arts and design

Patrick Reyntiens obituary

Patrick Reyntiens, who has died aged 95, occupied a singular position in the history of British stained glass. Recognition of his genius as a maker in this medium has been complicated by its almost invisible status within the history of modern art and by the fact that some of Reyntiens’ finest work was done in creative collaboration with other artists.

The period just after the second world war witnessed a stained-glass renaissance, after the genre’s apparent irrelevance in the 1930s. The multiplicity of ecclesiastical commissions, mostly funded by the government’s War Damage Commission, shaped the life of the young Reyntiens, whose remarkable partnership with the artist John Piper resulted in some of the finest modern glass in the British Isles.

Complete trust enabled Piper and Reyntiens to work together on the huge challenge presented by the monumental baptistery window at the new Coventry Cathedral rising from the bombed-out ruins in the 1950s. Both men were impressed by the abstract expressionist section of the 1956 show Modern Art in the United States at the Tate Gallery. Piper acknowledged Reyntiens’ creative intelligence: “He took contemporary painting – and this meant Pollock and Guston – as his immediate influence, my cartoon as his pattern for operation and what he had learned about stained glass as his means of action.” It was Reyntiens who pushed the Coventry designs in the direction of pure abstraction, a Bernini-inspired “explosion” of colour that would overcome the limitations of the stone mullions that broke Piper’s design into 198 lights.

Trust was also needed when the pair embarked on a commission for the lantern tower of Frederick Gibberd’s Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral in Liverpool, constructed in the mid-60s. Reyntiens’ team worked at speed using the then fashionable technique of dalle de verre, in which the glass is set in structural mortar. Reyntiens’ reading of the last stanzas of Dante’s Paradiso led Piper to conceive the Trinity in bursts of blue, yellow and red light, abstracted further by Reyntiens’ strategic configuration of glazing bars.

Painting panels at Dale Chihuly’s glass school
Patrick Reyntiens painting panels at Dale Chihuly’s glass school in Seattle in the US in 2011

Reyntiens and Piper first met in about 1952 when Reyntiens, recently graduated from Edinburgh School of Art, was serving an apprenticeship with JE Nuttgens, a former student of the Arts and Crafts stained-glass artist Christopher Whall. While working for Nuttgens, Reyntiens’ sensitive repair of a JF Bentley window in Wantage church, Oxfordshire, impressed the poet John Betjeman and his wife, Penelope, enthusiasts for Victorian architecture.

The Betjemans brought Reyntiens and Piper together, with Reyntiens initially translating a Piper gouache of two heads into a stained-glass panel, leading to the first of their many collaborations, for Oundle school chapel, Northamptonshire. Inspired by Picasso and the monumental figures of saints in the clerestory at Bourges Cathedral, the three windows, nine lights in all, each showed a different aspect of a crowned Christ figure.

Hieratic and powerful, Reyntiens’ interpretation of Piper’s designs – employing flashed, painted, etched and layered glass – combined artistry and technical brio, and led to a commission for the war-damaged Eton college chapel, where eight windows represented miracles and parables semi-abstractly. Reyntiens’ training as a painter helped him source colour-intense glass from Germany and France.

Stained glass at Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral
The lantern tower stained glass at Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral, a collaboration by Patrick Reyntiens and John Piper. Photograph: Alex Ramsay/Alamy

Reyntiens was generous about co-authorship although, eventually, after several decades, he ceased to work with Piper, unable to accept his tight budgets.

He argued that it was only recently that the artist took up a role as originator or solitary prophet: “Until the 18th century, artists were priests; they reprocessed data which society laid at their feet and reclothed it with aesthetic wonder. Even someone as original as Michelangelo was reprocessing very old facts, very old data.” For Reyntiens, stained glass was a priestly occupation, not a prophetic one, and he also worked collaboratively with the artists Cecil Collins and Ceri Richards.

