The National Glass Collectors Fair
The History of Whitefriars Glass
This article provides a brief history of the Whitefriars factory and the role the Powell family played in establishing the company.
'The History of Whitefriars Glass'
was written by Willie Clegg from
The Country Seat: Renowned dealers in fine examples of Whitefriars glass.
If you interested in learning more about Whitefriars and the designs of Harry Powell, you may be interested to know that The Country Seat are holding an exhibition entitled 'Glass Act IV'.
When James Powell bought Whitefriars in 1834 it was to keep his three sons fully occupied! He was a Wine Merchant who perhaps bottled his own claret and port from the barrel using Whitefriars as his bottle supplier; he may even have sold cut glass decanters as a sideline. The Powells were a non-conformist intelligentsia family living amongst like-minded London businessmen in Chigwell.
The business specialised in chair hand blown glasses of traditional heavy cut glass of the early 19th century, tavern glasses and other fine tableware. They were capable of innovation in the chemistry of glass using uranium to colour a presentation service for Queen Victoria in 1837.
In addition they made stained glass windows and by 1854 were experimenting with the chemical mixes to achieve mediaeval coloured glass [quarries] for Charles Winston, the authority for cathedral and church window restoration. Through his recommendation Powell was supplying Burne-Jones with stained glass muff with the right mix of air bubbles and brilliant natural colours to match mediaeval glass. Soon Powell was commissioning cartoons from Edward Burne-Jones, Henry Holiday, Anning Bell, Edward Poynter, Ford Maddox Brown and George Cattermole.
Through Burne-Jones, Powell was introduced to William Morris supplying him with pots of glass mix wholesale for his own stained glass business at Morris, Faulkner, Marshall & Co. When William Morris commissioned his friend and colleague the architect Philip Webb to design the Red House, Bexley Heath, he also asked him to design a wine service in the Venetian style. Both Morris and Webb were Oxford men who knew Burne-Jones through the Union and had been taught by the influential and innovative Art Historian, John Ruskin, an advocate of Venetian Gothic style. The new Ruskinian style and ethos rejected the classical orders, preferring a naturalistic form, and decoration. Thus the first English Art Glass was created using the skills of Whitefriars blowers and designs of a Gothic architect. This was an innovation which was to move Whitefriars to the forefront of domestic and decorative glassblowing in the new style which was sweeping Britain; first in ecclesiastic buildings but gradually, thanks to Pugin’s writings, also making inroads into mainstream municipal and domestic building.
|The Oval "Leather Bottle"
This model was launched in various colours, amber [dark], green [dark], flint and straw opal, and continued in production until the 1920s.
These designs were more successful commercially for two reasons; firstly they were incredibly modern and light in weight in spite of being made in “flint” glass and secondly, unlike Webb’s service, they were designed for the traditional glass blowing chair culture used at Whitefriars with ogee shaped bowls with knops under for a better grip and generous feet. You could buy matching decanters and finger bowls.Jackson was a great friend of James Crofts Powell, becoming a travelling companion when they went abroad sketching architecture and ancient glass, both in museums and those portrayed in paintings by Old Masters.
T. G. Jackson designed decorative glass for exhibition and retail and his designs influenced many of Harry Powell’s designs from 1878 – 1914 in terms of weight, style and quality. Harry was to introduce vertical ribs and twist ribbing along with many stem variations as well as myriad subtle bowl shapes and challenging new proportions using “straw” stems which could be short or have great length. The Harry Powell scientific workbooks at the Museum of London list colour formulae for both flint and soda glass, and include the use of metallic foils for many exotic effects. Harry joined the firm from Oxford, and his enquiring mind led to many years of experiments which resulted in new colours like Alsatian blue, pale amber, pale green, sea green and rare ruby. He introduced straw opal and also blue opal, which was rarely used due to a blue casing over the straw, which may have been less stable.
Harry Powell’s technical books detail not only
the size of a given hand blown glass but also its maximum weight!
The fact that so many hand made glasses were virtually identical when
in sets is a testament to his meticulous mind and the immense skill
passed on by the gaffer in the chair to the servitor and the footmaker.
When you lift a Harry Powell straw stemmed glass and experience negative
gravity along with the perfect ring, you can share in something unique
in the history of glass. He also fought hard to improve the quality
of the clear glass mix, forever finding better sources for the sand
and other materials, and asking scientists to improve the formula
for purity and consistency of colour.
When Harry took over as Manager in 1876, James Crofts Powell, his cousin, ran the important stained glass department using in-house designers and famous artists like Burne-Jones for important commissions.
Harry’s interests and reputation for the science of glass for major commissions was further stimulated by his friendship with the director of the British Museum, who asked him to recreate some of the very fine Roman glass that was being excavated both in London and around the country. This meant not only recreating the formula, but also recreating the patina caused by burial. He recreated the iridescence and often had to complete the shape as often only fragments survived. These pieces were then displayed in the British Museum alongside the originals. They proved to be a remarkable source of shapes and forgotten techniques as well as created ones!
