Barley Studio are stained glass window specialists whose work can be found in homes, museums, churches and even Westminster Abbey. Chris Bond headed to North Yorkshire. Main pictures by Gary Longbottom.
To some, the world of stained glass windows might seem a bit old-fashioned, dull even. But not Helen Whittaker.
Her work has taken her around the world to places like Hong Kong, Germany and California and her craftsmanship, and that of her colleagues, can be seen in churches, schools, hospitals and even Manchester and Gatwick airports.
She also worked closely with David Hockney over the creation of his Queen’s Window in Westminster Abbey, which was unveiled in 2018. The 28ft artwork is the Bradford-born artist’s eulogy to the quiet beauty of the Yorkshire Wolds and it was Helen who translated it into glass.
The window was crafted at Barley Studio, based near York, where Helen is Creative Director. Working with Hockney was, she says, a “brilliant” experience. “He came to the studio twice to have a look around and get familiar with the techniques, and he was a very learned chap and very respectful of what we do. And from what we showed him he formulated his ideas using coloured glass and lead.”
She even visited Hockney in his home in LA. “I stayed for three or four days. I remember I opened my door in the morning and the blue balcony was there from his famous painting. I went through and he was sitting in a yellow dressing gown having Marmite on toast. He showed me the bread bin and said to help myself and I had to pinch myself for a moment, because for me to be able to work with a master like that was such a privilege.” Hockney is a skilled draughtsman and he helped design the leadwork.
“He loved the vibrancy of the colour and the lead and we feel he’s put stained glass on the map. Usually people see it as religious wallpaper and don’t really engage with it. But when you come into Westminster Abbey and look up at the vibrancy of the colour in his window, you have to say it’s pretty powerful.”
Helen studied glass and ceramics at Sunderland University before doing a Masters at the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts, and has been working at Barley Studio since 1998. “I used to come here on work experience during summers to help out and learn the craft.”
She was drawn here because she wanted to work with Keith Barley, who is a renowned stained glass conservator. He was the first apprentice of the York Glaziers Trust in 1967 and six years later he set up Barley Studio at the tender age of 21.
He started working in his bedroom before moving to the current premises in Dunnington, which he bought at an auction in a local pub in the late 1970s.
The business had humble beginnings starting out with two sheds, but has since grown into a labyrinth of studios each with their own function – including a design room, kiln room and glazing room. Keith and Helen head a team of eight, each schooled and skilled in the art and craft of stained glass creation and conservation.
Most stained glass windows, like the Hockney window, use ‘antique’ mouth blown glass which helps give the finished piece its depth and vibrancy.
The glass they use comes predominantly from Germany, France and Poland. “It’s modern glass but it’s made using an old-fashioned method rather than with a machine,” Helen explains.
Each room is part of a process that leads on to the next. To my untrained eye the whole process of creating stained glass is akin to alchemy, though it is, of course, underpinned by simple science.
Once a piece of glass has been cut and painted it goes into the kiln, like a kind of giant gas fire, where it heats to around 650 degrees Fahrenheit. At this point the flux within the iron oxide paint fuses onto the surface of the glass - and then it becomes permanent.
“The iron oxide process was being used in the Medieval period, so the craft hasn’t changed too much since then,” says Helen.
Back in those days glassmakers would often share kilns with bakers, which meant they could be kept going continuously.
The name ‘stained glass’ originated from the development of silver stains, which create yellow colours in the glass, and dates back to the 14th Century. It became hugely popular until the impetuous Henry VIII brought about the dissolution of the monasteries a couple of centuries years later.
In the wake of this upheaval stained glass all but disappeared and it wasn’t until the Gothic Revival of the nineteenth century, later followed by William Morris and the arts and crafts movement, that stained glass was revived.
Today, it is once again enjoying something of a renaissance.
“We’re in constant work because of the glut of windows that were made in the 19th century,” says Keith. “During the Gothic Revival so many new churches were built and now the stained glass windows are reaching that point where they’re needing attention.”
These days they don’t only undertake restoration jobs, they also get approached for commissions for new work. “There’s definitely an increase in its appeal, I think people like the individuality of stained glass, the fact it’s made by hand and can’t be mass produced.”
Unlike their Medieval predecessors, today’s stained glass makers have the benefit of being able to call upon modern techniques such as environmental protective glazing, that keeps the stained glass dry and the air at a similar temperature all the way round the glass, which prevents it from deteriorating.
One of Barley Studio’s recent commissions was for a new window at St Joseph’s Church, in Tadcaster, to celebrate the town’s rebuilt bridge after it was badly damaged during the Boxing Day floods of 2015 that split Tadcaster in two.
Helen designed and created it. “They wanted something that connected people. So it wasn’t just about having the bridge back but uniting the church back with Tadcaster and bringing people together and celebrating other things in the town like the famous breweries,” she says. “I wanted it to say something and to go back to the true essence of stained glass, which is to tell a story.”
The window was fitted last summer and combined traditional and modern techniques. “When you create a window you want it to blend in with its surroundings but equally you want it to have its own voice. What was good here was that the new window was separate from the other windows in the church, so it was able to work on its own without competing,” says Helen.
“I don’t create windows necessarily thinking ‘I want to teach the Bible.’ I create windows because I want people to engage and be uplifted and that’s the power of glass.”
Creating stained glass takes years to learn. It is both a craft and an art form, though for a long time it wasn’t seen as fine art, despite being embraced by the likes of Marc Chagall, Henri Matisse and, latterly, David Hockney.
“It’s been such an underrated art form, perhaps because it’s seen as something that keeps the wind and the rain out,” says Keith.
After a career spanning over 50 years working with stained glass, Keith never tires of its many wonders.
“I love the movement in it and the different colours. Also you’re never working in isolation, you’re working with stonemasons, architects and artists, so you meet all kinds of different people.”