Report by Emily Yates, currently studying on the MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management course
The eighth annual spring master class, presented by the University of York in conjunction with the MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management, was held on Saturday 27 February 2016. This year, the conference focussed on issues surrounding stained glass from the nineteenth century its history, current perceptions, and conservation challenges. Speakers from a number of backgrounds (some of them York alumni) were invited and included conservation experts, art historians, and independent scholars. Their expertise helped provide new insights and provoked wide-ranging discussion. Sarah Brown, director of the York Glaziers Trust and senior lecturer and course leader of the MA in Stained Glass Conservation and Heritage Management, provided an introduction to the proceedings, in which the diversity of the attendees was commended, and it was revealed that some of the delegates had travelled from France, Germany, Sweden and as far as the USA to participate.
In the opening lecture, ‘Imitation and Invention: Stained Glass in the Nineteenth Century’, Dr Jasmine Allen (Stained Glass Museum, Ely) described the evolution of stained-glass practice, its aesthetics, and attitudes towards it in relation to the medium’s industrial and social contexts. She introduced some of the innovators of the era and explained the revolutionary developments made then in stained-glass chemistry. Until recently, nineteenth-century stained glass has been widely underappreciated, and contemporary objections to the commercial nature of its production lived on long afterwards. Dr Allen’s thought-provoking examples demonstrated that stained glass from this era is far from insignificant, and that the treasures that remain deserve our attention and appreciation.
The question of significance and preservation was continued with the following speaker, Dr Ulrike Brinkmann (Cologne Cathedral, Stained Glass Conservation Studio), who introduced case studies of three nineteenth-century glazing schemes at Cologne Cathedral. Her central themes explored the social backgrounds and decisions behind these glazing programmes, the losses they suffered during the Second World War, and attitudes towards their reconstruction. Dr Brinkmann outlined the circumstances behind the restoration campaigns, prompting reflections on the ethics of reconstruction and authenticity.
Merlyn Griffiths (York Glaziers Trust) and ICON-accredited conservator Dr Alison Gilchrist (Barley Studio, York) introduced some of the specific conservation challenges presented by stained glass from the nineteenth century. Dr Gilchrist explained the nature of the catastrophic paint loss that affects a great number of nineteenth-century windows and presented her research into its causes, effects, and possible conservation solutions. Conservation ethics, practical approaches, and other questions were explored in depth, and stress was laid on the importance of reversibility and documentation in accordance with the international CVMA guidelines. Dr Gilchrist’s research confirmed the benefits of isothermal protective glazing in slowing the rate of paint loss and stabilizing deteriorating material.
Recent MA graduate Merlyn Griffiths continued the theme of conservation with an examination of glass-corrosion phenomena, which had been the subject of her MA dissertation. Her pioneering study revealed that the experimental nature of glass manufacture in the mid-nineteenth century contributed to the increased degradation of low-lime glass in some stained-glass windows. Using examples from Howsham Church (Yorkshire), the speaker outlined the causes, characteristics and proposed stabilization techniques for ‘crizzled’ glass and highlighted the issue of financial restrictions on local parishes that can have a heavy impact on conservation strategies.
The final speaker encouraged delegates to think again about the issues surrounding the appreciation of nineteenth-century stained glass, and how the disparaging attitudes noted by Dr Allen at the start of the day have perpetuated ignorance. Dr Neil Moat’s lecture, entitled ‘As Lambs to The Slaughter Notes From The Sheepfold’, called for the use of objective measures of significance, especially regarding the challenging nature of the dialogue between art historians, stained-glass conservators, and diocesan advisory committees. Dr Moat, an independent architectural and stained-glass historian, highlighted the potential of nineteenth-century stained glass as an evidential resource of past techniques, and noted that the medium that can be celebrated not just for its peculiarities, but also for the sheer beauty of the materials through its makers demonstrated their innovations and skill.
In addition to this stimulating discourse, delegates were invited into the Nicolas Barker Conservation Studio, where second-year MA students presented some of their current work. Discussion was welcomed around the projects, which will be submitted as part of the course. Each year, the master class provides a platform for interdisciplinary engagement, and the diversity of this year’s speakers and delegates allowed for multifaceted discussions from a variety of viewpoints and contexts. The recurrent theme of the day was clear, that nineteenth-century stained glass is so much more than the remnants of an age of mass production, cartoon catalogues, and large-scale industrial glass houses. All the speakers stressed the importance of stained-glass windows from this era and how they deserve to be regarded as the treasures of a most interesting time in art and social history.