Stained glass craftsmen Paul and Michelle Roberts of Harlequin Stained Glass in Alfreton
PUBLISHED: 00:00 22 February 2016
Established in 1999, this small Derbyshire business has just celebrated a new contract with the National Trust, working with Wheathills from Kedleston on a restoration project at Belton House in Lincolnshire - such is their valued expertise and specialist knowledge
Creating a stained glass work of art is a marriage of glass and lead, fragile and strong, the romantic combination of conceiving a workable design, skilfully assembling the pieces and bonding them together so that they remain intact over a long period of time. It is rather appropriate therefore that Paul and Michelle Roberts of Harlequin Stained Glass have been married for 25 years and work well together as a dedicated husband and wife team.
Established in 1999, this small Derbyshire business, members of the Derbyshire County Council Trusted Trader Scheme, has just celebrated a new contract with the National Trust, working with Wheathills from Kedleston on a restoration project at Belton House in Lincolnshire – such is their valued expertise and specialist knowledge.
With an obvious passion for what they do and an ethos of quality and perfection, Paul and Michelle have created some outstanding pieces of glasswork that now embellish churches, cottages, fine English country houses, and even a pub in Moscow.
They specialise in three types of glasswork: etching, hand-painted, traditional kiln-fired and leaded stained glass.
The design of Victorian stained glass was all about geometrics. Hand-painting in particular is extremely labour intensive involving a line, block and colour technique requiring several firings.
So how exactly did Paul and Michelle get into this particular genre of art and craft? ‘I enjoyed art, woodwork and metalwork at school,’ explained Paul, ‘but in my 30s I found myself employed as a warehouse and distribution manager in the clothing industry. I was not at all happy, so Michelle treated me to an evening class on stained glass as a way for me to escape the stress of everyday work, and I loved it!
‘At first I made things for family and friends, experimenting and perfecting the art of cutting glass and assembling it to make small door and window panels, tiffany lamps and mirrors. I then went on more courses and learned when to use different glasses, how to cut curves and generally how to work the materials involved.
‘When the distribution company relocated I took voluntary redundancy to set up our business. It was quite a risk because we had a mortgage to pay and two young children to support, but we certainly don’t regret it.’
Michelle studied art at school but then worked with adults with special needs before becoming a full-time mother. ‘When Paul and I decided to set up in business I went on some training courses as well and studied how to create workable designs and templates and then I learned the art of painting on glass. As well as most of the glass and lead work, Paul also deals with the accounts and estimates whilst I liaise with clients and suppliers.’
I had called to meet Paul and Michelle at their workshop and gallery behind Curiosity Interiors on 37 King Street in Alfreton. This workshop, which they moved to in 2000, is in an old building with a galvanised tin roof and was not very warm on this particularly cold October day, but it’s evidently an improvement on the shed at the top of their garden where Paul had previously worked. Back then, large panels had to be laid out on the lawn or the kitchen floor.
‘I prefer to work at home as much as possible because it’s often freezing in here,’ said Michelle as she snuggled tightly into her thick woolly jacket. ‘A butcher who visited us said it was the coldest place on earth. He asked if he could bring his joints of meat round for storage!’
However, happiness for Paul and Michelle is not about having a state-of-the-art workshop and a workforce of employees. ‘We only want to stay small with just the two of us. In that way we remain in control of quality. We’re perfectionists,’ explained Michelle. ‘It might mean customers have to wait a while for something but we hope it’s worth the wait and judging by the feedback we think we’ve got it right.’
‘I do spend quite a bit of time at the workshop though,’ she added. ‘I arrange meetings with customers to choose colours and to work on their particular requests. Often I have to explain to them that their pencil-drawn sketch must be altered a bit to become more structured, as flowing lead lines are an essential part of the overall picture to make the stained glass functional and strong. Also, Paul has to be able to cut out each piece of glass and reassemble it in a practical and workable way.
‘We love unusual commissions and have never turned anything down. I might huff and puff a bit until I get my head around the design but the more complicated a project is, the bigger the buzz when we finish it. Our work is individual, bespoke and sometimes personal. It includes memorial pieces.
‘Some customers want a lovely Derbyshire or Peak District scene, others want patterns. The skill of the design is being able to create an overall stylised picture without emphasis on the lead lines.’
Michelle then took out a folder to show me some examples of their work. On one page was a lovely landscape of flowing hills and a stream in mellow shades of green and blue whilst on the next page was an art deco design with rays of sunshine and vibrant colours. There were also etchings on glass panels, mainly block patterns of typical Victorian designs such as fleur de lis, but occasionally there was a portrait of someone’s favourite pet.
