Volume 15 Number 3
Letting in the Light
01 June 2002

Mary Lean is transported by the work of a man whose art was his message.

The 60-mile St Cuthbert's Way footpath ends up on the island of Lindisfarne off the north-east coast of England, the home of the 7th Century Celtic Christian saints, Aidan and Cuthbert. As we arrived in St Mary's Church, at the end of our walking holiday, the last light of evening was shining through two stained glass windows at the west end. One depicted Aidan, with a dove, and the other, Cuthbert, with a flight of terns.

The windows had particular meaning for me, because they were the work of Leonard Evetts, whose second wife, Phyl, was an old family friend. We had encountered his windows all along our walk through the Scottish/English borders. The most prolific English church window designer of the 20th Century, Evetts created over 400 works of stained glass - and hundreds more in other media.

I had visited the Evetts on my way north, in their beautiful Arts and Crafts movement house, where he assembled his mosaics of glass on removable glass panels fitted behind his studio windows. Though infirm he gave me useful advice on our walk - which included the crossing to Lindisfarne, which is only uncovered at low tide. He died a few weeks later, in September 1997, at the age of 88 - 10 days after completing his last window.

Now his wife and friends have published a beautiful book on his life and work - windows, calligraphy, altar frontals, church furniture and watercolours. With its many illustrations, Leonard Evetts - master designer is a delight to the eye and a balm to the spirit, a tribute to a man whose highest compliment was 'It works very well, doesn't it?'

Evetts was born in Newport, South Wales, the son of a building and painting contractor, who taught him to paint and write signs and to appreciate medieval architecture. He studied at the Royal College of Art, and spent most of his working life in the Department of Fine Arts at Newcastle University, where he became Head of Design.

Evetts conceived his windows to show the play of light and shade at different times of day and with different shifts in the weather. Speaking at the dedication of one of his windows in Wylam, Northumberland, in 1992, Evetts pointed out that the quality of light coming through it would alter as the leaves on the tree outside came out, changed colour and fell.

He believed that windows should let the light in and disliked elaborate Victorian windows which had the opposite effect. The book tells the story of how a friend accused Evetts of ruining a Victorian church. When Evetts asked what the friend meant, he replied, 'All the other windows look so dark in contrast to yours.' 'Oh, well,' said Evetts, 'I don't mind that as long as you've noticed the difference.'

One of the delights of the book is its juxtaposition of photographs of entire windows with close-ups of their details. The window at Wylam - on the theme of creation - includes beautiful pictures of fish, a butterfly, a squirrel and a dipper (a river bird known for its bobbing motion). 'He took pleasure in adding an image which had special meaning for a donor,' writes his wife. 'A Euro football, a tiny pet dog, a salmon or a pun on a clerical friend who was fond of going to the races (illustrated by a line with a horse shoe at either end and a pair of green wellingtons), all these and more can be found if one knows where to look.'

Another source of fascination is the inclusion of Evetts' intricate, softly coloured preparatory sketches, which are sometimes reproduced alongside photographs of the finished product. The book includes the sketches for the 16 clerestory windows at St Nicholas Bishopswearmouth, where Evetts designed 46 windows in all. Malcolm Peach, the church's vicar from 1972 to 1985, writes, 'For Leonard this was not just the work for a stained glass artist taking up another commission but the pilgrim identifying steps along the way of faith.'

As well as the chapters on his glass, there are sections on Evetts' life, his lettering and heraldry, his teaching work and his watercolours. Ian Lavelle, a past President of Newcastle's Pen and Palette club where Leonard was 'master of paintings', describes his need to 'experience the atmosphere at a scene' before he painted it, working 'fast and boldly'. His aim was to convey the spirit of what he saw, rather than produce a photographic likeness. Thirteen beautiful examples of his watercolours are reproduced in the book.

There is also a chapter by Peter Burman, a colleague on the Council for the Care of Churches, where Evetts served for 23 years. Among the Council's duties was the vetting of new artistic works which congregations wanted to install. Evetts could be uncompromising in his assessment - 'It would be difficult indeed for one to experience any enthusiasm for this design on any objective grounds,' he commented on one occasion. On another, he wrote, 'Immediate impressions are sometimes wrongly formed, but... one might be forgiven for thinking that... the figure in the right light is slipping down a band of material held aloft by a bird.' Burman comments, 'No one who took Leonard's advice in the same generous spirit with which it was given could do other than benefit from that advice.'

The book has a foreword by the opera singer Sir Thomas Allen, and the contributions by Phyl Evetts, who edited the book, give an intimate picture of her husband's life, character and sense of humour. Given the book's - justifiable - expense, this may be one to borrow from the library. But you may find it hard to give it back!

'Leonard Evetts - master designer', privately published in 2001 by the Leonard Evetts Estate, ISBN 1-870787-80-3, hardback £45, paperback £29.50, available from PO Box 243, Woolsington, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE13 8YY (add £5.00 for postage).
Mary Lean

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