Born into a working-class family in the industrial town of Lancashire, England, Simon Howard designs and fabricates traditional stained glass through meticulous craftsmanship and sensitivity to architectural surrounds. In demand as a skilled glass painter and restorer for other studios, the artist endeavors to create new contemporary commissions for domestic, private or public spaces.
Some of Howard’s notable works include his Beddoes Window, a commemoration of an 18th-century physician and his tragic Romantic poet son, full of playful symbolism; his Laura Ashley Windows, a full suite of windows for a remodeled Arts & Craft home (previously owned by Laura Ashley); the artist’s Talog series, created for clients who gave Howard creative free reign in their beautiful traditional Welsh farmhouse; Whitland Circles & Milo Stripes, his personal favorites; and his commission for Oldham Royal Hospital, a 3 metre tall panel in the hospital’s mortuary chapel.
Howard’s history reads like great novel. He writes: “Oldham was one of the powerhouses of the industrial revolution, a cotton spinning town with incredible pockets of wealth, beautiful civic buildings, rows upon rows of worker’s houses that supplied the brick mill with labor and a skyline full of tall chimneys pumping out smoke. My family were mill workers for generations and these ‘dark, satanic mills’ (as William Blake called them) and the rows of blackened Victorian terraced houses formed the background to our family stories.
By the time I came along in 1970 the region was well into a crippling decline, and my parents had a series of disparate jobs passing each other on the stairs to our ‘60s maisonette as they swapped shifts in working and looking after me and my older brother and sister. My mum was a seamstress and a district nurse and my dad began work in a large glass supplier. My very early memories of visiting my dad at work are of huge A-frames of green-edged slabs of polished plate and of feeling proud that this was my dad’s arena. He’d be there, in darkened leather wrist guards, calloused fingers in plasters. I’d watch him effortlessly pick up these enormous sheets and carry them to his cutting bench and watch him making quick pencil notes on his list of sizes, working out what he could get from the sheet with minimum waste. T-square, the sing of the cutter, and the snap…all with speed and confidence…and the swift clatter of the thin strips of waste shattering in the cullet. I never had any ambition to work there, but I loved the magic of it.
The funny thing about my dad, and I still wonder now where the impulse came from, was his love of art, the art of the old masters and the Modernists. He was a Grammar school boy, so his education was good, and he was a lifelong reader, later a merchant seaman, but I can’t think where his love of art sprung from. I mention this as it’s because of him that I became an artist; as a young kid I would spend hours looking through his art books, and it became apparent early on in school that I could not only draw, but that art was where my curiosity lay. I tell people now that I never really wanted to be anything else (apart from a rock star in my teens. But don’t we all?). From 5 or 6 I knew that was part of my identity and what I was going to become. My parents were always very supportive. I heard other kids speak of their parents’ resistance to them studying art, but mine were right behind me even when they didn’t have a clue what it was I was making.
Through school I was a painfully shy kid. My family and I moved town just before starting secondary school so I arrived without friends; I do wonder whether that had a huge influence on me. But I became well-known through my ability to draw. I was bullied early on at school (I’d eventually dress quite outlandishly, which the other boys hated me for because the girls liked it!), but I’d draw on demand in order to not get beaten up. Like a lot of kids, art and music were everything to me (it’s still pretty much the case).
I went on to Art School in London, the Byam Shaw School of Art, a wonderful independent school (founded by John Byam Shaw, one of the Arts & Crafts/Pre-Raphaelite group), where I went on to make minimal installation based work, which often used the body (my body) and its relationship to its environment as a way to examine metaphorical space, the gaps in language/communication, thresholds, the in-betweens, the space where one thing becomes another. I’m still very proud of the work I did then and would happily still show it now. My intention was to stay in London and try to make my way as an artist but in reality, I think I’d realized that I wasn’t a natural networker and didn’t have the confidence in fighting for funding or for the spotlight.
I left and spent a year or so volunteering for art galleries back up north until I was offered work with my brother who had spent the previous 10/15 years working with my dad. Mark had left school, began work as a glass cutter, but had decided to set up a decorative glass business within my dad’s place. It was a real family business, my sister ran the office, and on the shop-floor were a few cousins. Also, a natural artist, his talent rose to the surface and needed an outlet. He spent these years learning new skills, researching any technique he could find in mainly American books and magazines to broaden his knowledge. He became the only person we knew back then who was creatively sandblasting, engraving, deep reverse-carving, glue-chipping, kiln-forming, fusing, casting, painting, and enamelling. He became well- known for it across the north west, until he eventually began making traditional stained glass.
