This time something new. This time I interviewed David about the main techniques he used to make a stained glass window for the 60th anniversary of the coronation of our Queen.
Stephen: David, I know you were very busy while I was away in April. In fact, the result will be unveiled this coming Sunday – June 2nd 2013 – when it will be the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II. And, though we may only show details until the new window is unveiled and dedicated in Bridgnorth …
Stephen (cont.): … we’ve already had lots of questions about the techniques you used. Can you start by telling me something about the Sovereign’s crown?
David: Gladly. So, most people will guess I used flashed glass there. And they’re right: I did. Flashed red on white. It’s a good strong deep red – perfect for velvet. So I masked it off, then used a sand-blaster to remove the flashed colour I didn’t want, then I fire-polished it to leave it smooth. And then I did my painting:
S: But the Sovereign’s gemstones? You didn’t leave them blank! I see you’ve got rubies, emeralds and a sapphire there: how did you get the red, green and blue?
D: OK, enamels were one option. But I wanted a really brilliant quality. Exactly: I wanted them to look like gemstones. I wasn’t sure enamels would be good enough. Not intense enough, given how I paint.
S: So you fused them on?
D: No, not fusing. Sure, fusing would be possible. But right from the start I had to make a choice: mouth-blown glass for richness and variety, or machine-rolled glass for compatibility and ease-of-use? I chose mouth-blown glass. Mouth-blown glass throughout the window. That’s why I judged it would be wrong to try to fuse the crown and jewels together. Instead I chose to glue the jewels. I used Araldite 20/20, a specialist adhesive you mix yourself. Yes, it’s possible the glue may fail in 50 years. But even if it does, it will still be far simpler to re-glue the jewels than to re-paint the whole crown if it cracked because the different glass types weren’t compatible. Also, this is an internal window: it doesn’t face the elements. Not only that, but the public only sees this window from the front. No one ever sees the back. So that’s why I chose to fix the jewels with glue. As you can see, you have to weigh up a whole range of issues and consider things in the round.
S: All the same, enamels were a possibility?
D: Certainly they were. In the abstract. But not so much for me. See, the other reason I decided not to use enamels here (I certainly used them elsewhere), it’s because I like to do all my tracing and shading in a single firing. But if my style were different – say I traced then fired, then shaded and fired, then shaded some more and fired again – well, if I did things like that, then it would be perfectly possible to add a thin layer of enamel each time, each time I fired, so that by the end, you’d have three or four layers, and then you could well end up with a brilliant intensity of colour for the gems. But it just didn’t suit the way I work, the way we work here. Like I say, you have to weigh up lots of pros and cons and just figure out the best way for you and your particular skills. If it looks excellent in the end, and it’s made to last, any number of routes are possible. And the more you know, the better. The more techniques you know, the better.
S: And what about the tongues?
D: Yes, I glued the tongues as well. The lion’s and the unicorn’s …
S: Are there any particular problems you must watch out for when using glue?
D: Two big things. As you know, the studio is a busy place, so while the glue was drying, I used Sellotape to hold the panels steady, in case someone accidentally brushed against them. I know you’re fairly graceful as glass painters go, but all the same it just takes a moment to accidentally knock the glass. And then you find the gems have all shifted to where they shouldn’t be. That’s why I always strap my glass down before I glue it. It saves a lot of heart-ache.
S: That’s good to know. And the second thing you mentioned?
D: Yes, second, I glued several test pieces at the same time. When it was time the glue had set, I checked a test piece first. Since it was from the same batch of glue, I knew that if the test piece was set, the gems would be also fine. So when you come to move the panel, you know the gems will stay put!
S: Now you mentioned mouth-blown glass a moment ago. What is it about mouth-blown glass you like so much? Why do you prefer it to the machine-rolled kind?
D: I’m not hung up on mouth-blown glass. I’m not hung up on any kind of glass. All I want is the right glass. The right glass for the job. That’s why mouth-blown glass was useful here. Mouth-blown glass varies in thickness across the sheet – machine-rolled doesn’t. A millimetre or two is wonderful (more than that, it gets difficult to cut). And the wonderful thing is, the colour varies with the thickness. This means you have variety: the passing light is bent and spread. The glass looks alive. It seems to move as you move and as things move behind it.
S: We’re lucky here aren’t we, since it’s relatively easy for us to get all the mouth-blown glass we want.
D: That’s right. We can still get good mouth-blown glass from France and Germany. Not forgetting mouth-blown English glass of course …
S: And you used English glass here?
