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Stained glass at The Vyne and its battle with condensation

PUBLISHED: 16:09 20 January 2016 | UPDATED: 16:09 20 January 2016

The Vyne Chapel (National Trust Images, Oskar Proctor)

The Vyne Chapel (National Trust Images, Oskar Proctor)

Archant

It has survived the ravages of the English Civil War and WW2 bombing raids, but lately the precious Tudor stained glass at The Vyne has been under attack from a new enemy, condensation. Viv Micklefield uncovers the illuminating conservation project designed to save it

Sparkling jewel-like whatever the weather outside, the rich ruby, sapphire blue and amber coloured panes are considered the finest example of 16th century stained glass found anywhere in Europe. Yet this exquisite depiction of the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ isn’t lighting-up one of the nation’s great cathedrals or royal palaces, instead, it resides in the chapel of National Trust property The Vyne, in Sherborne St John. And what’s more, this is just a glimpse of a much bigger reveal to come.

That’s because since last summer, within the walls of what art historian Horace Walpole praised as “the most heavenly Chapel in all the world”, the Trust has taken-on its most ambitious stained glass project ever: to remove the remaining 17 of the chapel’s 18 windows so that they can be first cleaned and then refitted with state-of-the-art protective glazing.

“We’re really proud to have this glass,” says Dominque Shembry, The Vyne’s house steward. “It’s hugely significant and on a par with what you’d see at King’s College Chapel in Cambridge and St George’s Chapel in Windsor.”

As Dominique goes on to explain, there’s plenty of intrigue surrounding how these windows, measuring up to 1.95m high and 0.46m wide, come to be at The Vyne at all.

“Originally the glass was located at the much older Holy Ghost Chapel in Basingstoke, the burial place for the local Sandys family. We don’t know exactly when it was moved up here to The Vyne, which Sir William Sandys, who was Henry VIII’s lord chamberlain, had built in the 1520s - one suggestion is this may have happened during the English Civil War.

“At that time, there was a lot of action going on around Basing House, so the glass may have been removed to protect it from the Parliamentarians, who destroyed the decoration and stained glass in many churches. Legend says it was hidden in fish ponds, although we don’t know if there’s any truth in this. We think it was rediscovered around the 1680s by The Vyne’s subsequent owner Edward Chute and his wife, because their coat of arms appears in one of the panes.”

Despite this later addition, the stained glass found a fitting resting place as the chapel, together with the house’s famous oak gallery, still proudly bears its Tudor origins to this day. And with the scenes of a young Henry VIII, his first wife Catherine of Aragon and his sister Queen Margaret of Scotland interspersed alongside biblical references, as one of the volunteers Ken Standing puts it, the glass is: “A visual history book”.

Considering its age the colours remain incredibly vibrant. But with pitting and corrosion gradually becoming more evident, conservators became concerned about its survival and in 2013, began to assess what could be done.

Most of The Vyne’s stained glass is believed to have been created by Flemish glaziers and designed by Bernard van Orley, court painter to Margaret of Austria, and according to Steve Clare, the National Trust’s specialist advisor, it is particularly vulnerable. “The problem is that the glass paint and enamel were generally not as highly fired as earlier glass or later Victorian glass,” Steve observes. “It’s soft by nature, and painted detail on glass of this period is often lost due to abrasion. Add the effects of condensation and you begin to understand why the Trust has decided on this complex project to protect it.

“The purpose of this work, carried out by conservation studio Holy Well Glass, is to provide a stable environment for the glass that will ultimately slow the mechanisms of decay.”

Keen to monitor their success, Steve and his team tested out the new protective glazing system on the central Crucifixion window, which sees the original stained glass angled forward of a second clear glass window to allow for air to circulate between. In a first for 16th century glass conservators, infra-red thermal imaging has been used alongside checking for humidity levels in order to spot any signs of further deterioration. And following positive results the green light was given to roll-out the project, which will cost just under £100,000.

“We’re employing the Trust’s ethos of restraint, and all the processes and materials we’re using are reversible,” confirms Steve.

Arriving at the chapel during recent months you’d be greeted by swathes of dust sheets. However, with the stained glass undergoing treatment off-site, the window spaces left behind have already been filled with clear glass and simple lead tracery, allowing natural light to flood-in for the first time in 500 years.

Seen from the temporary viewing platform installed, new life has been breathed into the intricately carved wooden choir stalls that are decorated with heraldry, plant motifs and cherubs, as well as the 18th century trompe l’oeil artwork on the walls.

And that’s not all. With visitors able to enjoy this once-in-a-lifetime chance to get up-close to the craftsmanship displayed on the completed window, Dominque hopes that many more will be captivated by its beauty once the rest of the glass is reinstalled in the New Year. “They’ve made some amazing discoveries during the conservation, including finding glazier’s marks on the Henry panel that no-one previously knew were there,” she says, adding: “Having permanently removed the wire grills that used to be on the outside of the windows, this also makes a huge difference to how people will see the glass in the future as it produces a much sharper image.

“The Vyne’s stained glass has become such an integral part of the chapel - to have it protected in the way that it will be is so exciting.” 


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