P is for John Petts

As usual, I am again focusing on the famous, the forgotten and the misbegotten for round 19 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme. But finding suitable characters is getting harder, so apologies in advance if I miss out some of the alphabet.
John Petts self-portrait

John Petts self-portrait

John Petts was an artist responsible for one of the most moving works of stained glass commemorating a shocking event in American history that also demonstrated the generosity of the people of Wales.

Petts was born in London in 1914, but, for the most part, he is remembered as a Welsh artist since he and his wife, set-up the Caseg Press in Snowdonia in 1937 and lived and worked in Abergavenny.

He was a conscientious objector during the Second World War and what caused him to produce his most celebrated work began in 1963. The civil rights movement was gaining momentum and tension grew that resulted in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, killing four young girls.

This marked a turning point in the civil right movement and ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965, although justice for the victims took much longer, the prosecution of  the four suspects stretching out over four decades.

At his home in Llansteffan, Petts said: ‘The news on the radio left me sick at heart. As a father, I was horrified by the death of the children; as an artist-craftsman, hearing that the stained-glass windows of the church had been destroyed, I was appalled, and I thought to myself what can we do about this? Could not some of us join together in a positive gesture of Christian sympathy in the face of destructive evil, and, as a token, put back at least one of those windows.’

Petts stained glass window

Petts stained glass window

Petts contacted the Western Mail newspaper and the following day the front page headline read: ‘Alabama: Chance for Wales to Show the Way’, launching a call for donations so that Petts could create his stained glass replacement.

It was agreed that individual donations would not exceed half a crown: ‘We don’t want some rich man paying for the whole window. We want it to be given by the people of Wales.’ The £500 target was reached within days and the fund closed at £900.

Petts’ work on the window was his contribution to this show of solidarity, the money raised by public subscription being used for the cost of materials and for transporting it across the Atlantic.

dedication-serviceHe traveled to Alabama to discuss possible designs: ‘Eventually one idea grew in strength,’ he said, ‘the figure of a negro, yet of Christ too, a suffering figure in a crucified gesture, with one hand flung wide in protest, the other in acceptance, remembering the sight of a negro figure twisting under the assault of fire-hoses, his arms up-flung. The jets of water transfixing the figure became the bar of a Cross symbolising all violence.’

The window was dedicated at a service held at the church in June 1965 and pastor John Cross said that: ‘It might serve as a constant reminder that there are persons in the world whose hearts are filled with love and brotherly kindness.’

The designs for the window were donated to the National Library of Wales in 1970 and Petts died in 1991.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

6 comments… Add yours
  • Yorkshire Pudding 26th October 2016

    It’s a wonderful gift.

    Co-incidentally, when my daughter was at university in Birmingham, Alabama (for one year) she spent a day a week working at The Civil Rights Museum. One of her jobs was to carefully clean pieces of glass from the shattered window of the 16th Street Baptist Church. I believe those pieces are now in the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC.

    • Mr Parrot 26th October 2016

      Thanks for that info – not something I picked up when I was looking at this subject.

  • Melody Steenkamp 26th October 2016

    What a wonderful and intriguing post this is… my son and his girlfriend make lovely items on the same manor… it takes a lot of hours to create something but once ready its beautiful

    Have a wonderful ABC-day / – week
    ♫ M e l ☺ d y ♫ (abc-w-team)

  • leslie 26th October 2016

    What an incredible gesture from a man so many thousands of miles away! But then, I’m Welsh and know how wonderful these people are. Beautiful window full of meaning.

    abcw team

  • Roger Green 29th October 2016

    That is a wonderful story! I just finished reading March, Book 3, the graphic novel by John Lewis. Like the the movie Selma, it starts with that blast that killed four young girls.


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