Through Rose-Coloured Glass: The Last Apprentices of an Ancient Art

At Gilroy Stained Glass, the last apprentices of a famous atelier transform spaces and lives in Vancouver with their beautiful works of art.

The Luxury Home & Design Show, hosted by our sister media Taste of Life, is part of a cultural movement happening now around the world — the revival of the artisan.

“This renaissance of hand-created pieces, I think it’s only going to get bigger,” says Laura Gilroy of Gilroy Stained Glass, one of the Luxury Home and Design Show’s world-class exhibitors.

“I think that’s going to become the definition of luxury,” she continues. “It’s going to be the uniqueness and quality of material, the uniqueness and individuality of an artisan creating a piece. That is going to be what defines luxury. You have what nobody else has, and it was created just for you. That can then become a heritage piece within your own family you can pass down.”

John and Laura Gilroy, husband and wife, co-founded their eponymous stained glass studio 13 years ago in Vancouver. Their lineage is as significant as the legacy they’re leaving. They were the last apprentices of one of the UK’s oldest stained glass ateliers, the storied James Clark & Eaton studio in Bristol, established in 1788.

Their stained glass methodology is the same as what was used in medieval times, each step a work of art in itself. John explains how he and Laura create multiple artworks in various media before the glass work even begins.

“I always say to a client, ‘If you love the watercolour design, you’re going to really love when Laura draws in pencil and India ink, and then you’re going to really love the actual window when we do that.”

Laura Gilroy draws Saint Cecilia. (Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)
Laura Gilroy draws Saint Cecilia. (Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)
Saint Cecilia, depicted by Gilroy Stained Glass. (Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)
Saint Cecilia, depicted by Gilroy Stained Glass. (Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)

With everything hand-done, the artist also enjoys a more intimate communion in the artistic journey. “You feel the watercolour paper on your fingers — it pulls you in,” John says.

The transcendental nature of traditional stained glass does more than link us with our past — it’s also a bridge to our humanity, our universal bond with each other, today.

“A guy walked in one time, and I was painting this window [with] all Celtic themes,” John recalls. “[The man] said, ‘Wow, that looks like a cross between First Nations work here in Canada, and Mayan.’”

Reflecting on this cross-cultural connection, John says, “I can see how very similar we all are, no matter what background we come from.”

The virtues of Gilroy Stained Glass don’t stop with similarities in heritage either — its beauty can even harmonize cultural differences. John and Laura recently worked on front door and entranceway windows for a beautiful home in the Shaughnessy neighbourhood of Vancouver, BC. The family originated from China and wanted to incorporate meaningful symbolism from their homeland.

“Stained glass is a very Western art form, but blending it with these elements of Chinese symbolism, it became a perfect metaphor for their family, now part of Canadian culture, Canadian life,” says Laura. “For them, it was bringing their heritage to where they are now.”

The entryway of a home in Shaughnessy, Vancouver, BC. Gilroy Stained Glass created a design incorporating Chinese motifs. (Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)
The entryway of a home in Shaughnessy, Vancouver, BC. Gilroy Stained Glass created a design incorporating Chinese motifs. (Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)

John adds, “They were probably feeling a little bit out of it because they moved from home thousands of miles away to a new environment. They want a comfort zone.” The Chinese symbolism in their stained glass provided a comforting familiarity.

“[The stained glass windows] become very personal for them, but also for us,” John says.

Unbreakable bonds

With such an ancient, regal art as stained glass, one might imagine an artisan labouring away in a church by himself, like a monk copying manuscripts by candlelight. But what’s surprising about this medium is how pivotal relationships are in its transmission and creation.

From the traditional master-apprentice bond at James Clark and Eaton Studio, to the harmonious workflow of John and Laura, to the personal connection with clients, it’s an artform rooted in face-to-face interactions and interconnectivity.

Like John, Laura grew up in Bristol. Her journey to become a master stained glass artisan (she has been elected to the British Society of Master Glass Painters) seemed “pretty clear cut,” she says.

Her father made leaded windows, which is the craft of making coloured windows, in contrast to the more artistic form of stained glass that’s adorned with detailed painting. At age 11, Laura was sketching full-sized drawings for her father, who had never developed artistic skills.

“I used to go around to a multitude of churches while he was working or viewing potential projects,” she says. “It was in my blood.”

John, likewise, was a budding artist but wasn’t convinced stained glass was his lifelong medium until his interview with Roy Coomber at James Clark and Eaton Studio.

John handed Roy his portfolio with his life drawings — drawings of nudes and the human form. Roy was impressed but could tell John wasn’t sure what path to take in art, as he was also considering a university degree in fine art or graphic art.