D: Absolutely: it was the right thing to do! It also stains beautifully with oil …
D: Certainly, some passages are very intense. But I also took time to add gentle bands of oil-based stain across the whole background. It makes a big difference, and it would be hard to get the same gentle effect with machine-rolled glass.
S: Any thoughts about why mouth-blown glass is so hard to find?
D: I’ve often wondered about this. I think on balance it’s probably a consequence of standardisation. Sure, standardisation is often very good, because you know exactly what you’re getting, and you can make comparisons. There are many things which I am very glad are uniform and predictable. Toothpaste, for example, hamburgers, shoe-sizes – standardisation is wonderful! But it’s not always good for glass. Yes I know how I sometimes I wish (and curse) that our English mouth-blown glass were less varied than it is. It is bad for my heart to have such anxiety each time I cut a shape: will it work or won’t it? By comparison, machine-rolled glass is simple to cut. But then I remind myself I shouldn’t really grumble. Certainly mouth-blown glass is less predictable, but surely this pain is worth it, because the window lasts for centuries. So I’m glad we haven’t standardised everything!
S: And the bubbles in the glass aren’t standard either are they?
D: No they can’t be. All our local glass blower does is throw in a handful of potato peelings. It really is that unscientific …
S: Henry Ford would throw his hands up in despair!
D: Yes he would, and like I say it’s good that cars are standard. (I like to know how fast I’m going!) I’m just glad we can still get glass which isn’t.
S: Now for the lion’s claws: I see you chose to use enamels here.
D: Yes, for such small spaces, the colour was intense enough. And I also used enamel around the smaller crown up top where I’m just filling in.
S: Are you looking forward to the ceremony on Sunday?
D: I am. It’s good to have a rite of passage like this for something you’ve made. As you know, it takes a huge amount of energy to make sure everything is exactly as it should be. And then you fit the window and say goodbye to it forever. This time it will be different: a special occasion. And Her Majesty’s Deputy Lieutenant of Shropshire will be there.
S: Along with the High Sheriff of Shropshire.
D: Yes. Sunday 2nd June, 10.30 a.m. in the church of Saint Mary Magdalene, Bridgnorth – it’s a magnificent building, designed by Thomas Telford. Given his role in the Industrial Revolution, I am pleased that, some two centuries later, glass painters like myself still have work to do. If our standards had dropped, it could have been so very different.
S: Yes – thank goodness for skill and craftsmanship. And, I can say this because I didn’t have a hand in it – I was writing our next book – the new window looks magnificent.
D: Thank you. It’ll be good to see it on the day, when all the scaffolding has come down. And there’s just one other big thing I want to mention … I know I’said this before but I’m not just a glass painter: I also teach. So of course I want to say again how important the undercoat is to nearly everything we paint here.
S: Yes, the undercoat. It’s ‘what lies beneath’, isn’t it?
D: That’s it. OK, so I know it takes a bit of getting used to, painting layer upon layer, then firing your glass just once. But the undercoat is your foundation. Get it right, and you’ve given yourself a great start.
S: I agree. With practice and attention – I know neither of us believes much in ‘talent’: it’s practice, practice, practice, isn’t it? – the results can be spectacular. And one last question: oil or propylene glycol for the extra lines and shadows?
D: Glycol. Reason is, sometimes there were extra lines I wanted to add. It’s tricky to do this with oil since oil often bleeds. Glycol doesn’t. So I can do all the water-based painting I want, then go straight on adding shadows using glycol, then adding or strengthening lines as needed. Then fire the paint just once.
S: Thanks! And if anyone’s got questions, please send them in – the box below is sure to get to us. We’ll write back to you as soon as the window is unveiled this coming Sunday.
D: Just one other thing …
D: You said you’d ask me what I’d learned from this project …
S: You’re still learning?
S: OK, spill the beans. What’s the big lesson you picked up this time?
David: It’s this. If there’s an inscription, don’t ever – ever – agree a price until every last word has been agreed on and signed off. In blood if necessary. Lettering takes ages. People always say, ‘Just a few words, we’ll settle that later …’ And then …
Stephen: And then, instead of something simple like ‘God Bless the Queen’, you find you’ve something long like ‘In celebration of the 60th anniversary of the coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2nd June 2013’.
David: To take just one possible example.
Stephen: Yes, quite a mouthful. A mistake like that could cost you a fortune. Oh well. Let’s be double-sure to hit the free champagne on Sunday.