Picture a large stained glass window inside a cathedral. You see a variety of colours – perhaps a contrast of red and blue, long slivers of yellow, or a striking sea of white. A pattern emerges, changing your interpretation of the window. At first you notice a figure in the centre of the window, which you perceive to be the image of Christ. Then more figures emerge, so you begin to piece together a narrative, reading the window as you would a novel. Now you are lost in the story, in the intricacies of light and colour, in private thought and reverie.
As an intern at the Powerhouse Museum, I assisted with the acquisition of historic studio equipment owned by Philip Handel, producer of stained- and painted-glass windows. The contents of the studio, which include a gas-fired kiln, laying-out workshop table, easel, traymobile and artistry tools, were used to produce hundreds of public windows in Australia from the late 19th Century up to Philip’s death in 2009. The studio was first used in 1873 by the influential Australian glass manufacturing firm Lyon Cottier & Co. , and upon the firm’s closure, the equipment was gifted to a man who had proved his skill as the chief glass-maker of the company. His name was Alfred Handel.
On the first day of my internship, I came across an image of Alfred Handel’s highly-esteemed ‘rose window’, installed at St Bede’s Drummoyne, Sydney in 1932. As a newcomer to the art of the stained glass window, I found myself in awe of this one – its perfect symmetry of line and colour, the symbolic cross at the heart of the image from which everything else flows, and Alfred’s clever incorporation of Australian wild flowers into the traditional format of the rose window. However, its production was marked by controversy, with the window denounced as ‘too bold’ by the architect responsible for installation, Emil Sodersten (see footnote 1). But others saw Alfred’s boldness as creative brilliance, as seen in a tribute written by another architect, Mr. N. W. McPherson:
Mr. Handel had that rare quality of spiritual insight. He knew the bible from end to end. He understood the characters depicted. He felt, within himself the meaning of the subjects he portrayed. That is why his work has that elusive, almost intangible quality which can kindle the emotions of the beholder until he feels as Mr. Handel felt when he designed it. (see footnote 2)
Philip Handel was only seventeen years old when he inherited Alfred C Handel Studios. But the skills he had acquired in two years of working with his father, combined with a spiritual enthusiasm comparable to Alfred’s, set him up for a long and successful career of stained- and painted-glass window production. Philip’s designs were often bolder than those produced by his father, challenging conventions of the stained glass window through contemporary motifs, abstract geometry, and references to social and political histories at the site of installation. One of my favourite Philip Handel windows is the ‘Christ in Glory’ window at St John’s Anglican Church, Dee Why, Sydney. Occupying the entire south wall of the church, ‘Christ in Glory’ is a tableau of small square windows, which combine to create a spectacle of Christ’s grandeur through contrasting colours, lines and symbols. I love how each small window has its own mysteries, which can only be solved by taking two steps back and viewing the window in its entirety.
Philip’s wife, Elizabeth Handel, was a witness to the repetition, skill and time needed to produce a window like ‘Christ in Glory’. However, she recalls that the repetitive task of cutting, painting and firing each individual piece of glass was never a burden for Philip, because of his passion and diligence:
Every one of the processes is time-consuming, because you’d probably have to, in some stages, repeat what you’ve done two or three times. But Philip didn’t ever mind doing this. He just loved to design, he loved to paint. He didn’t ever have a drawing lesson, but I think it was just a natural thing that came to him. His life was just one of absolutely loving his work, every minute of it. (see footnote 3)
On one of my internship days, I visited Elizabeth at her home. Over tea and sandwiches, perfectly-arranged, I learnt more about Elizabeth’s involvement in her husband’s work. She is especially proud of his last major contribution, the ‘Windows of Remembrance’, installed at the Church of St Michael and All Angels in Sandakan, Sabah (formerly British North Borneo) in 2003. These windows were created in memory of Australian and British prisoners of war who died at the site in World War II, while honouring the local citizens who risked their lives to help them. Philip’s work proves that a stained glass window can have ongoing significance, not just through aesthetic admiration and religious worship, but also in shaping the collective memory of a community.
At the Powerhouse Museum’s Collection Store at Castle Hill, I touch the tiny nail holes on Philip Handel’s laying-out workshop table. There are thousands of markings on the table top, creating a physical imprint of over a century of stained- and painted-glass manufacturing. I notice the three-tiered traymobile, containing Philip’s personalised scatter of paintbrushes, plastic cups and glass palettes. I find a small cooking pot, marked with steel discolouration and wax residue. In front of me is the gas-fired kiln, time-worn but still operable. And wrapped in protective paper is a leather-bound Bible signed ‘Alfred C Handel’, the spiritual foundation of the creative process. Each object from the Handel studio (even the smallest grain of pigment found in a tin in a corner) is a valuable document of individual method, teaching us about the intricacies of a traditional hand-craft which may one day be lost.
Danielle Geracitano, Intern with Dr Paul Donnelly (Curator, Design & Society)
(1) Sherry, Beverly. Australia’s Historic Stained Glass (Sydney: Murray Child & Company Pty Ltd, 1991), p. 96.
(2) McPherson, N. W. ‘Exchange of News and Views’, The New South Wales Presbyterian (12 Nov 1948).
(3) Interview with Elizabeth Handel, 2011.