52 Weeks of Historical How-To’s, Week 33: The Art of Stained Glass
Special Collections contains a number of publications and collected archives relating to the production and design of stained glass. As an aspiring stained glass artist I decided to look through the collections and find inspiration for a blog on the subject.
Being based in the Martyrs Kirk Research Library we are often asked about the stained glass windows that are now part of the Post Graduate reading room. These windows were designed by a variety of artists including notably Douglas Strachan, regarded as one of Scotland’s greatest stained glass artists. Strachan had been commissioned in the 1930s to re-glaze the University’s St Salvator’s chapel but a series of misunderstandings between him and Principal Irvine meant that his designs were never realised. We hold a small collection concerning Strachan in our manuscript archives msdep104/1-3 that includes a typescript on the Strachan/Irvine controversy. In addition some of the watercolours of his proposed scheme are held by Museum Collections and I was lucky enough to inspect these whilst researching this article. Unfortunately as the sketches are still under copyright I am unable to reproduce them in this blog.
Whilst I find the stained glass work of Strachan visually stunning, his style of work posed more of a problem for me. Painted glass is an important feature of Strachan’s work and is a technique that has been used for centuries as a way of both controlling light and providing colour and detail. It involves painting a vitreous substance onto the glass and then firing the glass to make it permanent. Not having access to a kiln meant I needed to look elsewhere for a more appropriate style.
Traditionally, stained glass was regarded as very high status ornamentation and was mainly designed for ecclesiastical contexts. It was only towards the very end of the 19th century that artists began to produce secular work and stained glass became popular is a medium. Exemplifying this is the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany:
Tiffany, who started as a painter, is now best known for his stained glass work. Inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and French Art Nouveau movement, and in particular the work of Émile Gallé, he established a glassmaking factory to create his own range of glasses based on opalescent glass. Tiffany became famous in particular for his intricately designed lampshades and windows. As lead was difficult to work with on these complex designs Tiffany used the copper-foil technique.
This is the technique I use myself, and looking through our catalogue I noticed that we hold a copy of “The Artwork of Louis C Tiffany”. This is a beautiful signed limited edition, published in 1914, but unfortunately the designs reproduced in the book were too intricate or just didn’t do it for me!
The only course left was to turn back to my old favourite– the complete run of The Studio.
The Studio was first published in 1893 and is now the oldest English art periodical (it is now published under the name Studio International). It described itself in the first issue as “an illustrated magazine of fine and applied art”. This understated description does not do justice to the major influence it exerted internationally and the role it played in developing the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements.
In addition to the regular monthly issues, there were a large number of special editions and yearbooks. It was in one of these, a 1906 Special Edition, that I finally found what I was looking for. A section on stained glass contained an illustration of a piece by Alexander Gascoyne. In the Art Nouveau style it was of a design and scale that suited me perfectly.
The basic steps of stained glass making are much the same now as they were centuries ago, but techniques have become more sophisticated as understanding of the materials used has developed. Advances in technology over the centuries have led to greater control over the raw materials, resulting in a wider choice of consistent colours and thinner glass with fewer bubbles and impurities. However it is these very imperfections that appeal to many stained glass artists today.
The artist still begins the process with a sketch and from this produces a ‘cartoon’, or full scale drawing of how the window will look. They have to decide not only on the colours to use but also on the type of glass to use, depending on the desired effect. In the middle ages the glass was split by a hot iron and nibbled into shape using a grozing iron. Today glass tends to be cut with a tungsten carbide wheel, giving a much more accurate cut, although grozing pliers are still in use for the tricky bits. When the glass has all been cut and wrapped in the copper foil it is ready to be ‘glazed’. The glazing guide, made of strips of wood nailed down, is used to hold it all in place. I use wooden tray for my smaller pieces. The pieces are then slipped into position and held in place using glazing nails. Once all the bits are in place the panel is ready to be soldered. All joints on both sides are soldered using flux to allow the solder to flow easily. Wire hooks are then soldered in place so the piece can be hung. Finally the panel should be cleaned to remove any flux residue and then black patina may be applied to turn the solder black giving it the appearance of age if desired.
And that’s all there is to it!
Reading Room Administrator