Whilst I was still at art school, I’d spend my holidays working with Mark where I’d learn all these techniques from him. He’d exploit my time there by giving me larger projects that he saw needed my artistic input, and I’d watch the panels get made up by him and the guys that worked for him. I’d go on to start making my own pieces, but even then I really only saw it as work, a chance to earn some money before heading back down to London.
The next few years, I really was at a loose end. My long-term girlfriend had gone to teach English in Japan and life had seemingly hit a wall. I took the money I’d been saving whilst working with Mark and went travelling. I spend around 18 months going around the globe, across America, Australasia, South East Asia, India. I had the best time and felt some changes. But, back home I fell back into working with Mark; by this time my dad’s company had been hit by recession and closed, my dad had swallowed his pride and had gone back to glass cutting for a company he’d left, and Mark had set up his own place. I worked there for a few years, still thinking that it was only a stop-gap for me until I figured out what it was I wanted to do. I started really delving deep into the international architectural glass books that Mark was buying (they were as rare as hen’s teeth) and realizing that there was something for me here (remember, this was pre-internet days, knowledge of what was happening creatively elsewhere was still found in traditional sources….it also helped that Brian Clarke was an Oldham born artist and his largest piece, in the world at the time, had just been installed in Oldham’s newly built shopping center). I still didn’t really know if architectural glass fitted me yet, but it was a huge step up from what I’d understood the discipline to be.
I spent a long time thinking about the separate polarities of art and craft and their overlaps until I reached a point where I felt comfortable setting aside the kind of art I’d previously made and seeing that glass craft had a value and could also be enquiring and expanding. Mark emigrated to Melbourne, Australia, around this time, and I had a few months to consider whether I would take over his business and continue on my own. Eventually I decided to and spent a couple of years slowly shedding what was previously Mark’s and pushing forward what was mine. I needed to do this. I needed to know if the decision was right, if I really could spend the foreseeable future as a glass craftsman and not an artist.
One thing I found necessary was to streamline the business; my time was being taken up with commissions that involved processes I had no love for. I realized that I could make interesting, contemporary work using just traditional stained glass techniques. It was all in the design. I slowly started guiding the small commissions I was getting into the kind of work that satisfied me. I began being more constructively critical of, not only other’s work, but of my own, until I started getting a portfolio of work together that I was reasonably comfortable with. It was still early days, but I saw potential and felt the discipline begin to take ahold of me, get into my veins and become part of my everyday consciousness. I started looking at images produced by other artists, not only stained glass, but printmakers and textile artists and wondering if I could do something similar with glass. I was consciously pushing what I saw as possible, trying to make what I hadn’t seen elsewhere. Looking back on some of those early pieces I’m still surprised by the odd unexpected detail or the ambition in such a small, unimportant piece.
Around this time, I met my wife and we started a family. Helen is from rural Wales, a first-language Welsh-speaker, and it felt natural that we would decide to relocate to her home town to bring up the boys. Llandeilo is a beautiful place, an old, hill-top market town that has a surprising wealth of creative folk below its surface. We moved here around 14 years ago and, after previously occupying huge studio spaces, I now work from a small garden workshop. The major change from the work I did up north is due to the almost total absence of traditional period glass locally. When we first moved I was horrified. Much of my work up north had been in restoring and repairing period pieces, and here, there wasn’t that kind of showy decoration, even the chapels were plain glazed. As it turned out though, in hindsight, due to the explosion of social media, I began to get more and more small, interesting commissions from clients who didn’t have an automatic association with the period work I was doing up north.
My current practice is an ongoing search for what interests me visually and technically. I’m a bit of a purist and, despite my experience and knowledge of a wide range of practices I like now to only use mainly mouthblown antique glass, lead and vitreous paints. I acid-etch flashed glasses, I don’t use enamels. If I need to I plate glass, I don’t use laminates or glues. It’s a personal choice; I like the restrictions that the traditional practices give me.
My work tends to flip between apparently simple abstract, pattern-based pieces where any reference to subject is restricted or absent, and playful, painterly, heavily stylized naturalism. It depends on the commission. I was told in art school that my art practice didn’t seem to have a recognizable fingerprint; I would be using whatever was needed in order to make suggestions and connections within each piece. I sometimes wonder if my work is still the same; one can often recognize a fellow maker’s work. They have a particular style. I’m not sure whether I do. I’ve been told otherwise, but I still don’t know what that fingerprint is. Again, it’s down to the commission. It took me a while to feel comfortable with commission-based work, comfortable with the inevitable compromises that are made when meeting the client halfway with a design. But I’m getting better at dealing with it now. I think having a body of work behind you gives the client trust in you if you feel compelled to push a piece in a certain direction.”