The Hereford Saga Part 2: The Owl and the Brief

First-time visitors, click here to start at the beginning of this bizarre tale of stained glass design …

It was P.R. Exec. #1 who broke the silence: “Where did you say that this new stained glass window was going?”

I stood my ground (though a less brave man would have been reduced to ashes): “A crematorium …”

P.R. Exec. #1: “A crematorium!

Indeed. Anyone would have thought we’d proposed a two-week holiday in the Ninth Circle of Hell.

Yes, people always behave strangely when one mentions crematoria: only a few days earlier, we’d had a visit from Patrick Reyntiens, the stained glass artist with whom David did his 8-year apprenticeship.

Just guess what Patrick said about this project?


Patrick said: “A crematorium, dear boy – surely you mean ‘crème brûlée’!”


When I described the incident to Sir Roy Strong, this gentle and eminent art historian and former director of the Victoria & Albert Museum soothingly replied:

“Patrick can indeed be a devastating putter-down. Don’t worry about it: just count yourselves lucky to have the work.”

And, whilst we gladly accepted Sir Roy’s advice, it was really no surprise that even the combined majesty of P.R. Exec. #1 and P.R. Exec. #2 should grow pale at the thought of one of our stained glass windows – no matter how magnificent – in a place of sorrow, a melancholy crematorium.

Do you know what? – I even see their point.

When we win that commission to design and make some extraordinary stained glass windows for a celebrity-packed Hollywood night-club, you can be sure that our wonderful P.R. executives will drum us up so much publicity that journalists and papparazi will travel from all over the world to ignore the celebrities and admire our stained glass.

A crematorium is altogether different: people always assume it can’t make headlines like a night-club can …

But David and I had leapt at the idea the moment that our client suggested it.

Oh, yes!


The Hereford Saga had all begun a few weeks earlier: Mr. R.C. had rang and asked to visit us at our studios at Stanton Lacy.

The Williams & Byrne stained glass studios at Stanton Lacy

The Williams & Byrne studios at Stanton Lacy

“Crematoria are always such depressing and miserable places,” he began (and we agreed).

“But they’re building a new one at Hereford,” he continued (and we listened).

“Here’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make this crematorium different!

“My idea is to pay for a beautiful stained glass window.

“So – and I see it’s a quite a tricky task – could you please design and paint a window that will lift people’s spirits and help make this crematorium ‘happy’ and ‘light’?”

Now please consider this.

Our client, R.C., wanted to make a gift of this window to a public crematorium – a building that is run by the state.

Which means of course that public officials would also want to influence the design.

But our immediate loyalty was to our client, R.C.

Therefore, rather than approaching those public officials straight away, we chose firstly to spend more time with R.C. in order to get a clear idea of the stained glass window that he wanted to give.

Conversations and meetings are necessary between us and our clients, precisely because we do not have a monolithic “studio style” – we can design and paint in many styles: that’s the whole point of why we do architectural stained glass.

Perhaps it’s excellent to be known for a particular style, but we feel we might as well be known for always repeating ourselves in conversation! It’s not how we do things. For one thing, we’d get bored if we worked like that, imposing a single style on every stained glass window that we made.

Therefore, when we talk with a client, we don’t pull out our catalogue and say: “You can have this design one in red and green, or yellow and mauve. And purple is very popular this year …”

By contrast, what we often do is this: we look through our portfolio of stained glass designs and discuss the ideas and features which, in the client’s view, stand out.

Or we might also talk about:

  1. The kind of art that the client likes
  2. Whether they like puzzles
  3. The countries they have visited
  4. How they like to travel
  5. The food they like, the shapes, colours, tastes and textures

And so forth: in this way, design-ideas emerge.

It’s such an exciting process. Something invariably clicks, and everyone says, “Yes, that’s it!”

(Just the other day, a different client announced: “The Fibonacci sequence: that’s that we want!” And this is a series of stained glass windows that we’ll design and paint in 2009.)

And, even though we’ve not yet committed anything to paper, everyone knows instinctively that something was created right then.

No matter how big or small the stained glass window is, we always establish a brief.

Sometimes the client articulates the brief directly; other times we work together and talk and listen until the brief emerges, which takes as long as it takes.

