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Preserving the Templates for Historic Stained Glass Found Around the World

Cartoon of a stained glass window from St. Stephen's Church in Olean, NY  (left) and its tracing (right) (all photos courtesy Corning Museum)
Cartoon of a stained glass window from St. Stephen’s Church in Olean, NY (left) and its tracing (right) (all photos courtesy Corning Museum)

To organize the many pieces that form just one stained glass window, artists often create full-scale drawings of the final work that serve as maps for the intricate process. Known as cartoons, these detailed templates are works of art in their own right, but they unfortunately usually receive far less exposure than their translucent counterparts. However, a team at the Corning Museum of Glass’s Rakow Research Library is currently working to conserve and digitize an immense collection of cartoons from Whitefriars Glass, one of England’s oldest glass manufacturers that operated for over 250 years. With greater access to this historic material, people across the world may search for and view the preparatory tracings of stained glass found in their local churches and cathedrals. But first, the research lab must treat each individual work, a tremendous undertaking currently spearheaded by its two interns that has yielded some fascinating finds.

The collection, which consists of between 5,000 and 7,000 large-scale drawings that range in length from four to 20 feet, arrived in rolls as a 2008 gift from the Museum of London, which did not have the space to store them. In January, the Rakow Research Library received a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS)  to begin this preservation project and has, over the past two months, treated over 100 individual objects. Due to the vast number of rolls — about 1,800 in all — the Rakow Research Library and the Museum of London narrowed the project’s focus, but the number of cartoons the interns are dealing with is nevertheless difficult to predict. Some rolls contain just one; Rakow research intern Natasa Krsmanovic told Hyperallergic that one roll contained 35 individual objects, the record number she’s found so far.

One of the cartoons contained a doodle of a dog
One of the cartoons contained a doodle of a dog (click to enlarge)

The Rakow Library and the Museum of London pared down the collection of rolls for the project to just 15, making decisions based on important artists and locations of the produced stained glass panels, while also looking out for pieces of particular interest to both establishments.

“This interest tends to either be significant churches that the Whitefriars company made stained glass for or British institutions that have had a cultural impact,” Rakow research intern Nicole Monjeau told Hyperallergic. “Secondly, we are trying to reach a wide scope geographically. Whitefriars installed stained glass windows all over the world, and it is great to highlight this fact.” Although many of the cartoons reveal initials of their artists, the interns have confirmed the specific work of only James Humphries Hogan, who eventually became Whitefriars’ managing director and made windows for cathedrals across England.

The contents of the chosen rolls represent stained glass located in about 30 countries, so once digitized, the cartoons will reach an international audience. Some pieces the interns have worked with so far are drafts for windows found in well-known churches like Liverpool Cathedral in England and St. Thomas Church in New York City. One exciting discovery involved unrolling several cartoons for a window in the Park Church in Elmira, New York — a mere 20-minute journey from Corning, so the research team visited the church to compare the drawing with the glass. They found the trademark Whitefriar logo — a friar in a white, hooded robe — on some of the church’s windows, confirming the match.

While most of the historic imagery is religious, Monjeau notes that they did find a figure of the religious scholar Albert Schweitzer in a panel that seemed to focus more on his humanitarian work. Other unexpected, delightful finds include those that give the interns a sense of the artists themselves as well as their working environments.

“For example, we have found many tea ring stains, doodles, and notes,” Monjeau explained. “You can imagine them working at their desks, knocking around their cups of tea. Many of the doodles correspond to the object (for example, drawings of feet which show the artist was trying to get the placement and perspective right), but some seem more random.” Other cartoons contain handwritten marginalia; one favorite find is a random doodle of a dog, which cropped up with no apparent relation to the cartoon its artist was working on.

“Finds like this make me wonder about the artist working on the object,” Monjeau said. “Was he taking a tea break and needed something to do with his hands and decided to draw a dog? Did he miss his own dog?”

A window at St. Thomas Church that features the Whitefriar logo
A window at St. Thomas Church that features the Whitefriar logo

The process of preserving such treasures is, as Krsmanovic described it, “fairly straightforward from a conservation treatment standpoint,” involving cleaning surfaces and repairing tears, but it does present challenges. Artists illustrated cartoons on a wide variety of papers, including machine-made paper, waxed linen paper, tracing paper, Kraft paper, and silver gelatin prints, and each type offers its own complications. Additionally, since the cartoons are true-to-size, some are very long and difficult to maneuver within the space of the lab.

Monjeau and Krsmanovic have about a month left of their internship and are using Twitter and Instagram to document and share their process, which a future set of interns will continue. The project aims to eventually make available a website that hosts a digital collection of cartoons that people may build upon as well by taking and sharing photographs of their local windows.

“I think this is quite special, to be gifted this collection from the Museum of London, in an effort to learn about process, design, and drafting, and share this knowledge,” Krsmanovic said. “We hope the public will find inspiration in their communities, find these stained glass windows, and contribute, with oral histories and photographs of their own.”

Intern Natasa Krsmanovic places objects on a flattening stack
Intern Natasa Krsmanovic places objects on a flattening stack
Lining up a torn cartoon for treatment
Lining up a torn cartoon for treatment
An unrolled roll of cartoons
An unrolled roll of cartoons
Rolling Objects Onto Core 2
Rolling objects onto a core
Nicole Assesses a Silver Gelatin Print
Nicole Monjeau assessing a silver gelatin print
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