Once a year I take time off from chronicling the remorseless destruction of our public services, and the monstrous act of self harm that is Brexit, to celebrate the art of glass. Today, I introduce one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen - and heard. It has for its subject, and in its making, the very best of England – from a time before 'England' meant bilious resentment of foreigners, incontinent nostalgia, football thuggery and fifth rate Churchill impersonations. This story is the more striking because composed of so many layers – of different people, and different art forms.
Start with Rex Whistler, a minor but then highly fashionable painter between the Wars (how long will that remain meaningful ?– between which wars, the young will soon be asking). He was a 'bright young thing' - knew Evelyn Waugh, Cecil Beaton and so on. He painted the mural you see all around you if you eat in the Tate England Gallery restaurant and another, much better one at Plas Newydd, the seat of the Marquis of Anglesey. He joined the Welsh Guards in the War and was killed soon after landing in Normandy, aged 37.
His death was a terrible blow to his brother Laurence, who had always looked up to him, and rather lived rather in his shadow. Laurence was a glass artist, who is often said to have 'revived' the English art of glass engraving, but nothing of the sort, really – he invented a unique personal style, more like sketching or watercolours. His work is extraordinarily light, both in touch and quality - often a picture is barely outlined, leaving the untouched part of the glass to suggest the rest (1). He was a master of stippling – pictures made of hundreds of tiny indentations on glass, made with exquisite patience, using a tiny diamond tipped pencil (later, he used electric drills, on larger pieces, but hand stippling was his trademark). His pieces are often of the English landscape, and have a very distinctive brooding, numinous, somewhat melancholy quality about them.
In 1985 Laurence created an extraordinary memorial to his brother, in the form of a large glass prism. The prism was of Steuben glass, made by the great manufacturer, Corning, lead glass with a very high refractive index. Whistler engraved it on all three sides, so that while looking at each surface you can also see through to the other sides from 'inside', if you see what I mean. His subject was, again, 'England' – Salisbury cathedral and the house in the Close which Rex had leased. It was then housed in a lantern presented by the Welsh Guards, cast by Richard Cowdy, built by Henry Bowler-Reed and Tony Wallis and later gilded by Richard Healy - more crafts and artists. It is on display in the Cathedral, mounted on a slowly revolving turntable, so constantly changing.
About 10 years ago, the turning prism was videoed by a You Tuber by name of hnmcmurray (who I suspect must be Professor Hamilton McMurray, leader of the Corrosion and Coating Group within the College of Engineering at Swansea University – whoever he is, I and others are so grateful to him).
But there is more. The maker of the video chose extraordinary music to accompany it. It is a setting of an English ballad dated to 1611, but probably much older, 'Three ravens', about the eponymous birds who sit watching the corpse of a fallen knight and debate whether to breakfast off him. Here are the lyrics:
There were three rauens sat on a tree, downe a downe, hay downe, hay downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree, with a downe,
There were three rauens sat on a tree,
They were as blacke as they might be.
With a downe, derrie, derrie, derrie, downe, downe.
The one of them said to his mate,
Where shall we our breakfast take?
Downe in yonder greene field,
There lies a Knight slain under his shield,
His hounds they lie downe at his feete,
So well they can their Master keepe,
His Hawkes they flie so eagerly,
There's no fowle dare him come nie
Downe there comes a fallow Doe,
As great with yong as she might goe,
She lift up his bloudy head,
And kist his wounds that were so red,
She got him up upon her backe,
And carried him to earthen lake,[pit]
She buried him before the prime,[canonical hour=6 am]
She was dead her self ere euen-song time
God send euery gentleman, Such haukes, such hounds, and such a Leman [mistress].
Then the music: a truly thrilling setting by John Harle, saxophonist, musical educator and most eclectic of modern English composers. And sung by Sarah Leonard, a fine English soprano who specialises in what people call contemporary classical music.
Here it is. I came across it accidentally while googling Laurence Whistler. It shocked me then, with its unearthly beauty, and the richness of layer upon layer of arts and artists. I hope it will shock you, too. NB keep the sound up!
As well as the two Rex Whistler murals I refer to above, there is a fine brooding oil self portrait of him on the day he got his Guards uniform, in the Army Museum in Chelsea (he had a premonition of death in the War - or perhaps a wish - and it shows here) - and by contrast, a delightful fresh, very erotic, nude painting of Lady Caroline Paget, daughter of the Marquis, painted I assume at Plas Nwydd, one summer before the War. Their affair didn't last of course – she married a neighbouring aristo (2). Was there a trace of Rex in Waugh's Ryder at Brideshead?
Among the finest of Laurence Whistler's work is in the Church of St Nicholas, Moreton, Dorset (difficult to find, but there is or was a superb tea room next door of which we were the only customers, and a brook nearby where we saw kingfishers). The church must be unique, mostly it is large windows which have been all left in clear glass for the engraving, so masses of light - and what pictures! (3) One which always impresses : it's of an aerial duel during the Battle of Britain between an English and a German plane. Far below you, you can see the cottage where the Englishman lived. In the far, far distance, across the invisible Channel you can just see the fields of Normandy (where Rex was to die), so like and yet unlike those of of England directly below. The window is dedicated to the English airman who died. The two plans chase each other, smoke and vapour trials tracing a pattern in the sky. I wouldn't have noticed had the guide book not told me, but the pattern they make is....the Christian Chi Rho. It always makes me catch my breath.
Another piece, lighter in mood, is in the Ashmolean here in Oxford. It is a bowl that also revolves slowly on a turntable (an old record player, staff say). It shows a cottage in a wood – the cottage of fire – the cottage ruined and grown over. Unhappily, it turns the 'wrong' way, so the story goes contra-chronistically: ruined cottage, cottage on fire, cottage before fire. Time travel!
(1) Whistler on his art:
"Glass is a good medium for expressing notions of light, because the engraver works exclusively in light, arresting it on the surface -- catching it by scratching -- then using it as paint or as ink, being incapable of adding one shadow to the picture, leaving shadow to pretend to be there when really it is only the dark background (always granted a dark background), as it shows through the places unengraved. Viewed against a uniform pale sky the picture becomes muted or as if erased. The light needs the dark to be articulate. Which may be true of life itself, and the meaning of the darkness in it, granted one is open to a meaning. Positive and negative are in perpetual necessary balance; but the positive is light, and only light.
"This paradox and this elusiveness are in the nature of clear glass, considered as a minor graphic medium. The engraved image hangs insubstantial and precarious, uncertainly suspended, as it seems, on nothing."
(2) A marriage of convenience, as both were mainly gay. Her husband used to play pranks by unexpected visits to friends dressed as Queen Mary, until one day he called thus - and the real Queen Mary was already there. I'd pay good money to have seen that.
(3) All the windows had been blown out by a bomb in 1940 - dark Victorian glass which Whistler describes as 'not much regretted'.
(4) Maud Russell, last of Rex's patrons, noted on the day she heard of his death: "“During dinner Eddy told me Rex had been killed in Normandy. I felt a great pang; but I knew he would be killed. Everybody knew it. Lovely Rex; difficult, strange, rare, unhappy Rex.”
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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