FIRST ENCOUNTERS OF THE IRIDESCENT KIND - by Eric Knowles
Above: An example of an iridescent vase available at ScottishAntiques.com
Below: Loetz glass vase sold way back in 1980
First Encounters of the Iridescent Kind
I have always considered that growing up in my native part of North-East Lancashire was nothing less than an incredible piece of luck for a boy with what some may categorise as an unhealthy interest in history. I was obsessive – particularly – about the history of the area where I lived, and eventually became both a member of my local history society as well as of an architectural society specialising in the local vernacular; believe me, what I can recall to this day about the finer points of West Riding dripstones is still well worth knowing !
The Borough of Nelson – for that is the area in question - developed its distinctive character in the Victorian age of dark satanic mills – when cotton was king, and it was said that ‘Britain’s Bread Hangs by Lancashire’s Thread’. However, where the protracted and soot-blackened rows of terraced houses that hugged the contours of inclines and defiles came to an abrupt halt, here started the countryside. The Vales of Colne and Pendle are virtually surrounded on all sides by green fields which eventually yield to barren moorlands. Colne Water flows from the East along a course that takes some four hours to navigate – a path well-trodden, one can imagine, by the Bronte sisters from their home in Haworth, just over the border in neighbouring Yorkshire.
This area – a juxtaposition of pastoral splendour and industrial dystopia – was the playground for my friends and I, offering endless opportunities for diversions which could easily fill all six weeks of our annual school summer holiday. Once equipped with walking boots, ordinance survey map, duffle bag and sandwiches we would explore every last corner, including the glowering nearby feature to the north west which was Pendle Hill , the summit of which – on a rare, crisp and clear day – affords a view which, for my money, is hard to beat. We could gaze across the Pennines, Craven, Malham Cove, The Three Peaks, Waddington Fell and across to the southern Lakeland mountains beyond the silver line that is Morecambe Bay.
The hill’s historic claim to fame, or maybe infamy, came about in 1612 when twenty or more of the locals were rounded up and carted off to Lancaster Castle on a charge of witchcraft and consorting with the devil. All but one was to perish either on the gallows or, less pleasingly for their barbarous captors, having succumbed to ‘jail fever’.
Returning to happier days the area has been blessed with an abundance of wonderful museums and art galleries often - such as that at Towneley Hall in Burnley – due to the largesse of wealthy industrialist benefactors. As the majority of these venues offered free entry, such places were a magnet to a history-hungry boy –later youth – especially as they were relatively easy to reach by the local bus network.
The town of Accrington (yes, that Accrington, as in Accrington Stanley of Milk Marketing Board advert fame) is home to one of the smaller examples of these local repositories. The Haworth Art Gallery is the one-time home of the Haworth family – cotton mill owners of some renown who bequeathed their property to the local community in the 1920’s. The name, by the way, does not bear any relevance to or connection with the Bronte’s Haworth heartland.
I was in my late teens before I found my way in to this mock-Jacobean edifice (the first domestic building in Accrington to boast electric lighting, so I am told). Architecturally it has a frontage that hints at Smythson’s Hardwick Hall albeit on a much smaller scale, whilst the wood panelled interior suggests the grandiose pretentions that were the preserve of many Victorian mill-owners – very much the landed gentry of their day.
The Haworth, as it is affectionately known by locals, is - however - so very different from some of more illustrious neighbours. Whereas many of these other venues showcase exclusively local artefacts, The Haworth is home to a remarkable and quite breath-taking collection of colourful art glass which was produced three thousand miles away in New York City. Many exquisite examples of the work of one Louis Comfort Tiffany are exhibited there, having been donated by Tiffany’s former works’ manager and confidante, Joseph Briggs, in the early 1930’s.
A native of Church, on the north-western extremity of Accrington, Briggs had emigrated to New York in 1891 where he was able, after several thwarted attempts, to secure employment with L C Tiffany who was the son of Charles Louis Tiffany, founder in 1837 of the world-famous jewellers which bore his name in. In the fullness of time Briggs was entrusted with the responsibility of winding up the glassworks after it filed for insolvency in 1928, deciding to present his birthplace with the vast majority of the pieces which had passed in to his ownership. Arriving in several crates, the collection was placed in the cellars of nearby Oak Hill Park museum before being removed to the Haworth where they remained in storage until being reappraised by its then curator in the early to mid 1960’s.
