One of the country’s leading stained glass artists has been commissioned to install a commemorative window in memory of our armed forces who have served in Afghanistan. She tells MATT CLARK what inspires her work.

THE Great East Window at York Minster tells the story of the Apocalypse, the last great battle between God and Satan.

It is the work of John Thornton, one of the greatest and most influential medieval artists, who was commissioned because the Dean heard of his reputation and decided only Thornton could be trusted to produce a masterpiece worthy of the epithet “the Sistine Chapel of the stained glass world”.

Six hundred years on, the tradition of stained glass is still being maintained in York. The latest commission for the city has been won by Dunnington-based artist Helen Whittaker, following her stunning 2009 stained glass depiction of 90 years of the Royal Air Force at the RAF Club in London.

Helen, of Barley Studios, has been asked to design a tribute to North Yorkshire service personnel who served in Afghanistan, which will be installed in All Saints Church, Pavement, in York.

While Helen mainly conserves or designs for churches, cathedrals and abbeys, she says being asked to produce her second military theme is an honour.

“York has some of the finest medieval stained glass in the country. Continuing this traditional craft, in a contemporary way, offers an opportunity to respect the past, serve the heroes of the present and look forward to the future – all in a beautiful Christian setting.”

Helen is beginning the process, gathering images, words and feelings from families, while also thinking about themes and connections.

“I want to make something uplifting; speaking of love and peace, and symbolising the precious freedom which our servicemen and women protect, and the love and hope for which Christ died.”

We don’t yet know what the design will look like but, secular or ecclesiastical, it’s always the building that inspires Helen – and the people who use it.

“In each case, I examine the history, the architectural space surrounding the window, the purpose of the window within the building and the light coming through,” says Helen.

The space between ground and window level is also important. At Beverley Minster, Helen took the theme of pilgrimage and opted for an abstract design to provide a balance with the adjacent medieval East Window.

The centre represents God the Creator and strong design lines draw the eye along. Gradually small figures of pilgrims appear, moving towards a central glow.

Looking up at the new window are two life-sized figures sculpted in triangles of sheet copper. Their form giving the suggestion that they were created from shards of glass falling from the window.

“This was my first major abstract work and also my first to involve other media, in particular a copper sculpture,” says Helen.

“I am passionate about extending the artwork beyond the two dimensions of stained glass, incorporating sculpture as another element to engage the viewer.”

The staircase window at the Royal Air Force Club is another example of Helen’s use of leading lines.

“I love the narrative in windows and here I used a fully figurative style, to create a design based on diagonals which lead the eye upwards. It is a compositional device inspired by the great masters.”

The design brought additional challenges due to the lack of natural light in the stairwell; so in the lower level Helen used gilding techniques on the reverse of the glass with gold, bronze and silver leaf to reflect the interior lighting.

None of this is the work of a solo artist. Helen is quick to stress that she is part of a team at Barley Studios along with conservators and glaziers. They often figure in her work. As once did she.

“I was commissioned to produce a window for a church in Suffolk and discovered that I had run out of people to use as a model. Well there was nothing else for it. I had to paint myself.”


Last push needed

HELEN Whittaker was chosen to create the stained-glass window at All Saints Church in Pavement in lasting tribute to the thousands of local men and women who have served in Afghanistan.

She was selected by the City of York Afghanistan Commemorative Appeal to carry out the project.

The window will give recognition to all the city’s sons and daughters who have answered the call of duty in Afghanistan, and will include a memorial to the three York servicemen who made the ultimate sacrifice: Marine David Hart, Trooper Ashley David Smith and Lance Bombardier Matthew Hatton.

However, one more fundraising push is still needed to ensure there is sufficient money to pay for the work. The appeal total stands at £12,290.57, and it is estimated an additional £5,000 is needed.

• Anyone willing to organise a fundraising event should phone Mike Laycock on 01904 567132 or email

To make a donation, send a cheque, payable to The City of York Afghanistan Commemorative Appeal, to: Mike Laycock, The Press, 76-86 Walmgate, York YO1 9YN, accompanied by name, address and contact details.