Pat Triggs discovers the remarkable contemporary stained glass artworks of Thomas Denny…
by Pat Triggs
My encounter, in Hereford cathedral, with the 1923 glass by Archibald J Davies, depicting the involvement of Bishop John Stanbury in the founding of Eton College in 1440 by Henry VI, led to some cynical reflections, quite inappropriate in the context of an such an exquisite little chantry. Where next?
A few steps from the Stanbury Chapel, is the Audley Chapel. Another chantry for another bishop, Edmund Audley, bishop of Hereford from 1492-1502. Its small space is entirely devoted to four stained glass windows by Thomas Denny. On the day of my visit the weather was bright and the chapel was filled with the rich red and green tones of the glass. The effect was stunningly beautiful and immediately engaging. The images on the glass – a running man, a pool, a crucifixion/tree of fire, a man standing in a stream of light – sparked associations and invited closer looking. What was the story behind this installation?
The windows were commissioned, and installed in 2007, to commemorate, not Edmund Audley, but the life and work of Thomas Traherne (c1637 – 1674) who was born in Hereford and in 1657 was made rector of St Mary’s Church in Credenhill, just few miles from the city. He remained there until a move to London a short while before his early death from smallpox. Traherne was a poet and writer who published only two works in the 17th century, one posthumously. It was not until the chance discovery of lost manuscripts in 1867 and the publication of poems and the Centuries of Meditation early in the 20th century that his reputation grew. More handwritten work has been found, often in bizarre circumstances: in 1967 a manuscript was rescued from a burning rubbish tip by a man looking for spare parts for his car.
Centuries of Meditation, consists of series of short paragraphs of thoughts, philosophical reflections, reasonings on life, belief and faith. The tone is positive and celebratory; he writes in accessible, down-to-earth style about happiness, desire, truth, the natural world in all its richness and diversity, childhood, innocence, and above all about love.
Thomas Denny, who took this text as his starting point, was an inspired choice of artist. Initially a landscape painter, who for around twenty-five years has worked exclusively in stained glass, Denny once said: ‘ I like to think of landscape as as much a sacred subject matter as biblical figure groups’. The landscape in these windows is very much one Traherne inhabited: Hereford, the surrounding woods and fields, plants and wildlife. In the fourth window Hereford cathedral towers over the roofs and half-timbered buildings of the town, people, in foreground and distance, throng the streets; a man leans on a stick, children play, a man and woman gaze at each other. Here is a community.
As explained by Denny, the starting point of a design is the shapes that will be held by the leading, and the defining colours. The clear glass is flashed with colour and then worked on in a variety of ways: brush painting, acid etching, staining, scraping or rubbing back, producing a range of textures. ‘I always work back to light,’ Denny says. The glass will be fired two or three times before the final leading. This complex process produces the narrative within and between the windows, and the hugely powerful emotional impact of colour and light.
With looking, the light touch symbolism of water, light, the winding path, the open handed man, the birds, emerges. Up close the details of insects, animals, birds, trees, a distant Hereford, people’s faces, a woman’s waterfall like hair, fascinate and intrigue.
The experience of the Audley chapel glass provided an antidote to the cynical reflections prompted in the lovely Stanbury chapel. Later I found and read Traherne’s Centuries. It spoke interestingly, even to a humanist. One section resonated with my Hereford encounter with Thomas Denny’s glass:
I have found that things unknown have a secret influence on the soul…As iron at a distance is drawn by the loadstone, there being some invisible communications between them, so is there in us a world of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the world that should be. There are invisible ways of conveyance by which some great thing doth touch our souls, and by which we tend to it.
Pat was in Hereford Cathedral as part of the day, organised by the Trips and Visits committee, which also included Ledbury and Hoarwithy.
Work by Thomas Denny can be seen in many churches and cathedrals. Gloucester Cathedral has eight windows commemorating poet and composer Ivor Gurney (see www.thomasdenny.co.uk for details)