Tim Cunliffe: ‘I always approach glass painting as if I am modelling as a sculptor would’  

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Pictured above: Medieval fresco commission

It was by “lucky happen-chance” that Angela Neustatter says she joined one of Tim Cunliffe’s stained glass courses several years ago. Motivated by Cunliffe’s work she wanted to develop under his tutelage. Here, she interviews Cunliffe about his life’s works. 


In one of the stately buildings along Piccadilly, in London, there is an exquisite stained glass window (pictured above and below). It depicts a medieval hunting scene full of animation and verve. Deers and dogs’ red, orange and brown painted bodies appear between dark-edged trees and grey-green rocks. A bird illuminated in silver stain watches you with a fierce eye. 

The artist who made the window is Tim Cunliffe, who has been creating windows, panels and sculptural objects incorporating glass, throughout the 30-odd years he has worked as a stained glass practitioner and lecturer. That window is his favourite commission. 

Medieval fresco commission

He explains: “The theme was chosen to give a dynamic view of movement, colour and the natural world. The result makes me think of Brueghel’s Hunters in the Snow. On the bottom left-hand corner, you have the hunters returning with these beautiful dogs and their shapes as silhouettes against the sky.” 

It was made for Sir Simon Robey, a collector of medieval art. “The Ashmole Bestiary in the Bodleian library in Oxford, is one of the most luxuriously illuminated bestiaries of the early thirteenth century and I did intensive research there,” Cunliffe continues. 

“Translating that onto glass used my love of fluent painting on glass, where colours can bleed or melt into each other … painting broken, flicked away, some exposed to higher temperatures than others. I have managed to mix and find pale grey and green grey, to use where I am depicting stonework. This commission took some time to do because it was laborious and I wanted it to be the very best I could do.”  

Brentham House commission

Cunliffe, who has just completed another commissioned window for a private home, started out by taking a degree in sculpture at Canterbury College of Art. This was followed by a post graduate diploma in stained glass from Central St Martins, where the celebrated Indian artist Amal Ghosh was his tutor and, in due course, his inspiration and mentor.  

“From the beginning, he encouraged me as I began to develop a personal language in glass,” Cunliffe says. “He stressed the importance of considering every aspect of the work, in particular the emotional register of coloured light and the liberating joy and immediacy of painting on glass.” 

Tim sees his work as a fusion of sculpture and stained glass disciplines. “I always approach glass painting as if I am modelling as a sculptor would,” he explains. “I usually begin with line work in rhythmic strokes, almost like an armature. Then, when fired, I overlay this with washes of tone. I may also start with the tonal work – so blocking out first, as if carving a block of wood, and then defining further with line work in a subsequent firing.” 

Cedar House Commission

This approach led to the Dark Illumine panel seen at the Cochrane Gallery in London, which was put on show with the late stained glass artist Kathy Shaw in 2007 – one of the very many exhibitions to feature Cunliffe’s work. “In responding to the theme of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I explored new approaches combining stained glass with other materials, embedding leaded glass elements in laser cut acrylic sheet.”  

This is true, too, of a piece he made using sheets of wood bound with lead came, in the same way that sheets of glass would traditionally be used in a window. “These are not, as far as I know, techniques commonly used by stained glass artists,” he adds. 

Creating his own work is evidently a passion of Cunliffe’s, but he is also hugely enthusiastic about teaching. He holds workshop-style courses at the Mary Ward Centre and the Hammersmith and Fulham Adult Learning and Skills Service.  

“I feel I am helping keep the 1,000-year-old glass art tradition alive.”

He is appalled at the number of stained glass degree and diploma courses that have closed over past years. Fortunately, he delights in teaching and seeing students translate all kinds of ideas into glass. Plenty come from art and design backgrounds, but he also enjoys watching students with no art training devise original and accomplished glass design and painting. “I feel I am helping keep the 1,000-year-old glass art tradition alive,” he says. 

Garden sculpture

Cunliffe has created some beautiful hanging panels of themes from ancient to modern, along with decorative objects, such as a garden light with coloured glass set into metal, drawing on his sculpture training. But he enjoys the effect stained glass can bring as a window. “It can both complement and enrich an interior with the luminosity of coloured light. It can also provide meaning for a client, especially with imagery that has personal content. It can also give a sense of intimacy and connection within a domestic interior.” 

The window he has been working on most recently is “an act of love”. It is to be placed in the care home where Cunliffe’s mother lived happily until she died. It is a collage of homely things: a curly sleeping cat, a big teapot, a TV, a radio and some of the books that were significant for her. And the iconic liver bird, which reflects the family’s Liverpool roots.  

“My aim was to convey the warmth of a homely environment, but also include some rich, jewel-like colours, to make it uplifting as well. My mother was happy in the home and it is a way of putting something back.”  

Tim Cunliffe’s advice for best results with stained glass 

Stained glass is a craft that can very easily go wrong, or be extremely frustrating, so preparation and meticulous care at every stage can be the difference between delight or disappointment.  

  • Plan everything on paper first. This is the cartoon, a full-size representation of the finished stained glass panel. It should indicate the lead sizes to be used. 
  • Next is the cut-line drawing. A sheet of tracing paper is taped over the cartoon and a 2mm thick line traced down the middle of the lead lines. Another line shows the actual cut line.  
  • Beginners are best keeping the number of glass pieces to a minimum and the shapes simple. Try to include just gentle curves and straight lines. 
  • Use a glass cutter that you’re comfortable holding. Make sure the cutting wheel is sharp and take time to make sure you score carefully on the cut line. 
  • Trim any rough edges and with grozing pliers. Only use a grinder machine if necessary. 
  • Take the process slowly. Keep your work tools neatly laid out and try to work methodically. 
  • With glass painting, make sure paint is mixed well and use good quality brushes. When applying paint, keep it liquid and not too thick or dry because paint will drag on the glass. 
  • Don’t rush the work process. This is especially true for glass cutting. And don’t choose to do an over-complicated design that’s not practical or achievable for your skill level. 

Web: timcunliffe.com 
Instagram: @ tim_cunliffe