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Colour Me Beautiful

From the Building Conservation Journal, March 2009.

Phil Wilson learnt his profession when he was apprenticed to the long-established West Midlands firm of John Hardman Studio, which specialises in the restoration and maintenance of ecclesiastic stained glass.

After his apprenticeship, which in those days was funded by the UK government, and covered all aspects of stained glass restoration and conservation, he went to work for the Norman & Underwood Group, which had evolved from a 19th century general plumbing and glazing business: today, Norman & Underwood specialises in a number of areas, including architectural lead work and stained glass. While at Norman & Underwood, Phil's projects included work on the Data Darbar Mosque in Lahore. The mosque is the third largest in Pakistan, and has one of the largest stained glass windows in the world.

Having studied art and design on day release at the University of the West of England, he went on to hone his speed and expertise. However, over the years, his ultimate goal was to work for himself.

A chance phone call from Jacque Lepague, an antiques dealer, brought his dream closer to reality: Jacques had built up a successful business buying and selling antiques, but he wanted to set up a stained glass restoration department. And so 20 years ago, Phil moved to Bradford and set up the Antique Glass Studio, which undertakes all aspects of stained glass work ranging from simple repairs to large restoration projects and new commissions.

Phil says: "Since the business started up, there has been a deep appreciation of of the beauty of stained glass. We now stock a large quantity of old glass that has been recovered over the years and combines different texture and colours: this means the studio can fulfil most needs, regardless of whether a specific piece of glass is needed for domestic or commercial use."

"Some properties already have beautiful stained glass and it can be heartbreaking if it becomes damaged, for example, because of vandalism or an attempted break in. We are often able to repair and restore on site."

"The door panel and surround seen above left are original. The lower half of the panel was badly smashed, and the whole panel was removed to be restored on the bench using like for like from our extensive range of salvaged glass. In this case, BS6262 1994 dicatated that safety glass was used for the temporary glaze, which retained as a secondary slaze, dispensed with the need for unsightly metal bars. It also provided sound and heat insulation, reinforcement and security."

Although the Antique Glass Studio is desperately busy - work has to be scheduled well in advance - Phil finds that the repair of a historic window is often the last thing that is considered by the householder: "Fixing the roof is is a necessity, but stained glass is a luxury," he says. "And make no mistake, its repair is expensive. A full restorationto its original state can cost in the region of £2,000. Conservation is a cheaper option - you sympathetically save what is salvageable and replace what isn't, finding a piece that blends."

He does caution against over-conserving, maintaining that the important factor is the end result looks beautiful. "For example," he says, "acid rain causes damage by permanently etching the surface" (hand painted kiln-fired glass is particularly susceptible to this), but Phil believes that this 'scarring' gives the glass character.

A stained glass window is a gorgeous feature that adds interest to any dwelling.

His studio at Bradford is stacked out with glass of all ages from all kinds of buildings. It is well known that stained glass has a revival in the Victorian era, and he may be asked to repair windows from houses, churches, pubs, schools, or banks - the list is, if not endless, at least pretty lengthy. And, of course, stained glass is in great demand for Tiffany lamps.

The oldest window he has worked on dates back to the 16th century: "It's amazing," he says. "It's been re-leaded upteen times, but most of the glass is original." He reckons glass gets re-leaded every 50-100 years. Lead is really malleable, he says, and although the window shouldn't fall apart, the joints will start to break over time.

West Yorkshire, he believes, is a worthy contender for the title of centre of the unviverse for stained glass: there's a lot of stained glass to be found throughout the county. The reason for this is probably because, historically, mill owners built houses which featured stained glass windows, often with their initials carved into the glass. Now the workers would have had houses with similar decorative windows. It remains to be seen whether there are any other counties in the UK which would like to compete for this title.

Regardless of whether or not the repair of stained glass window is a priority for the householder, Phil has a bulging order book (thanks both to the word of mouth from satisfied customers and the burgeoning use of the internet) and a plentiful supply of glass for the purpose. As with all branches of the conservation profession, he will not be drawn on how long a particular repair will take, preferring to answer: "How long is a piece of string?"

It is probably fair to say that many of his delighted customers, looking at their beautifully conserved or restored stained glass windows will agree that the wait was worthwhile. Because, of course, a stained glass window is a gorgeous feauture that adds interest to any dwelling. So any customer who has to wait a little while for the finished article will just have to accept that there is no pane without gain.

Ambrose, Jan, (2009) 'Colour Me Beautiful', Building Conservation Journal, March, 
Royal Institution of Charted Surveyors, London pp8-10.