Ironically in this, the International Year of Glass, Wolverhampton announces the end of over 150 years of arts courses, which began in Stourbridge in 18511. Our glass industry dates back over 400 years, with an international heritage of making important contributions to arts and sciences.
An open letter to Margaret Ayliffe the Head of WSoA, and to Maxim Stewart, MA Course Leader Design and Applied Arts, WSoA., in support of retaining these courses. Glassmaking as an art and a science is more important than ever as a solution to environmental damage, for example: the current innovation of producing zero carbon glass2
Margaret Ayliffe, Head of Wolverhampton School of Art, M.C.Ayliffe@wlv.ac.uk
CC: Max Stewart, Course Leader, MA Design & Applied Arts.
Forgive my familiarity, we have not met but I wanted to say that I am devastated to hear of the proposed permanent closure of the glass and ceramics courses at WSoA.
I am hugely supportive of our glass industry, as you will see from my website. I am also alumni of Wolverhampton University Faculty of Science. I did my degree and my PhD a few years ago, in Zeolite Chemistry, with Craig Williams, Professor of Meso and Microporous Materials FoSE. and Dr Catherine Duke, Senior Lecturer in Chemistry and Forensic Science. I am well placed to evaluate and comment upon this decision.
Our glass industry dates back over 400 years, with an international heritage of making important contributions to arts and sciences. Scholars of these crafts, often from working class backgrounds, have diligently cultivated their talents under the guidance of past masters, and supported by the local Schools of Art. They have continued to fulfill themselves in their chosen careers making useful contributions to art, science, society and ultimately, often, achieving international recognition, taking the credibility and distinction of their school with them.
Our new Stourbridge Glass Museum showcases alumni of our schools, working today in locations worldwide, and in many genres, fostered by WSoA. The diaspora of past masters of the schools and their products and achievements are also displayed. This year the British Glass Biennale, titled Expanding Horizons and showing contemporary glass from Korea, Japan, China and Taiwan, is the flagship juried exhibition of contemporary glass artists with international contributors, many chosen from alumni of WSoA with skills nurtured by internationally renowned glass artists Keith Cummings and Max Stewart. Such is the credibility and distinction of the Wolverhampton School of Art today.
The Worshipful Company of Glass sellers, chartered in 1664 to oversee the art and craft still maintains its position today in the wider glass industry. George Ravenscroft, under their patronage developed English lead crystal which revolutionised glass tableware worldwide. Not just tableware, the embedded high lead content lent its use as radiation shields, helping the war effort, and to safety in radiation environments such as nuclear energy, hospitals, and laboratories.
The Woodall Brothers, experimenting with cameo work, following John Northwoods remarkable achievement of reproducing the Portland Vase in 1876, are now feted as Masters of Cameo of all time. Occasionally their pieces come up for auction and a recent sale of a Woodall cameo realised over £200k. These were local lads who attended our local School of Art.
A recent BBC production ‘Secrets of the Museum’ revealed the remarkable series of experiments carried out by Josiah Wedgewood to perfect his glazing techniques which led to his manufacture of Jasperware. Josiah transformed English pottery from a cottage craft to a world-beating industry.
Frederick Carder a pupil at Wordsley School of Art founded Steuben Glass in the USA. From his foundation training he insisted on quality materials and craftsmanship and experimented with new compositions and effects, eventually becoming design director at Corning Glass Works. In Corning he is noted as a ‘Glass Hero’.
Chance Brothers Glassworks produced both domestic and industrial glass for over 200 years taking on apprentices who had studied at our local art schools. From the glazing of the Crystal Palace in 1851, products of their research include Fresnel Lenses installed in lighthouses worldwide and transforming maritime safety; working with the Ministry of Munitions making optical munitions, the innovative welding of a cathode ray tube for RADAR detection, and precision bore glass tubing.
Glass and ceramics qualifications at WSoA has existed since 1850. It is a craft of distinction, exemplified by the noble Huguenots glassmakers, ‘Les Gentilshommes Verriers’ who settled in Stourbridge in 1615, to Thomas Webb receiving the Legion d’honneur for Cameo in 1878; and to Stevens & Williams receiving the Royal Warrant and becoming Royal Brierley Crystal.
The Women’s War Work Committee set up by Lady Haig, Lady Norman & Lady Asquith commissioned a series of photographs of women working in industry on diverse products for the War effort; many of these images show the glass industry producing flat glazing, aircraft windows, landing lights, light-bulbs, searchlight lenses, valves for radios, sticky bombs, even the glass vials dispensing morphine for soldiers injured in combat. This archive of images was the foundation of the Imperial War Museum in London.
Glassmakers and ceramicists are primarily artists, but from arts and crafts comes scientific experimentation and problem-solving technology. It is art dancing with science, pushing the boundaries of the physics and chemistry of the materials they work with. Without the foundation of these glass and ceramics courses, we would have no specialist glass. The glass required to replace the plastics which now endangers our planet and our species. We would have no smart-glass, switchable glass, dimmable and blackout glass, no polymer dispersed liquid crystal (PDLC). We would have no architectural tempered glass, no laminated and durable glass, no thermal solar controlled or sound-controlled glass, no automotive glass for fire protection. We would have no safety glass, bullet proof or armoured glass for military and marine public service vehicles and defence. Not forgetting the innumerable applications of lenses, resistance uses, enamels, digital printing on glass, glass fibre and communications.
Once these courses cease, they will be very difficult to revive, I am sure it is not a decision taken lightly and I would like to be assured that those who are making this move, for economic reasons, realise that they cross the Rubicon. The weight of future innovation cannot be estimated but the testament of past achievements, from investment in the foundations, speaks for themselves. It is a tradition and heritage that we are proud of and seek to preserve. Is it not our duty to ensure that our legacy had the same chance of achievement afforded to our predecessors?
Glassmaking in the UK Today
There are now very few accredited degree courses that offer hot glass studios, left in the UK, among them are Royal College of Art, MA Ceramics and Glass; Plymouth College of Art, a BA(Hons) in Craft and Material Practices; UCA Farnham, BA(Hons) Ceramics and Glass; DeMontford University, BA(Hons) Craft and Design; University of Sunderland, BA(Hons) Artist Design Maker, Glass & Ceramics; University of Wales Trinity St David, BA, MDes, Design Craft; University of Hertfordshire, BA(Hons) Design Crafts, Glass and ceramics3.
Others offer short courses, without accreditation, such as The Glass Hub, Wilshire; some with higher degree courses or joint degree courses such as Edinburgh College of Art, Glass Workshop; stained glass, conservation, and architectural glass. However, the opportunities for undergraduates to learn and explore with hands-on experience of working hot glass are diminishing.
This is the International Year of Glass celebrating the past, present and future of glass for a sustainable, equitable and better tomorrow! The University of Wolverhampton carries an extraordinary glass heritage, and the website declares it as being one of the largest, best equipped glass-making facilities in Europe, giving students the opportunity to experience a broad range of techniques to realise their creative aspirations’.
To close this opportunity to future students is poor timing and a false economy. I trust there will be a way for Wolverhampton School of Art, as custodians of glass learning in this area, to apply their considerable experience to finding a way to retain the glass facilities and allow their courses to continue, in an innovative and possibly self-sustaining way
1 Measell, James Scott (2016). A provincial school of art and local industry: the Stourbridge School of Art and its relations with the glass industry of the Stourbridge district, 1850-1905. University of Birmingham. Ph.D.
3 My thanks to Alan J. Poole – Glass Collector, Promoter & Contemporary Glass Society Honorary Life Member.