At first sight the impressive monochromes of Surinder Warboys are the antithesis of stained glass, a medium with which, however, she is closely familiar. For they entirely eschew the characteristics of the mosaic (that is, the medieval) system of binding together pieces of coloured glass with strips of lead, and instead are painted on single, large sheets of float glass.
These new panels are essentially modern – innovative. Yet they resonate in an historical context, too. By the eighteenth century the medieval techniques of stained glass making had been lost, and the attempts at reviving figurative imagery had to rely on painting in coloured enamels on the largest sheets of glass then available: the lead line was, at best, of secondary importance, or even superfluous. By 1840 these ‘glass-paintings’ were anathema to the proponents of the Gothic revival, and most of them were destroyed: they have been almost entirely vilified or ignored ever since.
It has always seemed to me that an opportunity was lost at the point, around 1910, that stained glass began to be permeated by the various modernisms, for it was not written in stone that the medium must aspire to the condition of a mosaic, and a potential exploration of alternative methods was ignored. I have long yearned for an artist with the courage to sidestep the traditional precepts, and in Surinder Warboys I believe I have found that person. The technical skill she displays – the adroit manipulation of her watercolour-like materials – is wedded to a painterly handling of chiaroscuro that drives her most powerful images.
Are they, then, stained glass, or paintings on glass? It is of no real importance how they are categorised, except it should be stressed that their radiance depends on the panels being articulated by transmitted light: this enables them to penetrate our consciousness in a particularly intense way, greater, arguably, than the reflected light from an easel painting.
We may eagerly anticipate where next Surinder Warboys will take this exciting experiment.