Graham Stewart feels the opportunity to apply skills passed down over more than a thousand years is the “culmination of my life”.

The master glass craftsman leads one of the three stained glass specialists involved in the complex task of reilluminating the reinstated Christ Church Cathedral. Like many aspects of this complex project, the painstaking labour of love involved in restoring the Cathedral’s stained glass windows has steadily progressed behind closed doors.

While the 2027 opening still seems far off, for artisans like Graham it’s a race against the clock. “We’ve only got a couple more years but we can achieve the impossible, no problem!” he laughs. The small team at Stewart Stained Glass comprises Graham, his three sons, Victor, Ed and Ren, Izaac Randall, and German glass artist Carmen Schill. Since beginning the restoration process in August 2022, they have completed three set of three windows and are nearing the end of an intensive 10 months recreating the Cathedral’s stunning and much-loved rose window that looked out over Cathedral Square.

Made up of 31 sections, 4,000 pieces of glass and measuring a huge 7.5 metres across, the rose window was one of the architectural enhancements designed by Benjamin Mountfort. It features ‘The Lamb of God’ and the hierarchy of angels and was based on the rose window of Christ Church, Oxford. Like so many aspects of the Cathedral it was made possible through generous philanthropic support: the stonework was the gift of the Cathedral Guild and the stained glass presented by Mr and Mrs Leonard Harper, son and daughter-in-law of Bishop Henry Harper.

The design was executed in 1881 by Clayton and Bell, one of the most prolific and proficient British stained glass window workshops during the later half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whose windows can be found throughout the UK and in the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Graham and his team had just spent a year conserving the window and reinstalled it one week prior to the first major September 2010 quake. Miraculously, it survived this and the devastating February 2011 quake, but broke loose from its West Wall surrounds on 13th June 2011. “It just shattered into thousands of pieces,” Graham says. “It was like a bomb had gone off in that West Wall.”

As local conservation experts, Graham and his team had been tasked with removing damaged church windows throughout Christchurch and Canterbury from September 201 onwards with the objective to “save whatever we could”. “That’s all we did for four years. And it was a war zone. Two of my sons almost perished in one of the church collapses,” he says. But they were not given the go ahead to remove the Cathedral windows until 2012, with considerable more damage done.

“We had hoped to go in and find every piece, that was our plan. But we weren’t allowed to do anything that put ourselves in danger, which meant we couldn’t go inside the Cathedral.” Instead, they collected as many fragments of glass as they could from windowsills and the surrounds. Heritage professional and Lay Canon Jenny May and stonemason Mark Whyte (GoldfieldStone), who had access to the vast tonnes of rubble, were able to salvage more fragments, ranging in size from a 50-cent piece to much larger pieces. While Graham says they picked up many important pieces that have proven invaluable, still much of the rose window was missing. This has made it a much more complex restoration job, requiring Graham and Carmen to paint thousands of new glass pieces to fill the gaps, and then use special techniques to seamlessly blend original and new pieces together. “It has been a marathon of constant painting. And before that, we spent weeks identifying and piecing together the salvaged fragments,” Graham says. “We’ve tried to do that as much as possible, but you would never be able to put it back exactly as it was, unless you had 10 years to work on it, which is just not feasible,” he says. “We hope to utilise the unused glass fragments in additional new windows for the Cathedral. They are so beautiful, and I would love to see something original go into those.”

Graham and Carmen were significantly aided in their task by an extensive library of high-quality photos from their own 2006 conservation report for the Cathedral. These have enabled them not only to reconstruct each glass artwork, but also replicate the incredibly fine brush strokes of the original artists. In this meticulous process, Graham and his team are employing master craftsman skills dating back over a thousand years, to the first evidence of stained glass windows in the British churches and monasteries of the 7th century. Graham is deeply conscious of this tradition and the part he plays as both a champion and guardian of history.

The self-confessed “hopeless” Melbourne schoolboy with a passion for drawing stumbled upon his career accidentally, after his brother encouraged him to move to New Zealand to explore Wellington’s lively arts scene. “That’s when I first thought, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to be an artist, a Michelangelo, and paint my way into the history books”. It was the two Michelangelo figures he painted on his studio window that caught the eye of the English glazier who introduced him to his first stained glass mentor, Englishman Arthur Hough. “When I saw what Arthur did, I thought, that’s exactly my thing. I really want to learn this.”

Between Hough and another English stained glass mentor, Henry Downing, Graham quickly honed his skills in this specialist area. “Between them, they had a hundred years of experience, and they taught me the old methods.” Graham further added stained glass conservation to his experience with an internship of several months at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London ,UK, spending “every waking moment” soaking up knowledge. “I always thought it was remarkable they let me go in there and touch the old stuff. It was a remarkable building and a remarkable place, and I was this little guy from Melbourne, living in Christchurch, which they thought was the other side of the moon.”

In spite of Graham’s humility, he so impressed the UK conservators that he was invited into a permanent position as glazier for Canterbury Cathedral in Kent. “But I had learnt something unique with the museum conservation, and I felt it was important for me to give this back to New Zealand. New Zealand had given me the opportunity to follow my dream.” The V&A was in his mind with the devastation wreaked on Canterbury’s stained glass heritage by the earthquakes, in particular the famous windows of its café that were restored following the Blitz bombings of WWII. “During the war so many things were smashed, but people put them back together. Both the English and the Germans put their stained glass windows back together. The message of conservation is that you don’t throw things away. You put things back the way they were if you can.”

Until Augustus Pugin, the 19th century pioneer of the revival of medieval Gothic architecture, the English art of stained glass was almost lost altogether with the majority of English glass having been smashed by Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans during the 17th century. “In the 1830s, there were only one or two people in England who knew how to do it,” Graham says. “So they had to reinvent the wheel. And they wanted it to be distinctively English, not Roman Catholic, even though it uses Gothic and Byzantine forms.“ That emphasis on English craftsmanship was transmitted to the colonies. And this is an important part of our historical identity. The Cathedral isn’t just a Victorian building with Victorian windows, but a true representation of us as a people. “It’s our ‘marae’, just as actual marae are a fantastic and unique representation of Māori.“ As a Scottish-English-Irish man living in New Zealand, I believe our history is so important. And it’s just a short span, as in Australia. It’s so important we preserve what we can.”

Following the restoration of the rose window in December 2023, Graham’s team are now restoring three windows for the knave and will then plan and design the new windows required for modifications to the Cathedral’s north wall. Meanwhile, Trinity Glass has been repairing the very minor damage to the Scott Memorial window from the North Transept, which was unique in New Zealand in having isothermal glazing. All windows will be completed in 2025 for reinstallation, all with isothermal glazing so that just like the Augsburg Cathedral in Bavaria, Germany (believed to have the oldest surviving stained glass window, of circa 1065), the Cathedral’s windows might survive another thousand years.

Graham says working on the Cathedral has been an “unusual opportunity”. “I feel grateful to be a part of preserving such a significant building that represents over a thousand years of history.“And it’s so nice to give back what I learned from Englishmen living in New Zealand, and then from the V&A—to put all that to use is brilliant, I just love it. It’s like a culmination of my life. ”As well as the three New Zealand-based stained glass workshops, Christ Church Cathedral Reinstatement Limited (CCRL) has benefitted from the advice ofThe York Glaziers Trust, specialists in UK stained glass restoration projects.

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