Through this connection Harry found that the only cutting he liked was shallow Roman cutting, which did not spoil the outline shape of the design; Harry had rejected all cutting especially the heavy mid-19th century style in favour of the naturalistic Ruskinian free blown shapes. His influence on avant-garde furnishing glass style cannot be over estimated. His glass was stocked by Morris & Co, as were Webb’s and Jackson’s before him. He also made glass for Tiffany, Meier-Graefe’s Maison de L’Art Moderne and Samuel Bing’s Maison l’Art Nouveau, C/F Cat.No.214 for a yellow exclusive to Bing.
His Opaline shades were used by Benson for his lighting with brass and copper mounts as were the more mundane shades; from 1875 Harry Powell had a blacksmith called Edminstone with a boy called Edmund Francis employed to make wrought iron lighting fixtures, which again used his fabulous shades. He supplied many other makers with various shade shapes. Edminstone would also have made and maintained the chairs tools, trolleys and sheets.
The Harry Powell style is one of economy in design, unfailingly perfect line and innovative, decorative effects like tears, spiral, melted threads, metallic and gold effect, dichroic glass and art nouveau engraving – again naturalistic – and the superb Egyptian taste cut glass. His designs retained a quintessentially English style and quality.
His management of the company was dynamic in spite of cramped, worn out and un-commercial works at Whitefriars off Fleet Street, which were soon upgraded internally by T G Jackson, architect.
Naturally, Whitefriars was one of the first glass houses to use electric power to light the factory; the heating to control the annealing process [the gradual cooling of the glass creating great strength and a good ring] remained traditional and expensive. [The electricity was powered by a Pasman of Colchester engine.]
Harry published articles and books on technical, “The Principles of Glassmaking”, and aesthetic, “Glassmaking in England”, glass. Under his guidance James Powell & Sons [Whitefriars] exhibited abroad at exhibitions gaining private commissions like the Count Minerbi service, C/F Cat.No's 243 – 246, and wholesale clients, but also selling to museums throughout Europe. Powells also made a group of avant-garde heavy bubbly vases for the Artificers Guild designed by Edward Spencer, C/F Cat.No’s. 412, 416, 417. James Crofts Powell remained in charge of the stained glass department doing traditional work but also developing mosaic techniques to the Byzantine standards of Ravenna. His opus sectile mosaics were tilted to deflect the light and gained sufficient credit to be used by William Blake Richmond in his work at St Paul’s Cathedral. Harry was a member of the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society and an active exhibitor there and internationally.
Postscript – Post Wars
An interesting testament to how far ahead of his times he was, came at the famous 1925 Art Deco Paris Exhibition [recently featured at the V & A Exhibition]; Whitefriars received a Gold Medal for “the progressive and artistic design” of a table service which Harry had designed the basic form nearly 30 years earlier! During the 20s, the stained glass department prospered with demand for memorial windows with up to date designs and colours. In domestic glass, traditional tableware was selling through the new Wigmore Street premises. Otherwise few innovations were called for especially as in 1923 the works moved from Whitefriars to a new green field factory in Harrow Weald; this idea had been Harry’s last contribution and was to prove critical to the long term survival of Whitefriars Glass. Harry had designed his last vase, pattern number 3000, before his death in 1922.
Towards the end of the 20s the wave rib began to decorate both tumbler vases and Butler bowls whilst the technology of stained glass along with thicker glass produced new techniques like cloudy, opaque glass and streaky bubbly glass for the more arty retailers like Fortnums.
Some Recorded Customers
The very incomplete records left from the Harry Powell era, a workbook here, a drawing book, a single year’s ledger, and the 1906 cutter’s workbook – now there’s a starting point for gleaning customers! They include many trade customers: T Goode, Harrods, Morant, Lenygon, Bon Marche, Mellier, The Savoy, Delemosne, House of Commons [71 shades], GWR [136 shades]. Also glass for mounting in silver, brass etc and for lampshades. Benson, Tiffany, Asprey, Wippell, Elkington, Mappin & Webb, Hancocks, Elsley, Betjeman, Farris, Jones & Willis, Keith, Cox, Hart & Son & Peard, Liberty, Walton, Morris and Benson again and again; also Taylor and Sichel from the wine trade. Cutters mentioned include Hillebauer, who became famous for cutting lotus pieces and arts and crafts engraving.
The 1904 Sketchbook is interesting as it has pattern numbers and names of customers and occasional extra notes. Our Cat.No.423 a Roman cut Tazza takes its shape from a Venetian Tazza in Dublin Museum. In the Sketchbook the pattern numbers change to bring them up to date. Tiffany ordered Pat.2404 like our Cat.No.357, Maple ordered straw opal vases Pat.2296 like our Cat.No.5 [pair], even the two miniature vases are there, as is the St Louis Exhibition glass.
