Restoring Somerset's heritage
PUBLISHED: 09:00 26 March 2014
Many of Somerset's historic buildings and churches owe their award-winning restored stained glass to a man who began his working life as a hair stylist based in London
Rod Blair, who lives and works in Wells, is now one of the country’s leading stained glass artists, working with both conservation and designing new glass.
Most people would see changing from a career in hairdressing in London to a stained glass artist in Somerset as unusual to say the least but when one looks a little closer at Rod’s background, maybe it isn’t quite so unusual after all.
“Well. I did specialise in hair colour when I worked in London” laughs Rod, “so I guess that colour whether in hair or glass has always been a constant tin my life!”
And although he was born and raised in North London, Rod’s parents spent most of their family holidays in Somerset, declaring it to be one of the best areas in London and as Rod says,
“They have certainly put their money where their mouth is as, as when my wife and I made the decision to relocate to the county, my whole family upped sticks and followed me here!”
Many of those family holidays had been spent looking at Somerset’s historic buildings as his father is an architect and his mother a sculptor. The holidays obviously had a profound effect on Rod because, after spending several years as a hairdresser; he realised that he wanted to be involved in the world of glass and undertook a rigorous training programme, including a degree in building conservation. It was certainly the right decision as it has led him to many awards and has even seen him featured on television.
Rod is particularly interested in the history of the area and has gained a national reputation as one of the country’s most sensitive glass artists.
This was nowhere more evident than in the work he did on the Merchant’s House in Shepton Mallet. Built in 1680, by a local wealthy landowner, the house had fallen into disrepair and had even suffered attacks of vandalism.
"The imagination of the Somerset people knows no bounds and that combined with our wonderful heritage makes the county one of the best places to be a stained glass artist "
When the new owner decided to restore it to its former glory, not a project for the faint hearted, he decided to call in the very best craftsmen and luckily for him, one of the very best glass conservators was right on his doorstep!
“It is quite upsetting to see what had been one of the jewels of Somerset in such a condition of neglect but at the same time, it was exciting to know that it was going to be restored, using as much local material as possible and that I was going to be part of that project!”
The new owners were determined that conservation should be the key word when it came to restoring the house to its former glory but sometimes, new items had to be found.
This was the case with the windows and it was here that Rod’s sympathetic approach worked wonders.
Twenty seven new metal casements were fitted, as well as at total of eighty leaded lights and as the windows are such an important part of merchant’s House, it is hardly surprising that Rod’s work was instrumental in ensuring that the merchant’s House project won the prestigious William Stansell preservation award.
“There is no doubt that it was a career highlight for me” says Rod, “It was so warming to have the project recognised in this way. Mind you, I wasn’t quite prepared for all the media attention, especially when the team from the BBC’s Restore to Glory came along.
“Still, it was all good fun and great to see that there is so much interest in restoring our county’s heritage.”
Somerset’s building heritage is well known: the county teams with beautiful churches and ancient homes and Rod has worked on many of them, including the Lady Chapel in at Glastonbury Abbey. However, heritage doesn’t always mean that a building has to be centuries old and a case in point is The Regal Cinema in Wells.
“Yes” says Rod, “quite often if we mention heritage glass people automatically think of very old buildings but you know more modern times have buildings which are certainly worth saving and one of these is the fabulous 1930’s Regal Cinema. It is one of the best examples of a 1930’s cinema and yet it had been placed on the At Risk register which was a real shame. Still, when it was decided to restore it, I hardly dared hope that I would be chosen to work on the glass but maybe dreams do come true because I was!”
The project involved both restoring the Art Deco stained and leaded windows, as well as making new panels which was particularly tricky as both the glass and lead had to be matched. Nonetheless, tricky or not, like the Merchant’s House it also won the William Stansell award.
However, a building doesn’t have to be of major historical importance for Rod to undertake work on it.
“Somerset people are very proud of their homes and I am often asked to produce a piece of stained glass that is personal to the home owner: whether the home be a Victorian villa, a modern house or even, on occasion, a house boat!”
“The Tor often features in designs, I’m glad to say, after all I can see it from my bedroom window and I have incorporated it into stained glass in my own home but I have been asked to do a wide variety of things, from flowers to people.
“The imagination of the Somerset people knows no bounds and that combined with our wonderful heritage makes the county one of the best places to be a stained glass artist.”
This article was first published in the March issue of Somerset Life. To get the magazine delivered every month to your home, subscribe at www.subscriptionsave.co.uk/som or call 08448484217