Art

The great glass elevator

On the eve of two retrospectives, superstar stained-glass artist Brian Clarke talks about the medium he has taken from decorative to daring. Interview by Emma Crichton-Miller.

February 04 2011
Emma Crichton-Miller

As I stood in an anonymous industrial estate in north-west London, it was the stylish black that was the giveaway. I was looking for the studio of Brian Clarke, the man known to the media as “the rock star of stained glass”. Close friend of the McCartneys, collaborator with Norman Foster and the late Jan Kaplicky, executor of the estate of Francis Bacon, mates with everyone from the late Dennis Hopper to Zaha Hadid, Clarke is credited with almost single-handedly bringing stained glass into the 21st century. With studios in London and Munich, this is his main base of operations. And when I saw it, it was obvious: a building as uncompromisingly black as his stained-glass windows are vivid with colour, as unyielding of information as his windows are transparent membranes between the mundane and the sublime.

It is no new truth that Brian Clarke has taken what for many is an archaic and moribund medium and turned it into a vital contemporary art form. By the age of 25, in 1979, he had already been the focus of an Omnibus BBC documentary, entitled Brian Clarke: The Story So Far. Since then, periodic waves of articles, books and television programmes have marked the opening of each subsequent chapter of his unfolding career. This year, however, offers particularly rich opportunities for re-evaluation. Besides the renewed public focus afforded by Clarke’s shimmering windows for the Papal Nunciature in Wimbledon, he has projects running simultaneously in Germany, Sweden, New York, London and the Middle East; exhibitions opening in Switzerland, the Hague, New York and London; and a major book with Thames and Hudson out in September. If these enterprises reflect the diversity of his artistic expression – stained glass, mosaic, painting, textiles, sculpture and, most recently, jewellery – the one that will ground all the others and has proven to be a revelation even to himself is the exhibition of drawings being hosted by Phillips de Pury in London’s Saatchi Gallery (Feb 28 to March 27).

“The drawings from 1969 to this very week all show the pursuit of the same goal,” Clarke reflects, as we look over a selection of them in his studio. “I’ve always known this as a concept, but never so clearly as now. Whether it’s trying to get who you are into a line or trying to lift the spirits through the juxtaposition of one liquid colour with another, from when I was 16 to now, I’m chasing the same rainbow.”

For an art world currently excited once again by making, what Clarke exemplifies is a form of expression, in every medium, that has been affected profoundly by an intimate, hands-on knowledge of glass and lead. Although he does not make his own works now – as he has put it, “I can make glass if I want to, but I have come to see my role as something different” – his tacit knowledge and radical embrace of its properties, most particularly in relation to architecture, is fundamental to all his work. In return, he has never compromised. “I am not a decorative artist. Art has an a priori imperative to explore the human condition, and the only people who have made a real contribution to stained glass in the 20th century are those conscious that it can’t exist in isolation; it has to be nourished by painting or drawing.”

We walk through the different areas of his studio, examining some stark lead paintings of skulls propped against the wall; admiring some beautiful gridded watercolour works on paper. We watch how the light shimmers through an older glass piece, a portrait of Paul McCartney, the dot matrix photographic image floating between sheet glass; we try to guess the subjects behind a series of large skull paintings: “that is Henry Moore, that’s Andy Warhol, and that became John Piper”; we regret that a mock-up for a mosaic town square in Ireland will never be realised. For Clarke, the fluid interrelationship of all these art forms is clear.

Clarke stumbled on his métier early. Born in Oldham in 1953, the son of working-class parents, he won a scholarship to Oldham School of Arts and Crafts at the age of 12. It was a school visit to York Minster that sparked his fascination. As he described it to Doris Lockhart Saatchi in an interview for the catalogue of his 2008 exhibition, “[I] remember being fascinated by the light and the way it played on the stone through the stained glass. There was plainchant and the scent of incense and all my senses were triggered in that liturgical, theatrical way.” Clarke progressed to Burnley School of Art and then to the North Devon College of Art and Design, inspired to explore the potential of stained glass “to be worked in a modern way”. Although he began making windows for churches – “I used to stand on a hill near Preston when I was in my early 20s,” he has commented, “and it gave me such pleasure to think that every church I could see had a window by me” – by 1977 it became clear that the work of this convinced agnostic was leading him away from the ecclesiastical.

