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Tom Vowden, Stained Glass Conservator

August 10, 2020
by the gentle author

One of my favourite places in the East End is Bow Church, so it was a delight to visit last week and meet Stained Glass Conservator, Tom Vowden, who is currently working on the east window. It made me feel less guilty about my own windows which get cleaned no more than once a year, when he told me that the east window is being cleaned for the first time since it was installed in the early fifties – more than sixty years ago.

Designed by H Lewis Curtis, this window dates from the early fifties, replacing one that was blown out when a bomb hit the church during the war. The window poses something of a mystery, since it has no religious iconography and is filled with a classical architectural structure within which images of small animals are discreetly placed.

Yet, in the lower part of the window, the blue coffered roof matches the Tudor ceiling in the chancel and, in the upper part of the window, the cupola reflects the design on the tower which was added when it was rebuilt at the same time the window was installed. H Lewis Curtis was the professional partner of architect Harry Goodhart Rendell who repaired Bow Church after the war.

A compelling suggestion to explain the presence of the animals in the window is that they honour Arthur Broome, former Rector of Bow and one of the founder members of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty of Animals that later became the RSPCA. At a meeting in June 1824, he was one of twenty-two people who gathered – possibly at Bow Church – to found a society that would protect animals from harm. It is even said that the debts incurred by the organisation in the early years meant that Broome himself was imprisoned.

Today the window forms a popular and intriguing puzzle for visitors who are invited to spot the owl, the butterfly, the pigeon, the cat, the mice and other creatures concealed in the design. And now that Tom has cleaned painstakingly the glass, this innocent pastime is even more attractive.

It was my privilege, as Tom’s guest, to climb up and take a much closer look at the window from the inside and the outside. So I took this opportunity to ask him about the profession of Stained Glass Conservator.

“I work on all kinds of glass from the medieval period until the modern day. Originally I studied archaeology and through that I got interested in historic crafts and the way things have been made throughout history. So I tried a few different things, I tried blacksmithing, glassblowing and marquetry before settling on stained glass. I found an apprenticeship at York Minster.

In my apprenticeship at the Minster, I worked on medieval glass but then I was at the Palace of Westminster for a couple of years working on nineteenth century glass. I replaced some of the glass on the face of Big Ben and we had to wait until the clock hands went past in order to fit the new pieces.

Making stained glass is a craft skill, but it is also artistic and you are playing with light. I am starting to design my own stained glass alongside my conservation work. Nowadays there’s less commissions for churches but more for front doors. Lead in stained glass has a lifespan of around a hundred years, and many houses in London are around that age, and it needs replacing.

The work I am doing at Bow Church is cleaning the surface of the glass and doing a couple of in situ repairs – there is a crack through one of the panes that needs resin bonding to weatherproof it. Mostly I am cleaning off the residue of pollution and sometimes there is a waxed layer in the interior where candles have been used. Pollution and pigeon droppings corrode the surface of glass over time and form a layer that allows condensation to settle which can cause any paint on the surface of the glass to deteriorate and be lost.

The east window that I am working on is not particularly old but it has an extreme amount of pollution for its age because of the location of this church with busy roads on either side. I find this window quite unusual because I cannot find a maker’s mark. It is one of the most interesting windows I have worked on. The design is unusual and it makes use of flashed glass, where glass is manufactured in two layers and the coloured layer is acid-etched through to the clear glass. Because it was manufactured in the fifties, this window is structurally sound but often with older windows are bowing which causes breaks.

Cleaning needs to be done fairly regularly to maintain the preserve the glass as well as possible. This is the first time this window has been cleaned since it was installed in the fifties. There’s not a huge amount of damage at this stage but if it was left for another hundred years or so it could get quite bad. Even something as simple as giving it a clean can really bring a window back to life. You see the texture in the glass that wouldn’t otherwise see.

In fifty years, I would be happy to come back and clean it again.”

Tom Vowden

Tom is cleaning the east window

Tudor roof in the chancel

Spot the owl

Spot the squirrel

Tom at work cleaning the exterior of the glass

The exterior of the east window

Repairs to the lead work on the roof is currently underway

The tower

The rear churchyard

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Ros permalink
    August 10, 2020

    Very interesting article on all levels, with lots of information. I wonder if it would be possible to find out more about the origins of the RSPCA via its archives. Excellent to read about another modern day craftsman and the work he does. I hope funding for him to do other stained glass jobs won’t dry up because of the virus.

  2. Esther Wilkinson Rank permalink
    August 10, 2020

    Another fascinating article. I was interested to read about the link to the RSPCA and Bow Church and I have also enjoyed spotting the various animals on the stained glass windows there. Another animal charity was started not far from Bow Church in Whitechapel — The People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals of the Poor (PDSA) — by Maria Dickin in 1917 in the basement of a pub. So the East End certainly has form when it comes to animal charities!

  3. Mary permalink
    August 10, 2020

    It is lovely to read about Bow Church. I lived in a flat with other students on the south side 1971-1973. I loved looking at the church every day with its beautiful trees. It really does seem like an oasis of calm while the traffic of the crazily busy A11 thunders by on either side. I am ashamed to say I never went into the church in the years I lived nearby, but when the pandemic is over and I can return to London, I am definitely going to be making a visit.
    It is very interesting to hear of the RSPCA connection with the church and Esther’s information about the PDSA.

  4. Robin permalink
    August 10, 2020

    Thanks to Tom Vowden for keeping this window and others intact and beautiful.

  5. August 11, 2020

    Thank you for the kind feature and comments. It’s an incredible church with such a rich history. It’s a pleasure to play even just a small part in preserving a part of its fabric for future generations. Hopefully many visitors will enjoy it for years to come!

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