David M. Issitt
When you think of the big, historic names in British glass, companies like Stevens & Williams and Thomas Webb & Sons or even Richardsons or John Walsh Walsh more than likely spring to the mind first. Yet, none of these wins the award for being the longest active British glasshouse - that honour goes to Whitefriars Glassworks, a company that continued to make and market highly creative, successful lines of glass for more than 250 years. Today, eager Whitefriars glass collectors have a multitude of different styles and historic lines of glass to hunt for and choose from.
As a very old craft, glassblowing is rich in historic associations. The Whitefriars Glassworks dates back to 1680 fourteen years after the Great Fire of London when one William Davies founded it near the Temple in the City of London, on a site between Fleet Street and the Thames, now devoted to newspaper production. Glass molding can somewhat be related to the process of silicone molding. There had originally stood the Monastery of the Carmelite Fathers, who were known as the "White Friars". In choosing this site the founder was no doubt influenced by ready access to the wharves from which to draw Newcastle coal, sand, clay and the other materials required for his trade. Although the religious house was surrendered in I538, the precincts had remained a sanctuary, nominally for debtors but in practice for criminals of all kinds, and as a result all available space was crowded with people living in squalor. Understandably, until the privilege of sanctuary was abolished in 1697 and for some time afterwards the area was one of ill repute.
Evidently the glassblowers themselves were a virile and hardened community. There is a story of the visit of an Excise Officer, to collect duty, which in those days was levied on the weight of glass produced. He is said to have been resisted "by the brandishing of blow-irons headed with red-hot glass". A similar incident occurred, according to the Whitehall Evening Post in 1732, when the glasshouse was visited by a naval press gang: "Yesterday a Press Gang went into the glasshouse to press some of the men at work there, but they were no sooner got in but the (molten) metal was flung about 'em, and happy was he that could get out first, and in hurrying out they ran over their officer, who almost scalded to death". There is a reference to the district, which was known as "Alsatia", in Scott's fortunes of Nigel. Glassblowing at Whitefriars is also mentioned in Pepys famous Diary. In those early days good quality tableware in flint glass, for which England became renowned, was made mainly in the vicinity of the notorious Alsatia. Emphasis on decanters in an advertisement appearing in the Tatler of 17I0 reflects the demand for a transparent vessel for wine at table, following the introduction of port, which had gained great popularity by the opening of the eighteenth century. They had been linked with high artistic standards. In an industry dependent on individual skill, it is natural that design and craftsmanship should merge the one with the other. The career of Joseph Leicester provides a good illustration of the outstanding achievement that can come from such a marriage. Leicester started work at Whitefriars at the age of nine. He became a superb craftsman and an inspiring teacher. He made some pieces to his own design, so excellent ill conception and execution, that they are to be found in various museums. He abandoned glassmaking only when elected to the House of Commons in 1883, as one of the first of the working class radical M.P's.
In the quest for beauty at Whitefriars the tendency was to look more to line and form than to rely on cutting for decorative effect. In this direction, modern taste and fashion offered great scope, of which the most was made. With beauty of form has been blended beauty of colour; in this Whitefriars excelled. Admirers have referred to "clear jewel-like blues and greens, amber and amethyst". Beauty is derived too from variations in the thickness of glass, to invite the subtle effects of the play of light.
Though the company opened in the early 1700s, its most renown and prolific era of production began in the 19th Century, when prominent society member and successful businessman James Powell left the wine industry to become the new owner of Whitefriars Glassworks in 1834. James Powell was a successful wine merchant, a member of the affluent elite of nineteenth century London, when he bought the Whitefriars Glassworks in 1834. He and his family were well acquainted with the fashions and fads in design, which pleased their friends and their customers. The output from Whitefriars Glassworks mirrored closely those design trends, far more so than other British glassworks. Powell pulled popular glass design ideas from personal observation of what was hot in glass trends among his own family members and wealthy friends. He realised that distinctive, high-quality hand-blown art glass was the way to proceed in the production of glass. Throughout the company's history, from those early days, high-quality hand blown glass would make up the majority of its product line.
Harry Powell was James Powell's grandson who trained as a chemist at Oxford University and then joined the company and became manager of the Glassworks in 1875. He kept very detailed notebooks, which are now carefully preserved in British museums, and he also began a very early archive of photographs of the glassworks and of its products. Whitefriars Glassworks during the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century made very high quality art glass on a par with the output of Loetz in Europe and Tiffany in the USA. They exhibited at the major international exhibitions and won many prizes during that period.
