From Western’s Law Library to city hall to one of the grandest cathedral churches in London, Ont., Christopher Wallis’ art shines, the brightly coloured panes illuminated by the sun pouring through the stained glass windows.
But much about Wallis (1930-2021) and his art was unknown throughout his career. This despite his creations adorning many of London’s greatest institutions, and others across the country. Obscurity dogged dozens of other local stained-glass artists as well.
At least until Cody Barteet stumbled upon thousands of images of stained glass from the Anglican Diocese of Huron and started digging.
It blossomed into a massive project, full of groundbreaking research, and working alongside Western Libraries staff to create an accessible, online gallery of photos that will eventually showcase thousands of stained-glass pieces across London and southwestern Ontario.
“It’s bringing a recognition of the rich artistic culture here,” Barteet, an associate professor of art history, said.
We often associate great cathedrals and their art with Europe. We actually have great architecture and art within our communities here. A lot of that is overlooked because it’s local, we see it in our everyday. We kind of take it for granted.
It was an unexpected discovery, during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, that started it all. Barteet, a member of the congregation at St. John the Evangelist Anglican Church in London, had always admired the art within its walls. Much of his typical work on the art of colonial-era Mexico was on hold because of travel restrictions. One day, an archivist mentioned hard drives full of 3,500 pictures of churches and stained glass the church had ordered to be photographed, in case the buildings were ever demolished and the art was lost.
One discovery led to another and then another. Barteet and a team of researchers started piecing together the stories of stained-glass artists from London and surrounding areas. They unearthed beautiful and rare art pieces hiding in plain sight in churches and institutions across the city, like the four Tiffany & Co. stained glass windows in St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of just two locations in Canada.
“What I’ve been doing is uncovering these unknown artists, unknown images, unknown artworks. It’s continually unfolding, and we are always finding something else, a new lead,” Katie Oates, an art history PhD and postdoctoral fellow, said of the project.
Stained glass in Canada, and especially locally, is a vastly understudied area, with little to no research to date.
For the researchers now delving further and further into the field, it’s one reason the work is so much fun.
“It’s exciting and intimidating, in some ways, to be the people charting this ground. That’s part of what makes it fulfilling, too, being able to be at the forefront of that research,” Oates said.
Barteet and his crew worked with Courtney Waugh, a research and scholarly communication librarian at Western Libraries, to transfer the stained-glass photographs into an online collection that’s easy to navigate. Any student, researcher, art buff or interested Londoner can now find thousands of images of local stained glass through Scholarship@Western, an open-access institutional repository, thanks to hours and hours of uploading and cataloguing by Barteet, Oates, Waugh and their teams.
Waugh described it as a great reminder of the breadth of materials to be found on the platform; Scholarship@Western is more than just written publications.
Upon learning about the project, Waugh said she just knew there would be “tremendous research potential.”
Barteet, Oates and other researchers have already put together StoryMaps, a tool which allows creation of digital maps as part of interactive multimedia projects. The maps illustrate the history and journeys of some of the artists. As a springboard for further scholarly research, the gallery opens new doors.
“For me, one of the most important considerations is the research value and the potential for a project of this kind to contribute to Western’s teaching and research missions. Collections like these also enhance the research materials unique to Western Libraries and provide new opportunities for engagement with London and surrounding communities,” Waugh said.
And the project seems to keep expanding.
There are the fascinating stories of local artists, like Wallis, who created more than 800 stained-glass windows across Canada, or Yvonne Williams (1901 – 1997), who tackled racial and social issues with her art.
Then there’s the role of local churches, once ubiquitous and now declining across the region, a reality with both social and artistic consequences, Barteet said. He takes his students to see some of the most impressive pieces of art, noting for many, it’s the first time they have ever set foot inside a church. The question of what to do with the stained glass, to both preserve and enjoy it, also looms large, especially as congregations shrink and many faith institutions consider shuttering large buildings.
It’s why the online image gallery is such a promising venture.
Unlike a personal website or another digital platform, the Scholarship@Western system won’t be suddenly removed. It’s stable, long-lasting, and can play a role in keeping the history of stained glass alive.
For Barteet and his team, that’s a powerful motivation.
“Being an art historian, I’ve been at this for longer than I’d like to admit sometimes,” Barteet said. “It can be a career-changing type of experience I’m going through. It is definitely something that’s opening a lot of doors for my students and myself to do research locally and internationally.”