In 1989 the glass course which had been in existence in Stourbridge since it was established in the wake of the Great Exhibition in London in 1851 was moved to Wolverhampton Polytechnic as a result of a Government directive. This year is the thirtieth anniversary of this move, and this exhibition seeks to celebrate both the continuity this has allowed, and the way in which the move has changed the way in which glass education has developed within the larger institution.
In 1851 the great exhibition provided a showcase for British goods, and Sir Henry Cole, its organiser, felt that many lacked design qualities. The Art School in Stourbridge was set up, like a number of others, in response to Sir Henry Cole`s initiative to place Schools of Art in areas of specialist production, with a view to improving the quality of the design of British goods; in this case hand-made glass. During the century and a half that has followed both the Industry and the course have changed beyond imagining. The world famous factories of the Stourbridge areas have ceased production, and the glass course has shifted its emphasis and moved base to become embedded within the University sector. Both Industry and education have reacted to shifts in global economics, particularly in relation to hand production. Generally speaking this has meant that hand produced glass is now part of a global craft movement which centres its production within small studios. A new term has developed to describe these high value signature objects which are often identified with the individuals who both design and make them: The Designer/Maker. This studio based movement began in the late 19th century as a reaction to the rise of Industrial production and placed its emphasis on the importance of hand production skills. Idealists like William Morris and C.R.Ashbee attempted, in Ashbee`s phrase, ` to relate the creations of their hands to their reasons for existence in life`. This ethos, established within communities like Ashbee`s Century Guild in Chipping Campden , and the Bromsgrove Guild, greatly affected the status and perception of the crafts within the British Art School system, and studying a Craft became a life-style choice. Glass could not, at first, take its place among the group of materials worked within individual studios like ceramic, wood or silver. This was primarily a technical issue, as glass furnaces were large, with no tradition of small workshop production which could be adapted for studio use. The hand-made glass industry had always separated design and production, and it required something of a technical revolution to allow glass to take its rightful place within contemporary craft. This came, in the form of a simple one-person glass melting furnace from America in the early 1960`s. It had been developed in Wisconsin by Harvey Littleton, and with it individual artists like Marvin Lipofsky emerged as the first of the designer –makers in glass. The furnace was brought to Britain in 1964 by a Wisconsin graduate, Sam Herman, and, through his example people like George Elliott and Karlin Rushbrooke became the first home grown studio glass artists. Stourbridge School of Art was awarded one of the new Art and Design courses in 1965 which allowed students to specialise in glass to degree level. The emphasis was on a personal exploration of form, material, process, and hand skills by the student during three years of study, particularly in the development of new ways of shaping glass alongside blowing and hot glass manipulation. At Stourbridge this manifested itself as kiln-forming, and new ways of shaping glass within kilns became, during the 70`s and 80`s, a hallmark of the course, during which time alumni like David Reekie, Tessa Clegg, Brian Blanthorn and Colin Reid became established as renowned kiln formers. All of this development took place against the background of the global studio glass movement, within which it was an important presence. The movement began in the1960`s and has continued to spread into a truly world-wide movement, evolving from its experimental beginnings to a sophisticated network of makers, collectors, educational courses, publications, and technical support outlets.
All of the artists represented in this exhibition have strong associations with the course, in either it`s Stourbridge or Wolverhampton manifestations. The earliest graduated in the 1960`s and the latest is a current M.A, student. This exhibition has been put together to celebrate the original glass course at Stourbridge, and its subsequent move to Wolverhampton Polytechnic in 1989 (which gained University status in 1991) and which widened the study types available; adding Post-graduate, MPhil, and Post-Doctoral levels of study. There are examples of all levels of study in this exhibition. Heike Bracklow, Vanessa Cutler have Doctorates, and Max Stewart , who, as well as having a Doctorate has carried out a Post Doctoral research into the pâte-de-verre of Amalric Walter. His PhD extended Walter`s technique and colour palette, and Max`s work in this show utilises this knowledge as well as demonstrating the role of research within the creative Arts. This is also evident in the precision works of Vanessa Cutler who uses the industrial process of water jet glass cutting to create her personal works. Playing on the contrast between the machine and hand. Heike Bracklow, whose PhD research into the control of colouring of glass in the kiln allows her to create her immaculate signature casts which explore the interaction of colour, form and light in glass solids. Johnathan Harris takes an historical technique associated with the 19th century Stourbridge area; that of cameo glass, and creates works that reflect the qualities of the original masters but which extend the process into the 21st century through his unique technical and aesthetic vision. The work of Simon Eccles takes as its starting point the process of cane murrine patterning, which is over four thousand years old, but using it to create his contemporary images which explore narratives around loss, commingling with current interests, often blending the eternal with the whimsical.
Elliot Walker graduated from Wolverhampton and completed his studies at the Royal College of Art. His sculptural works, which play on the theme of traditional Still-Life painting, require a high level of expertise and originality in hot and cold glass forming, and the sculptural still-lives that result are both enigmatic and stylish. James Devereux is also a recent graduate. His works are sculptural forms that, though abstract, suggest both organic and, in their facetted edges, human artefacts like flint napped arrow heads.
Karlin Rushbrooke graduated in 1968 and has maintained a glass studio ever since. His work in this show meditates on the journey we all take in life and its inevitable final destination.
Georgia Redpath`s work draws on the geometry underpinning structure. Using repeating modular elements to produce pieces of complexity and scale.
Sara Squire shares a similar fascination with pattern and geometric pattern, using various kiln-forming techniques to express a love of colour, light, and particularly, shadow.
Any exhibition can only provide a snapshot of a movement that is over half a century old, and which represents hundreds of graduates and associates of the glass course during this period. However, even though this show features only a dozen makers it does contain examples which show the range and depth of the course from various stages during its inception, and, crucially, illustrates its current manifestation and possible future direction. The current staff of the glass area at Wolverhampton are represented in the show, but it important to pay tribute to past staff who established and developed the skills and attitudes that gave it its unique atmosphere. Sadly many of these are no longer with us, and I would like to remember the contributions of Irene Stevens, George Elliott, John Smith, Tony Adams, Brian Fradgley, Alan Dohnal, and Stewart Garfoot (who passed away in January of this year).