Following an initial enquiry for a stained glass piece of work, a design is created by Michelle and then a template made for a working drawing. Paul cuts all the glass and the lead strips known as ‘came’ to fit, then assembles it together, rather like a jigsaw. When it’s complete he solders the joints between lead and glass and puts putty in between to make the piece rigid and weather-proof. Cleaning the panel takes some time because of the drying process, which can take several days. The finishing touch is to ‘black lead’ the lines so that they don’t tarnish over time.
Years ago black-leading grates and stoves was a common household chore. Lamp blacking from oil lamps was used to stain the lead until Reckitt & Sons developed Zebo liquid grate polish in the 1920s. Reckitt & Colman were still manufacturing it until around 2008 but Zebo is evidently now as difficult to find as gold dust and modern products are not considered to be as good.
‘Thorpe Manor near Dovedale wanted stained glass panels for a mullioned window which framed a particularly magnificent view of the landscape from inside. However, one of the most challenging projects I worked on was to create 18 stained glass panels incorporating red roses for the “traditional English” Molly Gwynne pub in Moscow,’ said Paul. ‘I had a tight deadline to meet and ended up working 20-hour days to finish it, with pizza delivered to the workshop to keep me going. On another occasion we had great fun creating a window panel that was sent to Australia. It was a wedding present for Kirsty and Matt and incorporated little details to reflect that the groom was originally from England and the bride was Australian.
‘Another interesting task was a six foot tall door panel that was only 15 inches wide. It was for a couple in Heage who wanted a stained-glass scene to remind them of happy memories walking in Scotland. We somehow managed to meet their request and fit in images of their two dogs, a Scots pine tree, a red squirrel and a deer.’
Harlequin source their glass from two or three different suppliers, depending on the particular project. It might be machine made or mouth-blown, which is hard to source but essential for restoration work such as the work at Belton House. Their mouth-blown glass supplier is English Antique Glass Limited at Alvechurch, Birmingham, and Paul visits in person to select the glass and colours.
Harlequin also works with Old English Doors of Nottingham, specialists in architectural joinery and bespoke doors, who want stained glass or glass painted panels, often in a Victorian style.
One particular piece of work, a favourite of Paul and Michelle’s, was commissioned in 2013 by Mary Magdalene School in Sutton-in-Ashfield for a much-loved headmaster who was retiring. Working in secret with the schoolchildren and their parents, Michelle designed a biblical scene, incorporating some personal touches and tweaks. The headmaster was depicted as a shepherd in black and white robes (he was a Newcastle United fan) but as he was also known for his colourful dress sense, the figure is wearing purple sandals and a purple watch with the time set at ten past three (school leaving time). Background panels are in the colours of the four school houses and at the top it says ‘Our Shepherd’. Paul recalled with a smile, ‘I was paid for this one by instalments in handfuls of £1 coins. Every time the parents popped in to check on progress they paid me a bit more in change from the children’s dinner money!’
One of their biggest undertakings took six months and was for Deborah Fern OBE at Stancliffe Hall, Darley Dale. The present grand Victorian house belonged at one time to Sir Joseph Whitworth whose initials were on ornate side panels in a doorway. The original door was missing so Paul and Michelle painstakingly recreated a replica hand-painted panel but with F for Fern in the centre.
‘We’ve created a stained glass ceiling for a stable at Duffield and a door panel featuring a red and white lighthouse in land-locked Ilkeston. Another customer wanted a panel decorated with a complex Tree of Life and every single piece of glass had to be carefully planned with him,’ Paul said.
When stained glass is mentioned most people think of churches, and Paul has also restored the glass in several Derbyshire churches, including Alfreton and Ripley where sadly the work had to be done twice due to vandalism.
People often replace old stained glass door and window panels with modern double or even triple glazing in wood or plastic. However, Harlequin can keep the old panels, restoring and fitting them between layers of clear glass to form a sealed unit to retain an antique feature in an efficient 21st century way that reduces heat loss.
During rare quiet spells Paul makes objects for their gallery, which also stocks work by other artists, mainly with a glass theme. The gallery is generally open Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, 9.30am–5pm, and Saturday 9am–2pm.
As I left this happy and contented duo to continue with their work, sunlight was shining through the stained glass Harlequin sign by the door and reflecting in a rainbow of bold colours across the floor. It suddenly occurred to me that from this little modest workshop, colourful masterpieces are created that bring rays of light-filled happiness and joy to their proud new owners.
Harlequin Stained Glass, Alfreton www.harlequinstainedglass.co.uk