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Abigail Reynolds on 'Tre', glass and the Cornish Ordinalia

e-interview Rupert White




Can you say what was stipulated in the original commission? How long ago did the call go out?

The original commission was sent out in January 2021, so not much more than a year ago. The call was for an artist to work in any medium, in any way in the interior or exterior of the building. I could have proposed a performance event; something fleeting, or a more permanent work. It was totally open which I found really exciting.

The commission was to work with the idea of home or homecoming, and to celebrate the temporary homecoming of six Cornish language manuscripts; a tenth century Gospel book, a medieval poem and four medieval miracle/mystery play scripts. They are the foundation stone of Cornish language and identity, and were probably lost to Cornwall when Glasney College in Penryn was destroyed in the Reformation.

They are all interesting in different ways, but it was a scene from the Ordinalia - a cycle of three plays that gripped my imagination, and became the narrative of the thematic of home in the window.

And of course the title, 'Tre', means home or homestead in Cornish...

Yes, which is why it appears in so many place names as a prefix - as to say 'home of….'


Did you decide to make a window quite quickly? Was that in part because of the nature of the building itself?

I always wanted to make a window for this commission. I have worked with glass for long enough now to feel confident in that medium, and stained glass is very much associated with Medieval culture - and the manuscripts I was referencing are Medieval.

My first intention was to work into several small windows that would make a narrative-line through the building, but as soon as I saw the 4 meter high window in the library I knew it needed to be used, and to hold a plural narrative by itself.

You mention the scene in the medieval Ordinalia, which became the central motif. In it Seth, Adam's son, returns to Eden where an angel gives him three apple seeds. Why choose this scene? What appealed to you about it?

Eden is a symbol, not a place. It is part of the kingdom of God: a perfect state which can never be attained, but also our home. It’s impossible for us to return, but in the (apocryphal) story told in The Ordinalia Seth does find his way back to our original home, the Garden of Eden.

Seth is Adam and Eve’s third son. He isn’t depicted as a hero, but as a dutiful, sorrowing son carrying out his father’s final wish: to find his way back to the Gate of Paradise to ask for the ‘Oyl a versi’ (‘Oil of mercy’).

For me Seth is a touching and rather solitary figure, and he holds out a sort of hope. A hint that the state of paradise (a state which the philosopher Eliade speaks of as entering Real Time) can be glimpsed. Maybe just in snatches, and this is somehow a homecoming. It sounds like a riddle, but to me it makes sense emotionally.

The recreation of this scene is done in an interesting way. Importantly, you combine medieval imagery, and imagery from our own time. Can you say something about the source of the angel (bottom image), and Seth images? Again, why choose these images in particular?

The two figures in the window are rather androgynous.

The angel is from a Dutch woodcut contemporary with the Ordinalia and St Neot, which shows the same scene of Seth's return.

Seth was a more complex decision. As you know, I have been interested in gatherings on the land, and festivals for a long time. This figure is from a photograph taken in 1971 at the Glastonbury Festival by Ron Reid (image above). I was first attracted to this photograph because on one level it is very directly about the act of looking - the figure frames up the photographer - there is a reciprocal look.

In the story Seth looks into Paradise, but in my scene he is very aware of himself in the word, and our look at him. He is the entry point to the window. He stands for the viewer, and the direct address means we look at him first. His bare feet, his Chinese jacket and the stick he holds against his ribs are all details that already make him a little bit unworldly - a step aside from normal life, which made me feel he should be the figure of Seth - somehow aside from the daily to and fro of life.

You mention St Neot's lovely church windows (image right). Morton Nance wrote an essay discussing them, and the fact that the St Neot window artist(s) must have read or seen the Ordinalia…

Seth’s story comes from the East - from Judaism and Greek culture. It is rather heretical and was suppressed by the Catholic church, though it was popular enough to be represented in at least two great works of Cornish culture from the 1480’s or thereabouts.

I like to think that one would be aware of the other, but maybe it was just a well-known story at the time, just as Noah and the Ark still is now. I am glad that Seth has survived in the Ordinalia and in the church at St Neot. He is like a chink to look through, a glimpse of something beyond.


There are yet more layers of meaning and interest in your work. You were able to include some of the glass you made yourself using local kelp and beach sand. Why did you feel it important to add these to the composition? Was it challenging from the technical point of view?

Yes - I am so happy that the kelp glass roundels were able to be set into the window.

It was done by cutting a hole in the 6mm ‘artista' glass, and fitting the roundels in. It’s very hard to cut a hole in glass, and takes a long time to do, by hand.

It was important for me to include them, as a different way to look at Cornwall. Looking at Cornwall through itself, since the glass is itself a fragment of Cornwall. A lot of the window is connected to my relationship with photography - that is latent in all my decisions, and the glass is no exception. Cornish beaches are so much photographed through glass lenses,. Here the beach becomes the lens. It’s an invitation to look differently - all the window is, but this look cuts across the other narratives in the window and holds a different space, offers a different approach.

It seems strange that Cornwall never had a glass industry, as far as I know, given all the resources that were here…

To make glass you must have sustained heat - at very high temperatures. That required a huge amount of fuel. Maybe by the time glass manufacture got underway there were no trees left here to burn, and with no coal that would have been a problem.

Cornwall has no proper cities, and all its industry is rural. Glass making also required a lot of people living close together, and the closest large scale glass production was in Bristol.

I read a Daphne Du Maurier novel called ’The Glass-Blowers’ (not one of her best), looking for clues about glass here, but it’s set in late 18th Century France during the French Revolution where there were many small glass houses in the countryside around Paris.

You have a show at Kestle Barton this spring. Its called 'Flux', so my guess is that glass will feature in it! Can you reveal anything more about what you're planning?

I melted the kelp glass at Kestle Barton in September 2019 and Karen has invited me to show the short film I made about it, as well as the glass.

With the glass I try to do very little to it, so as not to distract from the fact of itself. It’s very beautiful glass and of course quite magical when you know how specific and hand made it is, so I am delighted to mount a simple exhibition (titled 'Flux') of the glass at Kestle Barton.

I should say that I made a little book about making the glass, also titled Flux, which will be on sale there, and on my website - and at the Exchange and Newlyn gallery shops. I love making books, so that was also a real pleasure to put together.


'Tre' was officially unveiled on 5.3.22.‘Flux’ is at Kestle Barton Gallery, Cornwall 9th April - 12th June. Kresen Kernow is open Tues - Sat 9.30 - 4