Having been a bookshop since 1682, No.35 Stonegate became the home and workshop of J.W. Knowles (1838-1931), stained-glass artist, and his son, J.A. Knowles, in 1873. The earliest part of the house facing on to Stonegate is a three-storey, timber-framed range built in the 15th century. In the 17th century, a two-storey building, also timber-framed, was constructed at the rear possibly as a workshop. Around 1700, the courtyard which separated the two ranges was filled in with a brick-built link block. John Ward Knowles carried out an ambitious refurbishment of the house that began in 1874, a date which is recorded on the new, highly-decorative façade to Stonegate.
In the days before William Morris and Philip Webb established the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (1877), which campaigned for a more sensitive approach to restoration, and the register of listed buildings was introduced, Knowles had free reign. It was common practice at that time for original structures to be completely rebuilt and embellished in a manner which would be frowned on today. On the façade of No.35, he created a confection of Victorian Tudor detailing which, apart from the jettying and the gable on to Stonegate, bore little relation to the original 15th-century building. Every surface is covered with ornament and the date of 1682 has been added, the year that Francis Hildyard opened his bookshop, “The Sign of the Bible”. Whilst much of the original 17th– and 18th-century interior remains, including a number of panelled rooms and a fine staircase, the blend of historic fabric and 19th-century interventions are distinctly Victorian. Not surprisingly, the house contains a large collection of stained glass some of which can be seen on Stonegate in the upper panels in the ground-floor shopfront and in the oriel window on the first floor.
Stained glass workshop
Founded by John Knowles around 1861, J.W. Knowles & Sons was York’s leading firm of glass painters, stained glass restorers and church decorators. One of Knowles’ most important commissions was glass for St Lawrence Church in York. The old medieval St Lawrence was demolished leaving only the tower which now stands on its own in the church yard. In its place is an ambitious new church designed by J.G. Hall of Canterbury. Built in 1881-3, the church contains a large collection of late-19th and early-20th-century stained glass, much of it by J.W. Knowles including three windows in the apse (1895) and the north transept window (1906). Other major work included the restoration of the St Cuthbert Window in York Minster, restored in 1887, where Knowles created 10 of the 75 episodes from the life of the saint. He continued working up to his death in 1931; windows in St Margaret, Walmgate date from 1926 and 1930. In the same arts and crafts spirit of Morris & Co, J.W. Knowles & Sons carried out all forms of decorative work for churches including embroidery and tapestries created by his daughters.
In the 1930s, John Ward’s son, John Alder Knowles (1881-1961), continued the business. Prior to the outbreak of the First World War, he researched the latest methods of glass manufacturing in North America. In 1903, he travelled to Toronto, Canada, and then to Minneapolis, where he spent the next nine years working at the Ford Brothers stained glass works. Whilst in the USA, he discovered the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany who, as well as making Art Nouveau stained glass windows, had become famous for his Tiffany electric lamps with their multi-coloured stained-glass shades. On his return to England in 1912, he joined the family firm in York. John Alder produced some prototype Tiffany-style lamps designed for the English market but they proved not to be commercially viable.
The British Society of Master Glass-Painters was founded in 1921 to promote and encourage high standards in the art and craft of glass painting and stained glass and to act as a forum for the exchange of information and ideas within the craft, as well as helping to preserve the stained glass heritage of Britain. John Alder Knowles was one of its most active members. He was the editor of the society’s Journal of Stained Glass from 1926 to 1939 and from 1945 to 1949 and his extensive research into the history of stained glass, early production methods and the lives of individual glass painters such as William Peckitt resulted in a large number of articles. In 1936, a collection of articles covering work in York was published in Essays in the History of the York School of Glass-painting which was illustrated with his own sketches and photographs. The stained-glass workshop closed in 1953 but the property remained in the family until 1999.
Stained-glass creation and conservation are still carried out at a number of workshops in and around York. The Laurence Sterne plaque was made by Barley Studio which is based at Dunnington. Run by Keith Barley, Master of the Worshipful Company of Glaziers and Painters of Glass, 2017-8, the firm is internationally renowned for its conservation of historic glass and creation of new windows for ecclesiastical and domestic applications. Keith is Head Conservator and Helen Whittaker is Creative Director. Major conservation projects include the unique medieval scheme at St Mary’s Church, Fairford, which received a National Award for Conservation in 1998, and the famous Herkenrode windows at Lichfield Cathedral. In progress is the work on the 14th-century windows of St Denys Church, Walmgate, York last restored by Knowles. Helen’s recent work includes windows for the RAF Club in London and a new window designed by David Hockney for Westminster Abbey to celebrate the Queen’s reign which was installed in September 2018. The abbey also contains other work by Barley Studio: in 2013, two windows designed by the artist Hughie O’Donoghue were installed in the Henry VII Chapel in 2013 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s Coronation.
Nikolaus Pevsner and David Neave, The Buildings of England, Yorkshire: York and the East Riding (London, 1995)
‘Houses: Stonegate’, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981), pp220-235. British History Online, www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol5/pp220-235 [accessed 22 August 2018]
The archives of J.A Knowles & Sons are held in the Borthwick Institute of Archives, University of York. In addition to material relating to the Knowles family, the archive also contains the research papers of John Alder Knowles which cover the work of other stained-glass artists most notably William Peckitt.
An index of the articles by John Alder Knowles in the Journal of Stained Glass can be found on the British Society of Master Glass-Painters’ website in addition to further information about the society and a list of members.