In 1834, James Powell, a London wine merchant, purchased a small glassworks in the Whitefriars district of London. The firm went on to manufacture domestic tableware, optical and scientific glass, as well as some really exceptional stained glass for windows. The latter was not only a very profitable line in a period of great church building, but also brought the Powell family into direct contact with pioneering architects and artists such as George Gilbert Scott, Edward Burne-Jones and William de Morgan.
The improvement of industrial design and the bringing together of the fine and applied arts were major concerns for the artistic community in Victorian Britain and in the second half of the 19th century, Whitefriars found itself at the heart of the newly emerging Arts and Crafts movement. The factory produced glass tableware for William Morris, worked with CR Ashbee (founder of the Guild of Handicrafts) and participated in the exhibitions of the Arts & Crafts Society.By the end of the century, as Art Nouveau became influential across the decorative arts, Whitefriars glass was being sold by the most avant-garde retailers of the day from Tiffany in London and New York, to Siegfried Bing in Paris, whose shop, ‘Maison de l’Art Nouveau’ gave its name to the new decorative style.
Whitefriars chief designer during this period was Harry James Powell (1853-1922) grandson of founder James. While studying chemistry at Oxford Harry had attended lectures on art and design by John Ruskin, the most influential critic of his day. Ruskin declared that ‘all cut glass is barbarous’. He identified the main characteristics of glass as ‘its ductility when heated and its transparency when cold’, declaring that any glass which concealed these qualities was simply bad.
Harry’s designs exploited the natural ductility and transparency of glass and much else besides. Drawing on his scientific training, in 1877 he developed two new delicate heat-reactive colours: straw opal and blue opal, creating glass with a beautiful iridescence, which was used to create Venetian-inspired vases and goblets. As well as looking back to Italian glass, in 1894 Harry studied glass from the Roman period onwards, looking both at antique objects themselves and glass tableware depicted in historical paintings. His own designs absorbed antique elements from these researches, translated into entirely modern creations.
Glasses were decorated with prunts (raised blobs) taken from 17th century German roemer (wide bowl glasses) and with trailed decoration that, while inspired by Roman prototypes, also captured the flowing naturalism of Art Nouveau style. His artistry and technique were superlative without being oppressive or fussy.
If you want to start collecting these pieces, they are not easy to find and you should look for specialist dealers and search the antique fairs. Very few pieces are marked, so you have to rely a a dealer’s knowledge of the styles and identification from catalogues and colour-plated books. You would probably have to pay between £800 – £1,500 for a pre- first world war vase and between £400 – £1,500 for an early wine glass, depending on design and date. As the early works are so expensive there is now more interest in later Whitefriars glass, although opinion is divided on whether this is a good investment.
Harry Powell ran the factory until 1919 and in 1922 Whitefriars relocated to a new site in Wealdstone, Middlesex. During the interwar years vessel forms were simplified and decorative techniques were standardised. Harry Powell’s shapes were still used to create threaded vases in luminous blues, reds and yellows. Barnaby Powell (1891 – 1939_ head designer in the 1930s, made vessels decorated with thick ribbon trails of molten glass and reinterpreted Harry’s tear-glass designs. The factory also experimented with streaky and cloudy glass in richly glowing colours.
After the second world war and until 1980 when the works closed, the firm continued to produce innovative work, particularly during the 1960s when deisgner Geoffrey Baxter introduced his textured ‘bark’ vases, in brilliant psychadelic colours ranging from tangerine to kingfisher blue. Although in recent years these pieces have attracted interest, for enthusiasts of early Whitefriars they simply can’t compete. In the 1950s and 1960s these bright colours were popular, but the Sixties pieces are mould-blown, not handmade and they don’t have the same individual quality.’