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Newsletter, April 2009 (Issue 175)

John Hutton's Artwork


The Ipswich area has lost three important works of art by an artist of international renown - John Hutton. Before I come to those, perhaps I should tell his story from the beginning.

John Hutton was a muralist and glass engraver born in Clyde on the South Island of New Zealand in 1906. He married fellow artist Helen (Nell) Blair in 1934 and they made England their permanent home in 1936. They lived for a while in an artists' commune at Assington Hall in Suffolk. John worked on several mural commissions until the war broke out in 1939.

During the war he joined a camouflage unit where he met and worked with the architect Basil Spence - a relationship which was to prove invaluable later on. In 1947 he designed his first large scale glass engravings -a series of four panels depicting the seasons for the restaurant area on the Cunard ship Caronia. By 1953 he had developed a unique method of engraving using a grinding wheel attached to a flexible drive.

At about the same time he had been commissioned to design a seventy feet high screen for Coventry Cathedral. The design stage took eight years and the engraving process a further two years. The screen consists of glass panels depicting 66 figures representing saints and angels. The work was not without its frustrations and dangers. After the screen had been assembled on site, Basil Spence said he felt that the opacity of the figures would obscure the view of Graham Sutherland's tapestry. He asked John if he could reduce the 'whiteness' of the engravings. John reluctantly agreed and with his two sons he climbed the scaffolding to carry out the polishing process which would satisfy the architect's demands. One day they climbed up to continue the work and found that the screen seemed further away. In fact the whole screen had sprung loose and had moved from the vertical by approximately fifteen inches. Needless to say the three men descended the scaffolding faster than they had climbed it. Steel cables were eventually attached and they remain in place to this day.

When designing the screen John had used an artist's model, Marigold Dodson, to pose for many of the figures. His first marriage ended during this period and he eventually married Marigold in 1963. He still did work with his former wife subsequently on joint art projects.

John Hutton had worked on other commissions concurrent with the cathedral screen project. Two of the commissions were located in the Ipswich area. In 1956 he produced a sgraffito image showing the four elements - earth, air, fire and water - commissioned by Birkin Haward. It was located in the stairwell of the main building of Fison's Levington Research Station. This was the first and only time he used the sgraffito technique. The final work was achieved by first applying a layer of coloured plaster. This layer was allowed to set and a second layer of a different colour spread over the first. John then scraped away the still wet top layer producing an image of the figures. He had to work fast before the plaster set, which he said was very nerve-racking. Unfortunately this artwork was destroyed in the 1980s despite the ministrations of a number of ex-Fison's employees.

In 1961 he was asked again by the architect Birkin Haward to produce three engraved glass panels for the Foyer of Fison House in Princes Street, Ipswich. They represented the Roman goddesses of flowers, fruit and agriculture - Flora, Pomona and Ceres respectively. Unfortunately, after Fisons had moved out of the building, the panels were removed by an over-zealous builder who destroyed the Ceres panel in the process and managed to break the Pomona panel in half. The remaining panels were placed in a basement storage area with the broken furniture and dead computers. Berkeley Business Centres now own the site and thanks to Hazel Warrington and Rupal Patel who work for them they contacted me and we were able to have them moved to a safer room of their own where I photographed them.

I contacted Colchester and Ipswich Museums, who had shown some interest, but they had no way of displaying the panels and eventually I contacted Marigold Hutton for help. She bought the panels from Berkeley Business Centres and found a glass conservator, Kenneth Watt, in Chichester who has agreed to restore them. Marigold has also given me Hutton's original chalk drawings on black paper which he used as a basis for the Fison House engravings. The drawings are very fragile and they were therefore boxed up and sent to Chichester with the panels. Eventually Marigold intends to display the panels in Clifton Hampden near Abingdon where Hutton worked in his final years and where she still lives.

The third work was a ceramic produced in collaboration with his ex-wife Nell together with Jan and Zoe Elliston. This was commissioned by the former Eastern Electricity Board for their Russell Road headquarters in Ipswich in 1966. This too is believed lost.

John Hutton lived and worked on until 1979 when he finally succumbed to cancer. His ashes were appropriately buried beneath a stone at the foot of his finest work - the screen at Coventry Cathedral.

I feel some sadness that this artist with the unique ability to design and engrave glass on a huge scale in the UK, Canada, New Zealand, etc., is not represented in and around our town which once housed three of his works. After all, the panels he cut and the sgraffito he accomplished symbolised the work and products of an old local firm which had premises in Ipswich and Bramford for 150 years. The artwork and the original Fisons Company are now but a memory in the town. But if you are ever in Southwold you can see a window engraved by Hutton. It is located in the north wall of the church of St Edmund. It depicts the figure of St Edmund at the moment of his death and martyrdom.

MERV RUSSEN

    Front cover of issue 175 Cover, issue 175

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