While some people associate British art glass with that of Scandinavia since the Mid-century Modern aesthetics of the two cultures were so similar, glass making in the British Isles has also been inspired by the Venetians, Bohemians, and Belgians. In fact, during the Victorian Era, many British artisans hand-painted vases that were actually produced in Bohemia and Belgium. On these classic cylinders and trumpet-shaped forms, English artists rendered romantic depictions of flowers and rural scenes. More recently, in the 1950s, a pre-Victorian company called Chance became famous for its handkerchief vases, a staple of Murano glass factories.
One of the founding firms of British glass making was Whitefriars, which was built in London in the late 1600s and purchased in 1834 by James Powell, who would be the first of successive generations to lead the company (Whitefriars was known as James Powell and Sons until 1962). One of the first products made on Powell’s watch, as early as 1848, may have been a millefiori glass paperweight, although art historians disagree on this point. What we do know is that by the 1930s, Powell’s company was well regarded for its paperweights, which were low and wide rather than tall and domed.
Between the wars, a number of non-Powell designers made their marks on the venerable glass company. For example, William Wilson championed a “knobbly” look, achieved by hand-work...
Later, in the 1950s and ’60s, Geoffrey Baxter used molds to produce bark-like and textured surfaces on the exteriors of his vases. His most famous design was the Drunken Bricklayer, a vase that appears to be composed of three irregularly stacked squarish bricks. These signature vases were produced by Whitefriars in a range of colors, from relatively common tangerine to rare pewter.
Such surface treatments were being explored simultaneously in Finland and Sweden, which was also the home of cased pieces, which are identified by their thick, clear-or-bubbled bases and sides surrounding a single elongated teardrop of color. Baxter did these, too, often combining them with bumpy surfaces.
Another early English glass center was the Birmingham area, home to Bacchus, which was founded in 1818 and produced paperweights that had mushroom-like millefiori forms in their interiors. Glass makers in nearby Stourbridge also produced paperweights, as well as Bohemian-looking vases with flared and ruffled lips, hot-worked exterior decorations such as ribbons and fruit, and eye-catching interior casings that ranged from bone white to fuchsia pink.
Stourbridge was also known for its carved and cameo glass. Thomas Webb & Sons relied on the best designers of the day to produce masterpieces that were entered in international competitions to give the company visibility. It worked: The Pegasus vase, designed by John Northwood, required six years to complete, but it won a Grand Prix in 1878. That caught the eye of Tiffany & Co., which sold Webb vases to its exclusive customers. Collectors are especially interested in such vases that bear both Webb and Tiffany marks on their bases.
By 1881, Northwood had defected to Stourbridge competitor Stevens & Williams. Under Northwood’s creative direction, Stevens & Williams produced about 1,000 cameo designs a year. But Webb had already moved on, turning to the design team of George and Thomas Woodall to lead its efforts. Webb cameo glass vases from this period are neoclassical in form and dizzyingly intricate. By the end of the century, as Art Nouveau bloomed, Webb vases seemed to take their cues from the soft-focus, naturalistic designs of Galle and Daum, as well as the precision of Wedgwood Jasperware.
To the north, in Perth, Scotland, a father-son team of Spanish glassblowers sowed the seeds for several firms: Monart (1924), Ysart Bros. (1947), Vasart (1956), and Strathearn (1965). Monart was the partnership between local John Moncrief and Salvador Ysart. The simple shapes of their vases and bowls were the perfect foils for the mottled abstractions and swirling designs Monart was known for. Ysart, Vasart, and Strathearn continued in this vein, expanding to include millefiori paperweights that are at once traditional and fresh, with rich coloration and lush interiors.
In addition to Baxter at Whitefriars, other giants of postwar British art glass include Frank Thrower of Dartington Glass. Thrower started out as a salesman of Scandinavian glass, so by the time he began producing his own designs in 1967, he was steeped in that look. Thrower was also a product of the 1960s, decorating his unassuming squat square vases with simple daisy patterns and radiating suns.
By coincidence, 1967 was also the year Ronald Stennett-Willson got into the glass business when he established King’s Lynn Glass, which was snappped up two years later by Wedgwood. His designs were more modern than Thrower’s, although Thrower actually designed pieces for King’s Lynn when Wedgwood acquired Dartington in the early 1980s.
Another child of the ’60s was Michael Harris, who established Mdina Glass on the island of Malta in 1968 before being forced out by the Maltese government, which had recently gained independence from the crown and was sensitive about appearing too British. In 1972, Miller established a new glass studio on the Isle of Wight. Although he had left the Mediterranean, the colors and surfaces that made Mdina Glass so popular, and collectible today, were continued in the English Channel.
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Clubs & Associations: Art Glass
- The Glass Art Society
- Stained Glass Association of America
- The Glass Association