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. And thirdly, it is probably the worlds best documented glass works.
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.
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. The vase above/left is typical of a part of their production during the 1880's and 1890's, continuing through to the 1920's. The designer of this piece was probably Harry Powell. It has a rough pontil and is similar to pieces illustrated in Evans, Ross and Werner (eds) "Whitefriars Glass: James Powell & Sons of London". Thank you to Miles Hoole for sending us this picture of his vase.
They made fine quality historismus 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.
The vase above/ right is a beautiful opalescent fan-shaped vase in Venetian style made by James Powell and Sons probably in the 1870's. Thank you to Hugh from Celia's for sending us this picture (click here if you would like to visit their art glass site).
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.
The picture at the top of this page shows many of the most popular Whitefriars designs.
The collection of tangerine-coloured vases (above/left) are from the "Textured" series designed by Geoffrey Baxter and made between 1967 and 1973.
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 "Knobbly" range is an exception to this rule, as you can see from the photograph (right), these pieces are similar to studio glass pieces made around the world.
They were designed by William Wilson, Geoffrey Baxter, and Harry Dyer, 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 lampbases were also made in clear glass with coloured streaks. (I wish I had known that a year ago, before I sold a "mystery" vase for a song!)
Heavy glass vases and bowls with regular patterns of bubbles like those in the picture below/left 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.
Their 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 peperweights. They were re-introduced in the 1953 catalogue for a few years, and again re-introduced 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 in the picture below. Production of Whitefriars paperweights was taken over by Caithness Glass (in Scotland) when the Whitefriars glassworks closed down, and this paperweight was made at Caithness.
Thank you to Allan Port for providing us with these pictures of his beautiful paperweights.
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.
The photograph below/right shows a collection of ruby red Powell glass pieces, shown at an exhibition of Powell glass in Brighton England. Many of the photographs on this page are from that exhibition, and I would like to thank Paul Brown and his partner for allowing me to photograph their exhibits.
If you are visiting the South of England, their little shop and gallery in Brighton are well worth a visit. Paul specialises in books on glass, and you will often find rare and out of print books on his shelves. You will find them on St James Street (number 68) about a mile to the east of the famous Brighton Royal Pavillion.
There are two really good books on Whitefriars glass. The first, called Whitefriars Glass: James Powell and Sons of London, by Wendy Evans, Catherine Ross, and Alex Werner, was produced by the Museum of London and tells the story of the Glassworks, reproduces material from the Museum's extensive archives on Whitefriars glassworks, and illustrates pieces from their collection.
The second book on Whitefriars glass was produced by the Manchester City Art Galleries (in England) to accompany an exhibition of Whitefriars Glass, and was prepared as a supplementary volume to the Museum of London book. It contains detailed historical information about the company, and many pages of coloured pictures: Whitefriars Glass: The Art of James Powell and Sons, by Lesley Jackson.
Each of the books shown below has some excellent information about Whitefriars. Click on any book cover to read more about that book, including price, publication date, publishers and any available discounts for buying on-line.
If you are looking for Whitefriars-Powell glass, you can usually find pieces on offer on ebay.
Click here to see Whitefriars or Powell glass currently for sale on ebay.
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