Stained glass from Africa

Saturday October 19 2019

Sophie Walbeoffe with the scheme for the stained glass window design for a church in Devon, England.

Sophie Walbeoffe with the scheme for the stained glass window design for a church in Devon, England. PHOTO | COURTESY 

MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
By MARGARETTA WA GACHERU
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For centuries, the Catholic Church has been a patron of the arts, which is one reason Florence Wangui and John Kenneth Clark were commissioned to create beautiful stained glass windows in the Sacred Heart Cathedral in Kericho in 2015.

Clark has a studio at Karen Village in Nairobi where he has a large glass-fusing kiln.

When he met the Kenya-based artist Sophie Walbeoffe who was creating stained glass windows for the Saint Nectan Parish Church in Ashcombe, in South Devon in the UK, he was happy to work with her on the project.

“It has been a wonderful collaboration,” says Clark who is a specialist in stained-glass while she is a superlative colourist whose paintings have been exhibited in London, Dubai, Jerusalem and Nairobi.

Their project is ongoing.

I visited them in Clark’s studio recently to see their latest project. “We have worked together on the drawings for the windows,” says Walbeoffe who was in the process of tracing their original (charcoal) drawings onto special tracing paper that Clark was getting set to take back to his studio in Germany where he would make the actual glass pieces, after which he and Sophie would install them in the church in Devon.

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Walbeoffe was trained as a painter at the Wimbledon School of Art in London, but started working in glass with Nani Croze of Kitengela Glass Trust several years ago.

It was serendipitous that she met Clark sometime back in Tigoni where she was painting with another Kenyan artist, Mary Collis. “I had been told of another artist working nearby so I went over to say hello,” Sophie recalls.

They have been friends ever since and began collaborating on the windows for the Devon church job.

Walbeoffe unpacked for me the several narratives in the windows’ design. There is Jesus in the Parable of the Sower planting seeds as he stands on a globe. “That’s to say we must take care of our planet,” she explains.

She explains the concept of the seeds falling on fallow ground, among thorns and thistles and those on good soil that bear a beautiful floral harvest.

Then in the upper part of the design, there is another narrative, of the village founder after whom the church was named, Saint Nectan.

“Nectan is said to have come over to Devon from Wales by coracle and established the village,” she says pointing to Nectan and his circular sailboat in the upper left lancet.

Sadly, she adds his life ended tragically.

“As the story goes, he was attacked by thieves and beheaded. But it is said that wherever his blood dropped, foxgloves [flowers] grow.

These are also in the windows,” she adds. So are the hills and rocky ridges of Devon that overlook the sea.

There are other elegant details in Sophie’s design, such as the rainbow above Jesus’s head, which she says was inspired by the British artist Winifred Nicholson who loved radiant rainbow colours as much as Sophie does.

The one feature of the windows is the personal touch in the four oval windows above the larger body of the stained glass.

Walbeoffe describes them initially as ‘‘musical windows’’ since each one contains a musical instrument, each one held by one of the four sisters in her family. There is Sabrina on flute, Julia on trumpet, herself on cello and Emma on banjo. It is dedicated to her grandmother.