Light industry

JOHN RUSKIN'S criteria for judging good Gothic architecture might almost seem, at first sight, to have been the standard applied by Stephen Adam - the leading stained-glass artist in Scotland from 1870 - to the design and content of his panels ``The Railwaymen'' and ``The Glass Blower.'' What Ruskin looked for were characteristics suggesting that the architecture had been ``... built by strong men'' and that it had ``the sort of roughness, and largeness, and nonchalance, mixed in places with the exquisite tenderness which seems always to be a sign-manual of the broad vision, and massy power of men who can see past the work they are doing, and betray here and there something like disdain for it.''

A mixture of ``massy power'' and ``tenderness'' certainly pervades these two from a series of 20 panels symbolizing the trades and industries of the Burgh of Maryhill. Adam was commissioned to make them to decorate the window of the main room in the Mary-hill Burgh Halls. This building (now a police station) and its stained glass were meant to celebrate the independence and the industries of what was still (until 1893) an area separate from neighboring Glasgow.

But Adam's panels - now safely housed in Glasgow's People's Palace Museum (though sadly only six are on view to the public) - have a wider significance. They offer a glimpse that is all too rare in the arts and crafts of the period, of modern working men and women: Idealized though his figures are, they still suggest something of the lives and labors of ordinary people in a fast-growing urban environment in the late 19th century.

And that such things are depicted in stained glass is even more unusual, since most of the work demanded of specialists like Adam was either for churches, depicting Bible stories, or for wealthy people's homes where, as Elspeth King writes, it tended to consist of ``idyllic country scenes with ladies gathering rosebuds'' intended to ``blot out the dirt of industry rather than reflect it.''

ADAM'S panels touch on a significant debate of the period. This boiled down to a choice between looking backward or forward. Machine manufacture and mass production were looming unmistakably as the way of the present and the future. Resistance to them was voiced with considerable eloquence by writers like Ruskin and William Morris, whose ideal for working people was tied up with a love for the Middle Ages.

Morris, like Ruskin, detested his century's machinery, competitive commerce, and soot-infested cities. He thought of art as, instead, handcrafted and involving ``a happiness for the maker and the user.'' By definition, then, art could not be made in heavy industrial conditions and by people condemned to do work that was ``irksome and degrading.''

What is intriguing about Adam, then, is that although his own work was firmly a part of the revival of fine craftsmanship campaigned for by Morris, and although he spoke favorably of Morris's designs for stained glass, the content of his Maryhill panels evinces no apparent conflict between the world of the craftsman and the world of industrialization and machinery.

His panels are dominated by the men and women in them: fine strapping men for the most part - ranging from engineers to railway porters and iron-molders and boatbuilders to bricklayers and chemical workers - generously endowed with russet facial hair, muscular forearms, and ennobled features (even though some of them seem to have had their noses reshaped by bouts of pugilism). Or robust women in headscarves, shawls, and aprons over heavy skirts, bleaching linen or printing on calico.

Some of these men and women are still working at traditional practices. The glass blower is an example of this. Adam has beautifully captured the combination of strength, timing and rhythmic elegance of movement demanded by this craft, the heat of the furnace and workshop, the molten balloon of glass at the end of the tube, the tools of the craft, and the finished vessels on the floor.

Probably his own appreciation of the qualities of glass made this subject particularly attractive to him. In this case the machine age had certainly not threatened the modern practice of an age-old, handed-down craft.

In the case of the panels describing textile finishing, however (one of the earliest industries of Maryhill), it seems that Adam must have consciously symbolized the subject as out-of-date.

Elspeth King observes: ``By the time of the heavily industrialized 1870s ... bleaching was done chemically and the practice of laying out the linen [attractively shown in one of the panels] had been discontinued long since.'' So perhaps, after all, Adam found the love of craftsmanship and even a nostalgia for it hard to resist.

Yet his engineers and chemical workers look modern enough, supported by their various attributes - spanner, lever, cogwheel and pulley or retorts, glass tubes, burners, and bubbling chemicals: And they are as heroic and deft in their skills as any craftsman of the old school could wish to be. Adam clearly does not see them as the poor, abused slaves of industrialization, their intelligence threatened by ``irksome and degrading'' work. They are probably the admirable results of the education represented in another panel of ``The Teacher.''

IT is in the panel of ``The Railway-men,'' however, that Adam shows himself most at odds with Morris and Ruskin. Everything about this delightful picture in glass suggests that its painter enjoyed the excitement and imagery of rail travel and steam power to the full and relished the opportunity to depict it in his medium.

There isn't the slightest hint of Ruskinian horror at the railways, or of that writer's condemnation of ``the iron roofs and pillars of our railway stations,'' which he said were ``not architecture at all.'' Adam, on the other hand, once more sees this modern phenomenon as a context in which working people shine. His porter and engine driver are the dominant elements of the composition, the machinery simply the tools at their disposal.

The harmony of man and machine, of man and labor, suggested by Adam's painted glass panels is further emphasized by his remarkable color sense. Warm golds, browns, sands, rusts, and oranges predominate, complemented by strong areas of rich bright red, deep bottle green, a pale green, and a cool gray. Such combinations of colors are far subtler than those generally found in the kind of Victorian stained glass that was based rather crudely and ignorantly on Gothic models.

And although Adam had a considerable and enthusiastically voiced admiration for medieval glass, particularly of the 13th century, he appears to have deliberately chosen colors for his Maryhill panels that were both earthy and modern: They suggest the everyday. His ecclesiastical glass of this period was airier and lighter.

Stephen Adam's work deserves a wider public. The Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries have used 13 of his panels for their 1987 calendar - a handsome affair, a kind of 19th-century ``Labors of the Months'' perhaps. But the panels themselves should all be on permanent view.

They are the original work of a sensible and sensitive artist using an ancient craft with new vigor to represent something of the life of his own day. They make work look noble, which is not necessarily a hopelessly nostalgic attitude. And they are excellent examples of 19th-century stained glass, respecting the history of the craft but breaking new ground.

ADAM felt that the limitations of the materials should be always respected and not stretched beyond what they are ``capable of expressing.'' Thus his unpretentious directness. His aim for drawing on glass was not to produce ``elaborate renderings of folds and draperies, and difficult foreshort-ened attitudes in figures.''

As his work demonstrates, he designed economically and bluntly, using the lead outlines to balance the parts of his picture and hammer home its most important forms, while his drawing on the glass itself only lightly delineates secondary images. The result is a unique blend of under- and overstatement, of bold emphasis and quiet indications. This blend allows maximum, uninterrupted play to the mosaic of what he called ``the translucent qualities of glass that is good in itself'' and the ``softened and enriched light ... transmitted to us.''

These, he knew, are a glass-painter's main means of expression. The result is stained glass built, as it were, by a ``strong man.''

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to Light industry
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today