Gray-Stan Glass 1922-1936

Elizabeth Graydon-Stannus 1873-1961

Create and replicate or forgery and fraud?

‘The excellence of the forgery may be fairly adduced as an argument that it is not a forgery at all’

Elizabeth Graydon Stannus was born in Ireland in 1873, she married in 1895 to a Colonel in the British Army who was later killed in WW1. Their daughter Edris Stannus was born on the 6th June 1898. In 1908 they moved to London where Elizabeth commenced a career dealing in the fashionable and high-priced commodity of antique Irish glass; this included capitalising on the demand by making more affordable copies and reproductions. She developed a reputation as a shrewd businesswoman.

In 1919 Elizabeth opened a Gallery at 23 Earls Court Square, a prominent and smart shopping area in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, in West London, as a showcase for her products. She understood fashion; Gray-Stan glass was produced at her first glasshouse in Kennington, opened in 1922, and was compared to Monart Glass.

Suspicions about the doubtful origins of some of her pieces was aroused prior to her opening her Kennington Glasshouse, however, the archives of Royal Brierley Crystal, previously known as Stevens & Williams before their Royal Warrant was granted in 1919, contained a letter from Mrs Graydon-Stannus requesting a quotation for the supply of reproduction chandeliers. They may also have supplied her cut crystal tableware [1]. Clearly, she sought products from established suppliers before opening a glasshouse of her own.

Following the opening of her Earls Court Gallery, Elizabeth Graydon-Stannus published an illustrated book Old Irish Glass [2], aimed at collectors and promoting herself as a connoisseur and an expert on antique Irish Glass. Under the heading of ‘Fakes’ she discusses the comparative characteristics of weight, colour, feel and ‘ring’ as identifiers and stressed that no glassware is copied as much or as successfully as old Irish Glass and therefore there are enormous amounts of ‘spurious’ examples to trap the unwary collector. However, she assures readers that the multitude of ‘fakes’ on the market bear testimony to the increasing popularity and increased demand for genuine examples of Irish Glass; but, she stressed, it cannot be copied sufficiently well to deceive the connoisseur. She quotes values of pieces that originally sold for between 25 shillings to £4.00 now seeing collectors pay between £400 and £750. (In todays values those amounts would be £25-£75 increasing to £18k-£33k)

In January 1920 her products had been criticised by her contemporaries including Harry J Powell at Whitefriars. It was implied that many of her products were ‘fake’ or wrongly attributed. Elizabeth agreed with her critics in the public forum of The Times stating that probably ninety percent of so-called Irish glass is spurious and that the pieces referred to were ‘creations’ fulfilling a demand for beautiful glassware far cheaper than genuine antique Irish glass. Her reputation was untarnished and in 1922 she was commissioned to make miniature glass chandeliers and cut-glass candlesticks to furnish Queen Mary’s famous dolls house.

Illustrations in her book are said to show ‘magnificent specimens’ of old Irish glass stating that all pieces photographed are genuine pieces exclusively from English Collections. There are ‘rubbings’ which illustrate ‘wonderful examples of rare and early cutting’ of Irish glass. She warns collectors that it is impossible to become a sound judge of Irish glass without years of experience and constant handling of pieces.

Her reputation and prominence in the trade was enhanced by her daughter who by 1922 was one of the most influential and acclaimed British ballet dancers. Edris had changed her name to Ninette de Valois and by 1914-15 she was the premier dancer at London’s Lyceum Theatre [3], in 1923-25 she danced for the Russian Ballet, by 1931 she was at Sadler’s Wells, in 1946 at The Royal Opera House and in 1956 founded the Royal Ballet.

In 1925 Elizabeth moved her Gray-Stan glass production to a glasshouse in Battersea and continued to capitalise on the fashion for collecting 18th & 19th C antique Irish glass. Battersea allowed her to increase production, having a four-pot furnace, annealing oven, mixing and storage areas, stockrooms, office and studio. This was forty years before the emergence of the Studio Glass movement. She produced colourful vases and bowls following the fashion for cloudy ‘Lalique style’ glass and emulating antique Irish glass, with markets in the UK, USA and France. She called her products ‘The Modern Luxury Glass’.  She advertised in glossy magazines such as Art-in-Trade with her New York outlet at Kay and Ellinger.

The initial workforce of ten soon increased to over thirty, working day and night shifts. James Manning and George Hollins were her head glassmakers. Manning was creative with the colours of her glassware and Hollins was skilled in producing precise copies of glassware from the originals or indeed from photographs.

From 1922 to 1929 advertisements for Gray-Stan Glassware appeared regularly in The Connoisseur, originally a British magazine taken to the United States by William Hearst and the Hearst Corporation, published from 1901 to 1992 in the US covering luxury topics such as fine art, collectibles and antique furniture. Her critics continued to find fault with her products and descriptions, it was also suggested that she ‘enhanced’ genuine antique pieces with added cuts and cold decoration.

Following her election as a Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts in 1925, she produced her own brochures advertising and promoting her Glassmaking business. She included images of herself in the ‘chair’ forming hot glass, and with a blowing iron ‘marvering’ a gather of glass prior to blowing. (Images 1 & 2)

Image1: Circa 1926 showing Elizabeth Graydon-Stannus, shaping the body of a decanter. The glassblower is probably James Manning. From a leaflet in the Charleston Library, owned by DMBC Museum Service.

Image 2: Elizabeth Graydon-Stannus rolling or ‘marvering’ glass into shape. From a leaflet in the Charleston Library, owned by DMBC Museum Service.

