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Facets of glassmaking

Two catalogues on the work of Powell and Sons of Whitefriars

The Whitefriars glasshouse, under the ownership of the Powell family, was far and away the most innovative and design-conscious glasshouse in England.

The1987/8 Museum of London exhibition of Powell glass made at the Whitefriars glasshouse, first in the Fleet Street area of London and then in Wealdstone, confirmed this fact and revealed how pitifully meagre the published literature on this glasshouse is.

Much archive material concerning the two factories survives, as the Museum of London was able to acquire papers, photographs, catalogues and design books when Whitefriars finally closed in 1980. Until now this archive, amounting to many thousand items, has remained almost entirely unpublished and virtually inaccessible to the general public.

In 1994, Lesley Jackson, the energetic Keeper of Art (Collections) at Manchester City Art Galleries decided that, with the availability of a large private collection of Whitefriars glass, she could continue her mission of bringing twentieth-century artefacts to the public’s attention (Whitefriars’ heyday was the century from 1865 to 1965). So an exhibition was conceived and a catalogue proposed.

In a spirit of competition, the Museum of London realised they must now do what they did not do in 1988 and publish. The result is two fine, complementary books. The London book written by the museum staff is a lavish publication, superbly illustrated and worthy of the grandest coffee table, undoubtedly subsidised despite its £50 price-tag.

The first 150 pages give a history of the factory from 1834, when James Powell, a London wine merchant, first bought it as a going concern, all the way through to its closure in 1980. This is comprehensive, readable and full of illustrations, both of this glassware in full-page colour and historical photographs in black and white. The Powells, like most glassmakers were keen on photography for recording factory, showrooms and products.

The next sixty pages are a miscellany of factory photographs, details of the workforce and personal memoirs. Then follow 140 pages of facsimiles from design books and catalogues giving a very fair and representative selection of the company’s productions, ranging from early bound books with hand-drawn illustrations, through to their last catalogue in 1978. The book would be an important addition to any glass related library for this section alone. Finally, for the record, the contents of the museum archive is listed.

The Manchester book has been more economically produced, sponsorship being hard to find in the mid-1990s. It is soft back, the print is small and dense and the illustrations are tiny. However, this book illustrates around 800 items in colour, whereas the London book illustrates around 150, and it also reproduces copiously in black and white from contemporary publications.

The writers in this book are more concerned to put Whitefriars in its historical context. Peter Rose has written about the design ethic of the nineteenth century, Lisa Kent covers the design influence of Venetian and Roman glass, while Judy Rudoe from the British Museum covers the influence of other historical glass. Judy Rudoe then discusses Powell’s “Avant Garde” glass before 1914, with Lesley Jackson finishing with the period between 1920 and 1980. The Manchester book illustrates all the glass in the accompanying exhibition except for the items borrowed from the London Museum; these are largely illustrated in their own volume.

The exhibition, which opened on 27 January in the Manchester City Art Galleries and continues until 30 June 1996, is an eye-opener for anyone who thought that British glass is without interest.

Over 1,000 items are well-lit and displayed in four large galleries. The first gallery is full of chaste design for the disciples of William Morris and members of the Fabian Society. Examples follow inspired by the Romans and Venetians. Gay young flappers could dance the Charleston in Gallery III to “streaky” vases of the 1920s and 1930s, while punks, in Gallery IV, would empathise with “drunken bricklayer” vases or vases decorated with “random strapping” produced in the late 1970s. This is an exhibition that shows that serious need not mean dull.

One caveat should be made: plagiarism was rife in the glass industry, Birmingham and Stourbridge were soon producing Powell lookalikes and this fact is barely mentioned in either book or exhibition. Beware of Powell “wannabees” appearing in minor antique shows throughout the world.

Wendy Evans, Catherine Ross and Alex Werner, Whitefriars Glass. James Powell & Sons of London (Museum of London, 1995), 416 pp. 500 b/w 120 col. ills. £50 ISBN 0 904818 56X

Lesley Jackson, ed, Whitefriars Glass. the art of James Powell & Sons (Richard Dennis, Shepton Beauchamp, Somerset, 1995), 160 pp. 250 b/w 150 col. ills. £30 ISBN 0 903685 40X