The Twentieth Century Society

Obituary: Keith New

By Joyce Glasser

As a young student at the Royal College of Art stained glass department, Keith New’s first sale was a sketch of his design for a two-light window to John Betjeman, who remarked: ‘I wonder if you will ever do anything as beautiful again.’  That work was not only Keith’s first commission; it would later adorn the nave of Basil Spence’s Cathedral Church of St Michael, Coventry. Keith, who was born in London in 1925, died just as the celebrations and commemorations got underway marking the 50th anniversary of the Cathedral’s consecration.

In his final year at the RCA, Keith won a year’s scholarship with the Steuben and Corning Glass Company, and, postponing his marriage to Yvonne Byrom, he left for New York in the autumn of 1952.  Six months later, he learned that Basil Spence, having beaten more than 200 other architects to win the Coventry Cathedral job, had chosen the RCA to provide the nave windows. The RCA’s Rector, Robin Darwin, selected Lawrence Lee and two former students, Geoffrey Clarke and Keith, for the task. This call was to change the course of his life.

At Coventry, the progression of lights through the nave was to symbolise man’s journey through life and his attainment of morality and wisdom. The artists were given this theme, together with guidance on technique (painted and leaded English Antique glass) and colours, but then left to interpret and execute them.

Each pair of windows would stand on opposite sides of the nave, one side being the Divine, the other Human, leading from the font (beginnings) toward the altar (fulfilment and prayer) but only unfolding to those coming from the altar. Keith guessed that he had been assigned the colour green, denoting beginnings, because, at 26, he was the youngest artist.  Whatever the reason, green would remain important to him, as his later pastel and acrylic landscape paintings show.

Keith was solely responsible for three windows, including a pair of 70 ft ‘green’ windows, and contributed part of a fourth, gold window (representing eternity). In the first green window, the beginnings are under the hand of God, extended in blessing from a bright cloud at the top. An unfolding flower below suggests the evolving universe, above which is an illustration of the Creation story, complete with a sun and crescent moon. To the right is the Tree of Knowledge, the branches curving out to form a chalice – the cup that offers the promise of Paradise. The second green window represents the pains of birth by arrows piercing the sun; the sheltered growth of the family and the letting go or departure of youth to follow his own destiny (the upper branches of a tree break through cocoon-like threads and the youth is on its own under the spinning wheel of fortune). Because of their size, Keith worked on a small part of each window at a time, relying on sketch designs to know where he was. He first saw the completed windows at the V&A’s ‘Windows for Coventry’ exhibition in 1956, but first saw them in situ six years later, at the consecration in the presence of the Queen.  Five days after that, Benjamin Britten’s specially-commissioned War Requiem was first performed, under the light of the new windows. The Baptistery window was also a first commission for John Piper (1903-1992), who became a good friend.

Other windows by Keith include: the heraldic windows for the Royal College of Physicians, London; the south choir window of Bristol Cathedral; the rose window of Christ Church, Calgary, Canada, and windows for All Saints’, Isleworth, All Saints’, Branston, Lincoln, and the Convent of the Sacred Heart, Tunbridge Wells.  A major regret was the permanent removal, during a restoration paid for by Lord (James) Palumbo, of his three 1958 windows for St Stephen Walbrook in the City of London.  They were removed without his knowledge and the whereabouts of the third window remains unknown.  Elements of the glass salvaged by anonymous art lovers were incorporated into John Haywood’s window for the north transept of Norwich Cathedral.

Keith proved to be a natural teacher. From 1955-58 he headed the Stained Glass Department at the RCA; from 1957-64 he was Head of Art & Design at the Central School; and from 1968-91 he was Head of Foundation Studies at Kingston University.

In July 2004 Keith invited Society members to his home studio and then on a visit to one of his last commissions, the vibrantly-coloured nave windows (1969) for St Mark’s, Wimbledon (Humphreys and Hirst). It was here that Keith’s memorial service was held on 5 March.  He is survived by his widow Yvonne, daughters Clarissa and Roxanne, and grandson, Max.

Keith New, born 3 September 1925, died 14 February 2012