Brian Clarke is perhaps the most distinguished British stained glass artist working today, having produced over the last five decades works that expand and redefine our understanding of the medium. Known for his monumental public commissions, such as his glass skylight for the Spindles Shopping Centre in Oldham (1990,) and his lyrical autonomous stained glass screens (2015‐19), Clarke’s radical approach to stained glass is attentive to multiple media and disciplines. His long‐lasting commitment to the integration of art and architecture emerges in his engagement with art forms such as painting, sculpture, ceramics and mosaics, pushing the boundaries of stained glass as a medium.
Brian Clarke is perhaps the most distinguished stained glass artist working today, having produced over the last five decades works that expand and redefine our understanding of the medium. Though stained glass is often pigeonholed in the restrictive category of ‘craft’ and associated exclusively with medieval religious spaces, Clarke’s practice radically alters our perception of stained glass and its expressive potentials.
Born in Oldham, Lancashire into a working-class family, at the age of 12 Clarke was awarded a scholarship to the Oldham School of Arts and Crafts where he mastered traditional academic drawing. In 1971 he obtained his first commission for stained glass windows in a residential home. From that moment onward he received numerous awards, fellowships and commissions for both secular and sacred spaces. Most notably, in 1978 he co‐curated the exhibition ‘GLASS/LIGHT’ with stained glass artist John Piper and art historian Martin Harrison. The exhibition brought the medium to a much larger audience and contributed to the dissemination of knowledge about stained glass art.
Working at the same time as a teacher and designer, in 1981 he was commissioned by the government of Saudi Arabia to glaze the Royal Mosque of King Khalid International Airport. Other significant commissions include installations for the Al Faisaliyah Centre in Riyadh and Stansted Airport in London as well as the stained glass ceiling of Pfizer World Headquarters in New York, the stained glass skylight for the Spindles Shopping Centre in Oldham and windows for the Neue Synagogue in Darmstadt. Clarke continues to create installations, paintings, drawings, sculpture and autonomous glass panels today.
Clarke’s radical approach to stained glass is attentive to multiple media and disciplines. His long‐lasting commitment to the integration of art and architecture emerges in his engagement with art forms such as painting, sculpture, ceramics and mosaics among others as well as collaborations with leading figures of contemporary architecture such as Zaha Hadid, Oscar Niemeyer and Renzo Piano.
Clarke is known for the monumental scale of his architectural and autonomous stained glass, taking inspiration from artists such as Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. His work continues to challenge the traditional understanding of stained glass as a medium, experimenting with new technologies and their communicative potential. Clarke’s autonomous stained glass panels constitute a particularly important innovation as they liberate the medium not only from its architectural association but also from its historical and religious connotations.
The original use of lead in his sculptural glass, which plays with transparency and opacity to modify light and perception, is yet another of Clarke’s departures from traditional approaches to the medium. His glass art may either suggest an impression of tactility or assume a mirage‐like quality. Overall, Clarke’s work is informed by the continued dialogue between solidity and transparency in which the vulnerability of life and its experiences becomes more intense.
Over the last five decades, Clarke has consistently pushed the boundaries of stained glass as a medium, both in terms of technology and poetic potential. His art seems to possess a peculiar intellectual and visual depth, which affects viewers in unique ways, going beyond vision into the realm of the invisible.
In his ‘Spitfires’ series, Brian Clarke reworks the iconic plane shapes into colourful patterns against dark backgrounds. First displayed at the 2015 exhibition ‘Spitfires and Primroses’ at Pace Gallery, London, Clarke’s ‘Spitfires’ transforms the plane from a hard, militaristic tool into a motif that resembles delicately illuminated butterflies.
The series design originated from Clarke’s interest in medieval heraldry, a system of coats and arms that has centuries‐old associations with stained glass. He reworks the heraldic repetition of geometric forms and recognisable shapes to suggest more intimate and emotional meanings of his spitfires.
