Tell us a bit about yourself
My name is Tom Vowden, I’m a stained glass conservator/restorer, I also create stained
glass windows and traditional leaded lights from my workshop at Grandey’s Place in East
Hertfordshire. I have worked on windows at some of the UK’s most recognised historic
buildings, including York Minster Cathedral and The Palace of Westminster in London.
After developing my craft at a number of studios across England, I decided to start my own
business, Coruscate Stained Glass. The word coruscate means to emit or reflect vivid
flashes of light, and this is what first drew me to the beauty of stained glass.
My job is varied, I can spend one day scrambling up a scaffolding tower at an old church to
make a repair and chat with the pigeons, the next, I’ll be hand-drawing a design and
selecting coloured glass to make a dragonfly inspired window for a customer’s front door. No
two days are ever quite the same.
I love what I do and believe that stained glass is a craft that everyone can appreciate and
enjoy. Fundamentally, the idea is that you’re playing with light through multiple pieces of
coloured glass that are held together by lead and solder. These are the same techniques
and materials as a craftsperson would have used almost a thousand years ago!
I teach a course at my workshop where anybody can come and learn the craft, leaving with
their own leaded window fitted inside a lantern to take home and use.
What made you choose this career?
I like that stained glass windows are a functional part of many buildings as well as a work of
art in its own right. They tell a story, fill a room with colour and create an atmosphere within
the space; crucially they also keep the wind and rain out, they have a purpose.
Every piece of glass has to be cut accurately to ensure the window is strong and without
holes! I enjoy the creative freedom of design whilst also having to think practically about
how to make a structure that works. I love working with a client to understand their bespoke
needs, how to make this window personal to them through colour, good design and a story.
In that sense, no two projects are ever the same which keeps it interesting.
As a conservator, you also gain a real appreciation for the skills of craftspeople of the past.
The skill involved in the production of most historic stained glass windows is exceptional. I
often challenge myself to understand how a particular piece was made, painted, fitted. Lots
of these skills have been lost or are greatly diminished. There is great skill in preserving a
historic piece of glass, re-leading a window to give it another hundred years of use, as well
as painting a piece of glass in the style of a severely damaged original piece. It’s exciting
having that connection with a craftsperson from hundreds of years ago.
Did you go through formal education? If so, what did you study and where? If not
please explain your journey.
I studied Archaeology at the University of Manchester. It was an academic subject and
taught me about amazing prehistoric and ancient objects as well as historic crafts. I wanted
to have a go at some. I found day courses and had a go at blacksmithing, glass blowing,
marquetry and eventually stained glass. I enjoyed it from the start, lost all concept of time
whilst making new pieces and carried on with evening classes. I knew eventually I wanted to
work with my hands rather than an office job.
Through my Archaeology degree I found out about a Masters degree in Stained Glass
Conservation and Heritage Management at the University of York and knew it was
something I wanted to pursue. I was only able to do this through financial support from the
Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) and will always be grateful because it allowed
me to pursue my passion.
At the same time, the opportunity came up for a practical internship at York Glaziers’ Trust to
work on the Great East Window at York Minster, supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund. I
was able to study stained glass academically as well as gain practical experience learning
from some of the most skilled conservators in the country, which set my foundations. I was
extremely fortunate and recognise that these opportunities very rarely come up, something
that I hope to change soon.
Did this have a positive or negative impact on your chosen career?
I had to take an academic path to realise that a job like this even exists. Every experience is
positive towards realising your development and it was extremely useful to learn about the
history of stained glass as well as theory and philosophy of conservation.
I don’t however feel that an academic background is essential for doing this as a job.
Someone who can write a fantastic essay won’t necessarily have the practical skills to work
on a stained glass window. Enthusiasm and hands-on learning is the most important thing.
It is so important to get hands-on experience.
Who inspires you?
Many people inspire me, but with regards to stained glass, I’m fascinated by the work of
Harry Clarke, an Irish illustrator/stained glass artist. The detail in his work is so intricate and
technically complex, the themes are often pretty dark.
What’s the scariest thing about your job and how have you overcome it?
Working at height can sometimes be daunting. Working on a site you might have to work
from a scaffolding tower, cherry picker or a ladder. Safety is always paramount and after
doing it a few times you soon get used to working at an elevated level. It’s usually a pretty
good view! If heights are an issue, many stained glass artists I know employ others to install
What do you want to change about your industry?
I would like to see more opportunities for work experience and apprenticeships for people
coming out of school. It is not always necessary to take the academic route into a career
path, and some of the smartest people I know didn’t go to university. Hands-on experience
is what is really valuable and sometimes learning from your mistakes along the way. In
order to keep these skills alive it is important to pass them on and to keep developing
yourself along the way.
What advice would you give someone who is starting out in your field?
Find something that excites you. I had to try a number of different things before I found that I
had a real passion for stained glass, and more specifically conservation. Look at
opportunities for apprenticeships and for funding schemes, such as the Queen Elizabeth
Scholarship Trust, who support training in crafts. English Heritage also offers opportunities
to train in various historic crafts.
If you don’t know how interested you are in a craft, try it on a day course, even watch it on
Youtube, and you’ll get a good understanding of some of the processes involved and
whether it’s something you want to pursue further. If you find you enjoy it enough then you’ll
find a way to make it work.