Patrick Reyntiens, genius of 20th-century stained glass who with John Piper created jewel-like windows for Liverpool and Coventry cathedrals – obituary

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Reyntiens in front of Coventry Cathedral‘s baptistery window – Lee Busby/Coventry Telegraph Archive/Mirrorpix

Patrick Reyntiens, who has died aged 95, was one of the leading stained glass artists of the 20th century and the most engagingly colourful character in the field.

Working from designs by the painter John Piper, he produced huge, spectacular windows at Coventry Cathedral and Liverpool’s Roman Catholic cathedral during a revival of the art form in the 1950s and 1960s.

He and Piper worked together for more than years. They brought a fresh, painterly idiom, informed by movements such as Expressionism and Cubism, to the staid world of stained glass.

The pair met in the early 1950s, just as modern masters were trying their hand at the art form in France. Matisse had recently finished his chapel at Vence; the Cubist Georges Braque designed his own masterpiece at Varengeville-sur-Mer. Piper and Reyntiens introduced this modern sensibility to England.

Their most famous work is the 85 ft-high baptistery window at Coventry Cathedral. The window, made up of 198 glass panels, was derided by Piper as a “nutmeg grater” in which any attempt at representation would be lost. Their solution was wholly abstract: an enormous burst of yellow, like a sun, fringed by blues and greens. A newspaper at the time said it was the cathedral’s “one great sure blaze of genius”.

The Cathedral of Christ the King, Liverpool: stained glass in the lantern by John Piper and Patrick Reyntiens – Alex Ramsay/Alamy

Their most monumental piece was the lantern tower at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, the circular tent-like structure described by Reyntiens as a “vast upside-down rubbish bin”. A town hall was hired for the painting of the 70 ft by 12 ft cartoons. More than 150 panels were made, each 12 ft wide and weighing a tonne and a half. The result was again abstract, attempting to represent the Trinity in three colours – blue, yellow and red.

The cathedral, uncharitably nicknamed “Paddy’s Wigwam”, was derided by some as looking like a spaceship, and adored by others. The architectural historian John Nelson Tarn wrote that the climax of the building was “high above, in the lantern, the superb, rich, jewel-like glass … [which] immediately draws the eye away from nearly everything else”.

Piper was already a household name at the start of his partnership with Reyntiens and, as designer, gained most of the credit for their work. But Reyntiens, in addition to his technical expertise, made imaginative contributions of his own. The subject of the Trinity in the Liverpool lantern tower was his idea, inspired by reading Dante’s Paradiso.

Patrick Reyntiens (left) and John Piper chatting in front of their prototype window at Coventry Cathedral, June 1964 – John Pratt/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty

The act of translating cartoons into stained glass was creative, too. During the making of the Coventry window Piper wrote that Reyntiens used the cartoons as his “pattern for operation” – but that his “immediate influence” was the Expressionism of a Jackson Pollock or a Philip Guston.

Aside from his work with Piper, Reyntiens designed and created dozens of his own windows, including at Southwell Minster, the Great Hall at Christ Church, Oxford, and the Episcopalian cathedral in Washington.

He also exerted a profound influence on younger artists through an art school he set up with his wife, the painter Anne Bruce. The school, at Burleighfield House, their home in Loudwater, Buckinghamshire, drew international students eager to learn from England’s stained glass maestro.

John Piper (left) and Patrick Reyntiens, the team that produced the stained glass of Coventry Cathedral, mixing paint as they work on the stained glass at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, England, April 1964 – Harry Todd/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Reyntiens was a maverick, exuberant personality. He might dress in a kilt and walk around wrapped in a blanket, a dog at his heels. He would recite poetry at impromptu moments, crying at what he had read. “Most of us were infatuated with Patrick,” the artist Danny Lane recalled. “We’d follow him anywhere.”

The son of a Belgian-born diplomat, Nicholas Patrick Reyntiens was born in Cadogan Square, London, on December 11 1925. His mother was Scottish, of clan MacRae; her father, Lt Col John MacRae-Gilstrap, rebuilt Eilean Donan castle, now one of Scotland’s biggest tourist attractions.

Patrick was brought up by his nanny, Violet Grey, who read Dickens to him for half an hour every night, and he grew up surrounded by fine art and furniture, mostly inherited from his Belgian grandmother, Flora. Reyntiens said these beautiful objects inspired him to start drawing and painting from an early age; they included a portrait of Flora by John Singer Sargent, with whom she used to play piano.

