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Old Stained Glass in England

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At a very early date glass was known to the Egyptians, though the earliest examples archaeologists have unearthed are so accomplished and mature in craftsmanship we can hardly believe they are the experiments of pioneers in this craft. Pliny tells us of the legend current in his day of the accidental discovery of glass, caused by the fusion of sand and the potash in the ashes of their fuel, under the cooking utensils of some Phoenician merchants whilst cooking their meal on the sandy banks of the little stream Belus, under Mount Carmel.

Doubtless what happened was that Phoenicians discovered it by accident in Syria and the Egyptians, after one of their periodic raids on that country, carried back to Egypt in bondage Syrian or Phoenician artisans skilled in the craft of glass making who imparted their knowledge to the Egyptians. But at present none can say definitely the actual origin of glass. Certain it was the Egyptians at an early date were skilful at making "mosaic glass," which was the forerunner of "stained glass."

The Romans were great glass makers; it is no exaggeration to say they made more use of it than even we to-day, for they had no porcelain. Amongst other things they used it for pavements and even, in thin sheets, for wall covering. Though they still used semi-transparent shells, mica and alabaster for their windows, we know they also used glass, the ruins of many Roman villas in England having yielded flat pieces, evidently cast. At Silchester, Roman sheet glass has been found. Where they had to fill large window spaces the Romans set small pieces of glass in a framework of bronze, marble or wood. A further step -was slowly to stir together, whilst in a flux, glasses of different colours which, when set, had the grain and marbled design of natural stones, a method the Venetians later called "mille Fiori."

The Roman glass worker, in course of time, migrated to Constantinople, where, in the church of S. Sophia, we can still see some of the earliest existing windows formed of cast, coloured glass set in pierced marble frames. When they invaded and occupied England the Romans brought their glass makers with them; the shovel has brought to light the remains of at least one Roman glass factory in this country, at Warrington, near the Manchester Ship Canal.

In 758 Cuthbert, then Abbot of Jarrow, asked the Bishop of Mainz to send German glass workers to make "windows and vessels of glass, because the English are ignorant and helpless." After the withdrawal of the Romans few, if any, glaziers seem to have worked in England for some centuries. About 1350 a certain John Alemayn, of Chiddingfold, in Surrey, supplied much flat, colourless glass for windows in the chapels of S. Stephen at Westminster and of S. George at Windsor.

At this period glass makers seem to have had two distinct ways of making sheet glass. One way was to make the glass in cylinders, which, when cool, were split, reheated and flattened into sheets. They called this "brode," Lorraine or German glass. The other method was to make it in flat circles or discs. This they called Normandy or crown glass. The so-called "bottle glass" used so frequently in domestic lights in old houses and shops was made this way, the characteristic nipple being the centre of the disc.

Historians tell us that in 1380 John Glasewryth (an appropriate name) came from Staffordshire and settled at Shuerewode, near Kirdford, where he set up as a maker of brode glass. In the middle of the sixteenth century James Carre of Antwerp, with imported labour from his own country, started a glass works at Fernfold Wood, in Sussex, where he made Normandy and Lorraine glass.

The development of the craft of stained glass is akin to the growth of most crafts. It started crudely in the hands of humble craftsmen; it rapidly blossomed into its best period, and was developed by the designer lacking in the workshop experience of the glazier. The designer, not realizing the limitations of his medium, by colouring his glass with translucent enamels, and so on, attempted to do in it the impossible, or at least the inappropriate. The craft became decadent. Then, as a natural reaction, it was revived by a group of men who purged it of its sophistication by going back to the simple methods of the early workers, designing in the workshop with pieces of coloured glass rather than designing in the studio with pigments on paper.

Originally the glazier was the designer, who called in the painter to help him with the details; the craft was ruined by the painter becoming the designer and employing the glazier to carry out in glass as best he could his often impractical paper designs.

The glass used in coloured windows is not "stained," i.e. it is not merely surface-coloured. Whilst the molten glass, which is made of sand and potash, is in the pot (hence the term "pot metal") colouring agents, generally metallic oxides, are added. Thus cobalt added to molten pot metal will turn it purple blue; uranium will make it canary yellow; manganese, violet.

When the design is conceived glass of different colours is cut the right shape for its place in the design, and these odd-shaped pieces are fitted together like a jig-saw puzzle and held together by strips of lead H-shaped in section. So we speak of "leaded lights." The strip of lead that separates one piece of glass from its neighbour (the bar in the H) is called the "core," the lead flanges on the inside and out, which hold the glass in place, the "tapes." The painter adds lines, details and shading to the surface of the glass with a brush charged with pigment made of powdered glass mixed with metallic oxides. Originally, coloured glass was only made in very small pieces, which were treated as a jewel, a precious thing to be fondled and looked at. Gradually it came to be made in larger sheets. Right at the beginning the craftsman felt the need for some painting on it to define details. When the painter has painted the details the glass is made red hot and the pigment fuses to the surface. Thin coatings dim the light in obscure passages, or else cross-hatched lines of pigment run across the glass or the painter flows a film of thin paint over the glass and scrapes the design out of it. These two methods, whilst succeeding in dimming the light, do not spoil the brilliancy of colour as does the method of covering the whole surface with opaque paint. Sometimes the painter will stipple his colour in place of cross-hatching it. In later work scraping largely takes the place of these methods.

