'Prices are going to go mad'

Whitefriars was the Wedgwood of the glass world. Then it went bust. Two books later, it's set for a major revival.

You have probably never heard of Whitefriars glass. But you will. By the end of the year, prices will have doubled and the name will be as well known as Wedgwood is for ceramics.

Whitefriars closed down in 1980. Although its 146-year history made it Britain's longest working glass-blowing factory, there were few laments for the loss of a household name. In the past two months, however, two books about Whitefriars have appeared, an exhibition has opened at Manchester City Art Galleries, two London dealers have announced selling exhibitions and the Antiques Bulletin has begun a three-part series.

The sudden resurrection sounds improbable - until you discover that at the turn of the century Whitefriars was hailed as Britain's leading maker of domestic art glass. It was at the cutting edge of the Victorian Arts and Crafts and later Art Nouveau style movements, occupying the same pedestal as Galle and Daum in France, and Tiffany in America. No other British glassmaker could hold a candle to Whitefriars' Venetian-style wavy-edged goblets or vases adorned with coloured tears.

The company's descent into obscurity and sudden re-entry in a shower of sparks is sure to become a cause celebre among collectors. The explanation lies in lackadaisical promotion. For a start, the hundreds of Whitefriars designs have never borne company marks. Cartloads were sold anonymously by Liberty and Heal's in London, Bing's La Maison Moderne in Paris and Tiffany's in New York. And with no reference books either, Whitefriars was, until now, notoriously difficult to identify. That discouraged collectors and kept prices low. Another confusion: the firm was known by its family name of Powell & Sons until 1963. In the Fifties and Sixties, the firm's image plunged into further confusion as it lurched into colourful, chunky Scandinavian-style vases and fruit bowls. Once de rigueur in Ideal Home magazine, they became deeply unfashionable.

When Whitefriars finally lost its grip on fluctuating fashions in 1980, its massive archive was snapped up by the Museum of London. The 10,000 items - glass-blowing equipment, specimens, pattern books, photographs, and 40 boxes of company records - were entrusted to the museum's conservators. Years passed.

That did not please the owners of the country's most extensive collection of Whitefriars, Brian Cargin, a civil servant, and his partner Chris Morley, an antiques dealer. They wanted to check the identities of their 1,100 pieces but were refused access to the archive. And they were hardly mollified by the museum's Whitefriars exhibition in 1988: no captions, no catalogue, and still no reference book.

In 1992, however, a chance remark brought the collection to the attention of Lesley Jackson, keeper of art at Manchester City Art Galleries. Having clapped eyes on it, she proposed a major exhibition and a combined catalogue and reference book.

At the Museum of London there was consternation. But acrimony was avoided with the appointment of Catherine Ross as the museum's new head of the Department of Later London History. She made the archive fully accessible to the Manchester contingent and came to an agreement with them.

As a result, there are now two complementary books on Whitefriars glass. The museum's 13lb tome (pounds 50) was published in November - two months ahead of Ms Jackson's pounds 30 paperback. It contains design drawings, an identification guide and early company history. Ms Jackson's book has essays by scholars, photographs of 600 pieces from the Cargin-Morley collection and 200 other pieces, including 82 lent by the Museum of London, and a glossary of technical terms.

Mr Cargin jokes: "If the Museum of London's book had been published when it should have been, we would not have been able to build up our collection so easily - people would have learnt to recognise Whitefriars."

At the big Newark antiques fair in the autumn, he paid pounds 100 for a 1970 green and yellow Whitefriars Studio vase that he might have carried off for a mere pounds 10 before dealers got wind of the Whitefriars bonanza. "I'm finding it hard to adapt to the rise in prices," he says. "Vases like that used to be chucked on the grass under the stalls. The dealer had pounds 160 on it. She said: 'It's very important - there's two books coming out and an exhibition'."

Whitefriars glass is seldom seen at London auctions unless it is early and outstanding. An opalescent yellow vase commemorating the opening of Tower Bridge in 1886 sold for pounds 690 at Sotheby's in November. The dealers' dream is that there will be a Whitefriars craze to match the craze for modern Italian glass - a Sixties Venini vase fetched pounds 75,250 at Christie's Geneva in 1990.

Jeanette Hayhurst, one of two London dealers launching Whitefriars selling exhibitions on Thursday, says: "Prices are going to go mad. But I can't suddenly start charging regular customers double. As long as I can buy at the same price, I'll be happy."

Some of her prices: bark-textured vases designed in 1967 by Geoffrey Baxter can still be had for pounds 15-pounds 25. Wine glasses of 1931 with gold leaf in the stem: pounds 200-pounds 300 each. A fabulous straw opal wineglass of the 1870s with wavy "thrown" rim, up to pounds 400 - "all totally undervalued," she reckons.

The new books portray Whitefriars as a semi-amateur family firm that prospered by encouraging its blowers to take pride in their "glassmaker's glass" - but lost its way after the war, when professional designers, brought in from outside, strove to create something novel for every annual trade fair.

Ms Jackson says: "In my opinion, Whitefriars was the most important domestic glass factory in this country. They were of international stature. The aim of this project is that they should get international recognition."

Exhibitions: Whitefriars Glass, Manchester City Art Galleries to 30 June, Museum of London, 30 July to January 1997. Selling exhibitions, 29 February-9 March: Richard Dennis, 144 Kensington Church St, London W8 (0171-727 2061) and Jeanette Hayhurst, 32a Kensington Church St, W8 (0171-938 1539).

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