Thursday, November 19, 2009


My major restoration project, the Chapel windows at Concord Repatriation Hospital, is now complete with all windows re-installed into lovely new timber frames, courtesy of Claremont Joinery at Bankstown. They did a splendid job on the Tasmanian oak frames; sturdy construction and accurate openings with precisely fitting beads. And all for what I thought was a reasonable $6,500 for 4x frames.

Unfortunately not all the windows are restored at this stage: there was insufficient funding to cover the repainting of two of the Stephen Moor windows. One of the two smaller windows was repainted and completely rebuilt by my colleague and friend Grant Kennewell. Grant and I often work together on large projects and he put his hand up for this one, as he had just completed the restoration of a smaller Moor window, featuring African elephants, for a private client. He was keen to take on the larger challenge and the results are certainly admirable.

As Marc Grunseit noted in conversation once, it is a rather unfortunate legacy of Moor's that not an insignificant number of his windows are suffering extreme paint degradation. The reasons for this are probably complex and by no means certain but it is my considered opinion that, while Stephen was a brilliant designer and I owe him a great debt, much of the glass in his windows was not fired to a consistently high temperature. Further, the application of paint was hurried with many layers of wet on dry, consequently increasing the chance of blistering which will reduce adhesion of paint to glass.

I have found that those windows installed into northern and western facades suffer more and given the harsh conditions of the Australian climate, this is not surprising. The process seems to be one of exfoliation, similar to the effect of expansion and contraction on granite tors. However there is convincing evidence that microbial action is at work also. The windows in question were removed from the old Chapel when it was virtually destroyed by storm apparently in the late 1980's. They had been re-installed into the new chapel in rather dreadful aluminium frames which swayed and flexed terribly and so all the windows have suffered over the years. To add insult to injury whoever installed the windows back then removed all the steel reinforcing rods from the leadlight panels.

By contrast the large window "I Am The Vine" by David Saunders, while still requiring to be re-built, was beautifully fired with the glass paint completely intact. The same is true of the Phillip Handel window which recognises the sacrifice of the Services and Military Nursing Staff during WW2.

For me it was a great experience getting close and personal with the work of such fine stained glass artists. When one pulls apart a leadlight window and tries to put it all back together again, one comes to understand in minute detail the design ethos of the original maker. Saunders, Handel and Moor were all mighty figures in the Sydney stained glass industry of the late twentieth century.

Sadly Phillip Handel died several months ago after a long battle with cancer. In order to complete a repair on the Chapel window I met with his widow Elizabeth who showed me round the studio beneath their house in Beacon Hill and was able to assist with a suitable piece of glass. His studio still carries a wonderful sense of calm and order with some beautiful old furniture and the original bench and kiln from Lyon and Cottier, the firm where Phillip's father Alfred was apprenticed. Elizabeth is currently searching for a suitable institution to archive the substantial Handel heritage in a suitable manner where it will be available to the public.

Geraldine Doogue introduces a superb documentary available on the ABC's Compass website. It was screened on TV just before Anzac Day this year and is a moving account of the production and dedication of the windows which Phillip Handel produced for the Anglican Church at Sandarkan on the island of Borneo, where many Australian POWs died.