Stained glass windows conservation – a staff excursion.

Earlier this month, a convoy of cars with Abbey staff made its way to visit our most recent stained glass windows conservation project at the Master Craftsman’s workshop in Buderim.
Stained glass artists, Gerry Cummins and Jill Stehn, have been our conservators of choice for over ten years. Their original artworks can be found in many Australian churches and buildings as well as examples of their conservation projects.

We were welcomed at the door with huge grins of delight. Greetings over, we made our way into their workshop. This is a remarkable large room filled with long light boxes set in rows and forming aisles between. On those boxes lay stained glass windows at various stages of development or repair.

Creating a Stained Glass window

Gerry took us through the wonders of creating a stained glass window. It is always an intense pleasure to watch someone who seriously knows what they are doing, making it all look so very easy.
The creation of any artwork begins with an idea. The application of pencil to paper is the first step in this journey. Gerry showed us examples of his initial sketches for windows he will be making for a museum in Burma. He then told us how this design was transferred onto the glass. This process has not changed since stained glass was first made.

Sketch with Outlines for Stained Glass Window Design, Cummins & Stehn

Sketch with Outlines for Stained Glass Window Design, Cummins & Stehn

Then we heard how the paint was applied to glass, Gerry’s shared some of his own trade secrets, and we were all sworn to secrecy. The windows are then fired and during this process the glass paint fuses to the base panel. The term ‘stained’ glass comes from another process where a compound, such as silver nitrate, is painted onto a panel of glass. When this is fired the glass absorbs the silver nitrate which ‘stains’ it, it this case turning it a beautiful yellow. The secret is in the sauce – and that’s all I’m allowed to say.

As you might know, the small pieces of glass once painted are jointed together with lead strips. We were shown the master’s way to cut lead and also mount the glass. Leading a window requires a lot of time and careful application to ensure the pieces of glass are securely held together and wont fall apart at the first zephyr. The leads create great black outlines which also enhance the image. They are not dissimilar to colouring books that have strong outlines or even comic book art.

Detail of a Stained Glass window in progress. Cummin & Stehn

Detail of a Stained Glass window in progress. Cummin & Stehn

As a happy-stance for us, Gerry and Jill were working on a current commissioned project for a series of windows for one of Cloncurry’s churches. Here we were able to follow the work from start to finish; from the development of the concept to the cutting of glass, choosing and cutting the base coloured glass and painting the details, putting the window together with leads when the firing is done. The whole process laid our before us on the large light box tables.

Stained Glass Windows Conservation Project

The Abbey’s Stained Glass windows on the Table

Then our tour reached the table where the Abbey’s windows where in the process of restoration and conservation: St Mary Magdalene, St Hilda of Whitby, a German rondel inscribed with the name Cecylia, another of the sun and a shield from Lincoln’s Inn the later with a considerable amount of medieval fragments surrounding them. This is what separates the men from the boys, for two of these windows date to the Middle Ages and required a great deal of care. We saw how Gerry diagnosed painting techniques, dated and replicated fragments, we saw the results of ‘rotten lead’ needing replacement – not much use for recycling there – and learnt about the decisions made whether to mend broken glass or to replicate it, even the discovery of ‘assisting’ the artwork with a subtle method of support with extra glass behind.

Cecylia window part of the stained glass window conservation program

Dismantled ‘Cecylia’ Stained Glass Window from the Abbey Museum Collection undergoing conservation

Last but not least, we were shown the storeroom of stacks of glorious coloured glass awaiting a project.
‘Always leave them wanting more’ is an age-old marketing strategy. We gathered around a lovely afternoon tea before we bid our final farewells. That strategy worked for me.

If you would like view the historical stained glass in the Abbey Church, tours are on each Tuesday and Thursday at 11.00 am or for groups by appointment. Michael Strong, our senior curator will also be presenting a talk on the Stained Glass on Sunday 15 May at 11.30 am.

Written by Jo Carey Bradshaw