Meet the craftsman creating stained glass windows from his Pouchen End barn
PUBLISHED: 11:42 25 November 2020 | UPDATED: 10:27 26 November 2020
His stained glass windows, made in a barn in west Herts, are in demand across the country. Meet the surveyor turned craftsman, John Proctor
In the hamlet of Pouchen End, a brief but steep drive from Winkwell where narrowboats cruise between Berkhamsted and Hemel Hempstead along the Grand Union Canal, a quietude suggests that nothing unusual happens in this corner of west Hertfordshire.
Turn into Pouchen End Farm at the top of the lane, however, and a short stroll brings you to the home of one of the county’s more unusual artists.
As I enter John Proctor’s work space, a large wooden barn – ‘a lean-to where my mum kept her car’ – on the family farm where he grew up, he reveals a love of a traditional craft.
‘What appeals to me about stained glass is there’s a bit of mystique about it and I like the idea of doing something nobody else knows how to.
‘Ecclesiastic stained glass is rooted in the 11th and 12th centuries, a way of depicting Biblical stories. They could only make glass in small pieces so this was a way of joining them together to cover a big area. Who hit on the idea of lead, goodness knows.’
In the barn, which sums up the phrase organised chaos, stacks of coloured glass surround work surfaces overflowing with lengths of lead, cutting tools and works in progress. It has been the hub of John’s output for the past 12 years.
The 62-year-old wasn’t always an artist however, and the spark for a new career came from an unlikely source.
‘I first became aware of stained glass door panels when I was a surveyor for an architectural practice for 15 years. I then worked as a sole practitioner until a distant uncle died and left me some money; that seemed like a good opportunity to branch off and do something else.’
The first scene John created was for his parents – a figurative farming landscape depicting a tractor, dogs, birds and trees. Commissions from friends followed, while demonstrations at Hertfordshire County Show nurtured his reputation.
He now concentrates on creating bespoke stained glass panels, assisted by former costume maker Lucia Smith. She explains how she became involved: ‘John made some beautiful paintings of birds for our Victorian house and did such a good job I said, can I come and work for you?’
As Lucia concentrates on rebuilding a rectangular panel – ‘lead degrades, oxidises, causing joints to weaken so they need soldering’ – John describes the process of producing a new image: ‘I’m still paper and pencil,’ he laughs.
‘People send me depictions of the sort of thing they are after then I do a full-size drawing. I use mostly 2mm thick machine-made coloured, textured glass which lets light through but does obscure vision. For glass in front doors, one of the main factors is privacy.’
Most panels John works on consist of unpainted coloured glass, each piece fashioned using a pencil shaped glass cutter. Repairs and commissions, on the other hand, occasionally call for painted glass.
Detailed lines are hand painted on to the cut glass using powdered metal oxide pigments mixed with water and gum Arabic to fix the pigment to the glass. Then, using plasticine, each part of the composition is attached to a back-lit easel.
Once satisfied with the scene, John removes the plasticine and places the individual glass sections into a kiln which is fired to 670C. After one and a half hours the kiln is cooled to 300C before being opened.
Leading up panels takes place on a workbench beginning at a right angle corner. Individual sections of glass are temporarily held in place by a small fragment of lead and a horse shoe nail. ‘Then you get to the exciting bit – soldering where ideally all the joints butt together really tightly.’
The next process involves brushing lead light cement – comprised of whiting, linseed oil, white spirit and black dye – to fill the space between glass and lead.
For scenic commissions, John combines traditional coloured glass with glass painting using metal oxide pigments mixed with gum Arabic and water to make a creamy paste. Once the pigment is set on the glass, it can be scratched away to sharpen lines.
With a customer base stretching as far afield as Northumberland and Cornwall, John’s skills are in high demand. So what is the most satisfying aspect of his calling?
‘The end product, because you don’t know exactly what it’s going to turn out like until then.’
I can’t imagine he’s ever disappointed. Born and bred in Hertfordshire (he represented Herts Schools at cricket, proudly hitting the winning runs against Kent at Tring), both village life and a love of craftsmanship are embedded in his DNA.