In this week’s post, I’m interviewing my historical novelist friend Clare Flynn about her new historical novel, The Colour of Glass, which celebrates the art and craft of stained glass in a story set just before the First World War.
I’ve always loved stained glass, and for a long time making stained glass was one of my father’s hobbies. These days when I visit churches, stately homes or public buildings featuring stained glass, I take a special interest, whether it’s the ancient medieval kind, in modern abstract style, or anything in between.
I was therefore excited to learn that my author friend Clare Flynn was inspired by our writing retreat in the autumn of 2021 to set her next historical novel around an early 20th century stained glass artist. The resulting novel, The Colour of Glass, will be published on 1st June, and Clare’s joining me on my blog this week to tell me more about it.
Welcome, Clare! Can you please kick off by with a brief summary of your new novel.
The Colour of Glass tells the parallel stories of Alice Dalton, from an aristocratic family facing hard times, and Edmund Cutler, an apprentice stained glass artist, from a wealthy family keen to scale the social ladder. Both become estranged from their families. Edmund and Alice meet when she is briefly engaged to his brother, but their paths diverge. Five years later they meet again.
The book tackles themes of art, women’s suffrage, personal fulfilment, family conflict and parental expectations.
Why did you choose to write about stained glass?
The initial idea was quite random. I was “stuck” trying to write a different book and was staying with a group of writer friends – you included! – in an Arts & Crafts house. Lorna Fergusson opened a book off the shelf at random and read me some cues in the hope something would spark. One was “stained glass window”. The idea of an Arts and Crafts stained-glass artist intrigued me and I began to research it and fell in love with the craft.
How much did you know about stained glass before you started writing, and how did you go about researching all you needed to know for your story?
Virtually nothing. I’d had no interest in it at all. But as soon as I started digging I was hooked.
I went to stay in a hotel that had a former chapel in its grounds with the most magnificent windows I’d seen in years – made by the Irish artist Harry Clarke. I bought two magnificent and lavishly illustrated books – one on Harry and the other a comprehensive study of Arts and Crafts stained glass. Soon I came across Christopher Whall, the most renowned A&C stained glass artist. I tracked down a speech he gave in Liverpool and then a wonderful handbook he wrote explaining everything a student or apprentice would need to know. Christopher had to go in the book!
That led me to the Central School (now Central St Martins) where Whall taught as did Karl Parsons, also mentioned in the book. The school then was in Southampton Row, Holborn, and I managed to track down the floor plans. I also watched videos online on glass craft.
What surprised you most about the world of stained glass artists?
Before I got into this, like my character, Alice, I’d believed it was about cutting up and sticking together bits of coloured glass. But the true craftsmen achieve all kinds of effects by painting, acid etching, using different types of glass and many other techniques.
I’d also been rather dismissive of it – just old saints in dusty churches – but soon discovered how rich were the imaginations of some of these artists and how talented they were at their craft.
I loved the way it was a fusion of artistry with craft in a way that’s probably not true of a lot of artforms.
To what extent are your characters in this book based on real people?
The main characters are all entirely invented but there are walk-on parts for several real people including Christopher Whall.
Stained glass is clearly a very old art – why did you pick the Edwardian era for your story?
As I mentioned above, I started writing it while staying in Goddards, an Arts and Crafts house in Surrey. It felt as though all the pieces came together. I based Bankstone, the house in the second part of the book on Goddards. I also love that period. The joyous innocence of it just before the horrors of the First World War are unleashed has always struck me as incredibly poignant.
You’ve clearly become very engrossed in the world of stained glass – are you tempted to write about any other period or aspect of it? You’re an accomplished painter – are you tempted to try your hand at this medium?
I’m not tempted to write about Medieval glass – much as I admire it. I’m very much a twentieth-century writer. It’s kind of you, Debbie, but I certainly wouldn’t claim to be an accomplished painter! More of a dabbler. But, yes, I’d be tempted to give stained glass a go.
What makes stained glass particularly interesting to write about – is it an art or a craft or a blend of both?
It’s exactly the fact that it’s a perfect blend of both. Until Christopher Whall came along most stained glass artists would hand over their cartoons to glass manufacturers to make. Whall was horrified at what he perceived as the butchery of his design and set about learning every single step so he could handle the entire process himself. Naturally, my Edmund, as his pupil, did the same. One of the contemporary specialists I have been following via YouTube and their newsletters also deal with every single aspect.
Where does this book fit into the canon of the rest of your work? – it made me think particularly of Letters from a Patchwork Quilt, which was the first book of yours that I read.
Interesting! That book was about a poet rather than an artist, but like Edmund, the main character, Jack, is a very driven man who makes some life-changing mistakes with the best of intentions. I love writing about art so perhaps there’s a fit with Jasmine in Paris and A Painter from Penang – oh and Kurinji Flowers. All of those involved painting, whereas The Colour of Glass required me to learn about a completely new medium for me. Many of the characters in my books tend to be involved in some form of artistic, musical or literary endeavour. I suppose it’s also a counterpoint to The Gamekeeper’s Wife and A Greater World, both of which are set in the period immediately after the First War. (Find out more about all of Clare’s books on her website at www.clareflynn.com.)
The cover for this book is quite different from that of your previous novels. Where does the image come from – is it a real piece of stained glass somewhere?
Jane Dixon-Smith, my designer found it. No idea where it’s from but I love the colours. I wanted to try a completely different approach. I was also trying to avoid religious imagery as while much stained glass is ecclesiastical there’s a risk if it’s on the cover that readers may think the book is religious. We shall see if it works! So far people seem to love it.
Once you start noticing stained glass, you realise just how much there is of it surviving from a very long period in history – what’s your favourite period/ aspect/application of stained glass?
There’s nothing to compare with the scale and majesty of the Medieval windows and it’s incredible to imagine what must have been involved then when they were literally inventing the techniques as they went along. Anyone whose been to Chartres, Notre Dame, or York will know exactly what I mean. But I can also marvel at the quirky intensity of Harry Clarke’s work – or that of Marc Chagall.
The great thing about it though is that you can walk into what might otherwise be an insignificant parish church in a village and find stunning examples. It’s great to get up close so you can actually see the paint strokes and effects.
Another key theme of this novel is feminism in the era of the campaign for women’s suffrage – how were female artists of that era affected by the politics of the age?
Many artists were in the front line of the suffrage movement. I mention one in the book: Mary Lowndes established a glass studio, Lowndes and Drury, and made numerous outstanding stained glass windows – she was also responsible for producing posters and propaganda for the suffrage movement and was the founder of the Artists Suffrage League and became leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies.
Arts and Crafts stained glass has a good representation of women – including also Whall’s daughter.
The Colour of Glass ends as the First World War begins – what’s next for your characters, and how will the war and its aftermath change their relationship and the challenges that they face?
Aha! You can’t expect me to give that away! Suffice to say I am about 25k words into a follow up so watch this space!
Thank you so much, Clare, and best of luck with the launch of your new book on 1st June!
Like to read The Colour of Glass by Clare Flynn?
Click the image below to pre-order an ebook of The Colour of Glass now via Amazon UK.
Also available on Amazon stores worldwide.
The paperback will be available from 1st June.