intoxicating visual impression, even before you perceive all he offers within the narrative. He put it well when he said that his aim is to “arrive at a kind of wholeness.” Denny’s witness of faith, apparent in the loving craft of his marvelous feats of glass, is, as he says of Traherne, like spending time “at one with someone one feels at one with.”


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