‘I’ve had a beautiful life’

Patrick Reyntiens is one of the greatest stained-glass artists of our age. As he prepares to turn 90 he reflects on nannies, guardian angels and the faith that drives him

This article was first published in the Catholic Herald on 15 May 2015.


Patrick Reyntiens writes for the Catholic Herald thanks to his guardian angel. On a dark winter’s morning 15 years ago, an angel visited him and said he would live until he was 96. But there was a catch. “You’ll have to work for it,” the angel told him. Reyntiens, who turns 90 this year, took the advice to heart. He is prodigiously active: he still paints, writes, travels and gives talks. His angel has not appeared since. “One didn’t know if one was having a dream or if it was true,” he says. “But I shall not forget it.”

Reyntiens has written for the Herald since the 1990s. Before that, as you may know, he was Britain’s leading stainedglass artist of the 20th century. For 35 years he worked with the painter John Piper, turning his basic designs into finished stained glass. Their biggest projects, at Coventry Cathedral and Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, were completed during a revival of the art form in the 1950s and 1960s.

I visit Reyntiens at his house in Ilminster, Somerset, in the hope of discovering more about his life’s work. Unfortunately, this proves to be more difficult than I had imagined. What he really wants to talk about is books. In his library he has 16,000. He gives me a tour and I quickly realise I am out of my depth. He has sections for art, architecture, the classics, French literature, 1930s literature… He points to a Balzac shelf and admits that he’s “only read about five” of them. I keep quiet about how many I’ve read. “I don’t know who’s going to inherit all this,” he says. “I may sell the lot.”

Reyntiens is an extremely generous host and apologises for not offering sherry – he says he’s given up alcohol for Lent. “Still, we’ll have a little wine for lunch,” he adds.

Our conversation is propelled by his enthusiasms. His range of interests is enormous. He talks about everything from Somerset’s medieval wool trade and underground Catholicism in Scotland to how humans underestimate animals – geese in particular.

His love of books began with his nanny, Violet Grey, who used to read Dickens to him for half an hour every night before bed. His family sound like a pretty cultured lot: his grandmother, Flora, was a friend of John Singer Sargent. She played piano with him and bought his house when he died.

Reyntiens has no fond memories of Flora – he recalls her shouting “Idiot!” at him as a toddler – but her taste for fine objects seems to have partly inspired his career as an artist. Growing up, he says, he was surrounded by beautiful artefacts and pictures. “[It was] an amazing feeling of being in this place and I just wanted to draw and then I wanted to paint,” he says. He has his family’s furniture still – a cabinet from the 1740s, a dining table sculpted in the 1870s and statues of St Francis, St Joseph and St Teresa of Avila bought by Flora in 1920s Portugal. “I never want to buy another piece of furniture in my life,” he says.

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