Clifton Cathedral

Clifton by Sasha Ward

Inside All Saints: The River of Life and The Tree of Life - west windows.

Inside All Saints: The River of Life and The Tree of Life - west windows.

On a trip to Bristol, we visited a church and a cathedral on the same street in Clifton, both with unusual windows from the 1960s and 1970s. The first, All Saints, was bombed in 1940 and a new church designed by Robert Potter, completed in 1967, was built around the remaining elements. All the windows in the church are by John Piper, they are made of fibreglass on to which Piper poured coloured resins. These windows are controversial because of this experimental technique which has not weathered very well. I had seen pictures of the west windows (above right) and although I knew I didn’t like the simplistic design, I also knew I had to see them in situ to make a considered judgement. Actually I found the Tree of Life repellant in real life: the oversized branches with the dots on them look to me like someone shouting and pushing you away.

Inside All Saints, looking east towards the altar.

Inside All Saints, looking east towards the altar.

However, when you turn around you are in for a lovely surprise. The angled walls (above right) behind the altar and the decorated canopy are plain and flanked by two tall subtle windows, there are blue Piper windows in the Lady Chapel to the right as well as numerous narrow windows of coloured dots on a dark ground. All of these, none particularly transparent, make the interior dark, interesting and coordinated. I could see where the windows were deteriorating, with streaks and white patches on the coloured layers, but this sort of adds to the experimental qualities in these works - one of only two churches where Piper used the technique.

Detail of east window and blue windows in the elevated Lady Chapel.

Detail of east window and blue windows in the elevated Lady Chapel.

Across the road is Clifton Cathedral, designed by Percy Thomas Partnership and completed in 1973. There are many wonderful things about this building including the hexagonal sanctuary space, the roof shapes, the stations of the cross by William Mitchell and the Lady Chapel candelabra (below right) designed by the architects and made at Prinknash Abbey. All these make for a beautifully coordinated interior.

Inside the Cathedral Church of Ss. Peter and Paul, with stations of the cross by William Mitchell and candelabra.

Inside the Cathedral Church of Ss. Peter and Paul, with stations of the cross by William Mitchell and candelabra.

The stained glass wall is set slightly apart on an angled wall in the narthex and is the work of Henry Haig, another artist whose windows I know quite well. The subject matter is “Pentecost” and “Jubilation”, but I read them as landscapes, one gentle (below left) and one fiery (below right). The experimental technique that he used for these was dalle de verre set in epoxy resin, with chunks of thick, textured glass (because you break it with a hammer) providing all the colour that the interior needs.

Henry Haig’s dalle de verre windows

Henry Haig’s dalle de verre windows

Detail of left hand window and close up of the chunks of glass set in resin.

Detail of left hand window and close up of the chunks of glass set in resin.

This was a quick visit that provided an obvious contrast in stained glass techniques: the rich material quality of Haig versus the fluid washes of Piper. My companions weren’t particularly impressed with the Haig windows, and I’m not mad on the random vagueness of the design either. However because they are contemporary with their setting they look completely right for the place and totally solid. The buildings are easy to spot as they both have unusual prominent towers, it’s a great treat to see two interiors that look so “modern” almost fifty years on.