“You will be this level of artist when you come out [of university],” Roy said, pointing to his chest area. “If you come here, you do your apprenticeship, you put in the hard work, you will be this level,” he said, his hand reaching above his head.

Roy then asked John what he would hope to do after getting an art degree. John replied he’d hope to get a job in a professional studio. “Well, there you go,” Roy said. “I’m offering you one now.”

There was a slight catch — John would have a three month trial, working without being paid, to assess his skills and see if he fit in. He passed with flying colours and joined as a paid apprentice. A couple years later, Laura entered too.

(Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)
(Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)

“Both for Laura and I, it was a six-year apprenticeship, studying all parts of the art,” John says. “That means mostly painting, but also a lot of restoration and learning how things were done, how to fire glass properly, staining, all those things that go back way past the Middle Ages.”

Both John and Laura were mentored by the same master artisan, James Crombie.

“He was probably the closest person we’ll ever meet to an artistic genius. James was completely non-textbook,” John says. “He was a hugely humble guy.”

Laura also remembers how inspirational their mentor was at the studio. She’d take a design to him, and he never criticized her work. Instead, he’d take a section, and start sketching next to her work.

“Before I’d known, he’d embellished and boosted that into something extraordinary and showed me this other direction, a different way to look at what I was creating. I think a really good mentor teaches you all the tools and then gives you a massive boost of inspiration,” she says. Watching James, she’d then think to herself, “I’ve got to go and rework everything.”

Having that perseverance to go back to the drawing board at any point was a needed trait for the apprentices, especially when they were required to master so many art forms.

“[Stained glass is] actually drawn and thought out in sketches, and everything is drawn by hand. So, we adhere to the ethos that everything is done from your mind to the paper,” John says. “There were no imitations, it’s difficult.”

Laura says, “You have to have that real passion that you can’t ever step away from it, even when it’s driving you nuts.”

John and Laura would learn to become expert observers, a skill honed while doing restoration and repair work. They would take, for example, a section of a window with a 150-year-old head of Christ that had been broken. They’d assess exactly how the original painter had done it — the type of binder used in the paint, whether it was oil- or water-based paint, painting techniques used, and so forth.

Laura says they were learning “a massive visual vocabulary.”

John adds, “[The repaired glass] had to match brush stroke for brush stroke with the original, so that you couldn’t tell the difference. It’s like CSI: Stained Glass — you learned how to observe how each thing is done, and then you could apply that in your own interpretation of your new work.”

(Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)
(Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)

Becoming accurately objective and self-critical would become the next necessary intellectual skills John and Laura would cultivate. Roy would often come by and peruse their works, inevitably something they’d been working on all morning. He’d ask, “So, are you happy with that?”

“You’re thinking, ‘Yeah, I was really happy,’” John says with a laugh. He remembers one morning when he’d been slaving away with his hand propped up on a mahl stick for hours so he wouldn’t touch his beautiful glass painting.

“Roy took one of the mahl sticks and just put it through the work that I’d done and said, ‘Start again,’” John recalls. Years later, John asked Roy what was actually wrong with that work.

“No, nothing actually,” Roy said. ”That’s the way I learned to become objective, to take criticism and become self-critical.”

Despite seeming a “bit harsh” at the time, John and Laura deeply appreciate these lessons. In fact, their mentors’ invaluable feedback would later evolve into their own harmonious artistic relationship together.

Two-of-a-kind

“Laura has no trouble telling me my painting is rubbish,” says John, expressing his typical dry humour.

“I do not,” replies Laura, with a smirk. “But at the same time, I’ll tell you when I think something is absolutely outstanding.”

When you consider their accomplishments and “all the heart, all the hard work that goes into [the art],” says John, it can be challenging to not let it go to your head.

“I think humility is very important,” says John, emphasizing his mentor James’ demeanor. “You just don’t want to get too excited. Of course, Laura keeps me level.” They look at each other and laugh.

That trust they’ve developed artistically began with their lineage at James Clark & Eaton.

“The biggest advantage for us working together is having the similar background with the training and the same mentor, and the way we feel about our work,” Laura says. “It’s the trust of someone who absolutely knows what they’re talking about, provides that immediate shorthand and that backup for what you already know.”

Love also plays a role. John and Laura have been happily married for 25 years, and none of their friends can understand how they can spend so much time together, and still enjoy it.

“We’re really, really lucky, we feel very blessed,” Laura says. “And we really like working together as well, otherwise it would be a problem.”

They don’t have any rules about not discussing work outside of the studio, even when on a date, for example.

“No, we love chatting about work and what we’re doing,” John says.

