Friday, 7 December 2012

'Glass House': Enchanted Parks 2012

This winter, The Projection Studio and myself were commissioned again by NewcastleGateshead Initiative and Magnetic Events to create ‘Glass House', a new son et lumiere focussing on the work of William Wailes, a renowned Victorian stained glass artist.

Our first inspiration came from Saltwell Towers & Park, both being entirely of his own vision and design. As a successful manufacturer and artist, he designed the Towers himself to be his own home. It seemed right and appropriate to us project his own glass work back onto his house.
We hoped the view would create the effect of a lit glass lantern on the landscape. his own home bceoming an object of illumination.

'Glass House' - Wailes opens for business

Having studied the work of Pugin and the profound influence of the Gothic Revival on the design, art and architecture of the British 19th century, I very much felt I wanted to place Wailes within the context of his time and situation, to make it clear his importance to that industry and also the place he was working in, that of the Victorian North East.

The local history of Gateshead came to the fore. 
A centre of many types of industry, it had upon its Tyneside shores warehouses that stored large quantities of chemicals, many of which formed part of the procedures for colouring glass as it was done in that era.
In 1854, Wailes was at his career peak. That same year, he began building the Towers. By coincidence, during the same year, a mill caught fire by the Tyne, the fire spread to a chemical warehouse next door. Some of the chemicals stored there were those used in glass-making as well as other industries. Sulphur was observed melting and running through the windows of the bullding, attracting many bystanders to watch the hot blue chemical glowing in the night.

Part of a moving collage of a Wailes pattern in blue

Then, the warehouse exploded.
The explosion at Hillgate decimated the industrial heart of Gateshead, throwing burning irons and timber over the town and also across the river to Newcastle, where the fire took hold and spread further.
The Great Fire of 1854 utterly destroyed the lower levels of the medieval town and streets. Its devastation though was seen both a curse & blessing, giving a starting point to build a newer centre. The Victorian ancestors of the Gateshead area became determined to regenerate the area into something better, to move residences away from dangerous industry, to make sure cholera would never return.

The processes of glassmaking follow a similar pattern, where the destructive processes of fire and chemical interaction produce something new, even beautiful. 
The Gothic Revival that Wailes’ work was part of continued apace. In the 1850s, the Victorian passion for glass had yet to be satiated. Wailes exhibited his work at the 1851 Great Exhibition at Crystal Palace, that world famous cast iron & plate glass structure, ironically also destroyed in fire in 1936.

Critiques and reviews of the time make it clear that those artists and designers able to draw close to the glasswork colours of their medieval counterparts were applauded. Whilst Pugin searched for the secret chemical recipe to create 'ruby' glass, the precise tint of red produced in those earlier eras, Wailes’ style was appreciated for his depth of blue and also for his particular design of patterns. Glass colours were named after jewels such as ruby, topaz and emerald green, so valued was coloured glass as a vibrant visual spectacle in both the medieval and Victorian eras.
Something similar could be said of projection today, hence our decision to use Pigi projection on this, essentially the modern equivalent of a magic lantern, projecting images from strips of film.

Wailes window showing biblical scene

The sound piece draws upon actual texts from multiple sources to run these overlapping stories in parallel. As the sulphur melts in the fire, so we see the house bathed shades and patterns of Wailes’ distinctive shade of blue. His use of red is displayed as we hear romantic descriptions of the burning of the town described in a local report. As the town shatters, an angel covers her eyes.

One lost piece of his work draws ‘Glass House’ to a close. 
Wailes was commissioned to create a memorial window for those who lost their lives in the 1854 fire for St Mary’s, the parish church of Gateshead, badly damaged by the explosion.
This window can only be pictured in the imagination, through the description of it in the piece. It was lost in 1979, in another fire, after approximately 120 years in situ.
No colour photographs of it have been discovered yet.

If you have any pictures of St Mary’s interior prior to the fire of 1979, or know someone who does, the St Mary's Heritage Centre, would dearly love any record of it, even a copy.
The Centre became the hub of Gateshead's local history once St Mary's was decommissioned after the fires.
Hopefully the story of Wailes' glass does not reach its end here.

'Glass House' is being shown as part of Enchanted Parks 2012 at Saltwell Park, Gateshead until Sunday 9th December from 4.30pm through the evening.

Many thanks to:
Shaun Thubron for his photographic work;
St. Nicholas' Cathedral, Newcastle and numerous other churches of the North East for granting us access to photograph Wailes' works in situ;
The Saltwell Park Volunteers Group for donating their time and vocal talents;
Magnetic Events and NewcastleGateshead Initiative for supporting our exploration of Gateshead's fascinating Victorian history