For almost 400 years, this workshop in Reims has been a master in the art of stained glass, interested in the interplay between colour and the sun.
1640. Louis XIII’s reign came to a tumultuous end, five years after his declaration of war on Spain. The fighting took place in the Piedmont region, on the soils of Roussillon and in the Bay of Cádiz. During this century of bloodshed, Pierre Simon completed his compagnonnage, an apprenticeship for highly skilled independent craftsmen in the Middle Ages, in Reims. He was now able to claim mastery of his craft, creating a small glass that he decorated with enamel to demonstrate this. It was his “work of art”, gaining him the acceptance of his peers as well as enabling him to become a master glass-maker in his own right. He didn’t realise it at the time, but this small glass was of crucial importance. Not only for him, but also for the next 12 generations that would succeed him. Pierre Simon was the founding member of a dynasty of glass-makers who have made the Atelier Simon-Marq one of France’s oldest existing companies, not to mention one of the most highly-esteemed in France and Europe.
Faced with collapse, the Atelier Simon-Marq was taken over by Reims-born Philippe Varin, chairman of the Suez group, and Pierre-Emmanuel Taittinger, chairman of the Coteaux, Maisons et Caves de Champagne organisation (Champagne hillsides, houses and cellars world heritage sites) and former director of Maison Taittinger. For many centuries, the workshops created and restored the stained glass windows for numerous religious buildings, both throughout eastern France and much further afield. But the company has always remained committed to Reims, never abandoning the capital of the Champagne region for another area. It is still based there, and 2021 will see it relocate to the Sacre Coeur Church in the heart of the city’s Clairmarais quarter, giving the company the vast and light-filled space that it so desperately needs.
The art of its time
This devotion to the city is real, it’s in the company’s blood. Its descendants even braved the German bombings to save what was salvageable of the stained glass windows in Reims Cathedral. Jacques Simon and his fellow compagnons removed these stained glass windows and stored them away safely. It would no longer be possible to admire these windows had it not been for their actions, as Reims Cathedral was destroyed by the fires that followed a spate of bombings in 1917. Following a period of storage in the Palace of Tau, the gargoyles that now spit lead are testament to this. Jacques Simon’s entire life was dedicated to repairing the damage resulting from the First World War. He created the historic headquarters of the workshop on Rue Ponsardin in a superb Art Deco building. Although he had the premises built, they no longer belong to the atelier today.
In 1957 Brigitte Simon and her husband Charles Marq paved the way for a new vision, not only for their business but also for the art world. They were the first people to promote the great painters of the time, commissioning them to create stained glass windows in civil and religious buildings. These artists simply reproduced the stained glass windows that had disappeared in the same way as the compagnons of the Middle Ages. Marc Chagall – who was of course in Reims in 1974 – as well as Georges Braque, Juan Miró, Serge Poliakoff, Raoul Ubac and Maria-Helena Vieira da Silva were all guided by the Atelier Simon-Marq in their discovery of these interplays of light between the glass and the sun. This involved an extended open piece of work with artists from the Art Deco and Art Nouveau movements. More recently, François Rouan, David Tremlett, Imi Knoebel, Hans Erni and Jean-Paul Agosti have been among those to have embarked on similar adventures with the Atelier Simon-Marq.
Today the Atelier Simon-Marq looks after a collection of “treasures” acquired by previous generations. This comprises close to 1,200 small glass plates in an almost infinite array of colours, dating from bygone eras to more modern times. The archives of the Simon-Marq glass-makers (18th – 20th centuries) are preserved by the Maison de l’architecture et du patrimoine, the benchmark of French institutions. They include records of the stained glass windows in Reims Cathedral from the 19th century as well as the entire collection of stained glass models created by Paul Simon. Since 2006 the Reims-based workshop has held the title of “Entreprise du patrimoine vivant”, a symbol of excellence in traditional French craftsmanship.
12 generations later and times have changed. Religious heritage is no longer the only “market” that the Atelier Simon-Marq is committed to. Some private individuals also call on its unique know-how. Another important type of recognition…