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Helen Whittaker

by Angie Boyer

Published: November 2007

It seems ironic that we should travel almost the length of the country, to Art in Action in Oxfordshire, to see Helen Whittaker demonstrating her craft, when she usually works barely half an hour’s drive from our home in East Yorkshire. Barley Studio, the stained glass studio where Helen is based, is situated in a small village just outside the city of York. Paul and I had no idea of the extent of the work carried out there and didn’t realise, until our visit, just how important this conservation, restoration and new work is to both the past and the future of our nation’s stained glass heritage.

Helen shows us into the room where she is working on her latest commission, a 22 foot high stained glass window for the Holy Trinity Church in Rothwell, Northamptonshire. I was intrigued to know how such a large scale piece of work comes into being - it’s not until I actually saw the enormity of the project that I fully appreciated the amount of physical work involved in not only creating it, but siting it as well. Everything is laid out flat on a huge light box table and then, in the later stages, upright on an easel with natural light coming through the glass.

Helen and Keith Barley explain the various processes involved in this detailed and intricate work, using age-old techniques, traditional tools, materials and methods. “We carry out a great deal of conservation and restoration work here,” says Keith, “and on this type of piece we follow the traditional Medieval principles, but in a modern way.”

Helen’s first task with a commission such as this is to submit her twelfth scale colour design to her client, in this case the Parish Council; from there it has to meet the approval of the Diocesan Council, so it’s quite a lengthy process from the very beginning. Then Helen uses her design to create a full size drawing, called a cartoon, of the whole window; no mean feat with such a large piece of work. “When I’ve completed that,” she says, “I take it to the local church hall so that I can hang and view it.” When she’s happy with the cartoon, Helen returns it to the studio, where she begins work on the glass, placing tracing paper over the cartoon on the light table and marking out cut lines for the individual pieces of glass. “It’s rather like a huge mosaic, really,” explains Helen. “Each piece is marked out according to the colour of glass that I want to use in it.” The cut lines also provide the guide for the leading, which varies in thickness throughout the design and is an integral part of the finished work from a both a structural and a design point of view.

The first layer of paint, the trace lines, is brushed onto the cut shapes, each laid in place over the cartoon on the light table. The second layer of pigment creates the shading and shadow, up to two layers of colour which modulate the light coming through the glass. The third painting is when silver nitrate or sulphate is applied to the reverse side of the glass, creating a yellow colour when fired. Like pottery, stained glass needs to be fired in a kiln, with three separate firings on work like this, one between each application of colour. “In simple terms,” says Keith, “there are three art forms involved in project like this; the original design, the artists’ concept; the full size, detailed cartoon and the final artwork, the glass painting.” When all the painting and firings are complete, the glass is taken with the cut line plan to the leading room so that the design can be fitted together with lead came. It is all held in place with traditional farrier’s nails; fixed with neatly mitred joints; soldered front and back using irons which were once heated in a brazier but are now dependent on gas or electricity. The lead is used in varying widths and it’s role is to create a flowing rhythm in the overall design as well as to provide structural support. Lead is a toxic material, so the people working with it at Barley Studio have their lead levels tested every six months, although Keith says he’s never had any problem with it at all. “Personally, I think I have less lead in my system now after years of working with the material than I would have from petrol fumes if I worked in a city!” Helen gained a BA Hons in 3-D Design with Glass and Ceramics at the University of Sunderland before completing her MA in Visual, Islamic and Traditional Arts at the Prince of Wales’ Institute of Architecture in London (now the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts), specialising in Stained Glass.

“My biggest influence there was Professor Keith Critchlow,” Helen tells me. “A leading expert in sacred architecture, it was his knowledge of geometry that especially influenced me, he gave meaning to what I was doing. The Prince of Wales has been a huge supporter of my work, too, and in 2002 I was awarded a Scholarship to visit Germany to learn about glass making there.” “You can’t do this type of work unless you’ve worked at all the different stages and understand them,” comments Keith. “One of the secrets of Helen’s success was that, whilst at Sunderland, she came to Barley Studio on work placement, she actually made her degree piece here as we had the equipment she needed. She continued working here throughout her MA studies, too, and I’m pleased to say that she learnt her craft well and was so enthusiastic that she earned her way and we were able to give her paid work during her holidays.” “I don’t believe you can build unless you have a sound foundation to build on, which my studies gave me,” adds Helen. “But this type of work is quite good at taking the ego out of a person. The actual mechanics of the work are as complex as the design itself. I like this method of combining the craft with the art, I find that the two work together to create a real meaning behind what I’m doing.”