“I am the guy who took stained glass out of the cathedral into the secular world,” he says. “For the medium to have any hope of survival it had to become profane.” At 26 he exhibited alongside his close friend and mentor John Piper, and Marc Chagall, in the Festival of the City of London’s Glass/Light Exhibition, already acknowledged as the man to carry the flame. For Clarke cares deeply about his medium. “Stained glass has played a critical role in all I do since I was a teenager,” he says. “It has also played a tremendous and pivotal role in our culture. It was the zenith of achievement in medieval art. What it offers is a sublime alternative reality.”

His own home in London is a love poem to stained glass, with fragments of historic windows embedded in plain glass alongside compositions of his own; vital in red, blue and white, brimming with the life given them by light. On one wall is Matisse’s Rosace, a large collaged maquette for a stained-glass rose-window, commissioned by the Rockefellers in 1954; nearby hangs Piper’s maquette for his masterpiece, the baptistry window at Coventry Cathedral, a gift from the artist. It is distressing for Clarke that the impetus the medium discovered in Britain in the 19th century with John William Waterhouse, Edward Burne-Jones, William Burges, George Gilbert Scott, Augustus Pugin and Clarke’s great hero William Morris, fizzled out. Even in the 20th century, serious artists were inspired by the medium – Rouault, Mondrian, Cocteau and Fernand Léger – as well as a cluster of German artists whom Clarke venerates: Ludwig Schaffrath, Georg Meistermann and Johannes Schreiter – “one of the greatest stained-glass artists of all time”. And yet somehow the craft has declined from “pre-eminence, to eminence to minor”.

Fortunately, Clarke’s zeal met its match in architect and fellow Lancastrian Norman Foster, and they have worked together, as friends and conspirators as much as colleagues, since the 1980s. “Clarke is one of those few artists who understands the special world of architecture; the core issues of space and light,” says Foster. Clarke refers with particular pride to their joint achievement in the Al Faisaliah Centre in Riyadh (2000), which, at 267m, is taller than London’s One Canada Square. But its most spectacular feature is a 2,020sq m stained-glass wall. Here Clarke developed the technique of freeing stained glass from the lead grid by suspending imagery between vast sheets of architectural glass.

“When you’re up close to it, it is just oscillating dots of colour and it makes you shiver because it replicates this thing in nature that happens when leaves shimmer,” explains Clarke. “But the further you move back, it resolves, so that when you get back to the building entrance it’s completely figurative imagery.” As Clarke judges, “It brought something to stained glass that had never been there before. Suddenly the door was opened for it to engage in the urban fabric of the 20th century.” Many private, corporate and public commissions, both before and since, with architects as distinguished as Arata Isozaki and Jan Kaplicky, as well as Foster, have indeed brought Clarke’s art into the hearts of our cities. Their place is owed entirely to the integrity of Clarke’s vision. Whether in harmony with the architecture alone, or combined with textiles or paintings, the stained glass has a joyfulness and original graphic energy that is unmistakably his.

As we pull out more sketches and maquettes in his studio, it is clear that Clarke never stops experimenting. Conscious that his technique of using large-scale photographic imagery with architectural glass could easily be exploited for advertising, his latest design for London’s Stratford International Station returns to traditional mouth-blown glass, embedded in “float glass” panels. As he shows me the models, we revel in the striations, the quality of colour, the liquidity of these greens and yellows: here sunlight through leaves is not just a metaphor for stained glass but its subject matter.

With Bach’s Air on a G String in the background, Clarke – quick, mischievous, frank and genial – becomes impassioned: “I’m not religious, but I believe it’s possible to inject the same tremendous, uplifting, insightful experience into the 21st-century urban engagement, as it was in 12th-century Chartres.” This year offers an unparalleled opportunity to trace the development of his vision, and to watch the emergence of his new work.