They made fine quality historical stained glass, they were part of the avant garde of the Arts and Crafts movement, they made beautiful art nouveau pieces, and when Venetian glass was "all the rage" in London, James Powell and Sons were producing some of the finest reproduction Venetian glass in the world. All of this is well documented, and will no doubt be increasingly recognised now that the company's archives are safely stored in the Museum of London, supplemented by archives held in several other major museums including the Corning Museum of Glass, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
In spite of this long tradition of very fine art glass, the Whitefriars Glassworks is currently best known for its "Industrial Art" glass, made from the 1920's onwards after Harry Powell had retired. The glassworks moved to a new site in Wealdstone, Middlesex in 1923, and the designs became much simpler and easier to produce. For most of the Victorian era and the early part of the 20th Century, Whitefriars' award-winning glass appeared on mantles beside the best offerings of Tiffany, Steuben and Loetz. Whitefriars Glassworks was known for its distinctive, cutting-edge designs and rich colours that lit up the Art Nouveau and Art Deco eras, such as its soft, flowing iridescent handkerchief vases and fabulous reproduction Venetian art glass, which now much sort after by collectors. Whitefriars Glassworks has three claims to fame.
First, it was England's longest producing glassworks, surviving for at least 260 years until it closed in 1980.
Second, it made hand blown glass almost exclusively; it was never a pressed glass works.
Thirdly, it is probably the world's best-documented glass works.
In 1919 James Powell and Sons became a limited company and changed its name to James Powell and Sons (Whitefriars) Ltd. The main change in the last century was the move to Wealdstone in 1923 and the consequent increase in the capacity and output. There was a Whitefriars tradition, which their glasshouse furnaces are never allowed to die out. Even an individual furnace remains burning continuously throughout its "life" of eight to ten years. So when the move took place, a brazier from the old glasshouse was carried to the new, and used to ignite the first furnace at Wealdstone. Thus, it was said that the furnaces of Whitefriars were alight continuously since the foundation of the glasshouse, a period of more than 270 years. One of the last pieces to be made at the old works was the goblet from which the Lord Mayor of London drinks the Royal Toast. This is still in use at the Mansion House.
During the 1930s, Swedish glass had won considerable acclaim in Britain. From this date onwards, for a period of over thirty years, the influence of Swedish glass in particular and Scandinavian glass in general, was clearly discernible in many of the new designs created at Whitefriars. It was first apparent in the work of Barnaby Powell, particularly his optic ribbed designs of the early 1930s, and continued via the thick-walled organic vessels of James Hogan and Tom Hill designed during the late 1930s and early 40s. Heavy glass vases and bowls with regular patterns of bubbles were designed by William Wilson and made in the mid-1940's and early 1950's. As the years passed, there was an increasingly close natural alliance between Whitefriars and their Scandinavian counterparts. In these countries, glass design was approached freely and creatively, and glass as a medium was recognised as an important art form. Characteristics of the Scandinavian Modern style, which can be discerned in the work of Whitefriars, include free blown plastic forms, organic shapes, clean fluid outlines, and the use of cased colours suspended in clear glass. Surface decoration was kept to a minimum.
New colours introduced at Whitefriars at this date with a distinctly Scandinavian flavour include Twilight from 1954, Arctic Blue and Ocean Green, both from 1959, and Cinnamon, Willow and Indigo from 1965.
Whitefriars (or Powell) glass was normally marked with paper labels, which have often been lost over the years. However, most of the designs and colours are so distinctive, that it is usually easy to identify Powell glass post 1930. No other glassworks was making these designs in these colours.
The Whitefriars name is now synonymous with its bolder, more futuristic "Industrial" variety of art glass that became more prominent from the 20s onward. Vivid, purely Whitefriars hues like Tangerine, Ruby, Cinnamon, Willow grey, Kingfisher blue and Indigo glowed from the depths of simple rounded, angular or often highly textured modern forms. You'll find thick-walled, classic 60's controlled bubble items like ashtrays, vases and bowls, plus some really unique chunky items like chief designer Geoffrey Baxter's "Textured" series from the 60's and early 70s. The latter items have the look of tree bark frozen in vivid amber. Another purely Whitefriars find is Baxter's "Drunken Bricklayer" vase from the 60's, which looks like a big, stack of three ice cubes stacked haphazardly atop one another.