The window will endure for decades. Its design is its essence. The design emerges from the brief.

Talking with our client, R.C., it quickly became clear that colours were important due to the sense of calm that he wanted: shades of blue, green and yellow.

Here R.C. also mentioned that he liked paintings by Claude Monet.


“I really like that!”, said the client, pointing at one of David’s water-coloured designs that he’d once painted just for the sake of painting!

And an abstract design, he said, not a literal one: nothing definite, nothing recognizable – no landscapes, no human figures, no animals, no fish, no birds …

“Apart from an owl,” he mysteriously added, “a hidden owl: only my friends will know it’s there”.

“And I really like that,” he said, pointing to a design which David had painted a few years ago, but which we’d never made. (It’s surprising how often it is that things which are purely done for their own sake will also come in useful one day.)

The last two features were the size – roughly 1 metre wide and 5 metres high (which is about 3 feet wide and 15 feet high) – and, of course, the function of the building: a public crematorium.

(Owners of celebrity-packed Hollywood night-clubs: don’t delay, telephone today!)


Now we couldn’t go and visit the building, because they hadn’t even begun building it yet.

So we rang the architect and discovered the size of each individual section – there were four in all:

Architect's early sketch for the gable end of Hereford Crematorium

Architect’s early sketch for the gable end of the new crematorium at Hereford

This information was enough for us to get started with. We found our water-colour paints and started the long journey of design:

  1. Uplifting, calm
  2. Abstract, suggestive, non-literal (apart from one owl – hidden), impressionistic (Claude Monet)
  3. Blues, yellows and greens
  4. The design which R.C. saw and liked in our studio
  5. Scale proportions of 1:5
  6. A state-owned crematorium.

Stained glass design is a process that moves from doubt and hypothesis toward conviction and agreement. Then the actual painting and making is relatively straightforward.

Sometimes, once we have a brief, we might feel as if we could draw the final design immediately.

But we’ve learned from experience that this feeling, however strong, is misleading.

Therefore, even when we’re absolutely convinced about what it is that we ultimately want to do, the design always begins in a provisional, tentative and explorative way.

In some measure, the whole process of design requires us to put our egos on one side: we always remember we are using our skills for individual clients and particular buildings.

A good stained glass designer is like a magnificent cook. Such a cook knows a vast quantity of recipes and is an excellent judge of how to prepare a huge range of ingredients. But he or she still wants to produce a meal that his customers will adore. Otherwise it’s a waste of fine ingredients.

Our way, at Williams & Byrne, is to begin with small sketches.

These sketches are rough and incomplete. But they can of course be beautiful.

They can also be exciting, because they suggest and promise something new.

We then have further conversations with our client. And this allows us to become increasingly confident not just of what the client wants but also what the building wants.

In this case, for R.C., and all the time bearing in mind the six-point brief that we’d established until now, we then prepared two sketches, each one about 2 inches wide by 10 inches tall.

Here are the two sketches that we presented to R.C.


Two sketches for the central stained glass window at the new Hereford Crematorium

So, once we had re-assured R.C. that we had not forgotten his owl, our next question was:

“Given this window is going in a crematorium (and not a night-club), which one of these two sketches begins to convey the right impression?”

12 thoughts on “The Hereford Saga Part 2: The Owl and the Brief

  1. Although a crematorium may be a “sad” place, there is a lot of joy which can be found there. (OK, no jokes about being glad that uncle Ned is gone – that is not what I mean, even though Ned was a curmudgeon.) For instance, the joy found in the memories of the person who is no longer here: the beauty of a magnificent stained glass window and the joy it brings.

    With a more traditional scene, I would have thought of how my loved one was in the company of angels.

    I’ll be happy to know “the rest of the story”.

    And I look forward to seeing the final piece complete and in its permanent home.

  2. Hello Francesca,

    You’re absolutely right that we can find joy there.

    I’d also say that the English crematoria that I’ve hitherto seen have made me feel like a second-class citizen or worse. Architecturally, they’ve often struck me as barren, soulless places. (Perhaps yours are different in the US.)

    This particular building is different, I’m glad to say, with high ceilings and plenty of natural daylight.

