Window redressing

Fri, Jan 21, 2011, 00:00

A Christmas conflagration in 2009 appeared to have destroyed the magical Harry Clarke stained-glass windows at St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford – until a miracle of restoration got underway

WE ARE, belatedly, beginning to realise just what a treasure trove is contained in the stained-glass windows of churches all over Ireland – especially those which bear the magical signature of Harry Clarke Studios. These are to stained glass what Lalique is to ordinary glass; and when you look closely at one, you’ll never see any piece of glass – never mind the windows of churches – in quite the same way again. The jewel-like colours, the intricate details, the startlingly contemporary feel, the impish sense of humour – with their huge eyes and elaborate outfits, these saints are startlingly reminiscent of the heroes and heroines of computer games and graphic novels.

But sometimes it takes a catastrophe to make us sit up and pay attention. In the early hours of Christmas Day 2009, fire broke out at St Mel’s Cathedral in Longford. By the time the blaze was extinguished, the church was completely destroyed. In Dublin, Ken Ryan of Abbey Stained Glass Studios was horrified by the television images of the devastation. His company had carried out a full restoration of all of the stained glass at St Mel’s in 1997, so he knew what was likely to be lost forever if something wasn’t done, and quickly.

Ryan and one of his colleagues decided to drive to Longford on St Stephen’s Day. “I called ahead to one of the priests and he said: ‘Don’t come.’ I said: ‘Just tell me, are the Harry Clarke windows intact or not?’ And he said: ‘Everything’s destroyed.’”

They drove on through heavy snow, but when they got to Longford the cathedral was cordoned off for forensic investigation. With the aid of long-distance lenses, Ryan was able to get some idea of what had happened to the windows. “One of the Harry Clarke windows had collapsed, pretty well on to the ground, but there were still pieces of it suspended in the window opening,” he says. “That was the right-hand transept gable as you face the altar. It was Christ in Majesty. On the opposite transept was the Blessed Virgin and the Child Jesus. Every other window was completely gone.”

Glass, when it’s created, is fired at extremely high temperatures – 600 degrees or more – in a kiln. Why, then, is fire damage to stained glass so devastating? “The bed of the window is held together by solder joints,” Ryan explains. “And when the solder gets warm in a fire it melts and runs down to the bottom of the window. So there’s nothing to keep it together. Any gentle breeze or vibration will cause the whole lot to come crashing down.

“Another problem is, of course, that the firemen come along and they’re doing their best to put out the fire, so they train the hoses on the window openings. The cold water hitting against the extremely hot glass causes the glass to shatter. After a fire you could look at a piece of stained glass and say: ‘Oh, yeah, that’s fine.’ But if you were to tap it with your fingernail it would collapse into the equivalent of a bowl of sugar.”

Which is, pretty much, what had befallen the windows of St Mel’s. Most people would have looked at the jigsaw of broken glass and given the whole thing up as a bad job. After all, how would it be possible to reconstruct such elaborate works of art from memory, or even from photographs? Having carried out restoration work at the cathedral in 1997, however, Ken Ryan knew that Abbey Stained Glass Studios was in a unique position with regard to these windows.

“When we do a restoration job, we begin by taking what we call a rubbing or a tracing,” he says. “This gives us an impression of all the various lead running through the glass – and then we can work out the shape of every piece of glass in that particular window. Normally, after about 10 years or so, we have too much paperwork in our studios and, for space reasons, we just have to get rid of it all. But by a sheer stroke of good fortune we hadn’t disposed of the rubbings from St Mel’s. In addition to the tracings we also had highly detailed photographs of the windows. So we had a huge amount of technical information.”

Even so, the sheer scale of this reconstruction beggars belief. “Our craftsmen went around the base of every window, and we collected bucketfuls of stained glass. We had them in big plastic boxes in the studio, one for each window, all numbered,” says Ryan. “Out of tens of thousands of pieces of glass we can tell you the exact shape and depth of colour that’s in each piece.”

The craftsmen then had to remove whatever was left from the shell of the church. “We had to take them [the pieces] out very, very gingerly by placing a contact adhesive on either side of the glass to prevent it from collapsing completely. And all of this is against the background of very heavy snow and ice, similar to the conditions we experienced a couple of weeks ago.”

Once back at Abbey’s studios in Dublin, the painstakingly detailed work could begin. “Garrett O’Grady and William Malone were supervising the work on a day-to-day basis and our stained-glass artist, Brendan Mullins, would have been working on replacement glass,” Ryan says. “Where possible, we use as much as we can of the old glass; where it’s impossible, we have to make it new. To get the three-dimensional effect you might have to fire glass three times. And some has to be acid-etched – that’s where you might have a ruby colour on one side and a colourless glass on the other. You’d have to etch out parts of the ruby colour to get a particular spot of glass that you want highlighted in the window. It’s technically difficult and it has to be spot-on.”

With a window from Harry Clarke Studios, the difficulties are compounded by the complexity of the designs, the intensity of the colours and, in many cases, the unusual quality of the glass. Clarke was known to have a fondness for thick, irregular glass, which he said resulted in more vibrant and subtle colours. The windows at St Mel’s, installed in 1932, were not designed by Clarke himself – he died of TB in Switzerland in 1931, just short of his 42nd birthday – but by his highly talented younger colleague, Richard King.

Ryan’s word for them is “masterpieces”. And he has a bit of advice for any church, in Ireland or abroad, which values its stained-glass windows.

“Normally,” he says, “they’ll have photographs of weddings with the stained glass in the background and so forth – but they don’t have detailed photographs of the windows themselves. Some of the churches are beginning to get that done, and I think it should be done as a matter of some urgency.”

The fully restored windows have now been shipped back to Longford, where they will be stored until the cathedral is rebuilt, a process which is likely to take at least three years. And one day – barring meteorite strikes, terrorist attacks or tsunamis – their serene beauty will once again grace the windows of St Mel’s, and Longford itself.

Design disciple Richard King

OVER THE past quarter of a century the name of Harry Clarke has become synonymous with stained glass in Ireland. But many of the windows we know as “Harry Clarkes” are actually the work of his younger colleagues at Harry Clarke Studios, among them the windows at St Mel’s in Longford, designed by Richard King.

King was born in Castlebar, Co Mayo, in 1907. He became the chief designer for Harry Clarke Studios after Clarke’s death in 1931. His style clearly owes much to Clarke’s tutelage, but his own artistic stamp is also evident. He admired modernist contemporaries such as Evie Hone and Mainie Jellett, and he was also well versed in contemporary spirituality, drawing inspiration from the scientist-theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

The windows from St Mel’s will probably be in crates for quite some time, but there are many examples of King’s work to be seen around Ireland as well as in the UK and even Australia.

Check out St Elizabeth of Hungary, roses spilling from a spectacular blue dress (which wouldn’t be out of place on a Eurovision stage), at St Anthony’s Church in the Franciscan friary in Athlone, where St Bonaventure is also to be found, his chiselled jaw straight from Hollywood central casting, his youthful figure clad in Star Wars red.