Our work in Nigeria

In April 2011 I was invited to visit the Cathedral Church of Christ in Lagos, Nigeria, to compile a report on the condition of all of the stained glass windows in the Cathedral, with a view to restoring them to their former glory.

The oldest part of this Anglican Cathedral is only 145 years old but it is in fact one of the oldest buildings in Nigeria and therefore of historical interest. The stained glass windows vary in age from the oldest – the Chapterhouse window – to some newer instalments such as the 2 rose windows. The Chapterhouse window is approximately 140 years old, and is a traditional Victorian decorated church window, made up of 16 individual windows. The 2 rose windows were installed in 1935 when the transepts were built – these are of an Art Deco style, and unlink traditional rose windows, they depict an incredibly stylised sunflower; ideal for such a hot country!

The Cathedral, which is based on the style of a British cathedral, is very beautiful with a pale cream interior, marble floor and the outside painted in pale grey and white. The stained glass, all originally from Britain, brings a vibrancy and colour to the building, however grime and pollution had built up over the years, due to the windows never being maintained. In areas they were covered in lime scale which totally masked their beautiful translucent colours.

Our first restoration project was the East Window above the altar. This window is 20ft wide by 30ft high, made up of 40 individual windows and is of traditional arts and crafts design. It depicts God, Christ and Saints. It was originally built by Bill Pardoe in the East Midlands who unfortunately never saw his window in situ in Lagos. Four of us worked for three weeks on this window, cleaning it with all sorts of tools and materials (including toothbrushes!), wire wool and razor blades. At the end of the project the clarity of the windows was amazing and detail lost under all the grime was so evident and beautiful.

A window made in the 1920s – Jesus and the Children – was cleaned and restored in situ as it did not need major work like some coming to England to be restored. When we had finished this window it became clear how badly the Holy Family window, which was next to it, needed to be restored and cleaned.

The first windows to be restored in my studio were the Chapterhouse windows. They were freighted over to the UK to my studio for me and my assistant, Bridget, to work on. The state of them was unimaginable once out of their frames in the cathedral! It was a real labour of love initially cleaning off over a hundred years of city grime, which was like a thick second skin to each side of the glass. Where the glass was damaged, new sections had to be made using exactly the same techniques and kiln painted designs as those damaged and lost. The sixteen windows all had to be re-leaded to exactly the same size as they had been originally for the window apertures. This work took six months of hard graft.

Then the transept windows were worked on, rebuilding, re-leading and changing the design slightly to incorporate some new colours into the windows. The centre of the transept windows are domes which are 48” in diameter and represent the centre of the sunflower. The outer four quarters of the window are 23” deep and over six feet wide in arc shapes. Not the easiest to handle!

In March this year the transept windows were re-installed and the Cathedral congregation were thrilled with their clean, repaired and vibrant coloured rose windows. Whilst we were there the four remaining windows made up from 62 individual windows were removed to be freighted to the UK to my studio. They were Our Lady’s Chapel window, two altar windows and the Holy Family window.

The last six months we have worked hard on these windows to get them cleaned, restored and re-leaded. We have had a deadline of six months when the windows came to England as they entered the UK exempt of VAT for six months. The financial penalties are horrendous if we had kept them here any longer so we worked our cotton socks off to ensure they were done in time. With this second phase of restoration we had only one week to spare before our deadline on these windows!

I will be returning to Lagos for about 10 days in December to supervise the re-installation of the stained glass windows, and will be on edge until it is all done. My first dread is when opening each of the eleven crates; I am praying that the stained glass has arrived safe and sound. My next dread is watching the installation team taking them one by one up scaffolding to put in their respective apertures. I will breathe a sigh of relief once they are all firmly in place!

In order to keep them clean and safe for as long as possible a special stained glass polycarbonate is being fixed to the outside of every window. This will not only protect the stained glass from flying foreign objects (they get exceptionally strong winds during the rainy season) but also from the city and marine grime that has over the years covered the glass. More updates and pictures will follow shortly upon my return from Nigeria!

Maralyn OKeefe

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