Light, More Light / from the archive / issue 2

Imagine: a closed door into a darkened room. You turn the handle and enter. The walls are dancing with coloured window lights: brilliant, abstract, dazzling in vermillion, emerald, gold, aquamarine and lilac coloured glass. Welcome to dalle de verre modern glass window art.

Dalle de verre was a popular technique of the late 50s and 60s, employed mainly in Britain by James Powell & Sons, later Whitefriars Glass. Dalle is French for slab or tile. Windows are made by the glass maker assembling small pieces of glass, about one inch (22mm) thick, which have been carefully chipped and shaped with a tungsten hammer, and setting  them in concrete. Traditional stained glass is set in lead. The concrete was reinforced, vibrated and cured to make a resilient and secure frame for the glass. Sometimes this is called ‘faceted’ glass. The effect is to create window panels of extraordinary brilliance and colour.

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The leading Whitefriars designer was Francois Pierre Fourmaintraux (always called Pierre) from Metz in northern France. He was born in 1896 and he moved to Powell’s, as their chief designer of slab glass and abstract windows, from 1956. His father Gabriel was a well known ceramicist. He married an English wife and settled in Harrow. He left Whitefriars in 1969 and he died in 1974, age 78. Whitefriars sadly closed in 1980.

Abstract stained glass, including dalle de verre, was pioneered in France notably by Jean Gaudin in 1927 and by Marguerite Huré (1895-1967), the pipe smoking ‘jeune fille à la pipe’, who designed the wonderful windows in the concrete tower of Perret’s 1957 church of St Joseph in Le Havre: a 110m tube of intense dazzling colour.

The abstract glass windows became prominent in Britain during the construction of Basil Spence’s Coventry Cathedral. Spence commissioned John Piper, Patrick Reyntiens, Geoffrey Clarke and Keith Now, with Lawrence Lee, to design the cathedral’s windows. The building’s 1962 consecration was a revelation to many of the beauty of abstract modern glass. Gibberd’s 1967 Roman Catholic cathedral in Liverpool also employed Piper and Reyntiens, with Margaret Traherne and Ceri Richards, to produce an impressive symphony of modern abstract glass. The style, with the the dalle de verre technique, was increasingly in demand for newly built churches and other commissions.

Luckily for us, the industrial towns of south Lancashire and its thriving coalfield were prosperous. New churches and other public buildings were being built in the suburbs. Pierre Fourmaintraux, Whitefriars and other designers were increasingly fashionable. Much of this survives although it has to be truffled out from some unexpected places.

So where is it? St Raphael’s in Millbrook, Stalybridge, which some of us visited on the Alan Boyson tour, has a wall of very fine Fourmaintraux dalle de verre glass. Worryingly it closed on July 14, 2011 so what will become of the glass? There’s more by Fourmaintraux in six superb windows, created in 1963, at St Barnabas’s in Lovely Lane, Pewsey, Warrington. They illustrate scenes from the life of St Barnabas. Richard Pollard, in the recent Pevsner, admires the ‘wonderful palettes’ of Fourmaintraux’s Primitivism.

The walls of St Jude’s, Poolstock Lane, Wigan (1963-4) seem to consist of nothing but 12 staggered panels of swirling abstract dalle de verre by Robin Riley. There’s more Riley glass in the clerestory of the drum-like baptistery.

Not all commissions were for churches. The crematorium in St Helens, where they make and know about good glass at Pilkington’s, has an excellent set of dalle de verre windows by Whitefriars. They were installed in 1960. They show two opposing trees: the north one is bare and wintry, the south tree is summery and in full bloom. This symbolises the movement of the coffin in the building, arriving on the north side, with the congregation departing into light on the south side. The 11 west windows, symbolising the 11 good apostles of Christ, are mainly in shades of yellow using the rough textures of the glass dalles to reflect and refract light.

Other Fourmaintraux secular commissions include windows in New Zealand’s 1964 Hall of Memory in Wellington. This commemorates New Zealand servicemen and women.

Pilkington Brothers commissioned the Indian-born artist Avinash Chandra (1931-1991) to design a strikingly fiery glass piece for Alexandra Park, their 1965 office tower in St Helens. It’s on the first floor of the entrance reception area and is illuminated from behind by an electric light. It faces a mirror so that the glittering image, representing the inside of a furnace, can be seen as a reflection by visitors. Chandra was quite famous in the 1960s. He and his artist wife Prem Lata moved from Delhi to Britain in 1956 when Lata was awarded a scholarship at the Central School of Art, London. He was the first Indian artist to be exhibited at the Tate in 1965. His vibrant glass works were installed in the Indian High Commission in Lagos and in St Helens.

In the 1960s Leyland, Lancashire, was the home of the world’s leading truck and bus manufacturer. It was a thriving town attracting workers to Leyland Motors and other industries. The new Catholic church of St Mary’s (Weightman & Bullen, 1962-4) is a treasure box of modernist sacred art. It was built in the round and the job architect, Jerzy Faczynski, brought in Patrick Reyntiens to create a moving and very beautiful dalle de verre circular band of windows celebrating the first day of Creation. Adam Kossowski did the ceramic tympanum over the main door. Arthur Dooley sculpted the Stations of the Cross and the Edinburgh Tapestry Company wove Faczynski’s Holy Trinity piece. All are illuminated by Reyntiens’s glass.

When Goethe was dying someone pulled together the bedroom curtains. His last words are said to have been “Licht, mehr Licht” (Light, more light).  We know what he meant when we encounter dalle de verre glass.

© Aiden Turner-Bishop

This article first appeared in The Modernist issue 2 'BRILLIANT'.