Surinder Warboys’s engagement with glass started inauspiciously in the mid-seventies when, during her Foundation Year at the Wimbledon School of Art, she struggled with a stained glass piece. Though charmed by the intensity and richness of colour to be found in mouth blown glass, the practical difficulty of painting on that glossy, intractable surface proved to be too challenging. It would be another seven years, and long after she had completed her Fine Art Degree at Newport School of Art, before she would try again.
In 1980, together with husband Rowland Warboys (an artist and architectural stained glass designer in his own right) she moved to Suffolk, where the wealth of ancient churches in the area reminded her of the beauty and preciousness of stained glass, and led to a decision to reacquaint herself with the skills used to master the medium. Studying Patrick Reyntien’s The Technique of Stained Glass, the writings of Hugh Arnold, and perhaps most importantly, with the support and encouragement of her husband, she worked towards winning her first stained glass restoration project at St Lawrence Church in Ipswich. Helped and advised by Agnes Cairns at the Stained Glass Conservation Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and armed with a dense folder of conservation papers, techniques new to her were gradually learned, culminating in approval from English Heritage. Together with her husband, she has now worked on restoration and commissioned projects all over East Anglia, including the medieval glass at Pettistree, the Genesis Window of St Peter’s in Palgrave nd, most recently, the St Francis East Window in the 15th century Chapel of All Saints Church in Kesgrave.
Meeting Surinder Warboys at her studio, one is immediately struck by the contrast between this softly spoken, unassuming artist and the heavy duty, almost industrial, equipment that fills her workspace. Light tables, kilns big and small, glass cutters and grinders, and countless shards of iridescent glass fill the room. Warboys talks captivatingly of the craft of hand blown glass – how the skills and knowledge involved have been handed down through the generations for a thousand years. Yet despite her obvious passion, it is clearly a different and distinct thing from what she describes as “the vital need” to paint. That is something that has never gone away. In choosing to exhibit a collection of monochrome images fused onto huge sheets of industrially produced float glass it is as if there is a need in her to create a clear delineation between craft and art.
Inspiration for the Cattle series was found just beyond the doorstep of Warboys’s studio, on the ancient common of the village of Mellis, where cattle have grazed for centuries. It was here, at the height of the summer in 2014, that she settled amongst the green-winged orchids, the sulphur clover and the adder’s tongue fern, to sketch the diverse blooms and wildlife that nestled there, under a typically big Suffolk sky. When a sixth sense made her turn to look behind her, she found that she had company. A herd of massive Charolais cows – animals blessed with grace and beautiful colouration – were watching her as if in respectful contemplation of the work. With her attention immediately drawn towards these magnificent beasts she started to draw furiously, capturing as best she could the immediate emotional impact of this curious meeting. Subsequently she found herself returning again and again to the herd to redraft the ideas it inspired.
Faced with having to translate these initial images onto glass, she has had to balance her understanding of the initial form with the expressive unruliness and the chance marks and movements unique to the processof painting on such an unforgiving surface. To watch Warboys work with glass and pigment is to witness an almost visceral process. Having prepared the surface of the glass with washes of iron oxide, silica, gum arabic and water, she expertly controls the opacity of the paint using sea sponges, working and reworking the pigment in search of a surface and texture that reflects the image in her mind’s eye. Embracing the freedom, but also the natural entropy, of water suffused with paint particles, she sweeps across the glass, allowing the liquid to wash across and over its face. Constantly on the move and in a state flux, it is as if she is searching for the image locked within.
It is a process born of the epiphanous realization that what had been seen as a problem should actually be seen as an opportunity. That rather than fret over the unruly behaviour of pigment on the smooth, unforgiving surface of glass, she should instead embrace the happenstance of a medium not fully controllable - rejoicing in what the work does of its own accord, as much as what she tries to do to it. The execution becomes as serendipitous as the works inception, freeing her up to produce something exciting and new. An elusive moment captured in a firing process that, with an almost inappropriate permanence, fuses the paint and glass together forever.
What quickly emerges from the works on show is the tension between the abstract and the figurative. Cattle IV is demonstrably a cow, and yet its form seems to be melting as might an image in snow. In Cattle VIII the figurative is almost entirely obscured by the pigment that has splashed and pooled on the glass. In Cattle V, we can clearly see the mass of the animal, seeming to strain against the very edge of the painting, as if it can barely contain its bulk, and yet despite its imposing mass, in the turn of its sinuous neck, it is graceful and in its own way, quite beautiful. By way of contrast, the dark menace of the image in Cattle III is elusive and defuse. A fault line cracked open in the firing is unapologetically on show, as if it had been struck through with a chance lightning bolt.
Each work, in a subtly different way, seems to buttress Warboys’ explicit rejection of the importance, or even need, to define the forms within, or separate out artistic intent from the means of production. What matters to her is not whether these are figurative works or not, so much as how they resonate with the viewer - how they connect that viewer to the artist. As individual pieces, the works seem to ask different questions, and invite different answers. Together, we see that argumentfully played out, and while it is, of course, appropriate to contemplate the works as individual pieces, this exhibition adds up to so much more than the sum of its parts, not least because of how carefully and handsomely Warboys has staged it. Setting the works apart from the gallery walls, stunningly backlit and strikingly framed, Warboys demonstrates her understanding of the importance of context. iven her background in architectural stained glass, it is perhaps no surprise that there is genuine drama in how the images are presented. Viewed as a group, it becomes clear how they vary in tone and abstraction, and yet manage to present a contiguous reinterpretation of her pastoral theme. Reminiscent of the cave paintings of Lascaux (from which, perhaps, she has received inspiration) the artist’s willingness to go with, rather than fight against, the fluid nature of her medium has allowed her to capture a series of ephemeral vignettes with pigment and glass, but also with light itself, bringing these elements together to create something quite extraordinary.