Tripping the light fantastic
George Wigley’s Northamptonshire workshop is a treasure trove of history, light and colour – with a few body parts thrown in…
It’s dark in the Monastery Stained Glass workshop until the fluorescent lights flicker on. Floor to ceiling shelving along one long wall is lined with slices of plain glass, carefully graded and labelled: ‘Blue, pale to dark, sea green, sea blue, blue grey.’ It’s an ordered chaos of paper templates, tools, and boxes marked with less precision (‘Red bits’ and ‘Green bits’). On closer inspection there are more macabre sounding labels: ‘Part heads,’ or ‘16th C hands.’ This is the unique collection of stained glass fragments, begun in 1961 and added to, sold and compiled by 88-year-old George Wigley over the last 55 years.
What brings joy to the heart is the display of stained glass medallions and panels glowing with colour in the afternoon sunlight, that hang in front of long windows Wigley made himself. A 15th century bearded saint hangs above an angel (also 15th century) who turns his eyes discreetly away as three naked boys emerge from a pickling tub, fully restored to life by St Nicholas. When the large tabletop light box is illuminated, the raw materials of Wigley’s work are revealed, as scores of broken pieces litter the surface, waiting to be sorted and pieced together. ‘An awful lot of windows survived in fragments,’ he explains. ‘So many were destroyed during the Reformation, and the Civil War was as bad. Windows would be smashed and bits taken as relics.’
The workshop is housed in a converted cow byre next to Wigley’s 14th century hall house (you can still see the blackened rafters in the attic of the house, where the smoke drifted through the chimney-less roof in 1310). The house itself (‘It was never a monastery,’ he admits), has had every window replaced with infinite care and each is fitted with its own patchwork of historic glass. It’s a fitting home for this collection – all for sale – of pieces from the 13th Century to the most modern piece, a 21st century panel painted by Christine Boyce.
Wigley tells tales of his early selling trips. ‘I traipsed about from antique shop to antique shop, with my panels in an old flight bag from my days as an airline pilot. Unfortunately not everyone had my passion for stained glass.’ Completely self-taught through trial and error, George points out that he learned a lot on buying trips to glaziers like Dennis King in Norwich. ‘I would look over people’s shoulders while they worked and say, "You don’t mind do you?" I am a pretty slow learner, but I had the bug.’
These days it’s a different story, and as well as restoring exquisite small panels and roundels, Wigley makes windows to commission – his favourite being a memorial window for his friend George Fisher. ‘His wife wanted an Annunciation, so I thought I would do something different,’ he laughs. ‘I can’t draw, so I asked Chris Fiddes, a local school master, for a drawing, to be painted by my painter Barbara Bowdens. We decided on a virgin and unicorn. Chris’s first unicorn had rather large genitals, which had to be altered before the donor, in her 70s, saw it.’
George’s clients are many and diverse, some with prestigious antique galleries in the West End of London, as well as private customers. ‘Some people have a mental block past 1750,’ he says. Pieces can be seen on his website, but anyone making the trip to Northamptonshire is guaranteed a blissful afternoon rummaging through the drawers of fragments while George imparts his trade secrets. ‘I am happy to pontificate,’ he smiles. ‘If you die without sharing your knowledge it all disappears. I don’t agree with keeping knowledge to myself.’
So if you meet George, don’t be shy about looking over his shoulder with a quick ‘you don’t mind do you?’ (He won’t.)
Words and photographs Gail Abbott