William Wilson, Geoffrey Baxter, and Harry Dyer designed the 'Knobbly' range, during the 1950's and 1960's. The cased versions were earlier than the solid coloured vases and lampshades. They were made in the typical Whitefriars bold colours of green, ruby, kingfisher, cinnamon, willow (grey) and indigo. "Knobbly" vases and lamp bases were also made in clear glass with coloured streaks.
The Company changed its name to Whitefriars in 1963. Around the same time the "Knobbly" range was introduced. William Wilson, Geoffrey Baxter, and Harry Dyer designed them, during the 1950's and 1960's.
The mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s was a period of frenetic design activity at Whitefriars. In order to sustain their position in the market in an increasingly competitive field, new designs and colours were required on an annual basis, so that they could be launched at trade exhibitions such as the Blackpool and Harrogate Gifts and Fancy Goods Fairs, and used to secure orders for the following year. Some designs, produced under pressure, were short-lived and proved to be technical or commercial failures. Baxter's early designs show the influence of both the Scandinavian Modern aesthetic, which he had inherited from William Wilson, and 'Contemporary' design, a new confidently modern and sometimes slightly quirky style which had emerged at the time of the Festival of Britain in 1951. Baxter was amongst the first to extend 'Contemporary' design ideas to the hitherto traditional field of British glass design, introducing asymmetrical shapes and unusual stylised and abstract patterns for cutting.
Heavy glass vases and bowls with regular patterns of bubbles were designed by William Wilson and made in the mid-1940's and early 1950's. Whitefriars continued to design and produce high quality glass right until the end. It has been said that after the retirement of William Wilson in 1972, they lacked clear artistic direction.
In 1973 the Whitefriars Company closed its stained glass studio, and came under increasing financial pressure. Cut glass became an increasingly high proportion of their total output. This did not save them. In 1980 they sold only 25,000 pounds sterling's worth of glass at the annual trade fair in Birmingham, when in previous years they used to sell about ten times that much. Their sales were not enough to cover their costs, and in a sudden and fairly surprising series of moves, the company was put into receivership, made bankrupt, and closed down completely by the end of 1980.
Whitefriars problems began in 1969 when they lost a major contract for making tubing to their more automated competitor, Corning. During the 1970's the tower, which had been used for drawing lengths of thermometer tubing, was used for making millefiori canes, and the company produced a series of beautiful millefiori paperweights. These were not the first Whitefriars paperweights. The company's 1938 catalogue records a series of floral ink-bottles and paperweights. They were reintroduced in the 1953 catalogue for a few years, and again reintroduced in 1969. During the 1970's some very special paperweights were made to commemorate Christmas each year, and other special events. Often the Whitefriars paperweights included special canes like the signature and date (1984) canes found in many of their paperweights. Production of Whitefriars paperweights was taken over by Caithness Glass (in Scotland) when the Whitefriars glassworks closed down.
Fixed costs, particularly fuel and raw materials, had increased steadily throughout the post-war period, and by the end of the 1970s, labour costs had risen significantly as well, while at the same time, productivity had declined as a result of changes in working practices. All these costs had to be passed on to the consumer, which meant that, by comparison with other manufacturers, Whitefriars glass was increasingly expensive, which made the company particularly vulnerable at times of recession. Finally, in 1980, Whitefriars failed to secure enough orders at the annual trade fair at the NEC to see them through the year, and a decision was taken by the Board to close the factory down. Although there is reason to suspect that the developers made an offer for the land the factory stood on, which was too good to turn down.
Making fine glassware calls not only for taste in design and first-class craftsmanship, but also good teamwork. The tradition of working as a closely integrated team was very strong at Whitefriars. Harmonious relations between all concerned in the production processes were, therefore, more important than in many less exacting industries. It was common for the trade to be handed down from father to son, or from uncle to nephew. This helped to foster a family atmosphere. Many families at Whitefriars can trace their family connections with the firm, through many generations. Hence, although the plant and equipment at Wealdstone was modern, both tradition and craftsmanship ensured that the standards and quality of Whitefriars were as high at the end as they had been throughout the firm's long and interesting history.
Identifying Whitefriars' many glass collectibles is fairly easy today, this despite the fact that most items were marked simply with paper labels that often fall off over the years. There are several good books on Whitefriars Glassworks and its many products to help you along on your quest, aided by a large body of Whitefriars' pictorial and written records that are now housed in the archives of the Corning Museum of Glass, the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum.
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