Dartinton Crystal or Dartington Glass, as it was called in its early days, was founded in 1967 by the Dartington Hall Trust. The Trust was set up by Leonard Elmhirst and his wife Dorothy Whitney Elmhirst, an American heiress, shortly after they bought Dartington Hall in South Devon in 1925. The couple established the Trust to conduct ‘an experiment in rural reconstruction’.
It funded numerous projects, such as the foundation of a school within the estate, The Plough rural arts centre at Beaford in North Devon and in the mid-1960s, the iconic glassworks not far from Beaford, in Torrington. To prepare for the launch of Dartington Crystal, the Trust travelled to Sweden, which was producing the most innovative glassware at the time, to recruit a team of talented glassblowers.
Of the original Scandinavian team of 18 that joined in 1967, two are still working at the factory. They passed on their skills to the small number of locals recruited by the factory. Nowadays the company employs 150 people in Devon.
Among the glassblowers there was one figure in the company’s history who was larger than life, Frank Thrower, often referred to as ‘Mr Dartington’. As the sole designer for the first 20 years it was Frank’s talent that from 1967, until his early death at the age of 55 in 1987, gave the firm its creative edge.
Frank became intersted in design in 1953 when he went to work for J. Wuidart & Co., a Swedish firm importing glass and ceramics. He worked in the sales department and met one of Wuidart’s most successful designers, Ronald Stennett-Willson. Frank’s work took him all over the world and he could see what people were buying and he became very good at spotting trends and he understood how to market ceramics and glass. In 1960 he became head of sales at Portmeirion and soon suggested that they should import Swedish glassware, having seen how successful it had been for Wuidart. Frank managed to sell a whole year’s production in just two months. By the time he joined the newly formed Dartington Crystal in 1967, it was clear that he had the Midas touch.
Frank Thrower produced more than 600 designs for Dartington and his legacy continues today. They still name their designs after women, which had been started by Frank, very often designs were named after is girlfriends or family members and friends.
Some of Dartington’s designs stay in production for years, while others are dropped after a short while. Frank Thrower’s ‘Sharon’ range, launched in 1971, ‘Dimple’ (1967) and ‘Exmoor’ (1968) are still being manufactured and remain the best-selling ranges, worth £1 million per year.
Around 50,000 people visit Dartinton Crystal every year to watch the glassblowers at work, while 250,000 visit the factory’s on-site-shop. In the meantime, Frank Thrower’s work from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties is increasingly sought after by collectors around the world.