Exceptional Stained Glass Receives Expert Care

by Alastair Hamilton -

The stained glass windows in Lerwick’s Town Hall, recognised as being of outstanding quality, are being repaired as part of a major renovation.

The Town Hall was opened in 1883 after a successful campaign to provide Lerwick with a civic building to meet the needs of a growing community. ‘Community’ was the operative word, because the raising of the funds was very much a community effort, led by a lawyer, Charles Rampini (1840-1907), who had arrived in Shetland after a spell as a judge in Jamaica. Shares were issued and all kinds of other means of attracting support, such as bazaars, were deployed.

The original Flemish gothic design was by an Inverness architect, Alexander Ross, whose firm practised widely across the Highlands and in the islands, but it was modified by John Aitken of Lerwick. The result was a well-proportioned building that marked the boundary between the congested old ‘lanes’, leading up the hillside from the harbour, and the carefully-planned late Victorian ‘new town’ to the west.

...the raising of the funds was very much a community effort...

One of the most notable aspects of the building’s history is the extraordinary vision of its promoters, who wanted it to encapsulate the history of Shetland. A Decorations Committee included among its members Arthur Laurenson (1832-90) who was, apart from being a prosperous businessman, well versed in the Viking sagas, Scottish and Shetland history and linguistics. He and his colleagues were determined to create a result that would reflect the best historical understanding and be executed to aesthetic standards that would equal the finest in Europe.

...aesthetic standards that would equal the finest in Europe...

They conceived a plan for a series of stained glass windows, most of which illustrate historical figures, that would trace Shetland’s story from the 9th to the 13th centuries, spanning Norse occupation and ending with the marriage between Margaret of Denmark and James III of Scotland. They also wanted to illustrate later trading and cultural connections, so windows were donated by the cities of Amsterdam and Hamburg. Heraldry played a large part, too: it featured in the stained glass but also in the carved stone crests that mark connections with Scottish cities and in the many smaller crests on the roof of the main hall that reflect other links and local family associations.

The windows were made by two firms, one of them James Ballantine and the other Cox & Son, Buckley. Both were regarded as masters of their craft; Ballantine was responsible for the windows in the House of Lords. Today, experts regard the Lerwick windows as amongst the finest secular stained glass installations in Britain. The artistry evident in the stained glass is breathtaking in its delicacy, rich tonal quality and depth of colour. The unique combination of Scottish, Scandinavian and European heraldry underlines a strongly internationalist outlook that’s as strong in Shetland today. The Town Hall nowadays enjoys protection as a Category A Listed Building, meaning that it is of national or international importance.

The artistry evident in the stained glass is breathtaking...

Over the years, though, as with any building, there has been a degree of wear and tear. Major repairs to the stonework were undertaken towards the end of the last century, but in fact these have been problematic, mainly because – despite the very best advice having been obtained – the stone used turned out not to be well suited to the Shetland climate. Erosion has advanced rapidly and has placed the windows at risk. During 2016, work began to replace the affected stonework and restore the windows.

Erosion has advanced rapidly and has placed the windows at risk...

The window restoration is being undertaken by a very experienced Glasgow-based firm, Cannon MacInnes Stained Glass, and I was able to meet Linda Cannon in the temporary studio they’ve set up nearby, in what was formerly the Shetland Library and Museum. She and her colleagues have decamped to Shetland for the duration of the contract.

For her team, the biggest challenge in the project is presented by the previous round of repair work. Although the repairs then undertaken to the windows themselves were well executed, the way in which the windows were re-installed has been causing “major problems”, she says.

“From our point of view, the only way to get the windows out is to cut the stonework. But from the stonemasons’ point of view, the only way to get the windows out is to cut the glass. So we have to work really carefully with the stonemasons, and they have to work very carefully with us, to make sure that there’s minimum damage to the stonework and the glass. The problem is the methodology that was used to put the stained glass in during the last restoration. If they’d been put in with traditional methods – lime mortar – there wouldn’t be a problem. It’s a butyl mastic that has been used, which is rubbery and sticks to itself as soon as you cut it. It links to the stone and the glass, because it’s silicone-based - and it’s absolutely stuck. Nothing moves, nothing gives; you can’t cut it, you can’t get it out in any way and it’s a big problem.”

If they’d been put in with traditional methods – lime mortar – there wouldn’t be a problem.

They started in November and hope to complete the job by the end of April. That includes getting the windows out, cataloguing them, restoring them, re-framing them, putting them back and fitting a new isothermal glazing system. They’ve brought with them all the specialist equipment, such as glass kilns, that they need.

“The first stage is to get the windows out and to store them safely, and then to go through them all, one by one, to identify where the problems are; deal with the problems; stack them again, safely, so they’re all done, clean and ready to be framed. We’ve got new frame channel being hand-made for us in Switzerland, so we have to get that shipped over. We’re making new, non-ferrous framing, secondary to that, in the studio. Once the stonework is renewed, we can get sizes for the secondary glazing, and that will be sent up.”

The new system for installing the glazing will ensure that, if the glazing does ever need to be removed, that can easily be done, panel by panel. The stained glass panels will be held by a non-ferrous framework and there will be a ventilated space between the stained glass panel and the new, secondary glazing. Any condensation on the external glazing will be dealt with by a drip dray and hydrating lime ‘chuckies’.

...if the glazing does ever need to be removed, that can easily be done...

Linda explained that this will be the third time that the windows are known to have been removed, and previous restorers have evidently had problems with some of the edges of the windows, so part of the work is making good those earlier restorations. All the perimeter leading is being renewed and, where glass is broken, it’s being re-made in the kilns.

Once the project is complete, in the late spring or early summer, the Town Hall will be re-opened for public use. It’s popular for all manner of events and many couples choose it as a really beautiful venue for weddings and civil partnership ceremonies. Many visitors to Shetland also include it in their itineraries.

To a non-expert like me, the task seems daunting, but Linda isn’t worried. “It’s do-able”, she says. There’s no question that the quality of the current restoration will do justice to what is an exceptional building, and to the remarkable vision of its founders.

It’s do-able

Posted in: Heritage