My Favourite Window

October 7, 2011

The Master Craftsman

What happens to the windows when a Colonial province's      Neo-Gothic foundations crumble?

Fragments from St Luke's Church, Avonside, Christchurch

Graham Stewart of Stewart Stained Glass is a glass conservator extraordinaire, but his routine work of restoring this country's stained glass heritage has been put on hold while he and his staff salvage and assess windows shattered in Canterbury over the past year.

Since February, Graham and his sons have been rescuing windows and glass - often furtively - and making storage boxes for the remnants.

This week students from Unlimited Secondary School's Rangiora Hub, visited Graham's studio in Loburn.

The Earthquake salvage work has two distinct phases. When the February Earthquake happened, Graham was already working painstakingly on windows from the Church of the Holy Innocents at Mt Peel Station in Mid Canterbury.  These had fallen and smashed during the September 4th Earthquake.  The Acland family lovingly collected as many fragments as possible and Graham describes receiving them in a sheet, handed over as though in a shroud.

Using a computer Graham enlarged archival transparency images of the windows to full size, then traced the outlines of the design.  These became his templates for working on the ultimate jigsaw puzzle. The shards sit just as we place jigsaw pieces aside until they make sense.


But there is no quick step, with lead-came, to a finished window. Much of the glass is too damaged to re-use and this is where Graham's artistry comes in.
The angels faces above, are reproductions in Grahams' own hand, but details may have to be re-done many times as colour matching cannot be guaranteed till the final firing.

Painted glass segments await firing.

When the windows are eventually returned to the Church of the Holy Innocents they will not be what they were. There will be glued fragments, bonded pieces, and reproduced images - a visible reminder of the Earthquake.  Whether Graham has realised this I'm not sure, but his own stamp as an artist is going with these windows into the future. 

Following the earthquake on Febrary 22nd this year, Graham, who had recently finished restoring the rose window in Christ Church Cathedral, recognised the need to rescue windows from Christchurch's stricken buildings.  Above, windows, including some crafted in the studios of Morris and Co in England, were retrieved in sound condition from St Mary's Church in Merivale.
However the strictures around entry and recovery in Christchurch's Red Zone condemned the Cathedral's rose window and other heritage treasures to eventual destruction in the June 13th Earthquake.

Remnants of the Provincial Chambers - Canterbury's first seat of Government - lie in the workshop amongst pre-Earthquake projects.  The gothic window seen through its frame, will return to the Ashley Church of St Simon and St Jude, and an example of modern painted glass shows to the right... and below.

Graham's artwork lines the walls and ledges: His drawings including Christ comforting Mary Magdalene...

And numerous pieces of commissioned and personal work.
But Graham does not work alone.  His sons, Vic and Ren almost paid the ultimate price for the family business, when they were buried in St John's Church in Latimer Square after the June 13th Earthquake.  When Graham speaks with tiredness about the slim rewards that come from working in hardhats in demolition conditions, I sense that the day he had to dig his own children out of the rubble strained his dedication.  However his sons are still his helpmates, and I suspect provide valuable extra muscle, as well as being the next generation of craftsmen.
Another assistant is Carmen Schill, a gifted German glass painter who is helping Graham with the re-painting of the Holy Innocents windows.
Her interpretation of the Stewart family crest above, glows jewel-like, and if the visitor has not already felt that they are in a medieval workshop, this is surely the final persuasion.

This detail shows the background arabesque, which Carmen applies with a goose quill. But behind her precision is a sense of humour...

The legend she has used is eqivalent to the English saying, People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.

Graham showed us some of his stored German glass, pieces just as they were cut from the glassblower's cylinder.  I get the feeling that these are part of a hoard that Graham will never bring himself to cut into.

Amongst the students' questions, were wonderings about his favourite aspect of his work:, his favourite period, his favourite art style. But although Graham explained that this all came from an early love of figure drawing and particularly the Pre-Raphaelite style, his passion for every aspect of stained glass comes across in his quiet delivery.  His technical expertise is as evident as his artistic skill; the Medieval guildsman, using Victorian equipment embraces computer technology here in his rural studio at the foot of Mt Grey.

Not forgetting that the windows that Graham restores or conserves are a part of this country's history, I asked James to stand beside his ancestor's image: seven generations seperate Bishop Harper (Christchurch's first bishop) and Bryony's classmate.  And is it really a surprise to learn that Bishop Harper's daughter married into the Acland family of Mt Peel?  The sheep station where the Church of the Holy Innocents was built?

What better way to finish this epic post, than to show a finished section of window, the glass set into its shiny new lead came, recycled from the original lead work, and glowing with Hope.


The Sagittarian said...

How extraordinary! I wondered what was happening to all those beautiful windows, and such a shame about the rose window. I was in the cordon on 12 June taking some pix and got some nice ones of the it then...alas the very next day it was all over.
This is an amazing and historic post, my Lady! brilliantly posted.

Jeneane said...

Thank you Saj. It's maybe the most draining post I've created - three days in the making, but nothing to Graham's work!
And don't we all carry those little markers of time with us after mind-numbing events. Your Sunday photographs becoming some of the last photographs ever...

the cuby poet said...

This is fascinating. Graham's work along with his two sons(so thankfully they survived) is priceless in the restoration process of so much which could have been lost for ever. Lovely informative photos.

Being Me said...

My goodness me, what a fascinating post this is. Such exquisite love and care and detail (both by Graham and by you creating this, yes, epic post!). Thank you for this. I feel rather humbled into silence for a moment. xo

Jeneane said...

The Cuby Poet. You, with your sense of the past, are a wonderful find. It's rewarding that people on the other side of the world can see the value in this conservation work. Thankyou for your appreciative commments :-)

Jeneane said...

Being Me.
Lovely to have you visit and thank you for your comments too. For some reason this post is proving rather emotional. Now that it is finished, I find it, and the comments it brings, make me cry. You and me both, tearful creatures eh :-)

Max said...

This is such good writing, nevermind the excellent subject matter! Your own personality always shines through.Excellent post!

Jeneane said...

Gee thanks Max, and here you are comfortably at home making your first ever Comment on my blog - stalwart reader that you are - while I've been worrying that you are camped in the mud on Mt Grey!

Owen said...

Lady M., this is indeed an epic post, truly monumental. I cannot imagine the emotions that he is dealing with while trying to rescue and restore these broken windows... a task one could compare to climbing Everest, just as difficult in the incredible stamina and persistence needed to keep going, one shard at a time.

But will restored windows be put back in church walls with some sort of protective frames, to prevent them from falling again in a future quake ?

Hat is off to this gentle man and his incredible task...

Word verification is : "dizilly", as in, I read this as though looking down dizilly on piles of rubble and broken glass from high on a cathedral spire.

And his sons... what a story they have to tell. Simply amazing...

Jeneane said...

Ah Owen, I see you have found my door open today and stepped into the glowing pools of light herein. What will happen to the windows? That is a good question because the churches may never be rebuilt.
I have a vision of a long gallery, maybe in a restored Provincial Chambers, with the repaired windows - securely - lighting the way.
Or maybe a new inclusive place of worship (which is being talked about) could incorporate architectural elements salvaged from the City's churches?
Dizzily! Sometimes the word verification is strangely apt, and sometimes it's just plain rude ne c'est pas.