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Peter Gibson

22 December 2016


The Minster’s “window-cleaner”: Peter Gibson examines a part-completed section of the rose window, on 1 November 1985

The Minster’s “window-cleaner”: Peter Gibson examines a part-completed section of the rose window, on 1 November 1985

Sarah Brown writes:

PETER GIBSON, who was instrumental in the restoration of the medieval rose window at York Minster after the fire in 1984, died on 13 November, aged 87.

Peter lived all his life in a modest home in Precentor’s Court, in the shadow of York Minster, the building he served for more than 70 years: as altar boy, apprentice glazier, and then leader for more than 25 years of a team of craftsmen entrusted with the care of the Minster’s stained glass.

While his family worshipped at St Michael-le-Belfrey, Peter, aged 12, was noticed by the Dean, Eric Milner-White. Their first face-to-face meeting had been during his early-morning paper-round, delivering the Church Times to the deanery: “Ah, the Monday boy serves the Dean on a Friday,” the Dean said, proceeding to give Peter a short lecture on historic lamp-posts, one of the many subjects in which he was expert. As Peter cycled off in haste for Nunthorpe Secondary School, he could not have realised that this was to be one of the most formative relationships of his life.

Soon after, the Dean gave him a tour of the Minster’s windows, showed him around the glaziers’ workshop, and suggested that he start an apprenticeship.

When Peter joined the Minster glaziers, 80 windows had been removed into storage for the duration of the war; in 1945, the year he started, work began to return, clean, and restore them. The first window tackled was the most important — John Thornton’s great east window of the choir of 1405-08. By 1967, all 80 windows had been restored and reinstalled, lastly the west window.

Peter, who had taken only a two-year break for National Service in the RAF, recalled: “It was thrilling to see York Minster come back to life, as the windows were returned one by one to their original position.” With the encouragement and support of Lord Kilmaine, secretary of the Pilgrim Trust, the Dean had also begun to plan for the future of the glazing team that he had built up in the post-war years. While he did not live to see his plan realised, his foresight in training the next generation proved to be critical to its success. Herbert Nowland and Oswald Lazenby retired in 1955 and 1968 respectively. Peter was then appointed the Trust’s first superintendent, a post he kept until his retirement.

The 1970s and 1980s were a period of consolidation and growth for the Trust. Besides working on the Minster windows, it took on work across the country. It was after the Minster fire of 9 July 1984 that its skills and fortitude were put to the greatest test. Looking back, Peter said: “These events were the most traumatic experience of my working life. I have never been able to read accounts of other great fires, such as that which gutted the choir of Canterbury Cathedral in 1174, without feeling a sudden rush of memory, the noise, the smoke, the smell of 9 July 1984, all over again. In my opinion, the way we responded to the fire defined the York Glaziers Trust: our purpose, our commitment, our craft, our comradeship.”

The fire caused the south transept roof and vault to collapse. The rose window was almost destroyed. All solder joints had melted, and the delicate panels of early 16th-century glass were criss-crossed with more than 40,000 micro-cracks. In the days and weeks that followed, some proposed that the window be abandoned and replaced by a modern work of art.

But Peter Gibson remained adamant that it could be saved. He stepped into what was really uncharted conservation territory: the treatment of heavily fire-cracked glass remains one of the conservator’s greatest challenges. Peter took scientific advice, and used new conservation materials in the form of epoxy resins to stabilise the fractured glass, before creating glass “sandwiches” to hold the pieces in place.

In 1986, the window was returned to the Minster without any losses, but not before 39 panels had been assembled in the chapter house, with a mirrored floor that created the illusion of the whole window, in an unforgettable display seen by more than 170,000 people.

Peter was a public communicator and popular advocate for stained glass; his interests were all-encompassing. In 1949, with a travelling scholarship, he made the first of many visits to see glass abroad — on this occasion the cathedrals and workshops of France. He was knowledgeable about stained glass of all periods and styles, and nurtured a particular passion for the stained glass of William Morris and his circle.

He understood the importance of public engagement long before it had become a requirement of heritage funding. Peter gave many thousands of lectures on the art and craft of the medium, using his skills as a photographer to excellent effect. He travelled widely, enthusing and informing audiences in the UK and much further afield, estimating that he had travelled 500,000 miles. He had an especially loyal following in the US, where he was made a life member of the Stained Glass Association of America.

His contribution to the world of stained-glass conservation received appropriate recognition. In 1979, he was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London, and, in 1989, became a Liveryman of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers, and received the Freedom of the City of London. National recognition came in 1984, when he was awarded the MBE, followed in 1995 by an OBE. He was one of the few Englishmen to be awarded the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic for services to European stained glass.

Peter was first and foremost a Yorkshire man. Through his illustrated talks, he acted as an ambassador for the Minster and York. However far he travelled, it was always to Precentor’s Court that he returned. In 1995, the Archbishop of York awarded him the order of St William for his services to the Northern Province. In 2000, he ran a close second to Dame Judi Dench in the York Press Millennium Person of the Present, and, in 2010, he was made an Honary Freeman of the City of York.

Peter remained a very private person, and was famously coy about his age. He worshipped at St Michael-le-Belfrey, having served as churchwarden more than 30 years, becoming warden emeritus in 2008; and, in later years, especially after the death of his sister, relied increasingly on the fellowship and support of the congregation there. He continued to lecture and educate, even after retirement, giving up to 100 presentations a year.

He contributed to the training of Minster guides until 2011, when ill-health began to take its toll; he often waived a fee to contribute the proceeds of his lectures to conservation work. He had a roguish sense of humour, often calling himself “the Minster’s window-cleaner”. He never aspired to be “Master Glazier”, the tongue-in-cheek title used by Dean Milner-White in the dedication written on the flyleaf of the book he gave him in 1952 in recognition of the “mighty good work” he had achieved during his apprenticeship. Peter often used the words of the poet George Herbert in closing his lectures: “A man that looks on glass, on it may stay his eye, Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, and then heaven espy.”

The Rt Revd David Galliford adds: In the post-war years, the Trust’s work of cleaning, repairing, conserving, and replacing medieval glass demanded help from scientists, chemists, historians, and other disciplines. The Dean and Peter recognised this, and strong links were forged with universities, especially Sheffield and York.

The work also needed to be strongly supported in the world of art and craft, and financially strong. So it was that, in 1967, the York Glaziers Trust was set up with Peter as its secretary/superintendent.

As churchwarden at St Michael-le-Belfry, he gave huge support to incumbents. It was a joy and delight to him that the church needed an overflow for its congregation in the late 1950s; and, in the ’70s, the Sunday-evening congregations filled the nave of the Minster.

We thank God for someone of great sensitivity and charm, whose love and care embraced all who met him. His lively personal faith touched a large number of people, and he saw his work as a mission to tell the Christian story in glass.

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