All the early workers used pot metal; in other words they obtained their colour by the pure use of coloured glass, not painting more than was necessary on colourless glass, the only exception being red, which, in pot metal, is so dark as to be hardly transparent. For this they coated one side of colourless glass with a thin film of red glass, which we know as " flash glass."

About the beginning of the fourteenth century they discovered that if a solution of silver were applied to glass and fired the glass was stained yellow. This was the only form of staining the early craftsmen used. In the sixteenth century the workshop practice was to use enamel to colour the glass.

The palette of the stained glass worker is much richer, purer, more brilliant and translucent than that of the painter, for the former works in transparent colour, we might almost say in light, whilst the latter has to be content with colour generally opaque. The charm of old glass, as is the charm of most early craftsmanship, apart from owing much to a quite remarkable sense of fitness, is often due to the simple honesty of workmanship that does not attempt to disguise the way in which a thing is made. The drawing and design may be crude, but it is the unconscious crudeness of a child, not the insincere, cultivated naivete of an adult.

We must not forget, though, how time and weather have added a patina man cannot imitate, how the uneven thickness of old glass, the unintentional bubbles in it, the accidents of colouring due to impure ingredients, contribute to old glass much of its peculiar quality and charm. Since the days when Alemayn provided glass for the windows of the chapel of S. Stephen at Westminster and Glasewryth made glass at Shuerewode, science has so advanced that glass of a perfectly even thickness and purity of colour is the rule to-day, so that the best stained glass artists find themselves compelled to seek with difficulty glass that is less perfect than that which scientific manufacturers have to offer. In some of the best stained glass one surface is rough, and the other surface is smooth.

Old stained glass may be grouped roughly under five headings, which more or less coincide with definite centuries: Gothic - early, thirteenth century; middle, fourteenth century; late, fifteenth century; Renaissance - early, sixteenth century; late, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

As regards Early Gothic glass, the very early work was an imitation of cloisonne work, the leads taking the place of the "cloisons," glass the place of enamel. It was very rich in colour. As a reaction against this sumptuous colour windows followed which were practically devoid of colour. These we know as "grisaille. Windows in grisaille were of simple geometric design glazed with uncoloured glass. But early glass was never "white," generally it was greenish in hue, due to the imperfections of the sand and potash of which it was composed. Grisaille windows were economical to make; they had the advantage of admitting more light than the richly coloured ones. Good examples may be seen in the cathedrals of Canterbury, Salisbury and Lincoln and in York Minster.

In the Middle Gothic period (fourteenth century) windows break away from the severity of the plain grisaille light with its purely geometric design and their patterns become more naturalistic. The grisaille light becomes a background for coloured figures which shelter beneath elaborate architectural canopy designs. There are good windows of this period in York Minster, Ely and Wells cathedrals and Tewkesbury Abbey.

Some regard the Late Gothic period, which nearly synchronised with the fifteenth century, as the best period in England for stained glass. Silver was the predominating colour note. White canopy work became more elaborate; white and colour were admirably mixed. Costumes and faces were often left white. Artists of this period frequently inserted a design in miniature at the bottom of the window showing some incident in the life of the saint or person depicted life-size above. Pictures began to spread over more than one light. New College, Oxford, Gloucester Cathedral, York Minster, Great Malvern Abbey, the church of S. Mary, Shrewsbury, and Fairford church contain some specimens of this period. Fairford church is a unique example of a parish church all the windows of which are filled with fine old glass.

By the sixteenth century the painter was highly on the way to usurping the place of the glazier. Windows became lighter, due to the use of less heavily coloured glass, so that the painter could have more scope for his brush. Architectural and landscape backgrounds play an important part in the design of windows of this period, which we can see at King's College, Cambridge, Lichfield Cathedral, and in the two famous London churches, S. George's, Hanover Square, and S. Margaret's, Westminster.

In the period known as Late Renaissance decadence had set in. The origin of the craft was almost forgotten. The great west window of the ante-chapel at New College, Oxford, designed by the fashionable portrait painter, Sir Joshua Reynolds, in company with a china painter, shows how a great painter may be a poor stained glass artist. The designer of this period probably had never been in a glazier's workshop, much less have served his apprenticeship to such a craftsman. Wadham and Balliol Colleges at Oxford have examples.

Stained glass as an art reached its lowest ebb in this country just prior to the Gothic revival of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately, most cathedrals and parish churches have only too many examples to show us. A. C. Pugin, John Clayton, John Powell and Charles Winston were the artists most prominent in the Gothic revival.

The Romantic movement that followed gave us men like William Morris and Burne-Jones, who had knowledge and taste. Since then much interesting work has been done, the tendency to get back to the craft of pure glazing being a healthy one.

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Pictures for Old Stained Glass in England

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