Shedding new light on ancient art

Stained glass is a highly-skilled art – but even beginners can create something impressive with some hard work and a lot of help. STACIA BRIGGS visited Tim Foord at his Wroxham studio to throw new light on a medieval craft.

It's a wonderful alchemy — sand transformed into glowing jewels by the application of fire. Stained glass has illuminated our lives since the early 12th century, when the discovery was made that colour and light could be trapped in glass by melting oxides and metallic salts at high temperatures.

In Tim Foord's studio, Coastal Stained Glass, at Wroxham Barns in the heart of Norfolk, it feels as if you're standing in the middle of a giant kaleidoscope – the light changes throughout the day, illuminating the room with its own personal rainbow.

It's easy to see why Tim considers it to be a privilege to work in such a bright environment. 'Glass is so beautiful and I love creating something unique that will bring colour into people's lives,' he says. 'It's not the easiest way to make a living, and I'm never going to be a rich man making stained glass, but I love what I do and I feel honoured to be able to do it. Here in my studio, I feel I am in the environment that's just right for me.'

Stained glass-making is a million miles away from Tim's previous careers which saw him managing dairy cows and working on farms carrying out hard physical labour rather than intricate, delicate artwork.

'For me, stained glass started as a hobby. I used to keep tropical fish, and needed a certain size of aquarium that I couldn't get hold of, so I thought I'd try and make one myself. It wasn't a tremendous success, but it had me hooked straight away. I've never had a single lesson, I've just picked things up as I've gone along.'

Unsurprisingly, for a man who used to keep tropical fish, colour is extremely important to Tim. His studio is full of glass sheets in every colour of the rainbow, from medieval reds to marbled blues, textured greens to iridescent glass which has the sheen of oil on water.

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'The quality of the glass is key,' he explains, 'it affects the way the light shines through it and the effect that you'll be able to achieve. My glass is called Tiffany glass, and comes from America.

'The most expensive piece of glass I have probably cost about �150 for a square metre, but the workmanship is incredible. I also have some very unusual glass that has tiny glass chips embedded in it which gives you a really unusual effect.'

As I pick the seven shades of glass I need to make a stained glass candle-holder, I can see that my choice – varying shades of greens and blues – doesn't fill him with enthusiasm.

'Everyone is different,' he says, graciously, 'but I love hot colours – the oranges, the reds and the golds. I'm a keen gardener, and I like my gardens to be full of splashes of colour, too. Other people like to colour coordinate, I think colour coordination involves using as many colours as possible!'

To learn more I joined one of Tim's day courses. My first lesson is to learn how to cut glass. Tim demonstrates, cutting through sheets of clear glass as effortlessly as if it was butter. The trick is to listen for a distinctive 'hiss' that signposts the fact that you've used enough – but not too much – pressure to score a line in the glass which allows it to snap, giving you a perfect edge. Or that's the theory.

From each piece of glass I've chosen, I need to cut seven different sizes of glass tiles, ranging from squares to rectangles. These are marked on to the glass using a pen and then cut using the wheel and a large set square to keep the tiles level.

This is just one of the projects that Tim helps day students to create as their first piece of stained glass art in the classes he runs at his studio.

I could have also chosen to make a small terrarium for plants, a brightly-coloured glass stick for the garden or – if I'd shown early promise – a more traditional-looking leaded panel that wouldn't look out of place in a Victorian door.

Day courses cost �75 and include all materials. Students are all sent away with a piece of artwork that they've created – in the case of the panel, the final value of the piece created often exceeds the cost of the course.

From modern and traditionally-leaded window panels to Tiffany-style lamps and mirrors, Tim can create any design in glass, from poppies to Norfolk wherries, windmills to dragons, Zodiac signs to Celtic knots, fairies to fruit. He began creating art for a living almost by accident when the previous owners of Coastal Stained Glass told him they were selling up.

'When I took over the shop, I'd never made a lampshade, never made a mirror – in fact I'd only made a few different things and was winging it wildly. On my first day, a chap came into the shop, looked at one of the stock lampshades and said he'd like one the same. Of course, I said: 'yes! No problem!' and then started to panic the moment he closed the door. I spent two 18-hour days making this lampshade – I had my sleeping bag on the floor of the shop. But I made the lampshade. And it taught me that I was able to do things that I never thought I could.'

Tim – a natural-born teacher – also runs regular evening classes. 'People often think that they aren't artistic and that they can't make anything, but I've never taught anyone who hasn't been able to get the hang of stained glass,' he says. 'My evening class students are really very good. When I started, I thought that I'd take on about eight and that I'd replace them when they dropped out. No one ever dropped out, and we started years ago!'

The final stage of my candle-holder involves soldering the pieces together, dripping solder between the gaps which binds the glass together. With a lit tea-light candle inside, it glows in seaside shades that will look fantastic in my Victorian terrace. 'You've surprised yourself, haven't you?' says Tim, 'next thing you know you'll be knocking up a window…'

t For information about day courses in stained glass call 01603 784825 or visit:

t Tim's shop is based at Wroxham Barns, Tunstead Road, Hoveton.