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Thomas Denny: A trip to his Dorset studio

PUBLISHED: 12:03 04 April 2016 | UPDATED: 12:03 04 April 2016

Thomas Denny

Thomas Denny

Archant

The stained glass windows created by Thomas Denny feature in churches and cathedrals across the land. Sara Niven went to his Dorset studio to hear about his latest exhibition. Photographs by James O Davies

Owl detail from the Millennium Window - All Saints, Bolton Percy by Thomas Denny where nature expresses the glory of GodOwl detail from the Millennium Window - All Saints, Bolton Percy by Thomas Denny where nature expresses the glory of God

Whether regular churchgoer or staunch atheist, few people won’t have stopped to admire the sight of light streaming in through stained glass windows. Perhaps fewer may have stopped to consider who created them.

As one of the country’s leading stained glass artists, Thomas Denny’s new exhibition and book launch in north Dorset this month is set to enlighten many in that respect. Glory, Azure and Gold is the first book on his work which combines stunning images of 12 of his windows, with a series of 11 essays and a poem on these by third parties including historians and biographers. The beautifully bound limited edition book is a lavish piece of art in itself. The accompanying exhibition, at The Art Stable in Child Okeford, includes a selection of his window designs as well as paintings – Denny considers himself primarily a painter, and this he says was his focus at Edinburgh Art College in the 1970’s.

When comparing the two mediums however he is under no illusions as to which generally receives the greater recognition. “For various reasons stained glass is seen as being outside of the contemporary art world. There are many elements involved in it for one, with people collaborating in different ways; some could be considered more of a skilled craftsperson or restorer than an artist, depending on their focus.”

Another reason is that there is no money for the art world in stained glass. “It works better when placed where it is intended and as most stained glass is commissioned that way it is difficult for galleries to make money; another justification for dismissing it.”

It is hard to imagine his windows ever being dismissed once seen. They are incredibly emotive pieces of art, depicting everything from sweeping landscapes and grazing cows to predatory owls and even iron miners kneeling to work on rocks in a mine shaft. Denny’s exquisite and detailed imagery and use of colour creates something that will resonate with everyone. Universal themes are woven throughout; loss, death, courage, hope, music, even mental illness.

A modest approach and amiability belies a passion and complete absorption in every project Denny takes on, with a typical commission for larger windows lasting around a year. When asked to create windows for St Michael’s, Abenhall, a 14th-century church with connections to the Freeminers of the Forest of Dean, Denny travelled deep into a mine shaft to experience their working environment before starting his design.

“It was a very unusual commission in terms of the subject matter,” he recalls. “The thing that I found especially interesting was the Freeminers’ intense feeling of belonging, both in and below the Forest, and the strange landscape that mingles woodland, deep valleys and industry.”

His work has been sought by churches and cathedrals across the UK and even as far afield as Germany, but Dorset-based Denny fans don’t have to travel very far to admire his work. There are windows gracing village churches in Powerstock, Hinton St Mary, Tarrant Hinton and Bridport Hospital Chapel. A little further afield they can also be found at Woodford, near Salisbury and Milton Clevedon, near Bruton.

Though London born, for the past 12 years Denny has been based in the picturesque village of Belchalwell in the Blackmore Vale. He settled in Dorset after meeting his wife, Lytchett Minster born Benita with whom he has two children. Madeleine, now 28, runs a charity for the disabled in Brighton and Ezekiel, 20 is currently a business studies student at East Anglia University.

The couple previously lived in Hinton St Mary before moving to their current location, bought at auction and chosen for its scenic surroundings beneath the slopes of Bell Hill. Here they also enjoy walking and tending their small holding.

“We moved here entirely because of the views and a yearning to be able to look out of the windows onto a lovely landscape,” Denny explains. “I’m a fan of the Blackmore Vale generally with the diversity of the land; heavy clay and huge oak trees changing to open chalk downlands.”

Benita, who is also an artist and trained in Bournemouth, helps with her husband’s administration and provides valuable assistance as critic; she is regularly called into his studio for her frank thoughts on how well something is working. Denny smiles: “It’s crucial to get reliable feedback, much better at that stage than before the window goes in!”

Denny’s book includes a glowing introduction from renowned stained glass artist Patrick Reyntiens, OBE, now in his 90’s who also studied at Edinburgh Art College. He remarks on the inventiveness and originality of Denny’s work and careful, thoughtful almost ‘quiet’ use of colour. Reyntiens also describes the general relationship between painting and stained glass as “complicated”. Denny though sees things a little differently.

“Rather than complicated, I would say there are extra constraints in terms of the setting; it has to work in the place it is intended to, with the light coming through it but the judgement used is the same. There is a justifiable arrogance of believing that if you’ve studied painting that can be applied to any medium, even if the mechanics are quite different.”

Denny explains that it is the collaboration between the theme, put forward by the commissioner, and his vision and ideas as the artist chosen to interpret these. For example he may be asked to take inspiration from a particular Psalm or commemorate and represent the story of a poet, composer or historical figure.

A future commission, which he expects to start in early 2017, is for a church in Ireland where the focus will be on the spirit of reconciliation following the Good Friday agreement. Currently he is busy working on a pair of windows on themes emerging from the life of King Richard III for Leicester Cathedral. When completed he will then turn his attention to a piece for Gloucester Cathedral where he is marking the work of British composer Gerald Finzi, who referenced poetry by Thomas Hardy in some of his pieces The idea of these layers of referencing; art inspired by music inspired by poetry clearly pleases him.

Yet Denny still admits it can feel “quite terrifying” when it comes to being involved in the final installation of his work. “It’s lovely to spend a week somewhere seeing a finished piece in the location it has been created for, but when only part of the new window is in place the glare from the surrounding light means the colours look much darker. However confident I am in the end result I can still have moments of doubt at that stage.”

As far as being remembered, his windows have already inspired classical music and poetry, something Thomas is appreciative of. Aside from that he takes the long view. “It is important to make works that reward many encounters and are worth re-visiting. Almost all of my windows are in churches, places that people can be in again and again. They may not like or even notice a window at first, but they have time to get to know it and plenty of opportunity to discover further layers of imagery, surface and meaning.” 


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