Art of glass could be lost for generations

12th December 2003 at 00:00
As I manoeuvre a triangle of rich blue glass into the piece of lead that will hold it firm alongside a slice of sand-blasted pink glass this evening, I shall be thinking with particular poignancy of how my life has been enriched by the introduction I have had to the thrilling business of working in stained glass.

The City Lit in London runs probably the only publicly-funded adult education course in the country with a full range of professional facilities, as well as having inspired teachers. Most of us there, like most of today's children, received a limited and rudimentary training in art at school but now we have become the most devoted students.

Through taking a further education course we have learnt about the early genesis of stained glass work and the thrilling things being done with it by estimable contemporary artists working in this medium. We have experienced the excitement of learning to create our own stained-glass panels, windows and pictures. The crass, mass-market-style Tiffany lamps are not encouraged.

As the national curriculum is geared ever more to academic learning, not only has art been marginalised but didacticism rules what it is and how it should be taught.

The only chance most schoolchildren have of exposure to arcane arts and crafts is when imaginative schools buy in workshops. Colin Swan is director of Wise Moves, an organisation offering dance and visual art sessions in schools.

One of his artists, Kathy Shaw, has worked as artist-in-residence at several schools including North Westminster community which has a mixed intake of children. Such was the interest that she raised money for GCSE and A-level students to take the subject.

The detailed and technically demanding skills that stained glass and, say, ceramic restoration require would do much to enhance curriculum work. Glass work, for instance, encompasses mathematics, precision technical work and design and painting.

Scientific knowledge comes into working out how different paints, enamels and firing processes affect glass and colour. Artistic flair is encouraged because stained glass incorporates the possibility of so many different types of decoration.

At least those who want to study such subjects after school have been able to take classes at adult education institutes - and at just about any age.

In my class there are students from late teens to late seventies.

But the stained glass courses at City Lit, the first in the country and started 40 years ago by internationally-known artist Amal Ghosh, are threatened with the axe. Ostensibly the reason is that there will not be space for them when the City Lit moves to a new building next year - even though umpteen tai chi, personal development, singing and drawing classes can be fitted in.

Few of us doubt that it is actually about bums on seats - some of the glass classes are over-subscribed, others less so, although these students get lots of one-to-one attention and produce wonderful work, often going on to win prizes and earn a living from their art.

The implications of closing down such courses are serious. Children in school are unlikely to do more than glimpse a stained glass window in passing on a visit to a church.

And if those who might be fired by a particularly wonderful example (in my case it was John Piper's modern window in the church at Aldeburgh in Suffolk) have nowhere to pursue the interest, where will the next generation of glass artists come from?

Who will be there to create the wonderful windows, doors, walls, refracting light and colour, interpreting the medium for our times as Rosalind Grimshaw, for example, has done in her dazzling Genesis in Chester Cathedral?

This is why the battle should matter to us and for our children's heritage.

There are, of course, private courses but they are prohibitively expensive for many, and you have to prove ability to get on to a degree course at art college.

So for those wanting to explore and try, it is essential we protest and protect the means to do this.

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