How the V&A restored their stained glass windows

How the V&A restored their stained glass windows

The Victoria and Albert Museum is known for being one of the most important art and design museums across the world. It features a collection of over 2 million objects that cover a period of over 5,000 years of history, detailing the history of mankind’s creativity. This covers items such as furniture, fashion and sculpture, right through to ceramics, jewellery, photography and everything in between.

Up to the start of the 20th century, one of the key features of the building’s beautiful Victorian architecture was the four stained glass windows that were once prominently seen on the staircase landings. These were originally designed and painted by William Bell Scott between 1867 and 1869. Each window contains 6 panels which each measure approximately 1.3 (h) x 0.85m (w).

The restoration plan

Unfortunately, the windows were removed due to changing design tastes around 1910, placed in off-site storage and forgotten about for 100 years. When they were rediscovered, experts found 23 panels of painted and stained glass along with one panel of acid-etched glass. Research was conducted and it was confirmed that these were the original windows created by William Bell Scott almost 150 years before.

In 2012, the V&A began a project called the FuturePlan to conserve and display these original glass panels as over time they had experienced natural levels of degradation. Luckily, most of the panels were in good condition and they were cleaned to remove surface accretions, along with necessary repairs made on breakages and any missing areas of glass.

There were two panels missing from the original design which created the biggest challenge for the restorers. Extensive research was conducted to find drawings, photographs or designs of the panels but none were found. The Museum decided honesty was the best policy and because it was known that an external border existed on the two missing panels, they used a plain painted border on the replacements instead. This highlighted to everyone which panels on the windows were original, and those that were not.

Creating new glass panels

The restorers identified the original glass as Hartley’s rigid glass (also referred to as Hartley’s Patent Rough Plate or Hartley’s Rolled Plate). This was produced until 1910-20 and had been patented between 1840-50. This type of glass was frequently used to glaze Victorian railway station roofs and industrial buildings but there is no modern equivalent available today. The cost to create this sort of glass meant it was not a viable option. Instead, they settled on using the acid-etched style on non-textured glass similar to one of the original panels they had discovered.

In order to display the original panels in front of the existing windows, new metal display frames were designed. The project took a number of years to complete given the time, money and care that had to be dedicated to restoring these glorious and historic stained glass windows. They are now on proud display at the V&A and stand as a shining example of window conservation and restoration.