Glassmaking on the island of Malta - colourful, inspirational art glass from Maltese craftsmen and British designers

For all the glass or porcelain making concerns that we’ve looked at, the vast majority of them have one thing in common; their development and sustained growth was – by and large – a result of felicitous circumstance, coincidence, outrageous good fortune or just plain luck. That said, for every Caughley or Bow, or Zechlin or Amen Corner there were dozens more ventures which failed, leaving penniless investors, out of work craftsmen, cold kilns and fireless furnaces as their only legacy. It’s rare in the annals of antique glass and porcelain manufacture that a business model comes first, before any chance meeting, fortuitously-discovered cache of raw materials or other serendipitous goings on might lead to a successful operation. New Hall porcelain was one such contrivance – a consortium of Staffordshire businessmen who set out to take advantage of licenses for the production of hard paste porcelain sold on by Richard Champion (more usually in cahoots with William Cooksworthy). Another such concern was today’s subject matter – Mdina Glass – purposefully set up by the Maltese government of all people, and now one of the most renowned glass producing concerns still in business.

In the mid 1960’s the island of Malta ended 150 years of Imperial rule from London by gaining independence from the British Empire, having served its overlords well by providing a vital naval port in the Mediterranean. Independence, however, lead to the withdrawal of substantial funding and subsidy, and the new state had to quickly generate its own income. To assist with this development George Borg Olivier’s government granted extended tax breaks to newly-established businesses and a number of other financial inducements to attract investment. This caught the attention of a London-based lecturer in industrial glass design, Michael Harris, and he set off for Malta - in the company of co-conspirator Eric Dobson - with the intention of creating a new glass manufacturing concern and hoping to be able to escape what he perceived to be the conservative and restrictive attitudes which pervaded glass production in the UK. The new company – originally known as Maltese Glass Industries – hit the ground running and was an almost instant success, exporting worldwide within two years of the furnaces first being lit, and able to attract skilled workmen from around the Mediterranean to become naturalised islanders, thus establishing it as a truly Maltese concern, which had been the exact intention of the government which underwrote its initial set up. Harris was able to indulge his creative talents to the full, drawing on the inspiration he had taken from an American designer, Sam Herman and creating a range of highly-coloured designs, free from the strictures of convention. The name of the company was then changed to Mdina Glass to better reflect the history of the island – this being the name of a medieval Arabian settlement on the already 1700 year old site of Malta’s then capital city (formerly known as Maleth and Melite – Mdina is simply an Arabic name for a walled town or city; this also leads us to an extraordinary toponymical coincidence, in which we shall luxuriate in good time…). The almost free-form nature of the Mdina outturn was in no small way down to the company’s recruitment procedure, which saw pretty much anyone taken on and given a chance; encouraged to “do their own thing”, employees who were seen to be innovative and creative were free to finish their own designs, as long as they could be sold on to the tourists who formed the vast majority of the firm’s early clientele.

Although it was apparent that the nascent company was on course to be a resounding success, Michael Harris returned to the UK in the early 1970’s, leaving Dobson at the helm. One of the original trainee craftsmen, Joseph Said, stepped up to the plate in Harris’s absence, taking on the role of Production Manager and proving to be an astute businessman, innovative designer and skilled creator of glasswares; he assumed overall control when Dobson then headed back to Blighty in the mid 1980’s. International recognition for the quality of the material produced at Mdina grew, new export markets opened up in the Far East and thus far unconquered corners of Europe and the company continued to go from strength to strength. Today it remains under the Said family’s control and is a proud example of Maltese acumen and creativity.

Michael Harris, the first of Mdina’s founding fathers to head home was, of course, an accomplished glass craftsman in his own right and having left Malta he set up his own business on the Isle of Wight. His son – still involved in running the business today – intimated that the only reason for the chosen location was that Michael had developed a taste for island life while on Malta and simply looked for a similar environment in which to settle when he returned home (as a result of the political situation on Malta becoming increasingly unstable); he was steered towards the Isle of Wight by his wife, who had holidayed there as a young girl. It seems to be no more than completely coincidental that a company producing such extravagantly-coloured glassware should set up shop on an island renowned for the quality of sand which can be found there; Alum Bay is a source of both a brilliant white silicate which has long been known to rival the very best Lynn sand as a raw material for glass makers, and of the many colourful sands that are used to create pictures but which are not involved in the manufacture of the coloured glassware (which starts off clear and has its colours imparted by processing with coarsely ground or more finely-powdered, chemically-coloured glass fragments). The real fortuity of it all, as mentioned earlier, is down to place names. We’ve already learned that Maltese Mdina takes its name from the ancient Arabic word for a walled town or city and although none of the settlements on the Isle of Wight are renowned for their soaring fortifications or imposing towers and turrets, two of them – Cowes and Newport – sit directly on the course of a river which flows south to north straight down the middle of the island; the River Medina. This name, however, comes from the Old English “medune” meaning “middle way”, so two entirely different linguistic stems which end up with very similar names for different features on islands hundreds of miles apart, both of which are writ large in the story of late 20th century art/studio glass – what’s not to love about that !

However, leaving my own peculiar foibles to one side (it’s best to do just that, trust me) what of the glass itself ? Well, it’s worth remembering that as a state-sponsored commercial enterprise, Mdina was expected to more than hold its own in the marketplace as an example of Maltese success; the early designs of Michael Harris, therefore, form the basis of the pattern book, as once they had proved to be commercially viable there was seen to be little point in straying too far from these guidelines. In itself, this apparently narrow product-range can help the collector to find a stand out example, as rare pieces will be easily discernible from what is a readily identifiable catalogue of standard items. That’s not to say that Harris’s staple fare – the styles which underscored the company’s success – are without value, particularly if they happen to carry his (rarely used) signature. The Mdina fish vases (their creator never referred to them as “axeheads”), attenuated bottles, minaret or onion bottles and Japanese-style examples are all sought after in their own right. Unusual colour combinations can enhance the value of a standard form, so it’s worth perusing some of the many on-line catalogues to get a feel of what might be out of the ordinary – as good a place to start as any being our own website listings, which shows many examples, some of which are elusive and really quite valuable; link below:

site search results for Mdina items

for more articles about European glass and porcelain, check the following links:

European Art Glass (part one)

European Art Glass (part two)

Italian Porcelain

German Porcelain

French Porcelain

Meissen Porcelain

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