Obituary: Geoffrey Baxter
Tuesday 05 September 1995
Whitefriars Glass was the Wedgwood of the British glass industry, a firm whose work was synonymous with the highest standards of design and creativity, and whose glass was sold by leading department stores throughout Britain, including Heal's, John Lewis and Fortnum & Mason.
Founded in 1834 as James Powell & Sons and originally based at Whitefriars in the City of London, the factory moved to a new site at Wealdstone, in Middlesex, in 1923. During the late 19th century, under the inspired management of Harry Powell, Powells were acknowledged as the leading glassmakers of the Arts and Craft Movement: they made the glass used by William Morris at the Red House, and internationally their reputation was on a par with that of Tiffany and Galle.
During the 1920s and 1930s Whitefriars embraced Modernism and became bastions of the Industrial Art Movement, a moral crusade to reform British design. After the Second World War their reputation remained high, and they were the only firm able to compete with the flood of imports from Scandinavia, which was when Geoffrey Baxter became involved.
Born in 1922, Baxter went to school at Godalming in Surrey before gaining entry to Guildford School of Art at the age of 14. After a stint in the RAF during the Second World War, and a brief period spent working at the Guildford Glassworks, he won a place to study at the Royal College of Art in the early 1950s in the newly established Department of Industrial Glass. An outstanding student, he attracted considerable attention with his work even before he graduated, and he won First Class honours and a travelling scholarship to the British School in Rome in 1953, the first time such an award had been given to an industrial designer.
Immediately on completing his diploma, Baxter was head-hunted by William Wilson, managing director and chief designer at Whitefriars Glass, to work as his assistant. The only people previously to design table glass for Whitefriars had been members of the Powell family, or individuals who had risen from within the ranks of the factory, such as James Hogan and William Wilson himself. Baxter was the first professional domestic glass designer recruited from outside. By the end of the 1950s, although nominally still Wilson's assistant, he was designing the bulk of the domestic glass that went into production.
When Baxter joined the company in 1954, sleek "Scandinavian Modern" glass was all the rage. Although he was influenced by the clean-lined purity and elegance of the Scandi- navian aesthetic, and was successful in producing designs which could compete with it on the British market, Baxter had a distinctive and individual voice, and the style he developed was very much his own.
As a designer he was flexible and was interested not only in form, but in colour and pattern too. He was equally adept at designing contemporary style patterns for cut glass as at creating thick-walled free-form organic bowls and vases. Arctic Blue and Ocean Green were two cool new colours he helped to develop in 1959, followed by the darker-toned Midnight Blue and Shadow Green in 1962. The latter were used for a stylish new range of mould-blown vases made during the early 1960s, which were light in weight and had unusual angular profiles.
While the main Stourbridge glass industry stuck to the manufacture of expensive full-lead crystal and relied on traditional heavily cut design, Whitefriars adopted continental-style soda glass for the bulk of their production after the Second World War because it was much cheaper to make and could be used in a more flexible way, particularly with regard to modern colours and shapes. Baxter's philosophy was, "It's all very well to make a masterpiece, but what's the point if only the elite can afford to buy it?" He relished his position at Whitefriars. "As chief designer at Whitefriars, I have more scope than probably any other glass designer in Britain," he said in 1974. "I have a completely free hand to create."
Cinnamon, Willow and Indigo were three evocatively named soda glass "underlay" colours developed by Baxter in 1965, the colouring of which was subtly shaded and "cased" in a layer of clear glass. These were the colours chosen for the launch of the striking new textured range of 1967, perhaps the single most important series of designs which Baxter created.
These deep relief-moulded vases, the rough surface textures of which were derived from materials as diverse as tree bark, gouged wood, copper wire and tin tacks, were considered revolutionary at the time: nothing remotely like them had been seen before in Britain.
Ultimately it was the high labour costs involved in producing handmade glass, combined with the economic effects of the energy crisis and the recession of the late 1970s, which contributed to the downfall of Whitefriars Glass. Baxter, who had spent 26 years of his working life at the firm, was devastated by the closure of the glassworks and after the bulldozers had moved in he could never bear to return to the site.
Next January an exhibition opens at Manchester City Art Galleries (moving later to the Museum of London, where the Whitefriars factory archive is held), entitled "Whitefriars Glass - The Art of James Powell & Sons". It will contain 900 of the outstanding examples of Whitefriars Glass, including many pieces designed by Geoffrey Baxter. Baxter had lent material to the exhibition, including a rare group of experimental "studio" vases from the 1970s and a selection of the paperweights which he designed in later years.
He was assisting with the preparations for the show at the time he died, and was to have opened it.
Geoffrey Philip Baxter, glass designer: born London 12 February 1922; married Marion Bates (two sons, one daughter); died Farncombe, Surrey 22 August 1995.
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