Hacker, Sophie - Jonathan Evens
Interview with Sophie Hacker
by Jonathan Evens
In 2018 British artist Sophie Hacker was approached to design a window for Romsey Abbey to celebrate the bicentenary of the birth of Florence Nightingale. Romsey was a fitting and historically appropriate location to honour a woman of such international significance, as that was where she lived and where her political interests developed.
Through her acceptance of the commission, Hacker has learnt much more about the modest Hampshire woman who went on to have a global impact on many aspects of social care, health, sanitation and nursing. Nightingale’s life was shaped by her liberal Christian faith, her dedication to social reform and to nursing administration. The design of Hacker’s window draws many elements of Nightingale’s life together into one moment, all of which in some way relate to her call to service.
Hacker specialises in Church Art, including stained glass windows, vestments and re-ordering liturgical space. She learned the art of stained glass from Thomas Denny, who works with materials and techniques largely the same as those used in 14th-century stained glass, with the addition of much acid etching of flashed glass. Hacker’s work in glass is highly sympathetic with ecclesiastical architecture, whilst embracing modern design. Since 2006 she has also been Arts and Exhibitions Consultant for Winchester Cathedral with particular responsibility for curating.
In our conversation we discussed the background to the commission, the development of the design, the techniques she has learnt from Denny and the impact that the Covid-19 lockdown has had on the project.
JE: Could you tell me how the commission came about?
SH: In the Spring of 2018 I was invited by Revd Chris Pettet, Vicar of St Margaret’s Wellow, to take on this fascinating commission. He was in conversation with descendants of Nightingale’s cousins and other anonymous donors to raise the funding required for a 46 sq.ft. window. Although Nightingale is buried at St Margaret’s, the commission is for Romsey Abbey, where it will replace clear quarries in a north window facing the communion rail.
JE: Why is Romsey Abbey an appropriate location for this window?
SH: Nightingale lived mainly at Embley Park (with her parents and sister), a scant two miles from the Abbey, until her early thirties, when she was sent by the British War Secretary, Sydney Herbert, to Scutari Barrack Hospital, then the largest hospital in the world. She had many friends in Romsey, including Lord Palmerston, who also helped shape her Liberal politics and who remained a powerful advocate of her work until his death. Nightingale was a political activist throughout her life, engaging in a wide range of issues, including supporting women’s suffrage and promoting sanitary reform, health and social care, including in Romsey.
JE: How did the theme of Florence’s calling develop? Was that part of the original commission or did it emerge from your reflections on her life and work?
SH: One of the good things about the commission was that there wasn’t a fixed brief. I was simply asked to respond freely to Nightingale. This meant research, reading, conversations, visits, lots of thinking. I had the benefit of being in contact with Prof Lynn MacDonald, recognised as the world authority on Nightingale’s life, and I took the opportunity very early on to visit the Florence Nightingale Museum at St Thomas’ Hospital. This is laid out as a series of ‘pods’, each highlighting a key moment in her life. The first of these concerns her childhood at Embley Park and mentions an event just before her 17th birthday when she experienced a very clear call on her life. She referred to this moment many times in her diaries, and although there is no description of how she experienced it, this event shaped her future. I was keen to express the character of Nightingale not as ‘The Lady of the Lamp’ (a soubriquet she detested) but as a woman of faith. In the grounds of her home is a distinctive Cedar of Lebanon tree with a split trunk. At the base of the tree is a stone bench. Apocryphally it was here that Nightingale experienced her calling, and so I made plans to visit Embley Park to see if the tree and the bench were still there. It was a delight to discover them and be able to sit in the same place that Nightingale had sat, and realise that the composition for the window which had begun to form in my mind would certainly work for the narrative I wanted to use.
JE: To what extent does acceptance of a commission provide a sense of calling for an artist? To what extent have you identified personally with this aspect of Florence’s life?
