Back in the late 1960s, while most young boys his age were dreaming of becoming the next George Best or Neil Armstrong, Jonathan Cooke set his sights on perhaps an even more rarefied goal – to work with stained glass windows. “I must have been about six, or seven, when I decided this was what I wanted to do,” he says, smiling at the memory.
“I was brought up in Penistone and I went to a church school which was across the road from the parish church, and I think they must have been doing some building work in the school at the time because we had our assemblies in the church. We’d tramp across the road and while everyone else was listening to the headmaster I was looking at these windows watching the light move around. I was just mesmerised by it and I’ve been mesmerised by it ever since.”
Jonathan is talking to me in his workshop, just outside Ilkley, with his wife Ruth. Together they have been running their stained glass conservation business – Jonathan & Ruth Cooke – for more than 30 years. Jonathan is the master craftsman and Ruth deals with the business side of things. “I hassle him, basically,” she says, laughing affectionately.
Having set his heart on becoming a stained glass conservator the challenge was finding a route into what can be something of an esoteric craft. “I probably put my careers teacher through hell,” he says. “He asked if I wanted to be a printer and I said, ‘no, I want to do stained glass.’”
It was his careers teacher, though, who suggested he write to York University to find out more information. “I didn’t hear for months and then someone wrote back apologising for not being in touch but saying the Minster was looking for an apprentice. So I went along for an interview and they offered me a job.”
Jonathan was 16 years old and found himself thrown in at the deep end. “I was handling medieval glass from day one. The very first bit of stained glass I handled was a 12th Century panel from the nave clerestory and they just said ‘go and put that together’. So I did.”
The methods of stained glass conservation have changed greatly over the past 40 years, but he says the training he received was invaluable.
“You got a very good grounding in the basics of stained glass because it’s not just a matter of taking a window apart and leading it back together. You’ve got to take into account all the different ages of the glass, the thickness and the type of lead, too, because not all lead is the same.”
Jonathan started working at the Minster in 1978 and was there six years later when a suspected lightning strike sparked a devastating fire that swept through the south transept.
“York was a lovely place to work at that time. You felt like part of a family, you knew the masons, you knew the carvers and the joiners. So a fire like that was heartbreaking for all of us. I remember cycling up the morning after not realising there’d been a fire and seeing a huge cordon around the West End. A policeman said to me, ‘you can’t go any further’ and I told him I worked there and he said, ‘well, you’d better go as I think they’re going to need you.’”
And need him they did. Jonathan was part of the team that helped secure the building and begin the painstaking task of repairing the damage. It took four years and £2.5m before the restoration was complete and Jonathan’s name is among those carved in oak on a door lintel at the Minster.
Since setting up his business in the late 1980s he’s worked on all manner of historic buildings up and down the country. “About 90 per cent of the work we do is ecclesiastical,” he says. “I’ve lost count of the number of churches I’ve worked on.”
He’s recently finished work on the historic Butterfield Window at Cliffe Castle, in Keighley, which was unveiled last weekend. He removed years of grime and marks from the window, which dates back to the late 19th Century, and also created new stained glass panels to replace the clear ones. “The people there are really bowled over with what he’s done,” says Ruth proudly.
He’s now in the process of restoring a glass painting from the Georgian period, featuring an image of Christ, at Birstall Parish Church. “This is from either the late 18th or early 19th century and originally formed part of the east window,” Jonathan explains.
“Quite often within 20 or 30 years of installation these kinds of windows were removed in favour of the more medieval, mosaic-style windows of the Gothic Revival. So many were destroyed and anything that survives is quite rare. This particular window was knocked around a bit, and installed in the vestry. We have consolidated the previously leaded breakages with modern glues and I’m about to put the window back together.”
Many of his tools he fashioned himself and still uses them today. “As an apprentice in York I was given a piece of metal and told to go and make myself a knife. So I spent my lunch breaks making this,” he says, showing me a blunt stopping knife (used for dressing the lead) the handle of which also doubles as a small hammer. “I made that when I was 16 and I’ve been using it ever since and it will see me out.”
As well as doing commissioned work, Jonathan also makes his own, smaller, stained glass artworks and has been teaching glass painting for more than 20 years.
He’s also working with a former colleague on developing a short (CPD) course focussing on conservation leaded glazing techniques, skills that were previously learnt during lengthy apprenticeships.
For Jonathan, it’s important these skills aren’t lost. “It’s a craft and it can take seven to ten years just to get an understanding of all the basics of stained glass, and even after that you never stop learning. You build up a body of knowledge through practice and experience, you can’t learn it by reading a book.”
Jonathan, who is among the craftsmen and women taking part in this year’s Ilkley Art Trail and is one of the invited artists in the Inspired by Burne-Jones exhibition at Brighton’s Grange Gallery, in June, is in awe of those in whose footsteps he is following. “Medieval glaziers were seen almost as alchemists who were telling stories using God’s light,” he says.
“You can be handling something that’s not been touched for centuries. I remember working on the east window of St Martin’s Church in Bowness on Windermere. As I was inspecting it on the bench I noticed a thumbprint on the body of Christ – a late 15th Century thumbprint of either the glass painter or the apprentice. He must have been annoyed with himself because you could see where he’d picked up a brush and done a quick stroke to cover it up. I know exactly how he must have felt because I’ve done that before.
“It’s things like that where you really feel a connection with a person from the past that gives me a real buzz.
“We think we’re clever because we’ve got smartphones and computers, but we don’t get off the starting block compared with what these people could do with fairly rudimentary tools.”