His own glass – large and small scale – always reflected developments in modern painting, from his Braque-inspired Still Life panel, shown in British Artist Craftsmen at the Smithsonian in Washington in 1959-60, to his return in the 1980s to figurative work inspired by a whole range of resonant visual and literary sources, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses to Commedia dell’arte, to satellite dishes clustered on buildings and the beauties of the Jurassic coast.

In windows to St Cecilia and St Hubert (1979) in the Chapel of St Mark at Sledmere House, in Yorkshire, we see Reyntiens at his most playful and literary. If appropriate, he could eschew originality, as with his window for the Great Hall at Christ Church, Oxford (1985), which wittily employed the language of 19th-century glass.

Reyntiens held firm views on education, saying: “Teaching is not the conveyance of a commodity.” He and his wife, the painter Anne Bruce, ran an arts trust from 1963 until 1979 at Burleighfield, near High Wycombe, with its large studio initially used for the Liverpool Metropolitan commission. Burleighfield functioned as an innovative exhibition gallery, a temporary sculpture park and an alternative art school, with workshops for painting, stained glass, tapestry, print-making and ceramics, and a commitment to training local adults and children, as well as international students.

Patrick Reyntiens, right, guiding the archbishop of Liverpool, George Beck, on a visit to his studio in 1965 to view the stained-glass window panels being made for the lantern tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Patrick Reyntiens, right, guiding the archbishop of Liverpool, George Beck, on a visit to his studio in 1965 to view the stained-glass window panels being made for the lantern tower of the Metropolitan Cathedral. Photograph: J Wilds/Getty Images

Its closure by unsympathetic trustees was traumatic, even though Reyntiens was by then head of fine art at the Central School, London (1976-86), running his department with an eye to laughter and encouragement, campaigning for the continuance of life drawing, and retaining the services of the visionary Collins until well after his retirement date.

Reyntiens was born into a Roman Catholic family in London, the son of Serge Reyntiens, a British diplomat of Russian-Belgian descent, and his Scottish wife, Janet (nee MacRea). Patrick grew up in Brussels, chiefly in the care of a loving nanny who read him Dickens.

He was educated at Ampleforth college in North Yorkshire, served in the Scots Guards (1943-47), and attended St Marylebone School of Art (1947-50) and Edinburgh College of Art (1950-51). In 1953 he married Anne, and for the next two years the couple travelled on a scholarship through France, studying medieval and contemporary glass.

A radical who always voted Conservative, Reyntiens’s book The Techniques of Stained Glass (1967) was cited in the countercultural Whole Earth Catalog. His subsequent The Beauty of Stained Glass (1990) is a fine short guide to glass from the 12th century onwards. The book was generous to younger practitioners and this generosity was played out in practice.

In 2009 Reyntiens collaborated with the glass artist Graham Jones on a window for St Martin’s church in Cochem, Germany, and during 2003-07 he created a sequence of 35 windows for Ampleforth Abbey with his son John. His last commissioned art work was a panel for the American glass artist Dale Chihuly, completed when he was 92.

Patrick Reyntien’s last commission, A Good Night’s Sleep, for Dale Chihuly
Patrick Reyntien’s last commission, A Good Night’s Sleep, for Dale Chihuly

Reyntiens’ experiences encapsulated the difficulties faced by a creative artist in stained glass in the 20th and 21st century, and made him a sympathetic art critic for the Tablet and the Catholic Herald during the 1980s and beyond. He served on advisory panels for Westminster Abbey, Westminster Cathedral and the Brompton Oratory. In 1976 he was appointed OBE.

A lengthy biographical interview for the British Library’s National Life Stories captured his self-deprecating, drawling speech and his restless intelligence. Ebullient, well-read, a fine cook, a keen dancer and a devout Roman Catholic who believed firmly in angels, he was a master of the poetic aperçu.

Anne died in 2006. He is survived by their children, Edith, Dominick, Lucy and John, six grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. Three grandchildren predeceased him.

Nicholas Patrick Reyntiens, stained-glass artist, born 11 December 1925; died 25 October 2021


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