Seeing the light
Helen Johnson talks to Architectural glass artist Alan Davis. (November 2012)
Since Alan Davis came to Yorkshire in the 1980s, his work has become part of the fabric of the county. Alan is an architectural glass artist, and his stained glass adorns churches in Yorkshire and beyond.
Alan, pictured above, joins pieces of coloured glass with strips of lead in a technique that is hundreds of years old. But his modern designs are, he says, “a part of myself that bares the soul.”
Adding a new stained glass window to a historic building is a significant step that is not taken lightly. Often several artists are invited to submit designs, and it takes time, and many people, to decide who will finally be asked to make the window.
Contemporary designs are often favoured, as, says Alan, “It’s nice if the design can be seen to be of our time, as it shows the evolution of the building, and that it is still alive and in use today.”
However, the new window must blend with an older building, and Alan says, “It’s difficult to do something modern, and also make it sit comfortably with historic architecture – but it’s a lovely challenge.”
Alan spends time in the building, contemplating a design that will, he says, “Look as if it’s meant to be there.”
It’s a far cry from his early life, when, he says, “I grew up in London, then got a job as a driver.”
However, he and his wife came to Yorkshire for holidays, camping near Whitby. Alan says, “It was a lovely area, and we fell in love with the place, so we moved here. We just came, with no job to come to, or anything.”
He adds, “You wouldn’t do it now. But that was back in the 1980s, and it turned out to be the best thing we ever did.”
Alan needed a job, so he went to the Job Centre. When he said he was interested in stained glass, they found him a place with a maker in Whitby.
There, Alan learned to make ‘Tiffany’ style lampshades and stained-glass panels for front doors. He recalls spending hours mastering the technique of soldering lead strips to hold the glass pieces together and shape a lampshade.
Alan was happy, but gradually, he began to dream of making more ambitious pieces. So he founded his own business – and went to Sunderland University to study Architectural Stained Glass: “By then, I was forty, and amazed to get to university. All I wanted to do was learn – it opened up a whole new world.”
At weekends, he returned to his studio in Lythe, near Whitby, to make the stained glass that people ordered for their homes. Now, fifteen years later, Alan still makes glass for private homes, as well as for churches and cathedrals.
He’s replaced plain windows in many parish churches with new stained glass. Alan says, “I’ve done quite a few memorial windows. Sometimes, a community fundraises to commemorate someone who was important to them. On other occasions, a family gives a window in memory of a loved one.
“It’s really nice to meet these people. I like working with church communities. For a while, I become part of their group.”
As well as meeting the people, and spending time in the building, Alan takes inspiration from nature: “I take the dog for a walk, and think of the design. I love the coast in winter, and there’s a wilderness forest near here that’s a very spiritual place. You can feel the energy coming out of it – I get a lot of ideas from walking there.
“But I don’t just look at a landscape and paint a scene: I sit and feel it, then go into the studio and draw to portray that feeling.”
When he and the client are happy with the drawing, it’s time to translate it into glass. Alan says, “I use traditional mouth-blown glass, made in the antique way. It gives a nice character.”
Alan uses the drawing as a pattern to cut the shapes from sheets of coloured glass. He then paints and etches the glass, to give added texture and definition. He says, “Painting is my speciality. I use special paints, made of powdered glass, with a pigment, usually black or dark brown. When you see the details of faces and hands on Victorian stained glass, that’s how they did it.”
After painting, the glass is fired in a kiln to bond the paint to it. Alan may also etch the glass, using acid. He says, “I sometimes use flashed glass – it has a thin surface layer of a different colour, or of colour on a clear glass base. The acid erodes the surface layer, revealing the glass underneath.
Etched glass also has a different surface texture, something that Alan exploits in exhibition pieces. Alan can also use his kiln to melt different pieces of glass together, a technique known as fusing. This way, he can create layered effects, or join two colours together without a lead bar.
Since completing his degree, Alan has become known to the Dioceses of both York and Durham, and has windows in churches in both counties. As his experience grows, he comments, “I’m now entering design competitions against the people whose work I studied for my degree.”
He comments, “Some artists design windows, then send them away to craftsmen to make them. But I like to make my own windows – there’s something about doing the whole process.”
When I visited Alan’s studio, he was working on a large new window for Hexham Abbey. He says, “The design is symbolic and semi-abstract. There’s a mass of colour and light, and then you start seeing things in it. I want to make a window that people can contemplate, and see something in it.”
Every one of the tiny pieces of glass in this massive window has to be painstakingly cut, painted and fired, before being pieced together. Alan says, “The window will outlast me – so I have to get it right.”