There is no actual evidence that Elizabeth was a competent glassmaker. Acknowledging the fact that these are posed photographs for publication, her posture is not that of a genuine glassblower. In image 1, her forearm is held far too close to glass which is potentially in excess of 700deg C and in image 2, her grip in the iron would prevent the ‘rolling’ motion required. However, these staged photographs were intended to promote the idea that she was involved at all levels of production and to the untrained eye succeeded in their remit.

The British Industries Fair was held in Birmingham in 1928 where Mrs Graydon-Stannus showcased her products; and although the British Antiques Dealers Association had placed an advertisement in the March issue of Connoisseur warning of ‘spurious old glass’ referring to posset pots, products of the Graydon-Stannus Studio; Queen Mary attended the Fair and purchased a Gray-Stan green and white bowl, further endorsing her products. In her inaugural lecture to the Royal College of Arts, Elizabeth had pointed out that her glass was not merely a copy of old Irish glass but that she was striving to produce new designs stating that her endeavour was to create and not to copy, she admitted to owning old Irish glass moulds and to having tried to replicate the colours of ‘old Irish glass’.

The Gray-Stan glass studio closed in 1936. The reason was not clear, it may be that she was sixty and decided to retire, it may be that the fashion for her style of products has run its course, or indeed that the 1930’s Depression in the USA reduced her market, but she had no further connection with glassmaking and died in 1961. Her creations were held in many public and private collections including the Dudley Museums Collection (formerly held at Broadfield House Glass Museum), Corning Museum of Glass in New York, The Winterthur Museum in Delaware and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Confusion and suspicion about Gray-Stan glass persisted in the Antiques world and not without cause. A wealthy businessman from Liverpool and the owner of the Moss Steamship Line, Walter Harding, started a collection of Gray-Stan glass in the 1920’s as an investment. He published an updated catalogue of his collection entitled Old Irish Glass and many of the descriptions of the pieces were written by Elizabeth Graydon-Stannus herself. In 1930 Harding negotiated to leave his collection to the Victoria and Albert Museum however the curator Bernard Rackham expressed doubts about the authenticity of some of the pieces in the collection. In 1936 when Harding died his collection was dispersed to several museums including the Liverpool Museum, the Walker Art Gallery, the Lady Lever Art Gallery in Port Sunlight and the Williamson Art Gallery in Birkenhead. Those pieces that were not accepted by the museums were sold at Sotheby’s with an estimated value £16,000 but realised just £900. (Todays values £1.12m and £63k respectively).

Her own publication [2] leads the reader through the origins and the identifying qualities of Irish glass. She goes to great lengths to warn the reader of the copious amounts of ‘spurious’ pieces available in the current market but cleverly illustrates the sound investment that a collector can make provided that they use the expertise of best known trusted dealers and that their advice be taken without question. She refers to the distinct blue-grey tint in the darker and richer Irish glass compared to English glassware of the same period and for further information she recommends her readers to the book titled Irish Glass (1920), published by Dudley Westropp, curator of the Dublin Museum; this was considered the standard reference work for accurate histories and dates of Irish Glassworks. In his publication however, Mr Westropp disagrees with much that Elizabeth Graydon-Stannus says, including colours of glass, and states categorically that Waterford Glass did not have this blue-grey tint. 

To further encourage her readers and collectors to invest in antique Irish Glass, she claims that the illustrations of the glassware shown in her book are of Irish treasures, in the hands of English collectors, to be enjoyed by their sons and heirs; and further asserts that the availability of such treasures may be short lived, as ‘Sinn Fein supporters endeavour to destroy all that is best and loveliest in the old Country.

Caution persists and current collectors guides (Miller’s) advise that pieces of Gray-Stan art glass must be signed, for premium value; the Bodleian Library’s example of her book, ‘ Old Irish Glass’, has a sticker on the cover that states; ‘Use with caution, contains many factual errors’ [4].

Elizabeth Graydon Stannus was a pioneer promoting herself as a connoisseur of antique Irish glass and a female glassmaker, competent in handling hot glass (although I have found no direct evidence of this), long before the 1960’s Studio Glass Movement. She was a shrewd businesswoman who catered for a niche market; advising and supplying collectors of both genuine antique Irish glass and clever more affordable copies to suit the collector’s pockets. She adapted her business strengths capitalising not only on fashion but also on the popularity of her daughter’s talents and her connections; she answered her critics timely and with aplomb in the most dependable newspaper of the day, and defended her products with the endorsement of the Royal College of Art. She advertised in premier publications and courted the more affluent collectors and investors. Suspicions about the provenance of her glassware persists to this day but her body of work is acknowledged as being unique and that, with caution, remains as collectable as ever.

References

[1] Charles R Hajdamach, 2009, 20th Century British Glass, Antique Collectors Club.

[2] Mrs Graydon-Stannus, 1920, Old Irish Glass, The Connoisseur Series of Books for Collectors, Ed. C.R Grundy.

[3] Josef O’Shea, 2015 http://josefoshea.blogspot.com/2015/05/the-ballerina-her-mother-and-genteel.html

[4] Andy McConnell, 2018, The Decanter Ancient to Modern, ACC Art Books Ltd.

Published by Kate Round

My name is Dr Kate Round; I am an outreach presenter and tour guide for Dudley Museum Service In my previous life, I was a research chemist so understand the chemistry of glass having worked on the synthesis of ‘zeolites’ (silica based materials) with my work published in International Journals. I have always lived in the Black Country and have a strong industrial family heritage.

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