The 1899 – 1900 cut glass and other glass order book lists nearly all the major businesses and artists in the Arts & Crafts movement, including W A S Benson, Samuel Bing [Paris], La Maison Moderne [Paris], Maison Rassenfosse, Bronet of Leige, F Mayer of Karlsrhue, Shigley & Hunt of Lancaster, George Walton of Glasgow, Benham & Froude, T Elsley, Guild of Handicraft, Ambrose Heal, H Birks of Montreal, G Faulkner Armitage of Altrincham, C R Ashbee, Burkentin & Krall, W Hutton & Sons, Maple, Shoolbred, Cox & Sons, Horniman, Voysey and Martin & Ingalshe of San Francisco. Another interesting entry confirms work for Linley Sambourne.
In 1851 James Powell won the prize medal for “fine crystal glass” but also exhibited glass pipe with patent joints for gas and water, which points to early scientific and practical manufacture to be so important throughout its history, especially during the First World War, when production emphasis was switched to practical and technical production for the war effort.
There was a “scientific chair” throughout specialising in heavy work, which might include extra large decorative vases. Through the hard work of using exhibitions at home through the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society, and abroad at International Exhibitions, Harry Powell raised the profile of the business and gained a broad base of valuable clients. Exhibiting abroad probably allowed him to see the innovations as there were happening in rival establishments and to talk to glass scientists and museum curators about discoveries and needs, whilst his interest in archaeology like the Woodchester glassworks near Stroud enriched his technical ability and enlarged his library of shapes. Together with J C Powell, he kept books of drawings of historic glass for reference, which were called “Glasses with Histories”; Harry remained a key figure in the glass world for nearly 50 years selling to museums and retailers throughout Europe.
Although Whitefriars had a series of shops in the West End from the 1880s, and also an active stained glass department dealing direct with commissions, as well as direct orders for domestic glass from households, the volume business seems often to have come through the retail trade customers and from retail metal manufacturers for the glorious shades in both Opaline and cut glass. The promotion of the business through exhibitions ensured a flow of good fresh designs, new technology and some large showy pieces to gain publicity.
Teamwork worked well at Whitefriars with Harry’s design flair and understanding of glass and chair blowing producing often organic shapes, which were naturally within the skills of a good “gaffer”. The chair system being a hierarchy gave incentive for the development of outstanding skill. The chair would experiment with shapes and decorative gimmicks or novel finishes like refractory metal inclusions or new opal colours; he even watched the latest tableware blown to catch the “moment of the perfect shape”. The objective was to win a prize at the exhibitions, which gained publicity and kudos.
Joseph Leicester was the virtuoso glass blower in the land and the glass he showed in 1869 at the Society of Arts caused a sensation. It displayed amazing sophistication of colour and surface and is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum.
At home clients and colleagues were made through the Arts & Crafts Exhibition Society where Harry was a founder member making a huge number of trade contacts who were like minded in their Ruskinian ideal. A glance at the 1899 Order Book confirms the wisdom of Harry’s long-term promotional policies, which kept Whitefriars at the fashionable end of glass making. It was an age when beauty was being created in many mediums and Whitefriars with contracts through Morris and the great Pre-Raphaelite painters had contact with great architects and designers, remaining at the top of the trade in beautiful glass as a glance at the records reveals.
But the use of historic designs from the “Glasses with Histories” sketchbook was backed up by a fabulous library inventory in early 1900's, which lists design sources for glass shapes, windows and mosaics [opus sectile]. But the business was not all about novelty and innovation for there are only so many shapes that can be satisfactorily hand blown and slight variations are all that is needed to bring a service up to date.
Some of Harry’s designs last for over 50 years and many for 25. Some of the finest simple designs seem to enjoy the longest popularity adapting well to new colours that were introduced in the 20s and 30s, even to ruby in the 40s.
Similarly the slightly neutral colours like sea green had a long life whilst clear glass has always been in demand. A classic example of the use of flint and soft green was Gertrude Jekyll’s range of flower vases made in simple shapes to complement the flowers. These were commissioned by James Green, a London retailer and proved popular as the “Munstead Range” from 1884 until the First World War using vertical ribbing to exaggerate the optical qualities of the water C/F Cat.No’s 37, 37a, 123 & 420.
In 1910 Wedgwood moved to Powell’s showrooms. Old patterns in Cream ware were revived and given a contemporary tweak by their cousins, the artists and designers Alfred and Louise Powell. They were identified by a J.P.S. mark. This business was a significant part of Powell’s turnover for 10 to 15 years.
Article Written By Willie Clegg www.whitefriarsglass.com
About the Author
Willie Clegg is an experienced specialist
dealer Whitefriars glass.
Willie is extremely knowledgeable in his field of expertise and regularly exhibits at
the National Glass Collectors Fair.
Please note that the content of this article is the sole intellectual property of the author. No reproduction or reference to the text of this article may be made without the express permission of the author.