Sandford St Martin church, Oxfordshire: detail of the St Martin window by Reyntiens and John Piper, circa 1973 – Colin Underhill/Alamy

He was educated at Ampleforth, which he loved. In 1943 he joined the Scots Guards, but was left bedridden by illness just as he was about to go off and fight. “I’ve never felt so terrible in my life,” he recalled. He served in Germany for two peacetime years. On returning to England he studied at Regent Street Polytechnic in London and then at Edinburgh School of Art, where he met Anne Bruce.

Reyntiens entered the stained glass trade by chance, starting at the studio of the renowned Edward Nuttgens, who needed an assistant and happened to be the father of a friend. The introduction to John Piper two years later came through John Betjeman. Their first project, for the chapel at Oundle School, Rutland, was a great success, and a flurry of commissions followed. “There is rather a queue for Patrick and me now,” wrote Piper.

Over the following decades they completed some 50 church commissions, including windows at Eton College Chapel, St Margaret’s, Westminster, and the Minster Church of St Andrew in Plymouth. Their bold colours and abstract styles sometimes divided opinion among churchgoers. One observer of a window in Lichfield – a Christ in blue and yellow – told The Sunday Telegraph: “Of course I like it – everything, that is, except the design and the colour.”

In 1964, at the height of this collaboration, Reyntiens and his wife set up their art school. Anne would teach day courses for locals while the stained glass students, mainly from North America, would stay for a year. There was no curriculum and little in the way of formal teaching. The house and vast grounds, home to a bevy of ducks, were used for sculpture shows. In the summer the students would pile into a Volkswagen camper van on a “cathedral crawl” around Europe.

The school was not profitable, though, and debts grew. Reyntiens’s son John recalled: “Every day for three months, my mother would come home in tears after another meeting with [Burleighfield] trustees.” Reyntiens took a job as head of fine art at the Central School of Art and Design, London, but could not ward off disaster – in 1977 the school closed and Reyntiens and his family were kicked out of their home.

The relationship between Reyntiens and Piper soured slightly in these years due to Piper’s habit of under-quoting for materials. The pair completed their last window in 1984. Piper explained: “His accountant told him he couldn’t afford to work with me any more.”

Reyntiens’s technical handbook published in 1967 was one of several books

Reyntiens carried on designing and making stained glass. In later years he worked with his son John, also a stained glass artist: John would create the glass itself, a labour-intensive process, while Reyntiens would design and paint it. The pair completed major works together, most notably a flock of angels in the 80 ft-high west window at Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire.

Reyntiens published several books including, in 1967, the handbook The Technique of Stained Glass. More recently a documentary film, From Coventry to Cochem, traced his career from the Piper years to his 2009 collaboration with Graham Jones at a church in Cochem, Germany.

From the 1970s he worked as an art critic, writing for The Tablet, The Oldie and The Catholic Herald. His style was trenchant and unmistakeable. An El Greco show at the National Gallery was something “no cultured human being should miss”. The Tate’s 2011 exhibition, Watercolour, he insisted, should be viewed on three separate occasions if possible.

Neither the stained glass work nor the writing was lucrative, however. On retiring Reyntiens sold the Sargent portrait of his grandmother for £250,000, securing an income of a few hundred pounds a month.

Although he found a lack of money wearying, he never lost his sense of mischief. In his mid-eighties he attended an Oldie party in a T-shirt (a present from his children) bearing the words: “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian.” On a tour of the Saatchi gallery, provoked by Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, he asked the curator, of another exhibit: “Does this one have wee wee in it too?”

Before in his later years he became profoundly deaf he had a passion for music, from Rachmaninov to Satie to Scott Joplin.

Reyntiens had a sense of certainty about his Catholic faith. He prayed the rosary every day and was convinced that his life had been saved several times by an angel. He had a relaxed attitude to death. “When I die I think I will just give myself to God in the way that one ought to,” he reflected. “You don’t know what’s going to happen, so don’t make it up. Just wait and see.”

Patrick Reyntiens is survived by his children Edith, Dominick, Lucy and John. His wife, Anne Bruce, died in 2006.

Patrick Reyntiens, born December 11 1925, died October 25 2021

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