Pigments of the imagination: Stained glass is undergoing a stylish revival

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The Independent Online

In one corner stands an image of Bill Haley, in others Bridget Bardot and Henry Miller. The arty characters make a certain statement in the home of the literary agent who commissioned them, especially since they are not depicted in canvases or photos but in stained glass. And it is a welcome alternative to St George, Biblical scenes or heraldic shields. "We get a lot of quirky, very individualistic commissions and they're rarely traditional or instructional like a church window," says Stephen Byrne, half of Williams & Byrne, one of Britain's leading makers of artisan stained glass – like the city tycoon who wanted a representation of the Fibonacci numerical sequence in his front door, or the client who went for a portrait of himself and his dog.

Certainly, if stained glass is most readily associated with the sombre and ecclesiastical, contemporary glass is enjoying a renaissance. It is part of a general craft revival, a rising interest in restoration projects, more talent from schools that teach the techniques and with artists' increased access to more affordable furnaces, which encourages experimentation. "That the craft has a hugely rich heritage, is expressive and has a function that makes it part of architecture has helped ensure its ongoing appreciation," says Rosy Greenlees, the executive director of the Crafts Council, currently preparing its British glass art touring exhibition, which will launch in September.

At the extremes it's providing inspiration for more outre art projects, among them LA-based Chris Roth, who uses stained glass techniques to blend religious iconography with the pop cultural kind, including Spiderman and the Beastie Boys.

"The more people have grown aware that they can have stained glass made for their home, the more exciting ideas you see out there," says stained glass artist Beverly Byron of Prisms Glass, who works with both the essentially Medieval technique of painted, coloured glass pieces cemented into a lead framework, but also kiln-formed glass, a method that has come on over the last decade in which the pieces are fused without the lead, creating more of a 3D surface in the process.

"There's an expression of not only individuality to stained glass but of status too," she adds. "After all, put stained glass into your front door, as many of my clients do and as the Victorians traditionally did, and it's the first thing you see when you approach a house. Whether you opt for something very modern or more classical and in keeping with the building, it says something about you."

"It is a luxury option," concedes Byrne – with prices, depending on artist and complexity, around £100 per sq ft and upwards. "After all, stained glass' function can be met by much cheaper plain glass." But then plain glass does not offer the bespoke stained variety's advantages. For some that is a matter of self-expression, although most tend to confine more particular designs to doors and other easily replaced locations, aware that they may not be to the taste of subsequent owners of the house. For others it is simply a question of maximising natural light in an interior while providing privacy in built-up areas or obscuring a unappealing view – Williams & Byrne are working on panels for a stately home that has just had an out-of-town development built across one of its vistas.

"But for more people it is about an appreciation of the atmosphere that stained glass can create," says Leo Amery, a stained glass artist based in France, where he also runs popular six-day residential courses during which students make their own window to take home with them.

"The coloured light, and the glass's many different effects depending on the angle and intensity of daylight coming through it, can be hugely evocative, which is why it's a shame to shut it up against screens of double-glazing. You often want to get up close to stained glass – the combination of the subtlety of the lead and the fragility and tactility of the glass is particularly pleasing."

The process of commissioning stained glass is a simple one and the results typically in another league from the off-the-shelf, mass-manufactured modern stained glass "available from a catalogue and typically picturing windmills or some kind of Mondrian style", as Byrne gently dismisses it. Given a budget, the artist develops full-scale sketch based on the client's subject and colour scheme, glass is selected – it pays to invest in hand-made over factory-made glass, since the former's varying density, minute variations and vibrancy of colour go to create a more magical play of light. The hardest part of the process is deciding what to have. "It took me 10 years before I did my own front door," says Byron.

What perhaps makes the decision easier is the option to commission stained glass for display rather than to fix more permanently into the structure of a home. Frames can be built so that the stained glass piece sits over an existing window rather than replaces it (thus also circumventing planning permission issues in some instances). Avery specialises in raised pieces that are displayed with a system of front lighting, so that the colour of the glass is effectively projected against a white wall. Ultra-thin light boxes are also now available so pieces can be wall-hung as illuminated tapestries.

"And given the cost of good canvases these days, and considering the craft that has gone into making stained glass pieces, and the history behind them, they remain good value," argues Edgar Phillips of the Stained Glass Group. "An original piece of stained glass can reinvent an interior by giving it a sense of place and of gravitas. And while they are increasingly hard to find, such traditional pieces can work well in a contemporary home."

Indeed, commissioning can be circumvented altogether, especially for those favouring more traditional pieces ranging from the 15th century up to the Arts and Crafts and Arts Nouveau movements, when abstraction began to influence stained glass design. Although the collectors' market is buoyant, making quality pieces harder to come by for those of casual interest, the likes of the Stained Glass Group specialises in sourcing, authenticating and restoring antique stained glass – be it originally for devotional display or domestic Victorian stained glass, which is currently popular.

The Victorians embraced stained glass. But with good, fully restored Victorian door pieces selling for over £2,000, this isn't cheap. Such pieces will, however, hold their value. Phillips has even sold complete church windows to some clients with larger properties – and pockets.

"Stained glass has gained exposure in recent years as people become aware that traditional crafts are dying out," says Sarah Jackson, the stained glass designer behind Sarah Jackson Creations, whose pieces have featured representations of Cumbrian countryside views through to the Grim Reaper, and who is now in discussions with a window manufacturer to develop a triple-glazed stained glass line. "What people are learning now is just how versatile it is."

Useful contacts

Williams & Byrne (01584 856 724, Williams andbyrne.co.uk); Prisms Glass (020 7624 3240, Prismsglass.com); Leo Amery

(Leo-amery-vitrail.com); Stained Glass Group (01749 678 005, Stainedglassgroup.com)