The Intelligent Layman’s
Stained and Art Glass – A Unique History of Glass Design & Making
Judith Neiswander & Caroline Swash
Published by The Intelligent Layman Publishers Ltd.
ISBN 0 947798 65X
As someone who has been involved professionally with studio glass for almost thirty years, both as a gallery owner and later as a studio glass artist myself, I may not be the ideal person to review a book intended for a layman as I might be too close to the subject. So I will do my best not to dwell on the minutiae that I tend to notice where others may not and review this book from a broader perspective.
Although the publicity blurb refers to 300 pages and approximately 450 images, this elegant volume has 548 pages and I stopped counting the images when I got over 700, well before the end. As it weighs in at an astonishing 3.2kg you might have difficulty in lifting it if you’re not in training, but it is extremely good value at £30 and I have no hesitation in recommending anyone who has an interest in glass to buy it.
However, in describing itself as “A Unique History of Glass Design & Making”, it immediately conjures up certain expectations. While many will be expecting the content to be heavyweight as opposed to coffee-table, you need to bear in mind that it is part of the “Intelligent Layman” series of books. From the series title one infers it is not intended to be an academic work, although usually no glass book of this ambitious scope can really avoid this assumption and I am sure it will end up being used as a reference tool by many.
I have the feeling that there are actually two books interwoven in this volume. The first is a five-star survey of architectural and stained glass by two outstanding experts in this field. The second is a compendium of these authors’ choice of studio glass from around the world with some powerful images, but a bit disjointed and haphazard.
The presentation of stained glass from 1890 to date is superb. Practically all the important British and European artists are featured, with some phenomenal images, and this book is worth the money, just for chapters VIII, IX, and XIII. I think it is one of the best books on Stained Glass on the market and while I wondered why Richard Posner hadn’t been included in the section on the USA, I can’t really fault it.
However, when contrasted against the strength of the stained glass, the studio glass sections seem weaker. I was left with the feeling that the further the authors stray out of their area of expertise, the more gaps there appear to be. The Netherlands, for example seems to have been left off the map. Yet Richard Meitner and Mieke Groot, among others, have had an enormous effect on energising the Dutch studio glass movement. As external examiners in more than one British art college they have certainly influenced the British studio glass movement as well. To put this in context, in the introduction the authors state “Writing about the activities of artists over the last century and a half has given us almost too much to understand. Regrettably, many very worthy individuals have had to be left out.” That’s fair enough, but it is a bit of an understatement. In the Czech section, an interesting essay on Libensky and Brychtova is supplemented by a cursory mention of only six other artists. Where, for example, are major figures such as Roubicek and Hlava, Harcuba and Cigler? In the UK section, there is nobody featured who does not merit being there, but I was surprised not to see work by many other important artists including 1998 Jerwood Prize Winner Tessa Clegg, Runner Up Anna Dickinson, Margaret Alston, Diana Hobson and Elizabeth Swinburne, a British artist who now works in the Netherlands.
Speaking of engraving, how did Colin Reid and David Reekie end up in the middle of a section entitled “Engraved Glass”, between Alison Kinnaird MBE and James Denison-Pender? I think any intelligent layman would be confused by this.
Scandinavia and Italy are particularly weak and I was amazed to see that Bertil Vallien, for example, only scrapes in with three lines and a single 4” by 3” image. Similarly, Ann Wolff (Warff) doesn’t rate a mention here although she does appear tacked onto the end of a section entitled “Glass in the Built Environment” in the final chapter.
Indeed, the last chapter, “The Way Ahead”, came across as more of an afterthought than anything else. Full of passing mention to people like Tom Patti, Paul Stankard, Neil Wilkin and other legendary figures with no images at all of their work. In the section that deals with competitions and prizes, there is no reference to the Coburg Glass Prize, one of the most prestigious and important in Europe.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, the over-riding strength of this book remains the sheer beauty and scope of the images in the Stained Glass sections and it is a “must buy”. A friend of mine told me that in cases like this, you’re better off to look at the pictures and enjoy them rather than read the words. She might be right!
Text © Adam Aaronson 2006