lecture Brian Clarke's windows in Romont, Switzerland
published by the Stained Glass Association of America
article and photographs by David Wilde

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 In 1986, in London, England, there was a conference, "Glass in the Environment," that, thanks to an Ontario Arts Council grant and a British Council grant, I was able to attend. The purpose of the conference was to put architects together with glass artists working in architectural settings.

 As usual, not too many architects attended. Still, it was a fantastic week, with lectures by prominent glass artists; openings at galleries all over London that featured stained glass; and new glass works in other forms from Scandinavia, Czechoslovakia, Germany, the UK, Ireland and the US. One of the UK speakers was Brian Clarke, who made the final presentation (and was a bit intoxicated from earlier revelries). He gave a spectacular hour-long speech with no notes and no slides! Brian Clarke was a hit speaker, at least for me, at this conference, but the organizers thought otherwise. That's the way it is with Brian Clarke... love-hate. The transcript of the speeches that were sent to all delegates a few weeks after the conference closed politely omitted Brian's comments about his physical state at the start of his lecture. Those of the stained glass world who collect books on the subject might remember Clarke's book of 1979, Architectural Stained Glass. It was a collection of essays on the subject by Poensgen, Sowers, Reyntiens, Piper, and, of course, Clarke. That was followed in 1981 with the book, Brian Clarke, written by Martin Harrison, which is a must-read for some background on this artist's paintings and early stained glass. Then, about three years ago, a gallery in New York featured Clarke's work for the first time in North America; a catalogue was also published. And so, in the fall of 1996, I found myself in eastern France.

One day, my host and driver, Sandra Smith (my sister-in-law), and I left on a day trip to Switzerland, to visit my tour cohort, Francoise Bolli. She was participating in an exhibition at a museum in Romont and wanted me to see her work. On the way, she asked if I had ever heard of Brian Clarke. She said there was a recent installation of his work at a convent near Romont, and asked if I would like to see it, also. In the years since 1986 in London, I had seen Clarke's work presented by some colleagues who had photographed it, and, personally, I was not impressed. I felt that much of his work treated every setting in a similar fashion, at times to the verge of ostentation. Therefore, although I really wanted to see Clarke's windows firsthand, I was expecting the worst. However, the windows are beautiful and are a perfect matchfor their setting. The space is much more intimate than any of the other projects that Clarke is better known for, and, to my mind, it should prompt him to rethink his scale of projects in the future.

The windows are in the Abbaye de la Fille-Dieu, Romont. The chapel has a row of six windows that face south, and some others that face north, but from which incident light is blocked by other buildings in the convent. Behind the altar is a larger east window, and the glass is transparent. This allows the soft blues of the window to interact with the foliage immediately behind, something rare to my recollection for Clarke. The six south-facing windows are higher up the wall, so only the sky is the background, and hence, they read as opaque. The incident patterns cast by the glass onto the window recesses and walls belie their transparency. Luckily, the day I was there, it was sunny; it was just after noon in mid-September, and the windows and light were perfect for photographing, albeit with a camera on the fritz. Etched amorphous shapes float over bright backgrounds and give a rich, orange glow to the interior.

The interior and the windows were part of a renovation overseen by Swiss architect Tomas Mikulas, who had insisted on Clarke and Derix Studios, who fabricated the commission. This resulted in a bit of a stir, because the Swiss are quite protective of their artists and studios. Mikulas held his ground, and the result is well worth it. After photographing the windows, a nun asked what we were doing. We explained, and she said, this was highly irregular, but since we were done, she asked if she could have copies. This nun, Soeur Marie Samuel, had led the movement against these windows, because she felt they were too colourful for this order, which is Cistercian. While she was not successful in opposing them, she seemed pleased when I told her that this chapel will more than likely become the focal point of stained glass pilgrimages in this part of Europe. And, all the time she spoke with us, a gentleman was listening intently from about a meter away. Francoise Bolli found out he was Tomas Mikulas, the architect himself! We had another interesting talk from his point of view before departing for the museum of stained glass.

Everyone is well aware of Brian Clarke's financial success from both his painting and his stained glass. The gargantuan projects pale in comparison, in my opinion, with this intimate and more personal space at Romont. In the Abbaye, he excels and touches the viewer. So much so, in fact, I fully expect that someday, even Soeur Marie Samuel will come to appreciate the windows. By experiencing their "effect," rather than looking at them as stained glass windows, I think any viewer will comprehend their significance.

Our final destination, the Musee Suisse du Vitrail, is worth a visit in the city of Romont. It is located in an old fort in the centre of the city, commanding an excellent view to the east. Stained glass panels are hung in front of the original stone walls that are lit from above, forming a textured background that permits antique glass especially to "show its stuff." The visitor proceeds through various levels of exhibition space and gets the feeling of having completed an expedition.

David Wilde is a freelance glass artist and documents sites of interest on his travels to Europe. In 1990, he took a glasspainting course in Chartres with Jean-Dominique Fleury and Gilles Rousvoal that revealed the quality and special effects the French were accomplishing on glass.
The discovery of the Brian Clarke windows in Romont was a fortuitous accident in 1996, observed just one month after they had been installed.

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other information :
  • Brian Clarke (born in Oldham, Lancashire, England, July 2, 1953) is a British artist
  • Les vitraux de Brian Clarke l'Abbaye de la Fille-Dieu Romont, Suisse
  • Monday 17h October, 10 pm on BBC FOUR: Colouring Light : Brian Clarke - An Artist Apart. A film by Mark Kidel
  • Atlantes and astragals, exhibition of paintings and stained glass by Brian Clarke London, december 2011