Today there are one hundred and fifty seven profoundly wonderful pieces on display, affording a unique insight in to the diverse creativity and unparalleled technical excellence demonstrated by the craftsmen under Briggs’ charge between 1893 and 1928 (or thereabouts); the collection includes several exceptional vases of singular, and signature mosaic panels. I recall that when the collection was first displayed – arrayed on the many domestic mantelpieces, sideboards and wall shelves around the house, rather than any special display cabinets - the curator would often pick up the odd vase and pass it to me to handle. Somewhat fortuitously, my enthusiasm and inherent clumsiness had no negative impact on the number of exhibits…
Should I have whetted your appetite for more information, then I highly recommend that you acquire a copy of Mosaic published in 2015 by 2QT Limited (ISBN 978-1-910077-37-5) and authored by my good friend Douglas Jackson; it’s a must-have for any Tiffany scholar and enthusiast.
Thankfully today the vases and tiles are safe behind state-of-the-art display cases, although every three to four years I am fortunate enough to be afforded personal access to the entire collection. Since 1979 I have been responsible for providing the up-to-date insurance valuations for both the Tiffany material and the other precious exhibits of The Haworth.
However, it was the iridescent surfaces of the imported wares that initially grabbed my attention having been entranced by their sumptuous tonal qualities - the shimmering golds, blues, greens and purples which I still find mesmerising…but more of that in another article. Having become acquainted with the glass of L C Tiffany, I was soon to realise that his style was not entirely unique, though those who sought to emulate the master did so with varying degrees of success.
Although such competition was offered by contemporary American glassmakers such as Quezal, Durand and Steuben much of the material which I was coming across in those early years seemed to have been made in either Bohemian or Austro-Hungarian glass houses, which at that time were not particularly well known to the wider collectorate. However, the one glass works that appeared to be producing material which rivalled Tiffany had to be that of Loetz – although specialist dealers I met, especially in the USA, were often dismissive of the outturn from Klostermuhle by referring to it as ‘Poor Man’s Tiffany’
My first purchase of a Loetz piece was in 1973 when I paid the princely sum of ten pounds for an 8” feather vase, lustred in gold, silver and green. Today this might appear ludicrously cheap but the outlay represented 33% of my entire weekly salary after tax. Imagine how pleased I was some four years later, when the market for Loetz material had gained significant traction and I was able to sell the vase on for £200.00 - a tidy sum indeed for a modestly remunerated Bonhams’ porter.
The only other piece of Loetz iridescent glass vase I owned was discovered a few years later, caked in dust and secreted at the back of a second-hand shop in North Harrow. Although hardly a steal at £50.00 it cleaned up a remarkably well, revealing fine serpentine feathering in silver-blue set upon a dense purple glass which in turn was laid upon a compressed cylindrical form.
I initially decided that this one was for keeps, but come Christmas 1980, the ongoing paucity of a porter’s salary dictated otherwise and I sold it for five times its purchase price to the late, great John Jesse of Kensington Church Street with whom I became firm friends over the following thirty five years or so. Since then I have had the privilege of handling countless pieces of Loetz glass, and yet I am still coming across examples of design variants which I have never seen before on a regular basis, including – in the very recent past – the iridescent vase for sale on our website.
Although not signed, which is not unusual for pieces not intended for export (at least before 1891 when the McKinley Act demanded evidence of the country of manufacture), this vase screams Loetz – albeit with a somewhat guttural accent. The thickly walled glass has subtle internal panels whilst enclosing serpentine, random ribbons of opaque pale amber. The real action, however, is on the outermost surface with a splendid display of stylish Art Nouveau flower heads upon sinuous whiplash stems, applied in low relief in vibrant orange/terracotta enamels which suggest a date of manufacture of around 1899.
It is coming across such gems as this vase which makes my four-hour return treks to Kent, around the questionable delights of the M25, truly worthwhile – or at least, that’s what I keep telling myself…
Oh, by the way - our new shop under the famous clock on The Pantiles of Royal Tunbridge Wells is well and truly coming to life, and will hopefully be welcoming its first customers by early Spring of this year. I will ensure that you are all kept informed as to our progress. In the meantime, good luck out there and thank you for reading the rambling thoughts, random musings and ruminant recollections of the life and times – thus far - of…
Eric Knowles FRSA. TR.