Conservator's efforts underway to protect Yorkshire parish church's famed stained glass treasures

An extensive collection of stained glass windows at a York parish church, having escaped the ravages of the Reformation, is to this day hailed as among the finest surviving in Europe.

Conservator Keith Barley MBE works on large stained glass windows from All Saints North Street Church at Barley Studio in York. Barley Studio will conserve twelve medieval windows over the next two years. Image: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

Yet even the finest windows bear the strain after centuries of wind and rain, with micro-fragments long having appeared in the glass at All Saints, and as artwork begins to fade.

It has taken 10 years to come to fruition, but now work is beginning on a major project to protect these treasured 14th and 15th century artworks for generations to come.

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With the finest of skills honed over decades of practice, stained glass conservator Keith Barley yesterday set to work on a three-year project to fully protect them once again.

Conservator Keith Barley MBE works on large stained glass windows from All Saints North Street Church at Barley Studio in York. Image: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

“This is one of those things I always hoped could happen,” reflected Mr Barley, who as a young apprentice had worked on the Minster’s Rose Window, and whose affiliation with All Saints North Street dates back to treating the glass for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.

“York, across the country, is a main centre for displays of medieval glass,” he said.

“There are some absolutely fantastic windows here, with some you would think had been designed today, rather than all of those hundreds of years ago.

“It’s very rare for glass to be intact like this, and to have survived,” he added. “It’s a depiction of the state of life, and daily life in 15th century Britain.

Conservator Keith Barley MBE works on large stained glass windows from All Saints North Street Church at Barley Studio in York. Barley Studio will conserve twelve medieval windows over the next two years. Image: Danny Lawson/PA Wire

“I’m just delighted that they can be protected. It means they can all be works of art, rather than for keeping the weather out.”

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National Lottery Heritage Funding of £531,000 was granted last summer towards the preservation and protection of 12 stained glass windows at All Saints North Street.

Among the backers for the decade-long project to fund the conservation is the Prince of Wales, who had undertaken a private tour in the 1990s after hearing of their splendour.

The parish church, primarily from the 14th and 15th century, stands on a site that has been hallowed for worship since Norman times, and the medieval glass here is recognised as among the most important collections in the British Isles.

Most notable is the Pricke of Conscience window, the only known pictorial representation of the famous poem.

Then there is the Heraldic Window, showing shields of arms, that may have been paid for with 100 shillings left by a city merchant in 1429.

The Corporal Acts of Mercy window depicts acts of kindness, while the Orders of Angels, reconstructed from fragments in 1965, features leading members of medieval York society, as well as a labourer with a spade and a tanner with his tools.

Within the windows to be protected, there are unique depictions of a lost time. Many were paid for by the city’s urban elite, who would have been immortalised within the imagery.

Others could have been laymen or members of the congregation. One, from the 15th century, shows an ‘ordinary’ gentleman wearing spectacles.

Window on the world

“They are a window to a different time, yet some are quite relevant today,” said Dr Robert Richards, heritage officer and church warden. “There is tremendous political importance in these windows.

“This is the finest collection of early 15th century glass in the north of England, and some have said in Europe. Yet the weather has taken its toll.

“We’ve always known the glass was special. Now, it is so wonderful to be able to save these windows for future generations.”

The ‘St Thomas’ window is the first of 12 stained glass windows from All Saints North Street to undergo conservation work at Barley Studio, which was founded by managing director Keith Barley MBE in 1973.

This major project to conserve and protect the collection of stained glass and its medieval stonework was awarded over £531,000 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, alongside many smaller donations.

Barley Studio, with a team of conservators, artists, glaziers and metalworkers based in Dunnington, will be conserving all 12 medieval windows over the next two to three years, working alongside Master Mason Matthias Garn and Partner.

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