    As for the scene and subject-matter, it has been said that mankind cannot bear too much reality: perhaps this is one source of our modern embrace of abstraction. (There are, I’m sure, many others.)

  3. Dear Stephen

    I have to admit that when I first saw the sketches, they did not appeal to me (I’m not a fan of abstract but I love Monet’s work).

    I sat back, took a deep breath and looked at them again. By then the sketch with the accent of pink/mauve caught my attention (probably the pastel colours).

    I went away and came back later wanting to get away from an upsetting situation (nothing major) to my surprise this time it was the sketch with more yellow that appealed to me. I could see different calm & reasuring images & faces in the background (my imagination tends to go into overdrive sometimes). So, I guess this window would be the one I would need in moment of grief should I have to spend time in the crematorium at Hereford.

    Now all I need to do is find the owl (I’m sure I will if it’s there).

    All the best to all in the New Year
    Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada

    P.S. I had forgotten about the Fibonacci sequence of numbers: each number (after the first two) is the sum of the previous two numbers. Thus the sequence begins 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233, etc. The higher up in the sequence, the closer two consecutive “Fibonacci numbers” of the sequence divided by each other will approach the golden ratio (approximately 1 : 1.618 or 0.618 : 1). The golden ratio was used widely in the Renaissance in paintings

  4. These sketches immediately brought to mind the song ‘The Long and Winding Road’, which I think is an apt sentiment for this situation.

    The sketch on the left flutters like rags on a kite tail, leaves on the breeze, documents on a desk by an open window. The pinks give a sense of the dawn of hope. There is sunshine, but there are also barriers and stumbling blocks. To my mind, it is rather too stimulating to be entirely helpful or resonant in this environment.

    The calming curves and more muted colours of the sketch on the right strike a meditative note. There are still definite stages on the long and winding road, but they are gentler and lead more naturally into each other. But it is not an easy road. There are rocks. It will be a climb. There is sunshine, but it’s temperate. I can see love and companionship in heart and bird-shapes, so there’s comfort there as well as calm.

    So, if I were the client and had five minutes to choose between two small digital images, I would choose the one on the right. However, I’m mindful of the fact that the client will be spending a lot longer with the original sketches, and may see nuances that simply don’t show up here.

    Stephen, at this stage do you know what will be happening with the other windows? It strikes me that they are key to the success of this central window.

  5. Yep! I found the owl: hurrah!

    On the subject of crematoriums, I have been very lucky.

    I mean that, even with my own Mum and Gran, it was not a bad experience, mainly because they had both done such wonderfully silly things which we retold and so made the peole there laugh out loud.

    My problem is actually with churches

    The last funeral I went to at a church was for the mother of some good friends. She was a great lady. But my problem is that churches (especially very old Norman ones) usually have some nice glass!

    And it is difficult to keep up with the service and not look at the glass and try to find a makers mark or how they achieved a certain effect.

    I shame-facedly admitted this to these good friends. They laughed out loud, thinking that their mum would have thought that quite funny.

    They imagined me hopping around to various seats through the service so I could get a better look at the glass!

    So at least I behave myself in a crematorium!

  6. Hi Pat!

    Rest assured you are not the only one who does this.

    In Rainham, Kent we have a wonderful church at St Margaret’s with some really good painted windows.

    And I have to admit the best part of the Sunday service for me is in the Summer when the sun moves around during the service and highlights different faces on the different windows.

    My kids love Sunday School and come into Church halfway through the service and always have to look around to spot where Mummy is sitting this week.

    My kids are really patient with me and are quite used to me just popping into churches wherever we are just to look at the windows.

    My own Gran passed away before Christmas and we went to the local crematorium: very plain, boring windows there.

    In the car on the way back, my 8 year-old son said to his twin sister and older sister who is 11 that the service was OK but there was no way he was having his funeral there! He wanted it in a proper church.

  7. To outside glaze or “Storm Glaze” a leaded window, there has to be proper ventilation between the glazing and the leaded window.

    Otherwise, over the years, the heat and cold build-up between the two will cause the window to bow.

    Since it is necessary to have some kind or screening to allow air in, that will also present a problem with oil and soot and smoke from the chimney entering in and settling in between the storm glazing and the leaded window.

    This could certainly be a major issue, and it had to be dealt with before the work could continue.

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