‘Conservation in Action’: Caring for John Piper’s final stained glass window design

Follow us on the journey to conserve John Piper’s design for the stained glass window at All Saints Church, Farnborough, commissioned in memory of Sir John Betjeman

Why is this artwork important?

John Piper (1903-1992) is considered to be one of the most significant British Modernist artists of the twentieth century. At the River & Rowing Museum, we are lucky enough to be home to the John Piper Gallery, which displays our permanent collection of works by and relating to Piper but also loans from private and public collections, many on display for the first time. Together, they reveal Piper’s outstanding ability to diversify from paintings and drawings to stained glass and ceramics.

In late 2018, the Piper family kindly loaned the Museum Piper’s design for the stained glass window in All Saints Church, Farnborough, to display in the John Piper Gallery. This design reveals Piper’s fascination with stained glass in his later career and, as a work-in-progress, gives a rare glimpse into his creative process. Piper was commissioned to design the window in memory of Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), the Poet Laureate, writer and broadcaster, who had lived in The Old Rectory in Farnborough, Berkshire, from 1945 to 1951. Piper and Betjeman were close friends and collaborators who shared a love of the British landscape, its buildings and monuments.

Betjeman nurtured Piper’s interest in stained glass. In 1954, he helped to arrange Piper’s first stained glass window commission, a window in the Chapel at Oundle School, Northamptonshire, which led to several high-profile commissions. Betjeman also encouraged Piper and the stained glass artist Patrick Reyntiens to work together:

“Betjeman said to me, ‘Oh you ought to go over to John Piper, he lives near you, and he has designed glass for Oundle chapel and he is scratching his head to know who is to carry the work out.’ And with that word, Betjeman swivelled round to me and said, ‘Why don’t you have a try?’”.

 Patrick Reyntiens, ‘Obituary: John Piper’ in The Independent, 2 July 1992

So perhaps it’s not surprising that Piper agreed to design a stained glass window in tribute to Betjeman who helped him to realise his ambitions in the world of stained glass design.

Why was conservation work on the artwork needed?

John Piper’s design for the stained glass window at All Saints Church, Farnborough. Photo credit: AR Conservation.

In his barn studio at Fawley Bottom, near Henley-on-Thames, Piper made the artwork on two pieces of thick cartridge drawing paper, glued together. He painted this paper with gouache, paint and ink, then glued paper cut-outs (coloured, tissue and high-gloss paper) on top to create a collage effect. The design was transformed into a stained glass window by the artist Joseph Nuttgens.

The artwork arrived at the Museum in a fragile condition…

Undulations on the artwork. Photo credit: AR Conservation.

As the artwork arrived at the Museum rolled up, it was unfolded to check its condition. This revealed major undulations on the surface of the work.

Surface dirt and rust on the artwork. Photo credit: River & Rowing Museum.

The artwork had been hung in a domestic environment, using wooden batons. Some of the metal screws and staples on these batons left behind holes, losses and rust on the paper.

Being a working design, there was a lot of surface dirt on the paper as well as puncture marks and tears along the edges. On the front were some large repairs, one possibly done by Piper himself, which had distorted the paper surrounding them.

Lifting paper cut-outs. Photo credit: AR Conservation.

Some paper cut-outs and collage elements had been folded or were lifting; those made of very thin paper were at serious risk of damage.

On behalf of the Piper family, the Museum  contacted AR Conservation for advice in spring 2019. This conservation studio, based in London, specialises in the conservation and restoration of artworks on paper for private individuals as well as museums, galleries and archives. AR Conservation concluded that the artwork needed to be repaired and surface cleaned, then placed inside an acrylic frame for protection.

Step 1…

The thick cartridge paper of the artwork. Photo credit: River & Rowing Museum.

We took the artwork to the conservation studio. Before it could be unrolled, it had to acclimatise to the studio which took a day because the cartridge paper was too stiff to unroll.

 Step 2…

Tears and holes on the artwork. Photo credit: AR Conservation.

The wooden batons were removed, revealing many holes, tears and rust from the screws.

Step 3…

Smoke sponges, showing the amount of surface dirt on the artwork. Photo credit: AR Conservation.

The work was photographed and documented, as a record of the conservation process. Surface dirt was then removed from the front and back using a conservation sponge. Also known as ‘smoke sponge’, this is a type of vulcanised rubber used to dry clean objects.

Step 4…

Paper conservator Amelia Rampton re-attaching the paper cut-outs to the artwork.
Photo credit: AR Conservation.

Starch paste and slight pressure were used to re-attach the paper cut-outs. This type of adhesive is stable, does not discolour and can be easily removed.

Step 5…

Japanese paper attached to the artwork. Photo credit: AR Conservation.

Long strips of Japanese paper were placed along the edges of the artwork to strengthen the tears.

Step 6…

Left photo: Materials used to make a humidification ‘tent’

Right photo: An example of a humidification tent (not the Farnborough artwork)

Photo credits: AR Conservation.

To relax the undulations on the paper, the artwork was humidified under a large ‘tent’ and then dried under slight tension until it lay flat. The tent involved putting a layer of polythene, wet blotters, a breathable and waterproof layer made from Sympatex as well as a protective layer made from Bondina over the artwork, and then a final polyester layer to keep the moisture in.

Step 7…

The support structure for the artwork. Photo credit: AR Conservation.

The artwork was wrapped around a support structure made of a wooden stretcher, thick  conservation-grade boards, a humidity barrier and corrugated plastic sheets.

Step 8…

Fitting and polishing of the frame for the artwork. Photo credit: AR Conservation.

The frame was fitted and a spacer was placed between the artwork and the glazing to prevent surface damage. The frame was left unmounted so that Piper’s working design can be seen in full.

According to Amelia Rampton, “Conservators are used to challenges but John Piper’s Farnborough cartoon was a bigger challenge than most. It is large-scale and multiple cut-outs of different papers fixed to the long thick cartridge paper were partially detached.  It had been rolled up in storage for a long time, but the intention now was to display it after conservation.  All this gave us plenty of problem-solving opportunities!”

This conservation work means that Piper’s final stained glass window design will be enjoyed by the public and protected for many more years to come. Come and see it for yourself in the John Piper Gallery at the River & Rowing Museum. Entry to the gallery is included with your General Admission to the Museum.

River & Rowing Museum is open Thursday to Monday, 10am to 4pm.

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