SH: To be an artist is not a job, but a way of looking at the world. It is a great privilege to be invited to create a piece of public art. For me that includes an imperative to explore a public commission through 360 degrees. I try to understand how a commission might be mis-read, as well as read. There are already a number of public art works celebrating Nightingale’s nursing career, but I felt inspired to focus on how that career came about. The theme of vocation is very important to me. I’ve explored it from a personal perspective in my own artistic practice. So having the opportunity to express ‘calling’ through an image about another person’s vocation has been a real gift. We are all ‘called’ away from what we know to 'something beyond’. For some the path is brightly lit and clear. For others the way seems shrouded and impenetrable. The experience of ‘lockdown’ has brought this truth more sharply into focus. We may be faced with an unfamiliar sense of inactivity or powerlessness. When I first became interested in the Christian faith in my mid-twenties, I was lucky enough to stumble upon WH Vanstone’s ‘The Stature of Waiting’. The chapter concerning Christ’s chosen passivity during the passion strikes a particularly deep chord now, as we seek to value ourselves for who we are rather than what we do.
JE: You have identified a significant number of images and texts associated with Nightingale’s sense of calling. How difficult was it to find a design that brought all those images together harmoniously? Was there any aspect of the design that enabled the whole to come into focus and cohere?
SH: Early on in my conversations with Lynn MacDonald I learned that there were two key texts that motivated Nightingale. She paraphrased the words spoken by Christ when the disciples saw him walking on the water, ‘Lo it is I,’ and described them as the four words of one syllable that exemplified God’s assurance to a broken world and summed up the Christian faith. Meanwhile Isaiah’s great commission ‘Here am I, Lord, send me’ defined her own response to God’s call. I included ‘blessed be the merciful’, which was inscribed on a jewel designed by Prince Albert and presented to Nightingale by Queen Victoria after her return from the Crimea. ‘I was sick and you nursed me’ was Nightingale’s paraphrase from Matthew’s Gospel, signifying that we should see Christ in all whom we meet.
Every detail, from the wild flowers depicted around Nightingale’s feet, the ivy climbing up the cedar tree, the presence of the birds, all have a particular role to express aspects of Nightingale’s personal theology, her faith and the fruits of her professional life. The task for this design was not as much about what to include as about what to leave out. I sought to keep as natural a composition as possible, in a supernatural context. The four buildings, shown almost as mirages in the distance might seem the most unusual elements, but they are there to reference immensely significant milestones: the city of her birth, her work at Scutari, her work in hospital design, and the foundation of her school of nursing and midwifery at St Thomas’.
JE: What did you learn from studying stained glass with Thomas Denny and how are those lessons reflected in this window?
SH: I met Tom at a CFCE conference in Durham eight years ago, when I interviewed him under his Transfiguration Window in the cathedral. Chatting to him later over a pint, I mentioned how very much I wanted to work in glass, as for years my art has been focused around the presence of light. It seemed unlikely that I’d ever get the opportunity at that stage, but just a week later, back at home, I was approached by a local vicar who, knowing I had never made a window before, nonetheless asked me to take on a commission in glass for his gorgeous 14th-century rural church. I was completely stunned, phoned Tom in a panic, and he promptly invited me to his studio in Dorset, where, as he said with characteristic generosity, ‘I’ll teach you everything you need to know about making a window’. And he did!
This first Baptism window I made directly under Tom’s supervision, where I discovered his unique approach with acid work. This involves the use of extremely dangerous hydrofluoric acid to achieve miraculous effects in flashed glass. The process of masking, dipping, re-masking, dipping again, sometimes numerous times, enables subtle and complex shifts in colour, which are then painted, silver-stained and fired. However it wasn’t only his knowledge about acid work that Tom offered, he also taught me to become sensitive to context: choosing appropriate colour palettes for the architecture, working the surfaces so that a new contemporary window feels ‘at home’ in an ancient building, and teaching me about the structural possibilities and limitations of glass and leading.