It’s not all new work that’s carried out at Barley Studio, though, as Helen explains. “Being a Conservation and Restoration Studio, we handle some of the finest Medieval glass that there is in this country, so we can learn from the masters of the past and translate what we discover into the modern craft of today.” Yet at Barley Studio that modern craft retains the ancient elements. “The paint pigments remain the same,” explains Keith. “The glass is the same, it’s just that Helen lays things together in a contemporary way. But in Medieval times there would have been no large sheets of paper, no light table to work on, everything was done in much the same way, but on a whitewashed table, using a palette of just six colours in the designs.” Helen’s work first came to my notice a few years ago at Beverley Minster in East Yorkshire, although I didn’t realise at the time that the work I admired there was by a young local artist. Neither did I think I would be fortunate enough to one day meet and talk to her about her work. Helen was one of five well respected, established artisans, all working in different mediums, who were invited to submit designs for an object for the Minster which would be representative of the 21st Century. It may have been her bold decision to present designs for an entire scheme rather than a single piece that won her the commission. “I could see my designs in situ in my mind’s eye,” she recalls. “I knew exactly what I wanted to do, based on the theme of a 21st Century Pilgrimage in and around the whole space.”

During Medieval times, this East Window area of Beverley Minster was the meeting place for thousands of pilgrims who came to visit the shrine of St. John of Beverley. Helen particularly wanted to follow that theme of Pilgrimage in her work there and has created not only the spectacular Pilgrim Window, but also a tall sculpted candle stand, gently curving wooden meditation benches and a figurative copper sculpture. The entire space reflects the theme of pilgrimage, draws the visitor in to a place of stillness, quiet and reflection, encouraging them to look up towards the window, with it’s spiralling meditative design taking them to an even deeper place of peace at its heart. “I intentionally made this window an abstract design, rather than something figurative,” Helen tells me. “That way it compliments the existing windows rather than conflicting with them. But the colours echo those of the other windows, so there is a balance there. The metal sculptured figures add an extra dimension, both physically and psychologically, they encourage people to think. The light through the window draws you towards the space and, as you get closer, you become aware of the finer detail within it.” “It’s the ‘other plane’ that appeals to me with this window,” explains Helen. “It’s not just the painting and the colour; the light throughout each day gives it a new and different dimension. I like the fact that the window is dependent on the building it is in, and how visitors interact with the window.”

For me, as one of those visitors, Helen’s window is the epitome of what contemporary art in an historical setting should be, offering inspiration for the viewer to draw on their own sentiments and inner thoughts; for me it has a more subtle message than the figurative images of old. This project, like everything the artists at Barley Studio work on, is carefully documented, marked and archived, so that there is an accurate historical record. Work such as this involves research into many areas; art, history, sacred art, philosophy. Keith tells me that it involves the study of medieval buildings, too. “If you really look at them, you’ll see that everything interacts and reacts with everything else around it. Everything is designed as a whole, the entire building is the main object and then there’s the action and reaction of every aspect of it; each door or window or archway, for example, being individual, yet an integral part of the building as a whole.” The work carried out by Barley Studio very much echoes the philosophy of the Arts & Crafts studios, where artists with different talents and skills came together to work in their specialist areas on projects. In the same way, Helen works with York based Calligrapher Charles Smith, who is responsible for the text that appears in some of her pieces. “By combining text in the design, I feel that I’m offering something for every eye,” she tells me. It struck me that, like the work of artisans before them, the work of Helen and others at Keith Barley’s studio is likely to stand for centuries. Just as they were working on fragile Medieval restoration for Fairford Parish Church when we visited, and on somewhat younger glass by the Morris & Co school from St. Martin on the Hill in Scarborough, there will be a time when people look back and wonder at the work that these people are doing today. The people who really are preserving - and creating - the nation’s arts and crafts history and heritage in the 21st Century.

 
Contemporary Glass Society

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