It is the best part of fifty years since a school careers master told the sixteen-year-old Jon Callan that he wasn’t really suited to the world of work. ‘He was possibly the most perceptive teacher I ever encountered,’ says Jon in the airy kitchen of the Dorchester home that a lifetime of ‘not working’ has afforded him. ‘At first I took him at his word and did anything but work. I lived in a squat in Brixton and periodically ended up back at my parents’ home in Salisbury. I knew about some workshops at the Cathedral and liked stained glass, so I applied to Swansea Art College, which then had a world-class stained glass department, went for an interview, did a drawing and then pestered the head every day for a fortnight until he let me in.
‘These days you can buy heritage sausages in the supermarket, but back then there was no heritage industry and ideas about restoration and conservation were very different so, having qualified, I went off to Sudan to teach English. Then I got sick and the embassy sent me home where I found all sorts of letters, mostly demanding money, but a few job offers as well and so it began. I can’t really say it has ever felt like work, though.’
Jon has been based in Dorchester since 1981, and his clients include churches, public and commercial organisations, independent professionals and private individuals. For ten years he was glass advisor to the Salisbury Diocesan Advisory Committee. His work is seen by thousands of people every week. ‘As an artist-maker, that’s quite a privilege,’ he says in all humility. ‘People call me an expert, but words like that make me nervous. Seen on one level, what I do is a simple commodity transaction and as such I have had to learn to do business – to be available, have a pen and paper ready, build good relationships with suppliers as well as clients, pay the taxman and be realistic about valuing what I do – and I would urge any young person in the creative industries to do likewise.’
Although Jon has a passion for stained glass and is steeped in its traditions and technicalities, the natural direction of his conversation travels away from the mechanics of what he does. Small wonder, really, as there are tales of trips to Easter Island and Samarkand, white-water rafting in the meltwaters of Everest, tango lessons in Buenos Aires and a recent adventure to Namibia to help construct water supplies to balance the demands of desert elephants and local farmers.
Steered back home to Dorset, talk turns to the people he has met and the places he has been in the service of stained glass. There was the church where he volunteered to search a family vault (in vain as it turned out) for a wall plaque memorial to a Georgian slave girl; and another where, after a great deal of negotiation, he obtained the closely guarded ‘secret’ keypad code so that he could come and go with ease, only to discover over the next few days that half the people in town clearly also knew the code. On one job he got to know the four old ladies who looked after the village church well enough to tell them he wouldn’t be coming the following Wednesday as he was bringing his terminally ill then wife home from hospital. ‘On the Tuesday I got a knock at the door and there they were with a cake they’d baked and an offer to clean the house for me. They said they knew I was on my own – even though I wasn’t – and that judging by the mess I left in the church, they thought I could do with a hand tidying up!
‘People are constantly surprising and I’ve met some wonderful characters of all kinds. Stained glass has taken me to places I would never otherwise have been and given me terrific insights into particular aspects of life in Dorset and further afield.’
Much of Jon’s work is seen in churches and in recent years he has made a number of memorial windows, often relating to Great War anniversaries. In one church he created a scene of war complete with barbed wire and explosions and a diminishing view of a field of poppies. ‘That came to me when I saw a field of poppies at Bere Regis,’ he reveals. ‘Looking at it, there were no poppy shapes as such – just a sea of red.’
Negotiating commissions for new pieces can be a tricky business where churches are concerned, but not always. Jon’s design for a Royal Air Force memorial window at Holy Trinity, Warmwell, involves a line drawing of an aeroplane in a repeated stepped pattern with the numbers and badges of the squadrons stationed at RAF Warmwell etched faintly in the glass. ‘The idea is they will be there like memories, ghosts perhaps, or shadows fading from view. The churchwardens I’ve met are on board and I’m greatly encouraged. The diocese will always say that work should be contemporary – it commissions work about today so that tomorrow we will know who we were. I’m not a Victorian and although much of my life is spent surrounded by the Middle Ages or before, I can’t make work from that time either.
‘I’m also working with St Michael’s at Stinsford and the PCC has been really open and supportive of the idea of a ‘Window for the Many’ to commemorate the unknown, nameless and countless people that have gone before. I’d like to use an abstract landscape with the emblem of a bee in line with the medieval idea of the beehive as a home made by the many.’
Jon doesn’t engage in conversations of a liturgical or spiritual kind – he would rather get on with the job in hand – but as much as he enjoys stained glass and all that goes with it, from bespoke tie bars to the ferramenta ironwork, he knows full well that the passage of time takes its toll. ‘Although I say I retired at sixteen, I’m actually coming up to the proper retirement age and the romance of being up scaffolding on a bitterly cold day with the rain trickling down my neck is diminishing. I try to paint but never really got the knack so, much as I feel detached from the modern world and social media, I’m looking at new ways of harnessing what’s out there to explore different ways to express my creativity.’
As ever, he’s open to ideas.
First published by Dorset Life The Dorset Magazine.