By Sarah Brown, Director of York Glaziers Trust
Peter Gibson, first superintendent of the York Glaziers Trust, has died at the age of 87. Peter lived all his life in the shadow of York Minster, the building he served for over 70 years, as altar boy, apprentice glazier and then as leader for over twenty-five years of a team of craftsmen entrusted with the care of York Minster’s world famous stained glass. He saw the Trust grow from a team of only two at its inception in 1967 to a team of seven by the time it celebrated its fourteenth birthday, and as it prepares to celebrate its fiftieth anniversary, the team has more than doubled in strength and grown in international reputation.
Despite his worldwide reputation, Peter Gibson was a citizen of York first and foremost. He lived all his life in the modest home in Precentors Court into which his parents moved soon after their marriage in 1915. William Gibson was a private in the Royal Scots Greys and came to York with his regiment during the First World War. Marriage to Mary Smith led to his adoption of her city as his own and their two children, first Ellen and then Peter, were brought up in Precentors Court, where Ellen and Peter, neither of whom married, continued to live all their lives. While the family worshipped at the parish church of St Michael le Belfrey, Peter became an altar server at the nearby Minster, a move that brought him to the notice of the Dean, Eric Milner-White (dean 1941-63). Writing of the Dean in 1989, Peter recalled that his first face to face meeting with him had been during his early morning paper round when he was asked to deliver the Church Times to the deanery: ‘Ah,’ said the Dean, ‘the Monday boy serves the Dean on a Friday’ and proceeded to give Peter a short lecture on historic lamp-posts, one of the many subjects in which he was expert. As Peter cycled off in haste for Nunthorpe Secondary School, he could not have realised that this was to be one of the most formative relationships of his life. Very shortly afterwards, the Dean conducted a tour of the Minster’s windows, showed him around the glaziers’ workshop, lent him some stained glass books, and then suggested that he try out as an apprentice member of the glazing team, comprised at that time of foreman Oswald Lazenby and glazier Herbert Nowland.
Peter was joining the Minster glaziers at a momentous time. Eighty windows had been removed into safe storage for the duration of the war and in 1945 as Peter entered into his seven-year apprenticeship, the task of returning the windows from their wartime hiding places, cleaning and restoring them to the building, was launched by the Dean. The very first window tackled was also the most important –John Thornton’s Great East Window of the choir of 1405-8. Between 1945 and 1967 all eighty windows were restored and reinstalled, the last being the West Window. With only a two-year break for National Service in the RAF, Peter was involved in what can only be termed the heroic age of stained glass conservation at York Minster. Talking in 2013 of this extraordinary experience, Peter recalled: ‘It was thrilling for me to see York Minster come back to life as the windows were returned one by one to their original position’. With the encouragement and support of Lord Kilmaine, secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, the Dean had also begun to plan for the future of the expert glazing team that he had built up in the post-war years, and while he did not live to see his plan realised, his foresight in training the next generation proved to be critical to its success. Herbert Nowland retired in 1955 and Oswald Lazenby in 1968, when Peter Gibson was made the Trust’s first superintendent, a post he filled until his own retirement in May 1995.
The 1970s and 1980s were a period of consolidation and growth. While the YGT continued to work on Minster windows, notably the first restoration of the south transept rose and of the fourteen nave clerestory windows, the Trust began to work on a national stage. Over the last 50 years stained glass from nearly 500 locations from all over the United Kingdom and spanning over 1000 years of stained glass history have come to the Deangate workshops, which had been extended, updated and equipped with the assistance of the Pilgrim Trust. The Trust’s reputation was growing, but it was undoubtedly in the aftermath of the terrible Minster fire of 9 July 1984 that its skills and its fortitude were put to the greatest test. Looking back in 2007 Peter recalled these challenges: “Without doubt these events were the most traumatic experience of my working life. I have never been able to read accounts of other great fires, such as that which gutted the choir of Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, without feeling a sudden rush of memory, the noise, the smoke the smell of 9 July 1984, all over again. In my opinion the way we responded to the fire defined the York Glaziers Trust: our purpose, our commitment, our craft, our comradeship.” The fire caused the collapse of the south transept roof and vault and threatened the rose window with destruction. All solder joints had melted and the delicate panels of early sixteenth-century glass were criss-crossed with over 40,000 micro-cracks. In the days and weeks that followed some proposed that the window be abandoned and replaced by a modern work of art. Peter Gibson remained adamant that it could be saved and stepped into what was really uncharted conservation territory, as the treatment of heavily fire-cracked glass remains one of the conservator’s greatest challenges. Peter took scientific advice and used new conservation materials in the form of epoxy resins to stabilise the fractured glass before creating glass ‘sandwiches’ to hold all the pieces in place. In 1986 the window was returned to the Minster without any losses, but not before 39 panels had been assembled in the chapter house, with a mirrored floor that created the illusion of the whole window in an unforgettable display seen by over 170,000 people.
This highlights another of Peter’s great contribution to the field – as a public communicator and popular advocate for stained glass, not only for the medieval windows of York Minster but for the medium as a whole. His interests were all encompassing. In 1949 a travelling scholarship had enabled him to make the first of many visits to see glass abroad, on this occasion to the cathedrals and workshops of France. He was knowledgeable about stained glass of all periods and styles and nurtured a particular passion for the stained glass of William Morris and his circle. He understood the importance of public engagement long before it had become a requirement of heritage funding. Over his working life Peter gave many thousands of lectures on the art and craft of the medium, using his skills as a photographer to excellent effect. He travelled widely, enthusing and informing audiences in the UK and much further afield, estimating that he had travelled 500,000 miles, and had an especially loyal following in the USA, where he was made a life member of the Stained Glass Association of America. His illustrated talks were inspirational and memorable and he acted as an ambassador for the Minster and city of York in general and for its stained glass in particular.
His contribution to the world of stained glass conservation received appropriate recognition. In 1979 he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London and in 1989 became a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers. National recognition came in 1984 when he was awarded the MBE followed in 1995 an OBE. He was also one of the few Englishmen to be awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic for services to European stained glass. One suspects that it was the recognition of his fellow Yorkshire men and women that Peter cherished most, for however far he travelled, it was always to Precentors Court that he returned. In 1995 the Archbishop of York awarded him the order of St William for his services to the northern province of the Church of England. In 2000 he ran a close second to Dame Judi Dench in the York Press Millennium Person of the Present and in 2010 he was made an Honorary Freeman of the City of York, the highest honour that the city can bestow, a distinction he shared with the Duke of Wellington and Sir Winston Churchill.
Peter remained a very private person and was famously coy about his age. He worshiped all his life at St Michael le Belfrey, having served as church warden over 40 years, becoming warden emeritus in 2008 and in later years, especially after the death of his sister, relied increasingly on the fellowship and support of the Belfrey congregation. He continued to lecture and educate, even after retirement, giving up to 100 presentations a year. He contributed to the training of Minster guides until 2011 when ill-health began to take its toll, and he often waived a fee in order to contribute the proceeds from his ever-popular lectures to the funding of more conservation. He had a roguish sense of humour, often calling himself ‘the Minster’s window cleaner’ and never aspiring to the title of ‘Master Glazier’, the tongue-in-cheek title used by his master, Dean Milner-White in the dedication written on the flyleaf of the book Peter received from the Dean in 1952 in recognition of completion of the ‘mighty good work’ he had achieved during his apprenticeship. Peter often used the words of the poet George Herbert in closing his lectures and it seems fitting to do the same:
A man that looks on glass, on it may stay his eye
Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, and then heaven espy.