October 7, 2011
The Master Craftsman
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...
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.
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?