Selby Abbey’s Stained Glass To Be Sacred Not Extinct

Helen Whittaker welcomes people to ‘bathe in the power of coloured light’ after 25 years immersed in a craft at risk.
Evie Whitaker
April 12, 2024

Coming at a time where Helen Whittaker, celebrates 25 years in her stained glass and sculpture career, her latest instalment at Selby Abbey, depicting ‘Jesus’ Agony in the Garden of Gethsemane’ during the Easter festival, encapsulates what she loves about the endangered craft.

From five generations of blacksmiths and cabinet makers dotted around Lancashire, Helen’s calling was inevitably going to be hands-on. Painting and an intrigue for art history led Helen to her first internship at Barley Studio in York while she studied 3D Design in Glass and Ceramics at the University of Sunderland.

Now, Barley Studio celebrates 50 years of design and mastery in stained glass, with none other than Helen Whittaker as Creative Director. She works alongside an ardent team to create designs for monumental holy buildings across the UK - including an iconic Hockney collaboration at Westminster Abbey back in 2018.

On Palm Sunday, after three years in the making, Helen’s latest design was presented adorning the North naive aisle of the former Benedictine Abbey at Selby. The window was blessed by retired Bishop of Beverley, Glyn Webster, and is in memory of donor Molly Brocklesby née Staniland - the Stanilands being local treasures of Selby for many generations.

Bishop Glyn Webster, Helen Whittaker and Revd Canon John Weetman With Helen's Selby Abbey Window
Bishop Glyn Webster, Helen Whittaker and Revd Canon John Weetman With Helen's Selby Abbey Window

This window is the first of its kind in 90 years for Selby Abbey and plays a major part of the Easter story told through stained glass instalments along the aisle. The colourful display depicts an olive grove dissected by a cross and marries tradition with contemporary elements while also serving as an ode to the donor’s love for gardens.

Vibrant and inspiring, Helen feels the window can move all walks of life, regardless of their beliefs. She says: “It was really special to have the opportunity to create this window for Selby Abbey, being part of the Easter story and also getting to transform a corner of the abbey that was before, less colourful. It was an opportunity to draw people’s attention to this particular spot and create wonder, whether it be spiritual or simply through colour and imagery.

“I’d urge people to visit and absorb its emotional and spiritual impact as the sun shines through. You don’t need to be religious to feel uplifted by these buildings and I’d encourage everyone to bathe in the power of coloured light; it can have such a profound effect on us.”

Despite ancient origins, last year stained glass became an official endangered craft with artists and supplies dwindling, yet admirers are ever present. According to Heritage Crafts, the lack of skilled practitioners, materials becoming harder to obtain and decline in demand for new stained glass projects across the UK, means that this ethereal art form is in serious need of support.

With optimism that her craft will be carried through future generations by safe hands, Helen reflects on the stained glass industry: “We’ve known that this craft is at risk for a long time, it was the same when I first started out. It’s a small profession that requires the teaching and learning of practical skills - there’s a degree of patience attached to it.

The Abbey Window In Situ

“A lot of people don'treally relate to stained glass either. They just see it as church wallpaper and glide past it but I’d like more people to appreciate how this art form can enhance people's homes and well-being too - colour has an incredible effect on people. The more we can raise the profile of stained glass and how it can be used in secular or ecclesiastical buildings, the more likely it is to become a viable career option for younger generations.”

Now, universities and workshops able to feasibly teach stained glass courses are on the decline. And as the pressure and prospect of more traditional paths encase younger generations, uptake in this vocation has sadly abated.

Barley Studio, however, works closely with The Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass, who award those looking to immerse themselves in the craft. As a result, Helen and the team in York often take on a number of students who receive funded work experience at their renowned workshop and get the chance to harness the skills of those who live and breathe this medium.

As lovers of the craft know, stained glass needs more recognition and support across the board in order to keep it sacred, not extinct. So, why not head over to Selby Abbey and see for yourself, the power that lies within stained glass?