JE: With stained glass you are working with fragments and the whole, perhaps more so than in any other media. How does this affect the way in which you work?
SH: My painting practice (mainly abstract) is reworked frequently, allowing the final work to evolve through change. With glass, though, I must hold firm to the original idea. The decisions taken on the colours of glass, how and where to etch, the location of the lead lines - all these are taken very early on. As soon as the glass has been cut, I am on an inevitable course to continue with all those decisions with very little flexibility until the painting starts. I must keep faith with the ability of each fragment to cohere with the whole. For larger projects like this one, which is 46 ft. sq., there can be a considerable length of time – many, many months and sometimes a couple of years – before I see whether everything has worked as intended.
JE: What aspects of Florence’s life have come into greater focus for you as a result of this commission?
SH: I knew almost nothing about Florence Nightingale when I was approached with the commission. Perhaps this was a benefit, because I had to learn everything rather than assume I already knew enough. I hadn’t appreciated, for example, that the reach of her nursing schools have influenced all parts of the world. She designed hospitals, supported women’s suffrage, was the first woman Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society, and the author of over 200 pamphlets and books, some of which were translated into dozens of languages. I certainly hadn’t appreciated what a profoundly intelligent, fascinating and strong character she was.
JE: The Covid-19 lockdown has had a significant impact on this commission, including delaying the installation and dedication of the window, and yet the pandemic has also had the effect of highlighting and honouring the legacy and bicentenary of Florence Nightingale. How have you responded to this situation and its effect on this project?
SH: The lockdown started on the 23rd of March. At that stage two of the five panels of the window had been leaded at Salisbury Cathedral glass department. I'd been working over a period of many months at Holy Well Glass, in Wells, where the glass was cut and acid etched. After multiple firings it was taken to Salisbury for leading, with the aim of installing the completed window the week of the 20th of April. The glaziers at Salisbury were furloughed almost immediately the lockdown started and at present we don’t know how much longer this will go on for. It was a sorry week in April when the installation dates came and went. Now the Dedication – planned for the week of her Bicentenary – has been delayed for a year, regardless of when the window is installed.
So it has been a welcome opportunity to find something positive buried in the extensive delays the project has experienced. The first was being asked to do a Thought for the Day by Winchester Cathedral as their arts consultant. At that point, the NHS Nightingale Covid hospitals had just started to open and Boris Johnson was in intensive care, so it made sense to focus on how Nightingale had shaped nursing values and practice. There has been interest from local TV, from Songs of Praise, in some of the national broadsheets, which has helped keep the project breathing as we wait for the next phase to start. Waiting is its own challenge at the moment. Waiting for lockdown to end, waiting to know what the future will hold, waiting to see loved ones, waiting in line outside the supermarket. The significance and value of waiting is becoming very apparent to me.
JE: With a stained glass commission for a church you are collaborating with those who commissioned the work (family and donors), teams at the Abbey and in the Diocese, as well as the glaziers and other craftspeople involved. What have you learned from this experience of collaboration and does that element of this project connect with aspects of Florence Nightingale’s life and with our responses to the pandemic?
SH: Any project that is destined for a public place can only come about as a result of collaboration, but this has much more to do with the production of the work rather than answering the brief. Putting stained glass windows into parish churches requires important permissions (faculties), and personnel on the Diocesan Advisory Committee might suggest necessary changes or adaptations. Because I also serve on a DAC, I’m fortunate to understand what can otherwise seem a rather arcane process.
The most important collaborations are forged with the master glaziers I work with. Cutting the glass and the final leading and cementing are skills only truly learned through an extensive apprenticeship and, in my training with Tom, I discovered early on that those two key processes are best left to the experts. Prior to The Calling Window, I had done all the acid work with Tom, in his studio in Dorset, where I was absorbing vast amounts of information and technique. Now it was time to form a new collaboration with Holy Well Glass where we found new ways to achieve the results I sought. It was a style of work that they were not accustomed to, but the learning went both ways as I had the chance to discover new techniques and processes.
