The new breed of glassmakers

For centuries, the Black Country has been the heart of the British glass industry. In the glory years, areas such as Brierley Hill, Kingswinford, Wordsley and Stourbridge were known around the world for their production of lead crystal glassware.

Today, the industry is a shadow of its former self, with the major manufacturers struggling to compete with cut-price competition from Eastern Europe.But this is giving rise to a new generation of Black Country glassmakers: small-scale creative manufacturers whose unique skills cannot be emulated by cheap imports.To celebrate the rebirth of the industry, eight of these new artists are showing off their works at a special exhibition.

One of these is New Zealander Ann Vernon Griffiths, who fell in love with glass after moving to Britain.

Like all the artists taking part in the exhibition at Wordsley's Red House Glass Cone, Ann learned her trade at Dudley College's world famous International Glass Centre.

Ann moved to England in 1971, and set up a database company in the capital. It was during her time in London that Ann fell in love with British glass.

"It was about 20 years ago, when I was walking through Covent Garden one night, and I saw Steven Newell, now a famous glassmaker, who was blowing a huge blue bowl."

But it was the dawn of the new century which made Ann decide to learn the art of glassmaking herself.

"It was the start of the new millennium, when everybody was thinking life is too short," she recalls. "I had followed glass around the world, and I just decided I had got to give it a go."

She moved up to the Black Country to learn the trade at Dudley College's International Glass Centre, which is based at the heart of the British glass industry in Brierley Hill.

She believes the centre does not get the recognition it deserves in Britain. "It's strange - it is internationally renowned and attracts glassmakers from all over the world, including Sweden, which is thought to be at the forefront of the industry."

Ann will be exhibiting her celebrated Chandelier for Urban Living at the show, which was also selected for the Crafts Council's prestigious One Year On Showcase event in London. Its unique design means that as well lighting the room, it also provides storage space for wine glasses.

"I spent a long-time living in London, and there's never enough space for anything," says Ann.

"I had been collecting glass from around the world, and you want to light it and show if off. I decided I would like to have a chandelier over the dining table, where I could store my wine glasses, and set them off."

Amy Shaw, who is marketing this month's exhibition, says Ann's chandelier combines humour, sophistication and practicality.

"Her recent work is inspired by her days glass blowing in the cone, a series based on the light coming through the lovely windows of the cone," she says.

These vases, in black, blue and green, have clear windows allowing people to see right through them.

The youngest exhibitor at the cone is 24-year-old Kari Sellars, who works with hot glass to create unique pieces for interior.

"Her Ecstacy platter is a gently undulating piece in blues, pinks and greens and reflects the influence of the sea and corals, which drives much of her work."

Brothers Ian and Vic Bamforth will also be showing off their works, having moved from Hull to study at the centre. Both brothers focus on hand-blown pieces with an emphasis on colour.

Other exhibitors include Ian MacDonald who takes traditional forms and gives them a contemporary twist, and Kim Bicknell, whose jewellery is influenced by the landscapes of south-east Asia.

The setting of the exhibition at the Red House Glass Cone could hardly be more symbolic.

Reaching 100ft into the sky, the cone was built around 1790 during the height of the glass boom, and was used for the manufacture of glass until 1936.

Stuart, which had owned the cone since 1881, continued to use it as a showroom and sales centre until the company's neighbouring glassworks closed. But the cone was given a new lease of life following a £1.7 million restoration by Dudley Council, and is now a centre where small-scale glassmakers can rent studios, as well as a museum and exhibition centre.

600450 The new breed of glassmakers
Date: 28 September 2005

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