A Glass Act (Whitefriars)

The craftsmanship of Whitefriars glass inspired by Scandanavian design is the feature of this year’s Country Seat exhibition, writes SYLVIA VETTA.

When calling the Country Seat’s latest exhibition Northern Lights, William Clegg was not thinking of Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. The theme behind this year’s exhibition at Huntercombe Manor Barn, near Henley, is the Scandinavian influence on Whitefriars glass and Nordic colours are a strong feature. Glass captures the beauty of light and William saw and admired the aurora borealis when he lived in Canada.

In the late 19th century, Oxford-educated Harry Powell exhibited his firm’s art glass throughout Europe. The exhibition was greatly admired and orders soon followed, including from the Trondheim Museum in Norway. Whitefriars designs and craftsmanship outstripped our northern neighbours, at that time. By the 1920s, the tables had turned. Scandinavian glassmakers, with their radical designs, had surpassed the London company.

As William explained: “They were not involved in the First World War and so were able to continue making domestic and art glass. During the conflict Whitefriars concentrated on industrial products. Immediately after the war, the firm faced a bleak future because of the poor state of the British economy.

“When researching in the archive of the Museum of London, I discovered Harry Powell’s diaries. Reading through them, I found a reference to my great uncle who was killed in the First World War. All the men of that generation in my family died in France.

“There was a description of an opus sectile or mosaic glass picture. I recognised it. It is the family memorial in the parish church at Bembridge on the Isle of Wight. I still don’t know why the family chose St George slaying the dragon as the subject for the memorial window but I now know it was made by Whitefriars. The firm was proficient in stained glass and had made the Richmond design for the St Paul’s altar in 1905.

“That experience helped them survive the next ten years (from 1918) by making memorials for churches and colleges around the commonwealth commemorating the soldiers who died in the trenches.”

A maverick designer and middleman called James Dunne Cooke admired the art glass produced by the Swedish company Stromberg in Scandanavia which he saw exhibited in twenties’ Paris. He began to import it and showed some examples to Barnaby Powell, who had taken over from his father.

Barnaby admired the Swedish firm’s use of colour reflecting the Nordic light and their organic shapes. The pieces were often heavy and bubbly too. Together the two men embarked on a series of experimental pieces which William describes as “globed optic with streaks of colour shot through a flint-glass body. They were exceptionally heavy. Each piece took six hours to make using a chair’ of four workers”.

Although these pieces were not sold, they introduced an aesthetic which influenced Whitefriars designs for the next 40 years. From then on the company returned to its roots of producing art glass in the spirit of the arts and crafts movement.

Bill Wilson, who began working for the firm as a student and went on to become a designer and managing director, always had one of these experimental pieces on his desk. The first thick optic glass in Nordic colours was marketed under the unromantic title Wealdstone Range – Wealdstone being the location of the factory. It sold through Weidart, the Belgium marketing company with premises in Regent Street. The streams of northern light continued to flow through their streaky’ and knobbly glass’.

William showed me an Eda decanter by Stromberg with an engraving of Josephine Baker. This was quite daring. The black American dancer took Paris by storm in 1925 with her sensuous performance called La Revue Negre. It was rather exotic and erotic for British tastes so Whitefriars was quite avant garde when they copied the cutting and subject matter for a cocktail set. The decanter is part of the 100-piece Scandinavian loan collection used for comparison.

According to William, “Geoffrey Baxter, a trained designer, was the first to completely master the techniques and produce post-Second World War glass with a genuine Scandinavian feel. Geoffrey could not stand Venetian glass!”

As well as the stunning glass reflecting the flames from the log fire that burns in the immense grate in the medieval tithe barn, there will be guest exhibitors.

Lisa Marie, the designer goldsmith who trained at West Dean College, Chichester, acquired some unused Whitefriars glass cane panels and has used them to create rare pieces of mosaic jewellery. The canes were originally used for paperweights. Lengths of different coloured glass were fused together and then sliced. Once a line ended the leftover canes were discarded.

Northern Lights is a selling exhibition so 200 pieces of Whitefriars will be on sale from £19 to £850.

Northern Lights is open everyday until December 9, 10am-6pm, and is free. The Country Seat is at Huntercombe Manor Barn, Nettlebed, near Henley, 200 yards off the A4130. For further details visit the www.the countryseat.com website or call 01491 641349.

By |November 22nd, 2007|Categories: Antiques, The Oxford Times|Comments Off on A Glass Act (Whitefriars)