SHOWING THE WAY TO GOD
By David McMahon, Communications Manager, Society of Jesus in Australia
It’s raining. It’s cold. And as if to compound the weather issues, there are no obvious parking spots. But when art calls, one must banish thoughts of the inclement weather, just as one must be prepared to reverse-park into a spot that initially is several centimetres shorter than required.
The sign on the door says “Ferguson Stained Glass” and Andrew Ferguson himself welcomes me in. The huge warehouse space, with its high ceiling, is not centrally heated and he’s working at the front, a long way from the tower heater that is similar to the ones used by sidewalk cafes. It’s probably no surprise that he’s wearing a dark jacket over a grey jumper. Then there’s also the mug of steam-hot coffee as well.
Ferguson is the man chosen to refurbish dozens of stained-glass panels that were originally part of the chapel at Xavier College’s Kostka Hall campus in Brighton, which closed in late 2021. Kostka Hall, often referred to as “Xavier by the sea” and named after St Stanislaus Kostka, opened in 1937. The panels, a prominent feature of the chapel, were the work of the late Alan Sumner MBE.
According to his profile on the National Portrait Gallery website, Sumner (1911-1994) was a “painter, printmaker, teacher and stained-glass designer. After studying at the NGV school, RMIT and the George Bell School in the early 1930s, Sumner travelled to Europe and the UK, furthering his training at the Grand Chaumière and the Courtauld institute. Returning to Melbourne, he took up an apprenticeship as a stained-glass designer with Brooks Robinson before becoming a designer for Yenckens. He taught painting at the NGV School from 1947 to 1950 and spent nine years as Head of the School from 1953 onwards.”
Sumner was credited with completing about 100 commissions for windows, both in Melbourne and internationally. His work features in most major Australian galleries.
The fact that Ferguson is refurbishing the Kostka Hall panels is an interesting reflection on a family connection, he reveals. “Alan was an acquaintance of my Dad’s and I actually met him on just one occasion, about five years before he passed away. And now here I am, entrusted with some of his finest work.
“Because of that, I’ve been finding these panels intriguing because they’re his creations. Every single one of these panels was created by him and his output was actually remarkable. I knew of him because of his connection to my Dad and the only time I met him, he reminded me that I had restored a massive sixty-metre-square window of his that sustained damage in a fire at Caulfield Grammar. It was quite badly damaged and I think there would have been at least three months’ work to combat a lot of smoke damage. At the time, I probably didn’t know it was one of his works.
“I really enjoyed meeting him on that single occasion. Alan looked at me as if to say, ‘I wish I had a son like you’. His style was more European-influenced. His work had real dynamism. He had this beautiful curvy, linear design running all through his windows. In a sense, it was quite complex and really showed his capability for design, despite the fact that his imagery could be perceived as a little bit harsh. These panels of his that I’m restoring were produced in the late Sixties.
“Later, Alan had a stroke when he was about 70 years old, I think. He had partial paralysis on his right side but despite that, he really wanted to go on as a stained-glass artist. Well, a few years later, he was walking down Wellington Street in Collingwood and all of a sudden the paralysis vanished and he got all his movement back in his right side. Alan said something struck him from God and after that he was able to skip down the street like a five-year-old. Those were his words. Exactly what happened there I don’t know, but that was a story that stuck in my mind.”
Ferguson, who was one of the founders of ROAR Studios in Melbourne in 1982, has plenty of art in his own DNA. His father’s stained-glass works surround us while we talk, and his grandfather was a drawing teacher at RMIT.
I’m curious now, because I can only see one of the Kostka Hall panels. It has been rotated 90 degrees and is just beside the front door, securely braced. Where are the others? Ferguson points to a collection of sturdy, custom-built wooden crates a few feet away from where we are talking.
“We pulled the windows out more than a year ago. It was quite a job. Removing the panels probably took about four or five days – and that was with four of us working together to remove them.
“I got Xavier College to custom-build these special wooden crates, which were then put into storage for a short while. Later, they were delivered to me on site here. Each of these panels of Alan’s weighs about 25 or 30 kilograms.”
Immediately, I start doing the mental maths. There are 72 panels, say at least 25 kilos each. I arrive at the figure of 1.8 tonnes. Really? Yes, really. Immediately, I have a healthy sense of respect, not just for the team that painstakingly removed them and for the removalists who delivered them, but also for the strength of the concrete floor of Ferguson’s workshop. I mention to him that the wheels on each box must be incredibly strong to hold the weight of the panels.
He grins. “They are very heavy and the guys broke a few wheels on them, but the crates were very well constructed so none of the panels were any the worse for wear. There are 72 panels in all and we’re putting 60 back. The steel bars with the copper wire gives them added tensile strength. When I put each panel into the frame I will drill in and that copper wire will be tied off. It will then have the tensile strength that the panels themselves don’t have.
“All said and done, I’m not really making a lot of creative decisions here because I’m just restoring Alan’s panels. They weren’t in bad condition, so fortunately I didn’t have to go through and do a full re-lead on each one. Sometimes when the lead gets broken down, you have to go through and replace everything. Doing that would drive me batty. They were in quite good nick and they didn’t need major structural work. The most interesting thing about this whole process is the connection I’ve built with Alan by doing this. I’ve also gained a whole new understanding about his style.”