Despite their close connection to their medium, ‘Spitfires’ began as a series of drawings and paintings. They were later translated into autonomous stained glass panels, which emphasise the effects of light and transparency. Each piece in this series combines various techniques and uses sheets of antique (or mouth‐blown) coloured glass. This multi‐media quality is reflected in most of Clarke’s oeuvre, particularly notable in his constant experimentations in the expressive potentials of glass.
Spitfires are arguably the most iconic and quintessentially British aircrafts, associated with World War II and collective memories of a heroic but violent history. These haunting memories are brought to life through the stained glass medium. The spitfires interact with light, mitigating their sinister meaning and rendering their substance shadow‐like.
If the plane shape confers authority and purpose to these panels, repetition undoes meanings and interpretations, turning forms into ornaments freed from restrictions of narrative. Clarke frequently uses shades of colour to accentuate certain shapes, breaking the patterns of repetition and making his work more abstract. The transparent hues complement the matte background, playing with perception and imagination. Motion and stillness, up and down, shadow and shape merge into a powerful yet deceptive vision, which brings to life the ominous regiment of mechanical forms.
For Brian Clarke, the transformative power of stained glass increases when it is divorced from its architectural setting to become an independent, autonomous work. A similar philosophy is behind his ground‐breaking sculptural work derivative of stained glass elements.
In 2012, Clarke produced a series of abstract sculptures cast in bronze, which recall the liberated, graphic lines (traditionally known as leadlines) that intersect his stained glass designs. In these three‐ dimensional works, which include two small‐scale studies for an urban monument, lines are transformed into malleable, animated materials that sprout out of plinths, as if a handmade sketch had suddenly come to life.
Too, Clarke employed the language of stained glass in his most famous public sculpture, the ‘Stamford Cone’, also known as ‘Swiss Bank Cone’, completed in 1999 and now a landmark of Stamford, Connecticut. This opulent, site‐specific work is made of free‐standing stained glass panels connected by reinforced glass rods and steel cables. The ‘Cone’, a private commission but free to access by members of the public, was at the time the artist’s first three‐dimensional stained glass work.
In designing this sculpture, Clarke’s aim was for people to ‘feel like they are stepping into the centre of a sapphire’. Unlike his more recent bronze pieces, light is indeed the main subject of this work, as it is illuminated from within at night and reflects natural light by day, seamlessly integrating with its environment. The artist’s signature formal exuberance combines in this sculpture with a gentle spirituality. ‘I like to think people will spend time alone in the cone when they need that kind of emotional uplift’, he stated.
Brian Clarke’s stained glass folding screens represent perhaps one of the most significant artistic and technological developments in the history of the medium. Begun in 2015 but conceived initially in the 1980s, these moveable, autonomous panels eliminate lead cames, which traditionally link pieces of glass together in stained glass windows. In doing so, these screens liberate the glass and radiate three-dimensional light and colour.
In these works, Clarke pioneers both in technical virtuosity and in his radical approach to the medium. Relying on new advancements in technology which make glass more resistant and allow it to break free of its lead structures, these works bring the expressive potential of stained glass to a higher dimension.
Glass is liberated from its architectural connotations and its reductive relegation to the margins of art history. The glass can now fully interact with its surroundings, variously modifying and amplifying light and vision. Clarke’s free‐standing glass screens create a variety of moods that respond to the time and season, therefore manifesting differently by day and night.
Inspired by botanical and cosmological interests, the screens combine ethereal beauty with structural functionality. The stained glass screens possess a powerful yet delicate spatial presence, articulated through exuberant colours and contemplative compositions.
The glass screens exemplify Clarke’s commitment to touching people directly, in ways that both provoke conceptual questions and allow intimate, accessible moments of transcendence. In these works, viewers can engage with Clarke’s ever‐present combination of order and chaos, of regimented lines and freedom, of abstract colour and formal devices. The glass screens constitute, predominantly, a site in which imagination assumes a life of its own.
A recurrent motif in Brian Clarke’s drawings, paintings, stained glass panels and lead work is the orchid. Reproduced either with delicate lines or vivid outbursts of colour, these images interrogate notions of beauty and explore the void from which life blooms.