JE: Bishop Sarah Mullalley has written the foreword to your book about the project. How did Bishop Sarah respond to the project and the design of the window?
SH: Bishop Sarah was sent a draft of the unfinished book just before lockdown started. I was immensely grateful that she still managed to find the time to write the foreword at such an unprecedented time. As a Nightingale nurse herself, I couldn’t think of anyone better to reflect on the project. Bishop Sarah uses her foreword to consider the importance of nursing as a way of ‘being’ as much as ‘doing’ and how the meaning of a stained glass window is revealed through the medium of light.
The book is in two main parts, the first is an exploration of Nightingale’s faith, with two expert theological reflections and a contribution from the world expert on her work, Lynn MacDonald, whilst the second describes all the processes involved in making the window, from design to installation. That is why I shan’t be able to complete the book until all the practical work is finished.
JE: Have you gained from undertaking the reflective exercise of compiling a book whilst designing and making the window?
SH: I was asked to produce a book very early on in the commission, so I made sure to engage a professional photographer to catalogue the many phases of work. The visual record has been helpful for me to refer to when writing the text concerned with process. The other aspect I have reflected on is that of the meaning behind the window. Although I had written briefly on this as part of the proposal requirements, I have appreciated the chance to articulate it more deeply. The beauty of working in glass, and the thing that I was always drawn to before my first commission, is that the presence of light is the defining element. When I am working on the individual fragments of glass, I cannot see the whole work, nor can I see it through the quality of light that will be found at its final destination. But every mark I make and every decision I take has to be made when light is shining behind the glass, whether from a utilitarian lightbox or a vertical easel in front of a window. The ongoing ‘pressure’ of the book encouraged me to keep reflecting on the journey of the glass, not just by instinct or artistic judgement but in words. Whilst it hasn't changed the creative outcome, it has enabled me to learn more about how and why I make the decisions I do.
JE: What do you think you might feel when the window is finally dedicated in May 2021 given the unexpected developments that have impacted this commission?
SH: The new date for the dedication of the window is set for May 2021, 201 years after Nightingale was born. I expect I will be relieved and delighted when the window is finally dedicated and doing my best not to mind about the things that I would now do differently.
1. Sophie Hacker working on 'The Calling Window'. Photograph © Russell Sach
2. Design for 'The Calling Window' by Sophie Hacker
3. Detail from 'The Calling Window' by Sophie Hacker
4. Sophie Hacker at work on 'The Calling Window'. Photograph © Joe Low
5. Detail from 'The Calling Window' by Sophie Hacker - Crimean snowdrops brought back by a Captain from the war
6. Sophie Hacker at work on 'The Calling Window'. Photograph © Joe Low
Sophie Hacker specialises in Church Art, including stained glass windows, vestments and re-ordering liturgical space. She is a trustee of A+C, the UK's leading organisation in the field of visual art and religion, and a Visiting Scholar at Sarum College in Salisbury Cathedral Close. Since 2006 she has been Arts and Exhibitions Consultant for Winchester Cathedral, with particular responsibility for curating three exhibitions each year. Recent commissions include collaborations with musicians and poets, and numerous ecclesiastical projects. http://www.sophiehacker.com/
Jonathan Evens is Associate Vicar, Partnership Development at St Martin-in-the-Fields, London, England. A keen blogger, he posts regularly on issues of faith and culture at http://joninbetween.blogspot.co.uk. His journalism and art criticism ranges from Pugin to U2 and has appeared in a range of publications, including Artlyst and Church Times. He runs a visual arts organisation called commission4mission, which encourages churches to commission contemporary art and, together with the artist Henry Shelton, has published two collections of meditations and images on Christ's Passion. Together with the musician Peter Banks, he has published a book on faith and music entitled ‘The Secret Chord’.