‘But it’s only a jumble of fragments!’ – Investigating one stained glass panel

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Not worthy of attention? Some stained glass panels and whole windows are dismissed because they have no clear subject matter, are a jumbled mess and are difficult to date.

In this post I discover that a small, jumbled and confused stained glass panel can tell an important story about its history and interesting science-y facts about its composition and degradation. The panel pictured comes from the church of St. Peter’s in Barton-upon-Humber and is one I worked on as a portfolio project for my degree. It has a chequered history which I enjoyed piecing together – and is certainly worthy of attention!
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The Task

To investigate the history and significance of the panel, and to propose and carry out practical conservation to stabilise it and make it usable as an educational piece for English Heritage, at St. Peter’s church.

My Discoveries

Previous location: Although the stained glass had been in storage since 1985, I discovered that it had previously been situated in the east window in pride of place above a figurative panel of St. George. Below is an image showing where it would have been located.

The now empty window openings in the east window of St. Peter's church. This is where the panel would have been located. Photographed by author in March 2014.

The now empty window openings in the east window of St. Peter’s church. This is where the panel would have been located, along with four others. Photographed by author in March 2014.

Medieval glass: By simply looking at the panel it is clear that there is a variety of glass pieces from different dates. The earliest ‘original’ pieces are from around 1330! The central section of the grisaille (black painted) and silver stained leaf patterns are what made up the original panel. It used to be a lot smaller than it is now.

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The yellow leaves which are prominent in this image made up the central theme of the original panel. Other fragments of glass have been added over time and do not fit with the original design but do match the colour scheme.

Random infills: It is unlikely that these panels originated from the window pictured above. Three other panels inhabited the empty spaces that you saw in the above image and all of them had borders of later glass pieces to make them fit the space. These panels must have come from another, smaller window. Unfortunately no records survive to document the movement of the stained glass, but this may have happened in the fourteenth or fifteenth century. It is typical of glaziers around the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to replace missing areas of glass with a number of other contemporary pieces, with no attempt to find or even to produce appropriate pieces to fit the design.

The smaller windows in the tower date from the tenth-century, while the nave is fourteenth-century.

The smaller windows in the tower date from the tenth-century, while the nave is fourteenth-century and the clerestory fifteenth century.

Conservation by J.A. Knowles: John Adler Knowles is a famous antiquarian and stained glass restorer of the nineteenth century. He wrote books about stained glass and worked on notable locations such as York Minster. Knowles worked on the windows of this church in 1877 and releaded the panels. The non-original lead in this panel was put in by Knowles – a celebrity in the stained glass world!! It is likely that this is when the nineteenth century glass was added – presumably to replace fourteenth century pieces that were damaged beyond repair.

Ex-Detail 17

Some interesting previous repairs can be seen here. The bit of lead in the middle of the image has been soldered to the back of the panel. It is too large for the current glass and had the lead not been broken, it would have covered the entirety of the glass piece.

Damage: Cracked glass, torn lead and broken solder joints around the edges of the panel are all clean and fresh which suggests that whoever removed the glass from its window opening was not very careful!!

Paint loss: Several of the glass pieces have suffered from paint loss. The degree of the loss however varies from piece to piece, demonstrating that different ages of glass or different types are more susceptible than others.

Corrosion: Corrosion seems to occur mostly on the outside of the panel, on the fourteenth-century rather than the nineteenth-century glass. It also seems as though scratches on the surface of the glass encourage pitting, while paint layers discourage pitting. Silver stain also seems to encourage the development of pits as can be seen in the picture below.

The spots where yellow-stain is no longer visible is cause by pitting. These are tiny holes that develop in the surface of the glass. This can be encouraged by a variety of factors, including environment, ingredients in the glass and surface decoration.

The spots where yellow-stain is no longer visible is cause by pitting. These are tiny holes that develop in the surface of the glass. This can be encouraged by a variety of factors, including environment, ingredients in the glass and surface decoration.

Conclusion

From a close examination of this stained glass panel I have discovered a little about the history of the church, that pieces were added to the stained glass panel in order to make it larger, implying that at some point the window openings were made larger. I can also tell from analysing the corrosion on the glass surface that different elements play a part in the formation of corrosion, such as age, paint layers and decorative staining. Both these factors along with the age of the glass and the association with a stained-glass celebrity, J.A. Knowles, the panel alone has extreme significance in the history of the church, and town.

Conservation

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I went on to conserve the glass panel, cleaning off all surface accretions and stabalising it for future handling by soldering and puttying areas of lead and bonding breaks in the glass.

It was a hugely successful project and here is the finished result.

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Help me spread the word about how interesting a panel of fragments can be!! Share now if you think we should save this history…

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