Manchester Town Hall, its later extension and the adjoining Central Library are some of the city’s most recognisable buildings. The Town Hall is Grade I listed and is an essay in Gothic revival architecture. The Grade II* Town Hall Extension (THX) was added between 1934 and 1938, designed by architect Vincent Harris who won a design competition for this and the Central Library. The current transformation project will see the buildings sensitively upgraded to allow their ongoing use well into the future.
Both buildings contain a mixture of stained and leaded glass, glazed into bronze casements. The work in the THX is that of George Kruger-Gray and his name is signed in several of the panels. Kruger-Gray was better known as a coin designer than a designer of stained glass. This background certainly shines through in his stained glass work which is very highly detailed. Of particular note are those windows in the ante-chamber of the THX and the staircase of the Central Library, which are an absolute delight in terms of intricacy of detail, bold use of colour and combination of techniques. The majority of the windows in the Central Library are also his, with the obvious and notable exception of the well-known Shakespeare Window which sits under the portico over the main entrance. The design is attributed to Robert Anning Bell, commissioned by Rosa Grindon, the widow of Manchester botanist Leo Grindon in whose name the window was bequeathed. Bell died in 1933, so could never have seen this window completed.
There were a number of issues identified with the windows, principally the widespread failure of the leadwork. The glass itself was particularly badly soiled to both internal and external faces, allowing very little transmission of light. There had also been a lot of previous repair work, much of which had been done to a rough and ready standard using poorly matched glass, cold paints and ham-fisted lead straps and filler. Some of the better repair work was completed in 1949 following war-time bomb damage, and all of these repairs were reincorporated into the windows as they marked an important part of their history. There were also a number of issues with the bronze casements, all of which were repaired whilst the glass was at the studio.
It took several days just to number the windows, detailing the original location and orientation. The idea of losing track of what went where did not bear thinking about, so great care was taken to ensure accuracy not just as the glass came out, but at every stage as each panel moved through the studio and back into the building on completion. A system of numbers and letters, backed up by a colour-coding system was put into place, with each window labelled and recorded both photographically and physically using rubbings referenced to a key.
Before being removed, each panel was assessed for stability, both in respect of its lead structure and the condition of the paintwork and the glass. Some panels were in such poor condition that they had to be carefully deconstructed in-situ as to try to remove them in one go would have been catastrophic. As each panel arrived at the studio, it was catalogued and assessed and an individual plan formed for the treatment of each panel.
The windows in the worst condition were those from the Central Library. Not only were they far dirtier than all of the others, but many were fatally unstable. On assessment at the studio, it was found that over a third of the glass had been replaced using cheap modern obscure glass, rather than the mouth-blown reamy cylinder glass originally used. All of the repairs had been carried out in-situ, leaving every panel severely weakened by years of patching up.
A match for the glass was commissioned for production by Lamberts Glass in Germany, who produce some of the finest mouth-blown glass in the world. There were also a significant number of smashed sections of glass. These were repaired using a combination of studio conservation techniques, meaning that almost every section of original stained glass was retained within the window. Where repair was impossible or where glass was missing altogether, new sections of glass were painted and kiln-fired to fill the gaps. These were signed and dated by the glass artist before being incorporated into the window so that any future conservator would be able to recognise the replacements without having to consult records.
The project took the studio the best part of a year to complete and the results speak for themselves. The stained glass has been entirely rejuvenated in both form and function by considered, practical intervention. All extant original glass was reincorporated into the building and those repairs or replacements that were carried out were done faithfully and honestly. The management of this sensitive approach on such a gigantic scale was certainly a challenge, but one which all of the Recclesia studio conservators, support staff and site staff rose to with admirable aplomb.