Glass for the masses
by Marcus Newhall
Almost by accident, Marcus Newhall became fascinated by pressed glass-making in the Czech Republic, in particular the Sklo Union factories. He tells us how the fascination led to him writing a book on it...
I moved to Stoke-on-Trent in 1978 on the basis of map, pin and blindfold (!) with my then wife Marie. Three children happened along, while I worked for ‘George Wade’ Ceramics and then the tile company ‘Geo Wooliscroft’.
Made redundant in 1982, the period of unemployment meant an opportunity to get some qualifications at Cauldon College in Stoke on Trent, and then a degree from Manchester Polytechnic in art history.
I received much support from Keith Fisher, of the Antiquarian Book Centre in Hope Street, Hanley, a well-known local book-dealer, who is sadly no longer amongst us.
Post-graduate study allowed an opportunity to study Czech as a foreign language, and with a grant from the by-now Metropolitan University of Manchester, and a study award from the Glass Association, I made a visit to the Czech Republic, becoming very interested in another of the arts of fire – glass, and in particular, glass for the masses.
The type of Czech glass I became interested in was cheap, mass-produced pressed glass - the type of glass that ordinary folk would have bought in Woolworth’s or gift shops, or even at the sea-side from souvenir stalls, or won as prizes at fairs.
The ‘Sklo Union’ factories were the most famous for producing work in this line. Yet, for its humble origins and its destination as low-cost glass, I was struck by the range of designs, the vibrant colours.
I also wondered why, when the communist bloc was seen as the evil empire (and assumed to be grey, drab and totalitarian), in fact items of colourful beauty were being produced there, which were un-rivalled in their design quality.
Ten years later, I have begun to understand the hows and whys, even if, despite having a good grounding in the language, some of the information is difficult to comprehend. Partly, this glass was a reflection of a desire, primarily social but also political, to create a new design aesthetic, suitable for modern living, owing little to the past.
This new manner of designing had led to interesting designs, which were exhibited at Expo ’58 in Brussels, and other major exhibitions. These designs were picked up by British importers such as Heppners (London) Ltd, and British American Glass, (now a dormant company, owned by Royal Doulton).
As I set out to write the book, what was important was to show that the designs were of lasting value. I still firmly believe (as I do of many aspects of Stoke-on-Trent’s ceramic products), that period domestic items form part of an important aspect of social history, documenting the way we lived at a particular moment in time.
Losing my publisher in the Spring of 2008 might have seen the end of the journey. However, raising funds, with the assistance of a former Talke Pits resident, a collector from Germany, and support from family in both France and the UK, the project has now been realised in print.
Now, ten years on from that fateful day when I bought my first piece of glass made in the Sklo Union factories, from Mike Burt’s stall on Northwich market, my work in this area of design history has drawn to a close.
The book is available from Marcus' own website at www.sklounion.com or at Hope Fountain Books.
last updated: 27/11/2008 at 10:02