“Our work is part of us, so it blends into everything, everything that we do,” Laura says. “The way we want to arrange our home or decorate, it just all bleeds over. It’s live what you love and work the same way.”

Serendipitously, or perfectly arranged, the husband and wife duo also have artistic inclinations and talents that complement each other. Before they work with glass, John paints a watercolour, which best reflects the translucent quality of the glass. Once changes are made and it’s approved, Laura then draws a full-sized, black-and-white drawing, known as a cartoon.

(Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)
(Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)

“I love to draw them, and he loves to paint them,” says Laura. “He does it so well — the faces are so expressive, he just amplifies it even more. I then put everything into my cartoon, so it’s a really good partnership.”

With their love and trust in each other, the Gilroys decided to leave their successful freelance business in the UK and move across the Atlantic in 2005.

“That’s a scary leap to cut off a revenue stream of freelance work to concentrate on your own stuff,” John admits. “There is huge potential in certain cities, especially in North America. If you’re good and get the opportunity to try, you will get a break at some stage.”

Laura adds, “We recognized that people were starting to look for more quality, for more permanence and just more elevated art. In stained glass art, we could fill that gap. ”

But with that great opportunity came a struggle. North Americans didn’t understand the difference between traditional stained glass and the much simpler, less artistic colour leaded windows.

“Maybe they go to a cathedral and see the work there, but they probably assume that it’s not done anymore,” Laura says.

Since the clients don’t initially know the difference, they often come with much simpler concepts.

“We can show them how much more there can be — it’s a whole different level that a lot of people aren’t aware of,” she says.

“We want to bring something that raises it above the ordinary and makes it special,” John says.

With Gilroy Stained Glass, the difference is definitely in the details.

Gilroy Stained Glass signature style

“In any art, what you’re trying to do is not copy even your mentors,” John says. “You’re looking to learn and then develop your own unique way of doing things.… We’re looking for a very individual look where you would be able to walk in and say, ‘That’s a Gilroy window.’”

Gilroy Stained Glass remains perfectly true to the “handmade ethos” of centuries-old practices, John says. Cutting the glass, drawing and painting all by hand — no spraying, airbrushing, computers, Photoshop, no shortcuts — is the traditional Gilroy way.

Even the materials reflect authentic artisanship, such as the mouth-blown glass imported from Europe. Its softness takes the paint and stain better than glass made by machine.

“Mouth-blown glass from Europe has a massive colour palette compared to machine-made glass,” Laura says. “The colour will undulate across it. It will alter because the thickness of the sheet might be slightly thicker at one end than the other. The mouth-blown, handmade glass has its own artistic beauty that further amplifies what we do.”

John adds, “I like that feel, that organic feel of taking somebody else’s hard-worked handmade art, and then embellishing it. Two sheets are never the same.”

But John and Laura weren’t satisfied with simply mastering the traditional methodology of stained glass. They sought to improve upon what they’d learned, innovating techniques that would give that signature Gilroy style.

In stained glass, you actually work from the negative image. So you apply a thick, muddy film of paint to the glass. To “paint,” the Gilroys then delicately remove some of that paint, so that light shines through. One of Laura’s favorite da Vinci quotes illustrates the concept well.

“A painter should begin every canvas with a wash of black, because all things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light,” she recalls.

Their innovation they call “reverse pointillism.” Instead of adding little dots of paint, they do the opposite, meticulously removing tiny dots and brushwork with the point of a needle.

Saint Peter, depicted by Gilroy Stained Glass. (Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)
Saint Peter, depicted by Gilroy Stained Glass. (Photo courtesy of Gilroy Stained Glass)

“It affects the way the light refracts through that window. It looks very striking. The colours are bright; there is light coming in,” John says. “Even in the very darkest hours of our darks and semitones, there’s light coming in through practically the whole window.”

“It maintains that inherent jewel-like quality in the glass, that sparkle,” Laura says. “I still want to see that beautiful refraction of light, like sunlight on water. It changes throughout the day from weather conditions, the time of year, time of day. That’s what I really love about this art form — there’s a changeable quality.”

It’s a highly challenging medium since you need to be able to think in the negative and positive images, as a creator and viewer. If you remove too much paint, you’ll ruin it and have to start over, whereas with an oil painting, you can paint over a mistake. But the lifelike, three-dimensionality of the Gilroys’ glimmering glass is worth the hours, and years, of toil.

“When [our clients are] really happy with [the stained glass], they take ownership of it as well,” John says. “It’s become part of them.”

Gilroy Stained Glass will display its work at the Luxury Home & Design Show in Vancouver, June 21–24, 2018. The show is hosted by Magnifissance’s sister media, Taste of Life. Learn more about the Luxury Home & Design Show.

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