Honouring ancient craftsmen's skill in centuries' old stained glass preservation project at small Yorkshire church

In a glazier’s thumbprint sealed in stained glass lies a link to the past which can be quite striking.

Tristram Cooke looks at the original 15th century medieval stained glass panel of St George in Thornhill Parish church near Dewsbury. The church is undergoing a project restoring the medieval stained glass windows by master glazier Jonathan Cooke. . Picture Tony Johnson
Tristram Cooke looks at the original 15th century medieval stained glass panel of St George in Thornhill Parish church near Dewsbury. The church is undergoing a project restoring the medieval stained glass windows by master glazier Jonathan Cooke. . Picture Tony Johnson

This is “history on the hoof”, for conservators at Thornhill Parish Church, near Dewsbury, as preservation work draws to a close after a quarter of a century.

There are few collections that can rival the majesty of the medieval glass here, which is often described as among the finest in the North.

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For conservator Jonathan Cooke, who can read a craftsman’s hand in every sweep of the brush, unravelling these knots in time is a symbol of their significance.

Master glazier Jonathan Cooke looks at the original 15th century medieval stained glass in Thornhill Parish church near Dewsbury which he is restoring. Picture Tony Johnson

“These windows are a direct link with the past,” he said. “To the people who made them and the people who have looked on them over the centuries.

“They are witnesses to key moments of sorrow and joy in the human journey. If we look after and acknowledge our past, it helps us look to the future.”

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Thornhill, a site of Christian worship since Anglo-Saxon times, is known for its medieval windows and is mentioned in Simon Jenkin’s account of England’s best churches.

15th century stained glass from Thornhill Parish Church in Dewsbury being restored by expert Jonathan Cooke with his son Tristram in his workshop near Ilkley. Picture Tony Johnson

Custodians, concerned at their condition some 25 years ago, have worked to find funding, piece by piece, to protect each one.

Now, as Mr Cooke replaces the second-to-last window, he begins on the final one.

The tools and techniques of the trade have not changed in centuries. In cutting the glass, to firing and colouring and shaping the lead, the original craftsman’s hand can be found.

“When you’re working on them it speaks – it is history on the hoof,” said Ruth Cooke, the co-director of the Ilkley-based family business. “It jumps across the centuries. You might find a thumbprint, or a glazier’s mark, and it takes you right back.”

A magnifiying glass highlights the detail in 15th century stained glass from Thornhill Parish Church, being restored by expert Jonathan Cooke in his workshop near Ilkley. Picture Tony Johnson

The windows are preserved to near-museum conditions, with degraded glass covered in screens to keep out wind and rain after 600 years.

“They no longer have to serve the purpose of weather-proofing the building,” said Ms Cooke. “Now they can ‘retire’, if you like, so we can appreciate what the artists were doing it for.

“It’s our history. It’s our past. For the people who worshipped in this church in the Middle Ages, these windows would have taken them to another place.

"For a poor parishioner to see something glowing with colour would have been quite amazing in a way we take for granted now.

“It’s hard to imagine. As long as these windows survive, we can still imagine.”

'Historic jigsaw'

For Mr Cooke, who as a boy had been fascinated by twists of sunlight on stained glass and who would go on to train as a Minster apprentice, the practicalities of such projects are always tinged with anxiety.

The feeling now, he said, is one of anticipation, and of hope the windows will be here for future generations to study and reflect upon, as their ancestors might have done.

Containing fragments from other windows in the church, these two windows are the final part of a “large historical jigsaw”.

“I am privileged to have been entrusted with its preservation, and lucky to have such inspiring work,” he added.

“This glass, which must have been so impressive to those who first saw it, still has that ‘wow’ factor.”

Brian Pearson, chairman of Thornhill Parish Church’s fabric committee, has worked over two decades to secure funding for the windows.

Grants were agreed for the final two last year under a cultural recovery fund from Historic England, backed by the Glazier’s Trust, Churchcare, and the William and John Morris Trust.

“The medieval windows have always had a high stature, some of them were put in during 1440, which is amazing for a small rural village,” he said.

“Hopefully, by doing this, we can make people locally more aware of the treasures on their doorstep.”

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