The ‘Night Orchid’ works were inspired by Clarke’s trips to Thailand and France in 2013. For the following two years, he spent his nights endlessly drawing the orchid in attempts to capture its radiance. ‘Like most of my drawings’, Clarke stated, the orchids are ‘imaginings of coloured architectural experiences’. If the connection between orchids and colours is particularly emphatic in their stained glass iterations, Clarke’s ‘Orchids’ not only reproduce what is seen in nature but also attempt to explore their relationship with space and humans, as well as light and shadow.
While Clarke designed his ‘Orchids’ generally in the same size and proportion, he explored them through different media. They are reproduced in white, intricate lines drawn on black paper, as well as in stained glass panels, oil paintings and lead sculptures. While the materials change constantly, the ‘Orchids’ maintain their explosive colours and infinite beauty, capturing the spiritual qualities of their natural counterpart.
In his drawings and lead sculptures, Clarke synthesises space, time and light through the flowers’ thin lines, either contrasting or merging with their backgrounds. The delicate outline of the flowers is absorbed by the surface, turning the representation of the flower into a nightly vision from a dream. In his stained glass panels, where flowers were traditionally heraldic symbols, orchids turn from definite expressions of meanings into restrained intellectual suggestions. In all their articulations, Clarke’s ‘Orchids’ maintain their rich, bright colours and joyfully blooming flowers, portrayed in a moment of change and transformation.
A nod to early modern ‘memento mori’ iconographies, Brian Clarke frequently employs the human skull motif across oil paintings, lead sculptures, drawings and autonomous stained glass panels. This symbol, traditionally found in portraits and still lifes, signifies the passage of time and the inevitability of death. Clarke emphasises the meditative qualities of skulls through his symbolic use of light, an intrinsic element of his stained glass practice.
In Clarke’s practice, however, the skull is also put into dialogue with themes conspicuously related to art and its world, as his figurations allude not only to Cézanne’s ‘Pyramid of Skulls’ (1901), but also Warhol’s ‘Self‐Portrait with Skull’ (1978). Clarke’s works are considerations on loss, death and the conditions of humanity as well as bitter reflections on the art market.
An important work in this series is ‘The Triumph of Death Over The Art Market’, later renamed ‘The Obscene Mystery’ (2003), a triptych that depicts Clarke’s involvement in the Francis Bacon trials. The late artist is referenced through the triptych format, which he famously employed throughout his career. Clarke’s work reverses the usual structure of glass panels, as most of the surface is occupied by a smooth lead plane while the stained glass figures, three skulls superimposed on collaged newspaper headlines, are relegated to the bottom.
The deathly, menacing skull images constitute a sombre counterpoint to the artist’s celebration of light through glass illuminations. However, through his constant experimentations with the effects of light and shadow, Clarke finds life and beauty even in such melancholic figurations.
An innovator in mixed media artistic practices, Brian Clarke has produced a series of works made predominantly of lead, exploring a material traditionally employed to support. These panels are generally composed of thin outlines on grey backgrounds and include small stained glass elements. No longer relegated to the margins of figurations, lead becomes the protagonist not only due to its malleability, which allows Clarke to imitate hand drawn lines, but also for its ability to block and modulate light, variously neutralising or intensifying the artwork’s luminosity.
A group of flat lead sculptures, first unveiled in the exhibition ‘Don’t Forget the Lamb’ (2008), constitutes a meditation on mortality in which the theme of skulls, the human figure and decorative stained glass elements merge to generate dynamic and transformative pieces. Mirroring stained glass windows or even paintings, in these works the translucence of glass seems to fight against the matte surface of lead, alternatively emerging from or disappearing into it.
Another series of lead works, titled ‘Between Extremities’, is based on the rose window format, commonly associated with stained glass due to its religious and architectural connotations. Here, the rose shape, still partially covered in lead, is liberated from its discursive functions and becomes autonomous. The stained glass shards seem to be captured in the process of detaching themselves from their former architectural structure.
The lead works constitute an embodied, sensory experience, both visual and tactile as well as intellectual and emotional. These works, highly conceptual yet immediate and spontaneous, transform the vivid beauty of illuminated glass into a generative journey into the sublime.