The Divine Beauty Project restored the cathedral’s four stained-glass windows to their former glory in 2023. The conservation took over 500 working days. A grant of £641,000 from The National Lottery Heritage Fund supported this work, alongside donations from organisations and individuals.

In addition to the physical conservation work, the project included engagement activities, including scaffolding tours, school workshops, street art commissions inspired by the windows, and public drop-in sessions with the conservation team. Over 3400 visitors saw the conservation work from a platform on the scaffolding over a five-month period.

Before the conservation work, the windows displayed signs of dirt buildup, cracked glazing, and damaged stonework. Conservators found evidence of previous attempts to repair cracks, leads and to touch up damaged areas. The project thoroughly cleaned and repaired the ironwork frames and addressed the long-term weather damage to the surrounding stonework. The works also involved installing new grilles on all four windows for protection and to improve the view of the windows from the outside.

As some sections were in such poor condition, twenty panels, mostly located at the top and bottom of each of the four windows, had to be removed. These were taken to the conservator’s workshop in Wells for restoration. The existing glass was cleaned and conserved whenever possible, with replacement glass only used when necessary. Conservators used a solution of acetone and deionised water to clean the glass – effectively removing grease and soot without damaging the paint.  Holy Well Glass used pieces from the extensive glass collection to match the replacement glass as closely as possible. Conservators also hand-touched some paintwork, which proved challenging when matching the paint colours to the windows’ original.

Some window panels required new leading. Malleable lead cames are shaped by hand and come in different sizes, depending on the glass thickness. Before dismantling, rubbings are taken of the panels to copy the design accurately. There are two main methods of taking rubbings – either using a crayon-like substance or ink. The crayon method provides a more detailed final rubbing, whereas ink can be more efficient over larger panels.

Conservators cut the lead cames to size with a chisel and aligned them with the outlines from the rubbings taken from the panels to recreate the windows in the workshop. The correct tension must be achieved during this process to ensure that the windows can be returned to their original size, shape, and strength when the cames are soldered together. A putty is inserted into small gaps between the lead caming and the glass to ensure the windows are weatherproof. In some sections, only the putty was replaced rather than the lead cames themselves.

An important element of these works, was to give the opportunity for a trainee conservator to get hands-on experience of working on such an important project. Daisy Coombes was selected to work with conservators from Holy Well Glass during the works in 2023.

Daisy completed her graduation in English Literature and Modern Languages in July 2022, and she has always been interested in conservation. She has a deep interest in the Pre-Raphaelites and has worked on Burne-Jones glass. During her university days, Daisy wrote an essay on Victorian material culture and was fascinated to learn more about the stained-glass element of the Arts and Crafts Movement. When she saw the work experience position advertised on the University of Wales website, Daisy applied and was taken on by Holy Well Glass for the summer to work on the Divine Beauty project, after a week’s trial.

Daisy learned various techniques like pointing, glazing, cleaning, conservation, and ethics while handling panels of glass, taking them in and out. She assisted in every possible way and received training for everything as she went on. The placement was accessible for Daisy, which she couldn’t afford otherwise.

Daisy has been appointed to a three-year apprenticeship with Holy Well Glass and will be moving to Wells after completing a pre-arranged contract in France. She will work in Somerset, alongside her academic curriculum at the University of Wales.

“Jack and John have both been very supportive, involving me in every aspect and keeping it varied and interesting I really love how practical it is and learning all the practical skills: puttying, pointing – and the interaction with the public … talking to knowledgeable people, people who are familiar with the windows well and people who know nothing about them.”

Daisy Coombes

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