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The Revival of Stained Glass in Chadds Ford

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Robert P. Horan’s "Northern Shoveler." See more photos below. (Photo by John Lewis)If Robert P. Horan has a mission these days, it’s to get stained glass out of churches and castles and into commoners’ hands, selling off the walls in galleries and at shows like paintings do. As an artist in this unusual medium, Horan covers the full spectrum, restoring the world’s oldest Renaissance-era beauties in his Chadds Ford studio. But he’s also on the cutting edge of modern incarnations—or reincarnations—in his field.

At 46, he’ll tell you he was born in the wrong time period, though he’s hardly living in the wrong place: the historically artistic Brandywine Valley. Central to his mission—beyond artistic invention in what’s almost a lost art—is solving the long-elusive secret to establishing a modern-day retail marketplace for stained glass. A perfect example is his piece depicting a Northern Shoveler in flight. The duck is a combination of colored and painted glass. When illuminated, the unique German colorescent background appears as moonlit waters.

Beyond the work’s circular center is a separate rim of painted-glass cattails, all within a braided band of antiqued copper. Its round, brass casing is a nod to his formal training as a welder.

The piece mounts two inches off the wall. It’s lit inside the casing by LEDs that diffuse light better than fluorescent. He’s toying with a dimmer option. “It might all flop, but I’m excited about it,” says Horan. “It’s the way to make stained glass more versatile for use in a business, a house, bars—anywhere.”
 

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Horan has always been busy with commissions and restorations. Until the recession, he was backlogged three years. But now, his focus is on building a body of work and perhaps even inspiring stained-glass art shows that, right now, don’t exist.

“I’m not out there in the public like I should be,” he says. “I think I have a lot to offer, but stained glass is almost looked at like a hobby craft. It’s lost respect, and I want to get that back.”

Last fall, Horan was one of just 40 in the country to attend art-glass lamination seminars that focused on silicone bonding methods for the construction of lead-free, architectural-size windows as alternatives to traditional leaded-glass windows. Run by S.A. Bendheim Ltd. in Passaic, N.J., the instruction was headed by technical glass specialist Manfred Mislik of Glashütte Lamberts in Germany. The technique is widely used in Europe by the major glass studios. “It’s a new look for those who don’t want a hard edge,” Horan says.

Horan’s Antiquity Glass has always had plenty of restoration work from upper-echelon clientele. Old lead buckles, caves in, and has to be replenished with a mixed, restoration-grade version that’s safer and more enduring. For his Valley Forge-area Vaux Hill estate, Bob Safford interviewed a dozen other artists before choosing Horan. “He was the first American artist we liked,” admits Safford.
 

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Horan has completed his work at Vaux Hill in stages. Safford and his wife, Barbara, prefer stained glass from the height of its prominence—i.e., the 1500s-1700s, when the craftsmanship was vastly superior and the colors deeply rich. Bob first discovered stained glass at age 14, after a private tour of London’s Westminster Abbey.

The Saffords’ earliest stained glass comes from exclusive auctions—either Christie’s or Sotheby’s—but sometimes in bits and pieces. The work includes two oval black-and-white rondel portraits that Horan turned into windows. “In the form we were getting them, they weren’t usable,” says Bob.

For nearly all of their pieces, Horan blended comparable German blown glass with older pieces from the 1500s to fit and fill windows and door panels. The Saffords talk of the brilliant effects from sunrises and sunsets, and the welcome benefits of heat reduction.

“I totally have to brag about what he does,” Barbara says. “Newer stained glass looks like plastic to me. What he’s done for us, it’s taken a real artist to do.”
 

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In Haverford, Horan has done restoration work for Reva Robinson—the latest being a 1537 portrait of Heinrich Herzog (the Duke of Saxony) as the window’s centerpiece. There are others that came from the family estate of newspaper scion William Randolph Hearst, purchased in the 1970s through Sotheby’s.

Closer to home, the Brandywine River Museum’s George Alexis “Frolic” Weymouth—a heralded artist in his own right—commissioned Horan in 2006 to work on his private du Pont family chapel in Greenville, Del. The six-week project resulted in a circle five feet in diameter, depicting a sunflower with falling seeds to symbolize rebirth. Horan and Weymouth came up with the design together in just 20 minutes.

For the chapel, Horan also made 10 copper sconces/lanterns for Aunt Nancy, Weymouth’s mother’s sister. And at Weymouth’s barn at Big Bend, he installed a huge piece of stained glass he inherited from friend and mentor Steve Vernon.

Robert P. Horan grew up in a family of mechanics in Clifton Heights. At Cardinal O’Hara High School, he learned to weld, earning a scholarship to Delaware County Community College. He was attending metallurgy classes at night, but then dropped out to take jobs as a welder and a mechanic. Then, he hurt his back.
 

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On worker’s compensation, Horan couldn’t sit still. His wife’s aunt suggested that he visit a stained-glass studio in Ridley Township, where ex-Marine Joe Bateman practiced the art. Over five years, Horan became his best student and eventually bought Bateman’s business.

It was Vernon who taught Horan the art behind the mechanics. A student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and a Hussian School of Art graduate, Vernon had a stained-glass business in Chadds Ford where he bought glass from Bateman. “Steve told me that [the Brandywine Valley] is where you want to be,” says Horan of his teacher, who died in 2008. “I said, ‘But, Steve, you’re already in Chadds Ford, and there’s only so much work out there.’ That was before he was sick. It was almost like he knew.”

Horan took Vernon’s advice, first selling his work in two Brandywine Valley antique malls. He’d had up to 10 locations before settling on his current home studio five years ago.

“What they all have in common around here is passion,” Horan’s wife, Denise, says of Chadds Ford’s virtual artists colony. “They’re all sensitive to everything in their lives—not in a crybaby way, but sensitive and receptive to what’s around them.”
 

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Because of Horan’s diverse background, he’s been able to specialize in both the artistic and mechanical ends of the industry. He also paints on glass, which is then fired in a kiln, an Old World technique he studied under Dick Millard in New Hope.

Millard, too, has died. Most of Horan’s mentors have. But he continues to learn from friends. Weymouth, for one, wants him to paint in egg tempera.

Horan remembers one more influence from his welding days. Mechanic Sparky Geonetti was a keen observer of Horan’s early work. “He said, ‘Kid, you don’t belong here.’”

Robert P. Horan, Antiquity Glass, 4 Pennsbury Way West, Chadds Ford; (610) 299-3882, antiquityglass.com.

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