No pane, no gain

Alan Davis  in his studio

Alan Davis in his studio

  • In a small studio on the Yorkshire coast there’s a window to a dying art. Jeannie Swales meets stained glass artist Alan Davis. Pictures by Tony Bartholomew.
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Back in the early 90s, Alan Davis and his wife Jo made the life-changing decision to up sticks from their native London and relocate to Whitby.

They had no firm plans, and no real idea of what they were going to do once they got there – they just knew they needed a change, and they loved North Yorkshire. With no job waiting for him, Alan signed up for a government work placement scheme and someone, somewhere, decided that because he enjoyed drawing, he should be placed with a local stained glass firm.

Alan's design for a new window at Manchester Cathedral.

Alan's design for a new window at Manchester Cathedral.

Twenty-five years on, and Alan is one of just a handful of stained glass artists in the country specialising in major ecclesiastical work. His craft can be seen in many churches and other institutions across the North, and he’s just landed one of his biggest commissions to date – an important new window for Manchester Cathedral. Not bad for a lad who started out making lampshades.

“Once, when we were still living in London, Jo mentioned reading something about a stained glass course, and I remember vaguely thinking that it sounded interesting – but it never came to anything,” says Alan. “But then we got to Whitby, and I had no job so I signed up for this government scheme, and someone placed me in this small local studio – repairing stained glass in front doors, making Tiffany-style lampshades, that kind of thing. It was because I’d said I liked drawing. I was totally untrained, but I was always sketching bits and pieces.

“The company eventually closed and I set up on my own, in a small studio in Lythe, doing the same kind of thing. There wasn’t a lot of money coming in, and I really wanted to break into church commissions, but it was so difficult with no formal training.”

Then one day Jo spotted a course advertised in a-n, the artists’ newsletter. “It was a three-year degree course at Sunderland University in art, design and architectural glass,” explains Alan. “I signed up, had a thoroughly enjoyable three years – it was like being on a different planet – and ended up with a First.”

Alan's design for a new window at Manchester Cathedral.

Alan's design for a new window at Manchester Cathedral.

Alan’s work is often apparently abstract at first glance, but actually littered with figurative elements for the eagle-eyed viewer to find.

“I go to the Bible, and read up on the themes I’ve been given by the commissioner. Then I do a very free, and very rough, initial sketch. There’s usually lots of symbolism in there which isn’t necessarily immediately obvious. I don’t want to be too graphic: I like the idea of people reading things into the image which even I may not have seen. That often happens.”

He is also keen on texture, using kiln-fired paint, acid etching or kiln-formed glass to create surface interest. “I love texture,” he says. “If you look at my work close up, you’ll often find that every single piece is textured somehow or other. It’s something the Victorians did quite a lot – it helps to hold the light on the window rather than it just passing straight through.”

The Manchester commission came after a frustrating couple of years in which Alan was several times shortlisted for major commissions only to fall at the last hurdle. He was down to the final two for a window in Durham Cathedral, and at the same time as he was under consideration for Manchester, he was also on the final shortlist for an OBE centenary window for St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

Alan's design for a new window at Manchester Cathedral.

Alan's design for a new window at Manchester Cathedral.

The Manchester window, though, is something of a coup – the brief required him to design a modern, abstract design as a counterpoint to five large windows designed by the great stained glass artist Anthony Holloway and installed between 1973 and 1995; they’re considered by the cathedral to be “extraordinarily vibrant and… some of [our] finest jewels”.

Alan’s winning design is typically vivid and, at cursory glance, abstract. Further examination, however, reveals it to be richly studded with imagery, some religious, some representing the vibrancy and innovation of the city of Manchester. It includes an angled, or tilted, cross, an image Alan has started using to represent Christ’s carrying of the cross to his crucifixion, and signifying struggle, determination and man’s journey to a higher level.

The window will be assembled and installed in conjunction with revered York stained glass conservationists and artists the Barley Studio. It will be put in place next year using their revolutionary technique of isothermal glazing, in which the original window glass is replaced by protective plain glass, and the new stained window, framed in manganese bronze tracery, is mounted in front of it within the building. This helps protect the artwork from outside elements such as the weather and vandalism.

“It’s the first time one of my windows has been installed this way,” says Alan. ‘It’s a fascinating technique which Keith Barley developed to help protect medieval glass.”

Meanwhile, he’s also working on a major new window for a church in Guisborough, and planning a fascinating installation with Whitby-based artist, sculptor and puppeteer Viv Mousdell, to be unveiled at next February’s weekend-long Coastival arts festival in Scarborough. It’s a project that is taking Alan out of his comfort zone.

“It’s based around the story of the Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen,” he reveals. “Have you ever read it? It’s terrifying. A demon makes a mirror that makes everyone who looks in it appear ugly. He flies up to heaven with it, and the mirror breaks. Millions of tiny shards of glass – there’s my connection – fall to earth and get into people’s eyes, making them see everything as bad and ugly.

“I have absolutely no idea as yet how I’m going to tackle it – but the imagery is wonderful, I can’t wait.”

• You can find examples of Alan’s work right across the north of England and beyond, but some of his own personal favourites can be found at:

Hexham Abbey, Hexham, Northumberland

St Mary’s Church, Richmond, North Yorkshire

St Thomas’s Church, Glaisdale, North Yorkshire

St John’s Church, Kirk Merrington, County Durham.

The Snow Queen project will be installed in the crypt of Scarborough’s St Martin’s-on-the Hill (which itself boasts some remarkable Pre-Raphaelite stained glass) during Coastival 2016 (February 12 to 14).

Visitors can see Alan’s work during North Yorkshire Open Studios each June, and he runs regular courses in stained glass making, glass painting, and glass cutting and leading, from his studio – call 01947 893827 or email: info@alandavisglass.co.uk

To see more of Alan’s work, visit alandavisglass.co.uk

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